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Why Do I Have to Get All These Documents To Start My Case?

When a client hires me, the first order of business is for me is to review documents my client has given me. The typical list of documents I request includes tax returns and W-2 or 1099 statements, bank and credit card statements, deeds and mortgage statements, health insurance and daycare costs, and vehicle registration (or title if there is no debt associated with it), to name a few. There are many reasons I need these documents. 

This documentation is necessary because your attorney doesn’t know (with enough detail) what assets and debts you have. For example, a client might not realize a cash/sweep account is associated with an IRA, or could forget there is an outstanding loan against the account. Even if you are hoping to agree out-of-court without filing a lawsuit, your attorney relies on the documents to identify the marital estate. Only by analyzing the documentation can an attorney properly advise a client. It is the same idea as math class. You might know the answer but it doesn’t matter much unless you “show your math” by showing the method you used to arrive at the answer as opposed to copying an answer from the person sitting next to you.The Pitt County court rules now require mandatory disclosure of these records, regardless of whether there is discovery and/or subpoenas.  

Your documentation is evidence that supports your attorney’s position, both when negotiating and in the event your case is litigated in court. Just because you don’t plan to take your case to court doesn’t mean your ex won’t file a lawsuit. Beginning with the proper evidence in the first place means your attorney will be prepared to add new information to it instead of starting over again from square one when a lawsuit or settlement is pending. Often, the paperwork must be gathered for civil discovery anyway.

Discovery is the process by which that evidence is made available to the opposing party before court. This also avoids the he said/she said problem. If you agreed on everything, you wouldn’t need to be in court. In a family law case, your life is an open book so to speak. If there is a lawsuit filed at some future date, you’ll have the proof to show the classification of assets and debts, whether assets and debts are marital, separate or divisible. Another reason documents are necessary is to prove the value of assets and the balance of debts. For example, by itself, your house may be worth $150,000.00 but the real value of it for court might be $25,000.00, the equity in it after deducting the outstanding mortgage balance. The property is valued as of the date of separation, but the mortgage payments made after the date of separation might also be a point of negotiation.

Why do you have to obtain documentation for several years?

Sometimes you have to trace financial transactions to create links in the chain of evidence. For example, if you claim an asset is your separate property, it might be necessary to show whether any increase in value of the separate property is marital. Or, you might be asking the court to make a ruling that your credit card debt is marital when the account is in your sole name. That requires proof of what charges were made, charges that created the balance of the credit card account at the date of separation. This might mean tracing two or three years of charges on that credit card.

In most child support cases, attorneys request at least three years of tax returns, and at least a full years of your pay records. Even if there is no subpoena or discovery in a child support case, the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines automatically require both parties to include the following information, at a minimum:

“Income statements of the parents should be verified through documentation of both current and past income.” The Guidelines go on to say “Suitable documentation of current earnings (at least one full month) includes pay stubs, employer statements, or business receipts and expenses, if self-employed. Documentation of current income must be supplemented with copies of the most recent tax return to provide verification of earnings over a longer period.” NC Guidelines, AOC-A-162.

If you don’t normally keep these records, you should immediately get them. Credit card companies, investment firms and banks might charge a per-page fee to retrieve copies of old statements. The longer you wait to get the records, the more likely it is that these records will be expensive to obtain, or could become unavailable. As the economy changes, banks and other businesses merge or are bought out by others, which creates problems when you are seeking records.  You should save all records and statements until your case is settled or the trial takes place. It is not uncommon for a family law case to take a year to reach the trial.

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