Letters No. 10 and 11

This post continues my experiment of applying ancient wisdom to the present day experience of people facing divorce in Minnesota.

The wisdom comes from Seneca (an old Roman dude) who wrote a series of letters to his friend, Lucilius. Whether Seneca actually sent the letters, or just compiled them as a book, doesn't matter to me because I've found his advice as sound today as when he wrote it in 65 A.D.

All the letters can be downloaded (for free) courtesy of Tim Ferriss. Click (here) for his website. He's got a bunch of other amazing stuff there too. I highly recommend his book, Tools of Titans, which is worth the cost.

There is no post for Letter No. 10. It's another bust. If you're interested in learning about keeping to yourself (which is the topic of the letter), then you should read it yourself sitting alone.

Today's letter is No. 11. It's titled On the Blush of Modesty.

Seneca teeters on crapping out again with this letter, droning on for nearly two pages about how blushing (yes, he's referring to the kind that involves reddening of the face) isn't something a person can fake. Okay, thanks for the tip.

But, three paragraphs from the end, he pulls it together giving us something worthy of pondering.

He tells Lucilius to, "Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them."

In other words, he's urging Lucilius to pretend that someone he respects is sitting on his shoulder (like a small angel) watching his every move. Doing so, Seneca claims, will eliminate most sins and keep him from going wrong. He ends by saying, "For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler."

How does this apply to people getting divorced in 2018?

Wouldn't everyone benefit from behaving better? I know I would.

Seneca's advice reminds me of something a law school professor once told me. On the first day of class, as we sat afraid in a large auditorium, she told us that when we were lawyers we would make mistakes. And some of those mistakes would hurt people.

But she said we'd be okay, as long as before we acted, we imagined our grandmother reading an article about us on front page of the New York Times. If the story sounded okay, we could act. If not, we ought to rethink what we were doing.

I've tried to use this approach when I weigh a settlement or file a motion or write a letter or send an email. If I'm not ashamed of what my grandmother might think, then I'm probably on the right path.

Divorce is an easy area to let emotions get the better of you.

In a moment of bad judgment, one of my favorite clients changed the caller-id on his home phone to read an expletive every time his spouse called home. The kids saw it. The judge heard about it. Not good.

But he wasn't a bad man. Far from it, actually. He was a great guy who felt powerless and angry about his situation. Maybe if he had imagined a mentor sitting on his shoulder he might not have acted.

I don't pretend to have the answers for you. I can't imagine how difficult your situation must be right now.

All I can say is that the people I respect most are those who are cool under pressure. People who remain optimistic in dark times, and people who seem to transcend trivial problems. These are the people I want to emulate.

Stay strong,

2017.01.11 -- Rob Signature.jpg



Life Insurance Follies . . .

If, at the end of your divorce, one spouse will need to pay alimony or child support, there is a good chance the Judge will require the payor to also "secure" that obligation with life insurance coverage and to pay the cost.

It's nonsensical, if you ask me. But no one cares what I think.

Now before you start screaming at me about the importance of child support or alimony, remember what we're talking about here. Life insurance continues a stream of payments (in the form of a lump sum) after a person dies. Not while they are alive.

I fully support (no pun intended) a former spouse or kid getting the money they need to make it in this world. It's a tough out there. My problem is with the way the system does it.

Child support and spousal maintenance are supposed to end when a payor dies, not continue until the receipt doesn't need it anymore. In no sense can that kind of payment be based on a person's income. Dead people don't work.

And while we're on the subject, the law already provides a mechanism for minor children to make a claim against a deceased parent's estate. If the parent had money or wanted to provide for them, they'd stand at the front of the line.

If you ask someone why the law works this way, they'll just get upset, wave a hand at you, and say you're being ridiculous. But they won't give you a substantive answer. They can't. The law doesn't even pretend to take this cost into account when calculating guideline support.

Please don't misunderstand what I'm saying here. Whenever I represent a former spouse or custodial parent, I make sure there is life insurance in place. Most people can't afford to be single parents.

A better way to handle it, though, is to make the recipient spouse: (1) the policy's beneficiary; (2) the policy's owner; and (3) the person obligated to pay the premium cost. The payor spouse is only the "insured." In alimony cases, this cost is simply added to a persons' budget and addressed upfront. 

Why is this better?

First, it solves the annoying problem of confirming that the life insurance coverage remains in place. Beneficiaries are constantly worried that an ex-spouse will not pay premiums and let a policy lapse. And for good reason. How much time would you spend protecting your ex-spouse's rights? Making the recipient a policy's owner allows them to communicate directly with the insurance company to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.

Second, requiring the recipient to pay the premiums best allocates the risk vs. cost problem. Life insurance products are not all the same. There is risk in all scenarios. Sometimes, an employer-sponsored term policy can seem like the cheapest option at first, but it can turn out being very expensive if a replacement policy must be found because a payor loses a job, gets too old, or becomes uninsurable. The recipient is best positioned to decide the appropriate policy based on their risk tolerance. 

Third, as both the beneficiary and the one who must pay the premium, only the recipient has the incentive to investigate alternative coverage options that might better meet the family's needs.

For example, if a policy insures both maintenance and child support, sometimes the cheapest option is to "ladder" a few small term policies. Other times, whole life is better. But never in my career have I seen a person choose whole life. What a shame!

Finally, it's fairest that the person who benefits from an insurance policy be the one who actually pays for it. Otherwise, an ex-spouse has no incentive to decrease unnecessarily high death benefits, hoping instead for a windfall.

That's my two cents anyway.

2017.01.11 -- Rob Signature.jpg

Parent Education Requirement

By law, all parents involved in a contested custody or parenting time case must take a parenting education class. See Minn. Stat. 518.157 (2017). Classes may be taken in-person or online. The law requires that people begin a class within thirty (30) days after the first paper is filed with the Court. Typically, classes run between four to eight hours in length.

The classes cover the following topics:

1) Positive communication techniques to use with your spouse;

2) How changing family composition and ongoing court proceedings effect kids;

3) How to prevent visitation disputes;

4) Dispute resolution methods (mediation, ENE, etc.)

5) The importance of placing your children's needs above your "rights."

When you complete the class, you get a Certificate of Completion that you must email to me. In turn, I will file it with the Court. If you don't complete the class or give me the Certificate, the Judge can sanction you or delay finalizing your divorce.

The cost varies. For example, the online class offered by the University of Minnesota -- Parents Forever Program costs $89.00. The Center for Divorce Education -- Children in Between costs $45.95. I can't say which is better because I am not a connoisseur of divorce education.

Either class is fine. Pick one. Or choose to go in person, although to me that seems like a lot of work for most people.

Theoretically, the Court could also order your children to go to a class. However, in my experience, that is rare. In fact, I can't remember the last time I saw it happen.

Some people ask if they can skate without doing a class. It does happen. Usually, in cases where both parents agree on all custody and parenting time issues. Not many judges care in those cases.

But, trying to avoid the class when there is a dispute (or even potentially could be) is a terrible idea. Not only will you miss out on information that might help your family, but getting caught makes you look bad. Especially, if your spouse is already arguing that you're untrustworthy and unreliable. Just get it done. Many people do the class in one day.

Here are the links for the two online classes mentioned above:

University of Minnesota -- Parents Forever

Children in Between

Finally, in the past, some clients have searched online for a better "deal" on parenting education. If you want to go that route, more power to you. However, I won't waste my time trying to determine if the class meets the Minnesota Supreme Court's minimum standards. If I file your certificate and the Court rejects it, you will need to take one of the classes listed above.

What the hell is a QDRO?

Don't you feel like some people just use acronyms to make you feel stupid?

Now, I'm not saying that acronyms don't serve a purpose. I much prefer NASA to National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Ditto for CNN and ATM.

Other acronyms, though, have completely displaced the word. For example, I don't know what the letters RSVP mean. Same for AM/PM and IKEA. My hunch is that many of you didn't even know IKEA was an acronym.

The term QDRO is no better. And it's just one of the many acronyms that crowd out normal people from understanding family court.

It means Qualified Domestic Relations Order. Does that help? Didn't think so.

What we should call it is a DRO: Divide Retirement Order. That's clearer anyway.

A QDRO is a special order that a divorce court judge signs instructing a retirement plan on how to divide a person's retirement account or pension. It is separate from a divorce decree.

State law dictates the terms of your divorce. But federal law (which is supreme and controls if the two fight) dictates how a QDRO must be drafted. The result is a nightmare for many people.


Because the federal law does not paint with a broad brush. It is not warm and fuzzy, considering what people were trying to do or what's fair given the overall scope of a divorce.

Instead, it's like an anal retentive boss who stands over your shoulder, reading every line of your email looking for a missing comma. If he finds one, he makes you start typing again from scratch.

Last year, a Plan Administrator (the person who runs the retirement plan for your benefit) in one of my cases rejected a QDRO the other side had drafted. Care to guess how many times they rejected it? 4 times! And it wasn't nearly that bad.

Does every case need a QDRO?

No. It depends on whether a plan is subject to a federal law called ERISA. Ha! Yet another acronym!

The simple answer (if incomplete one) is that you need a QDRO for 401(k)'s and pensions, but not for IRA's. These can be divided by completing a simple form you get (for free) from the plan administrator.

Good luck and goodbye,





Letters No. 8 and 9

This post continues my experiment of applying ancient wisdom to the present day experience of people facing divorce in Minnesota.

The wisdom comes from Seneca (an old Roman dude) who wrote a series of letters to his friend, Lucilius. Whether Seneca actually sent the letters, or just compiled them as a book, doesn't matter to me because I've found his advice as sound today as when he wrote it in 65 A.D.

All the letters can be downloaded (for free) courtesy of Tim Ferriss. Click (here) for his website. He's got lots of other amazing stuff there too. I highly recommend his book, Tools of Titans, which is worth the cost.

There is no post for Letter No. 8. To be blunt, it's worthless. The focus is on whether philosophers should seclude themselves. If you must know the answer, you'll need to read it yourself. Although, you probably could guess it.

Today's letter is No. 9. It's titled On Philosophy and Friendship.

The letter starts with Seneca answering a concern Lucilius expressed about whether wise men who are self-sufficient need friends. Apparently, one of Seneca's critics is hammering him on the topic, saying Seneca's theories make friends pointless.

Seneca responds by telling Lucilius that the critic doesn't understand what it means to be a self-sufficient person. He explains that a self-sufficient person is one who "feels his troubles, but overcomes them." A wise man is "in want of nothing, and yet needs many things."

At first, I found this hard to understand. But then Seneca explains that a "want" implies something is needed and that a wise man needs nothing beyond that which he already possesses.

Although it is normal for a wise man to "crave" friendships, he doesn't need them. This is important because it allows a self-sufficient person to form the right type of friendships (ones where he can focus on helping others) while still remaining intact if the friendship dissolves.

Seneca ends the letter by reinforcing that being self-sufficient means being happy with oneself, regardless of what happens in the outside world. He quotes another philosopher as saying: “Whoever does not regard what he has as most ample wealth, is unhappy, though he be master of the whole world.”

How does this apply to a Minnesota divorce in 2018?

To me, it means that all of us need to find a way to be happy (and content) with who and where we are in life.

We can't let our happiness depend on our spouse's opinions or behaviors. We shouldn't let it depend on the behavior of bosses or friends either.

Like Seneca says, we should have friends, but not need them to make ourselves whole. Friends are people we want to help. To serve. Not the other way around.

The idea of self-sufficiency runs through a lot of Seneca's letters. It sounds simple, but I don't think I've ever seen it in real life. Certainly not from me. I'm hardly ever comfortable in my own skin.

Can you imagine how powerful a person would be if they were self-sufficient?

Life could bounce them up and down like a ping pong ball, yet not touch who they were inside. They could be rich or poor, healthy or sick, married or divorced, and still they would be enough for themselves.

I don't believe such a person would approach divorce in a caviar way. My guess is they'd be saddened by the loss of family, friends, and relationship. But it wouldn't rock them. Not to the core.

They'd pick up, carry on, determined to make new friends and help other people. Because they know that there is nothing anyone can take from them that they really need.

Stay strong,





Hiding Income at the IRS

One of the most important tasks in a divorce involving child support or alimony is to calculate each party's income. The figure becomes a starting point for determining how much (if any) a party should pay.

Sometimes, the danger of one party hiding income is obvious. Think of the self-employed sole proprietor who doesn't have employees or keep good books. Every sensible person would be skeptical of that person claiming they suddenly went broke two weeks after being served with divorce papers.

But what about W-2'd employees who work for large companies? Should people worry about them too?


There have been cases where people increase their tax withholding at the time of a pay raise. The effect being that their "net pay" remains the same every two weeks even though they are earning more. Essentially, they are "saving" money in the U.S. Treasury, which will be refunded to them when they file taxes the next year.

A small business owner could do the same thing by overpaying estimated quarterly taxes.

What should you do to make sure this isn't happening to you?

First, demand to see copies of payroll check stubs showing gross income per period and cumulative gross income earned for the year-to-date.

Second, never rely on a person's W-2 Form as evidence of income. Some contributions (e.g., retirement) can reduce a person's "income" but be hard to spot on the form. I remember one case where this changed a person's income by more than $10,000 per year.

To be safe, demand to see the person's last payroll check stub showing total gross income earned that calendar year.

Also, ask for a copy of the person's Social Security Statement and compare the Medicare / Social Security Wages against the numbers the person claims to have earned.

Determining a person's income can be harder than it sounds. In really tricky cases, I always hire a forensic accountant.

Stay strong,




Letter No. 7 -- Avoiding People

This post continues my experiment of applying ancient wisdom to the present day experience of people facing divorce in Minnesota.

The wisdom comes from Seneca (an old Roman dude) who wrote a series of letters to his friend, Lucilius. Whether Seneca actually sent the letters, or just compiled them as a book, doesn't matter to me because I've found his advice as sound today as when he wrote it in 65 A.D.

All the letters can be downloaded (for free) courtesy of Tim Ferriss. Click (here) for his website. He's got lots of other amazing stuff there too. I highly recommend his book, Tools of Titans, which is worth the cost.

Today's letter is No. 7. It's titled On Crowds.

In it, Seneca tells Lucilius that he must avoid crowds because no one ever returns home the same person. Others will change you, he says. Even a single exposure can disrupt one's mind.

For example, eating with a rich person will make you jealous. Drinking with a slanderous one will loosen your tongue, and lounging with a lazy friend robs you of spirit.

Crowds force you to either "imitate or loathe the world," neither of which is right. Instead, Seneca urges Lucilius to, "Associate with those who will make a better man of you."

He ends by offering Lucilius this bit of advice: "Many men praise you but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards."

How does this apply to a Minnesota Divorce in 2018?

Seneca's advice reminds me of what my mother used to say about a boy in my grade. The boy's parents were extremely rich. I envied his ability to watch rated R movies and to grab a soda at will from a special refrigerator in his garage.

My mother worried that the boy was a bad influence. I couldn't see how that possible. But now, as an adult, I understand what she meant.

How many of the people you associate with bring you down? How many make you a better person?

Much of the "helpful" advice I hear offered to divorcing couples isn't helpful to them at all. How does a co-worker announcing, "It didn't happen that way in my case" or "You need to fight that bastard" make things better for you?

It doesn't.

A wise therapist once told me that the fastest way to feel better is to stop talking about your problems all the time.

I think Seneca was right. We should be very careful about whom we associate with because we end-up being twins.

Stay strong,

2017.01.11 -- Rob Signature.jpg

Letter No. 6 -- Sharing Knowledge

Today's letter from Seneca keeps us focused on ideas that at first seem hard to analogize to a 2018 Minnesota divorce.

For the most part, Seneca talks about himself, explaining that he too is applying the principles with great success. However, he says his joy would be diminished if he ever found out that Lucilius wasn't benefiting from his advice.

I'm sure he would be. It'd mean he spent his time spitting into the wind.

It's not until the last paragraph of his letter that Seneca actually gets around to offering his daily bit of wisdom. He says: "I have begun to be a friend to myself. That was indeed a great benefit; such a person can never be alone."

How does this apply to a 2018 Minnesota Divorce?

Seneca's wisdom about being a friend to oneself got me thinking about the issue of negative self-talk. How many of us talk to ourselves in ways we would never allow another person to do?

I know the words I use: You're a failure. No one is worrying like you. Why are you so screwed-up?

If anyone on the street badgered me this way, I'd punch them in the nose. But for some reason, I don't have a problem saying it to myself.

Or maybe I do. Perhaps it's the reason I get depressed sometimes, feel down.

Can you blame me?

If I harassed a colleague that way they'd write a front page story about me in the newspaper.

With that in mind, being a friend to oneself does sound like a "great benefit."

Imagine what would happen if the professionals in the divorce machine were truly friends to themselves? How many of us lawyers would still be nasty, cynical, or obnoxious?

What if the people getting divorced were also friends to themselves? What would that world look like?

My guess is that it's a place I'd like to see. A place where people wouldn't feel so threatened all the time. A place where each of us would believe in our own intrinsic value, that we were powerful, good people, caught in a bad moment.

And whether that moment continued for one more week or month or year, it would end-up being but a small fraction of our time on Earth. No one would willingly prolong it by fighting for things that didn't matter.

More than anything, though, that world would be a place where no one would fear being alone. Because, of course, no one is alone if they have themselves for a friend.

So today, I'm going to try to be my own friend. A friend to a guy who loves his family, always tries to do the right thing, and wants to blaze his own trail, even if the rest of the lawyers stand on the sidelines and snicker at me.

At least I won't be alone.

Stay strong,

2017.01.11 -- Rob Signature.jpg



Letter No. 5 -- Terrible.

This post continues my experiment of applying ancient wisdom to the present day experience of people facing divorce in Minnesota.

The wisdom comes from Seneca (an old Roman dude) who wrote a series of letters about the meaning of life to his friend, Lucilius. Whether Seneca actually sent the letters, or just compiled them as a book, doesn't matter to me because I've found his advice as sound today as it was in 65 A.D.

All the letters can be downloaded (for free) courtesy of Tim Ferriss. Click (here) for his website. He's got lots of other amazing stuff is there too. I highly recommend his book, Tools of Titans, which is worth the cost.

Today's letter is No. 5. It's titled On the Philosopher's Mean.

To be blunt, this letter sucks. You'd be better off watching a Thomas the Train rerun than wasting your time on it.

Seneca drones on for paragraph after paragraph about how Lucilius shouldn't look too good or too bad. Don't be too rich or too poor. Instead, live a plain life.

Because I'm trying hard not to be a quitter anymore, I did read to the end of the letter. And I'm happy to report Seneca does offer something I can share.

He tells Lucilius that the best way to eliminate fears is to get rid of desire. The two are linked together like a "chain [that] fastens the prisoner and the soldier who guards him."

How so?

Because both fear and desire "belong to . . . a mind that is . . . looking forward to the future. In so doing, we don't "adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead."

He closes by explaining that animals avoid the dangers they see and then forget about them. But not us. We humans continue to worry about both the perceived future dangers and our past shortcomings.

The solution: Focus on the present, which "can make no man wretched."

How does this apply to a present day divorce in Minnesota?

Almost everyone I meet (me included) is stuck in either the future or the past. Or both. It clouds their decision-making.

Not many people appreciate that things are okay right now. Few of the dangers they fear are actually happening. And many never will.

It reminds me of the old quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain: "I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."

Fix this problem now! Focus on the present moment. What needs to happen today to make it a good day? What are the one or two things that if you did today, you'd be proud of yourself?

Do those things. Stop doing the things that don't matter. Your life won't fall apart. Neither will the rest of the world.

Stay strong,

2017.01.11 -- Rob Signature.jpg




Om Shanti


When my wife makes fun of me (which she does often), she calls me, "Om Shanti." It's because I meditate to stay calm.

No, I don't sit in that position. Are you nuts? It would kill my knees and lower back.

But, meditation has been life changing for me.

In the past, I've written about my struggles with anxiety. As far back as I can remember, I've always been stressed. It's a part of my DNA. If I got 92% on a test, I'd worry why I hadn't gotten 97%. If a judge awarded my client $105,000, I'd worry why she hadn't gotten $110,000.

Trust me, anxiety can be a real bummer.

On December 3, 2016, my life changed forever when I learned Transcendental Meditation ("TM"). Sounds crazy, right?

I felt the same way when I heard other people make outrageous claims about it.

The actor Hugh Jackman says TM is "literally one of the best things" in his life. Come on! Really? Better than sex, drugs, and rock and roll?

Then I learned to meditate. The world spun-off its axis.

What does mediation do for me? Everything.

It makes me feel less stressed. It makes me less concerned about what other people think. I no longer have a constant tight feeling in my chest. I have more energy. Psst . . . don't tell anyone, but the feeling is similar to when I have 2 drinks.

I'm way more fun now - but in a good way, of course.

Am I 100% percent better? No. Not yet. But I am lots better. And they say the benefits are cumulative. Plus, there are no side effects. Sounds good, right.

If you're interested, you should check out the website.

Gotta run.  Time to mediate.

Stay strong,

2017.01.11 -- Rob Signature.jpg