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Family Law Lawyer Ellen Rittgers Answers Divorce Questions on 'Moore Law'

Moore Law viewers called in with an assortment of questions about divorce as host and local TV journalist Deb Haas and attorney co-host Don Moore were joined by Lebanon, Ohio-based family law attorney Ellen Rittgers from the firm of Rittgers & Rittgers. Ellen introduced herself by noting that she limits her practice to Warren County, although because licensing is done by state, she is licensed throughout Ohio. “I have found that family law is very, very county specific as a result of the great discretion granted to the trial judges,” Ellen said.

Tom from Cincinnati had a question about parent guidelines and child custody relating to his divorce, prompting Don to ask Ellen in a follow-up question how flexible those guidelines are in such matters. “Guidelines are nothing more than guidelines,” Ellen replied. “They are nothing more than a starting point for the parties to use to determine what plan is best for the children. The best interest of the children is always the standard.”

Ellen said that another good question came from Theresa in North Bend, who asked about the rights of grandparents in divorce and separation. Ellen said it was “a pertinent question because that law has been changing rapidly over the course of the last 10 years or so.” She said that is a matter that would go to the juvenile court because it’s not a custody matter, and grandparents could make an appearance to become party to the action in divorce. “Yes, there are some rights,” Ellen said, but added, “They are not at the same level as those of a parent, and parents have priority.”

While there were additional questions concerning a separation instead of a divorce, Daryl in West Chester called in to ask about turning a legal separation into a divorce. “It’s not exactly a matter of turning the legal separation into a divorce, but you can file for divorce and there will be very little to that divorce case because—I’m assuming—everything should have been handled in the legal separation with respect to property, debt, support and if there are children, child-related matters,” Ellen said.

When Don asked Ellen whether legal separation is actually filed or just an agreement between two parties, Ellen said it was “fairly new statute,” again having evolved over the past 10 years. “You can get a legal separation, which involves the same process exactly that’s involved in a divorce,” Ellen said. “All matters are resolved either by agreement or by the court and you get a decree of legal separation, which for all purposes, defines the rights and obligations of the parties, but the parties are still married for the purposes of the IRS, remarriage [and] often for inheritance.”

Don and Ellen also discussed the instances in which their areas of practice overlap. “When we’re handling personal injury cases a lot of times, we’ll have people who are also in the process of a divorce—kind of a double-whammy,” Don said. “How do the domestic relations courts now handle the division of a recovery that may be had in a personal injury case?”

Ellen said it was an interesting question and the issue comes up frequently. “The court is charged with the duty to divide all assets, and the personal injury recovery is an asset,” Ellen said, adding that the court has to dispose of it and it has to be broken down. She said it was a complicated question that is not easily answered because it can be very case-specific. “Essentially, and in general terms, the award for personal injury for pain and suffering follows the party who was injured, but a divisible asset comes into being if there’s lost wages,” Ellen said. “There’s also what’s known as a loss of consortium claim by the spouse which, of course, is directly impacted by the fact that the parties are separated.”

Deb, Don and Ellen also took a call from Pam in Northern Kentucky who has power of attorney for her sister going through a divorce after being married for 33 years. The caller said that her sister had already been to court more than a dozen times and now was trying to find help in settling the case as her sister’s health was deteriorating. “The best place to start is a good lawyer who can explain the process to your sister, advocate for your sister and then explain the result to your sister,” Ellen said. Noting that the caller would get lots of recommendations, Ellen said, “Don’t be shy about interviewing lawyers until you feel comfortable. You will know when it’s the right fit.”

The next episode of Moore Law is Monday, March 26, 2012, at 9:30 a.m. on WXIX-TV, FOX19. Cincinnati workers compensation and Social Security disability attorney Bernard C. Fox will join Deb and Don to discuss what to do if you have been hurt on the job.

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