Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. Do not interpret this article as anything but an account of my personal experience. Do not interpret this article as legal advice. Speak to a solicitor if you have questions.
I say this over and over: every new experience has the chance to be transformative. Every novel new encounter can has the potential to turn my mind around or bring new concepts and learnings into my life. Sure, the experience itself may not be good, but even an awful experience can lead to new and better things.
Yesterday I attended the District Court in Galway in answer to a summons from the Central Authority for Maintenance Recovery. My ex-wife started the process a few years ago through (AFAIK) Medicaid in Las Vegas. While some of the paperwork dates to 2010, the majority of it dates to 2013. My ex-wife’s side of the story is a different one that mine, which boils down to I’ve been prevented from doing so.
I say the above because I realize how much stigma surrounds separated fathers, child supports and courts. “Ah shure, isn’t he a deadbeat dad, off getting dragged to court!” I want to support my son, but I have been prevented. Going through the courts, even in this reverse manner, gets support to Garrett. I feel no shame.
But the stigma remains. Google is a wasteland. There are news articles, informational pieces, solicitor’s blurb pieces and little else by page five of the results. Nobody talks about their experiences, and if nobody talks, nothing changes. My own journey to this point is beyond the scope of this post, but I think it is healthy to broach the topic and air my experience in court.
Talk to your estranged spouse!
There is no useful information online about what a father can expect in court. No site will tell you to whom you can speak or what documents should you need at a maintenance hearing. If you’ve reached the point that you have a court summons, then communications for some time. The process is slow, and you have every opportunity along the way to reach a voluntary settlement. It’s one thing to hear, over and over, that the court prefers the parents to reach an agreement before they appear before it. It is another to watch the judge lambast parents and solicitors for their failure to communicate.
I am serious: have a good reason!
The Central Authority will want a snapshot of your finances. Exactly what they expect is vague. As I am a self-employed web developer with an accountant, I already have to keep track of my business finances. At the start of every calendar month I export my bank information in CSV format and use this to determine last month’s finances. I gave this to my accountant, who returned a statement of my finances under her letterhead a while later.
Do not self-declare your finances if you are self-employed. The Central Authority will reject this. If you are in regular employment, present your pay stubs along with outgoings payments like your rent and car. If you receive an unemployment benefit, the Department of Social Protection can provide a letter that states your benefit scheme and weekly payment. It takes about five minutes to prepare and they can do it while you wait.
You may be asked to complete a Statement of Means by the court, which is a standardized form to assess your income.
I paid €100 to have my accounts prepared, which isn’t cheap, but it was way easier than the stress of preparing my own finance. Either way, do not hesitate to speak to an accountant, the Legal Aid Board if you believe you qualify, or a local solicitor.
Maintenance payments are relative to your income and in consideration to the needs of the child. As well as a flat payment made weekly, you will have to contribute to ongoing costs at occasions like the start of the school year and Christmas. The amount also considers your own ability to support yourself. A court will not leave you in the position of being unable to support yourself.
What to expect
Soul-destroying boredom. The District Court holds family law days at regular intervals, because most issues are quick to settle. On the day, the court will first triage cases, with issues of child welfare and safety trumping questions of access or support. When the registrar mentions your case, announce yourself. The opposing solicitor will speak likewise.
After that, the court expelled everyone. This was at 11am. For myself, I met with the opposing solicitor and spoke at length with him. I expected him to spit fire, brimstone and wear all the other trappings of the Catholic hell. He took me aback with his warmth and humanity about my case. I presented my finances and clarified my story. He took my numbers and presented a tentative rate. Again-I’m happy to pay, but the court still has to ratify this. This was at 12pm.
The solicitor and the court left us to our own devices after this. We left for lunch, met Alanna, came back, sat around, left again and sat around until the close of the court at 5pm.
The context for the judge’s harsh remarks was that they were toward a couple who failed to reach any agreement. They sat there for seven hours and didn’t even talk. My impression is that eleventh-hour settlements are both common and expected of the parties present.
The bailiff brought us all back into the court at five o’clock. The judge apologized for the delays, and adjourned each case in turn until later in the year. I have to return in September.
I am not one of the fathers who has lost out on access in court in the past. My own case won’t be for a while to come, and I am heartened by the Children and Families Relationships Bill. The bill expands my rights as a single, separated father. I am hopeful! I am frustrated because my day in court didn’t quite happen, but I came away more informed about the theory and reality of the maintenance process.
If you are a single father, your first stop should be Unmarried and Separated Parents of Ireland. USPI are father-oriented nonprofit who will give advice and provide legal services. They ask for a nominal donation in return. My experience with them is that they are ballbreakers who Get Things Done. They hold two weekly clinics in Dublin, one on Monday in Fairview and the second on Tuesday in Tallaght.
The quality of material on the Internet isn’t great. Much of it has become outdated in the wake of the Children and Families Relationship bill. Speak to a person. Get a solicitor, find an accountant and make another attempt to speak to your spouse.