For Protective Parents. Your source for news and information on the broken Family Court System in Connecticut. I am NOT an attorney. This blog does not constitute legal advice. Blog spirit: In the words of Emiliano Zapata,"I would rather die standing than live on my knees!"
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I am lucky that my divorce situation is mostly in the past, but sometimes one of my kids will start talking about the old days. For example, recently, my son said, "Oh, so when we were playing that game of using candles to light the house, it wasn't actually a game!" I was like, "Now that you mention it, you are right." This comes up because I still continue to advocate for people in divorce and the kids see me researching topics.
Last week, I ended up researching the issue of the electric company, Connecticut Light and Power, when a young lady going through the pendente period called me to say her ex had not paid the electric bill which he was court ordered to do based upon their financial agreement. She stated that the electric company had cut off power to the house and refused to turn it back on even though she was living in the house with an infant. The next week her ex cut off fuel deliveries to the house and so it went.
I had the exact same situation happen to me during the pendente period in my case. Ex-husbands regularly fail to obey the financial agreements they signed and which became an order to the Court as a means to coerce and harass their ex wives.
Unfortunately, as in my case, the Court often fails to enforce these agreements and when protective mothers go to Court to obtain some kind of relief, Judges will often imply that such concerns are trivial. Of course, I'd like to see how some of those Judges would feel if they couldn't have a bath before getting in their cars to go to Court, or how they'd feel if they couldn't review their documents the night before because they couldn't switch on the light!
In fact, they are absolutely not trivial, particularly when you have children who are suffering along with you, as with my friend.
So what can you do in a situation like this?
One, you can file a motion for contempt in family court. The problem with this approach is that it often takes weeks before the motion actually comes before the court. And, as I have said, Judges are likely to blow them off. Meanwhile, you are sitting around your house without any electricity.
The second thing you can do is negotiate with your electric company and try to get them to turn the electricity back on.
Before I tell you more about that, let me answer the question that must be foremost in your mind. Is it legal to shut off the electricity when there is an infant or a child under five living in the house?
Yes, it is legal for the electric company to shut off the electricity under those circumstances.
So, what can you do when it comes to negotiating with the electric company to get your electricity back on? As far as the electric company is concerned, there are two primary issues that are in play when you have an outstanding bill with the electric company and cannot pay it:
1. What is your income? Are you struggling with economic hardship? And
2. Do you have a life-threatening medical condition that could put the life of an occupant of a house at risk should the electricity be shut off?
Now, I personally think that placing an infant in a situation where he or she has no electricity is life-threatening, but that is just me!
Here are some considerations to keep in mind when you are negotiating with the electric company. For instance, if you are renting your home, the electricity service cannot be shut off because the landlord does not pay the bill. If it is shut off, you should contact the police and the utility company. The landlord must find a way to restore service to your home.
If the bill is in your ex-husband's name and he does not pay that bill, it is true that service can be shut off from your home. However, there is a caveat to that, which is that if the family court judge provides you with an order stating that the electric company cannot shut off service to your home if the bill is not paid, then the electric company cannot not shut off service.
The service representative I spoke to at C, L, & P stated he had never seen such an order in all the time he had worked with the company, but that does not mean you could not ask for such an order or get one! There is always a first time!
Another recourse that you have is that if you transfer the electric bill from your ex's name to your name, you then have 90 days from the date you ask for service in your name before the electric company can shut off service. In addition, if you have a court order stating that your ex is supposed to pay the bill, you can then add an additional 90 days before the electric company can shut off your electricity.
So that gives you a total of 180 continuous days where you can be safe from a shut off and resolve the problems, and that should not be sneezed at. By then, you might even be divorced and the issue will be moot!
Ok, maybe not in one of those high conflict divorces that last for years, but I am trying to stay positive!
The primary point that the C, L & P representative made to me is that decisions regarding shut offs directly relate to income. You could be eligible for energy assistance and protection from shut offs, particularly during the winter months of November 1 to May 1, if you qualify based upon low-income or slightly higher income.
To find out if you qualify, call 211 and they will assist you in filling out the paperwork and once it is completed they will automatically send your application to the electric company. You can also go to town social services where you live and do the same thing. If you are determined to be eligible for one of these programs, the electric company cannot switch off the electricity to your home during the winter months, but they can switch off electricity during the summer if you are unable to straighten out your bill.
There are other special programs. For example, you can also sign up for a payment program and agree to make regular payments to catch up with your prior balance. The only problem there is that if it turns out you can't make those payments and fail to make them, the electric company will drop you from that program. They will then demand the immediate payment of the entire balance and if you don't pay right away, shut off the electricity to your home immediately. Often, they don't care how high or impossible that balance is; they still want their money right away or else. Take it from me, because I have already gone through this.
This leads me to my other point about payment plans, don't agree to make payments you are unable to make. Don't give in to pressure or agree to something you know you can't actually do when it comes down to it. Instead, try to get the service representative to agree to payments that you are able to afford.
Aside from payment plans, C, L, & P also has a matching payment program where you pay a portion of the bill, energy assistance pays a portion of the bill, and the electric company pays the rest. The company also has forgiveness programs where they discharge some of the debt. Again, this is based upon your income, and you would have to negotiate with the company to obtain the best possible program available for you.
You can also obtain protection from shut off if you or someone else in your household, for instance, your children, would be in danger of a medical emergency without electric service. To obtain this protection, you have to ask your doctor fill out an online form certifying the nature of the condition and confirm that electric service is essential for that condition. This certification from a doctor must be submitted every year.
The doctor has two options he can check off, i.e. 1. that you only need electric coverage for the winter months of November 1 to May 1, or 2. that you need electric coverage year round.
The advantage for you of being on this coverage is that if the electric company anticipates any interruption in your electric coverage, they will notify you by phone call in advance so that you can make alternate arrangements to make sure your medical equipment is operating. This is a big advantage for parents and children with disabilities who require ongoing electric service.
Keep in mind, however, that just because the electric company cannot shut off your electricity because of an outstanding balance, this does not mean that you are not responsible for paying the balance, because you do still remain responsible. This issue will have to be worked out in Court eventually if your ex refuses to follow through on making the payments he agreed to make.
One question I posed to C, L, & P is the following scenario which has relevance to all protective mothers. What if you have a couple that has filed for divorce. The ex-husband earns $70,000 per year and Mom is an at-home mother with children who is court ordered to receive child support, but father is not paying it. The father is no longer in the home and is court ordered to pay the electricity, but refuses to pay it. In a situation like that, would the mother be entitled to participate in the energy assistance program based upon a lack of income, or would she be considered at the same income level of her ex, even though she has no access to it.
The service representative at C, L, & P was unable to answer that question and transferred my call to a Community Action Agency for more information. Unfortunately, all I got was an answering machine with a promise to call me back if I left a message. I still have not yet received my return call.
The next place I turned to was the 211 number. When I dialed that number, a recording told me they were truly happy to receive my call. However, they told me that there were nine people already in line waiting to receive assistance. That number was reduced slowly until it was just me and then I was connected to an answering machine that asked me to leave my name and telephone number and someone would call me back. I did that, but no one has yet to call me back.
After that, I scoured my head for someone else to call and finally came up with the idea of calling town social services. I then dialed them up and again obtained an answering machine that assured me that if I left my name and telephone number someone would get back to me shortly. Again, no one has yet to call me back.
So bottom line is, I do not have an answer to my hypothetical. Once I do, I will report the answer to my question on the website. I do think it is a problem that any woman who calls to obtain information or support will most likely end up with answering machines, unanswered phone calls, and a general lack of vital information. This situation cannot help but be tremendously discouraging to people is distress.
Clearly, when an ex husband refuses to pay for electricity, fuel, cable, and telephone which he agreed to do and which he was required to do by an order of the Court, this is pure harassment. There is no doubt that it happens all the time, that attorneys, judges, and mental health professionals under contract with the Court are quite familiar with this behavior, and that they are aware that the men who indulge in this behavior are jerks. All that it would take to stop this behavior is a decision on the part of the attorney and judges, let alone the mental health professionals, to refuse to tolerate it. Thus far, they have not made such a decision because they prefer to perpetuate the abuse. Then they say no abuse exists.
Among those of us seeking to find positive solutions to the complex problems of family court, eliminating the way unethical men abuse women by shutting off court ordered utilities is on the top of the list of essential reforms. Update: I received a phone call late in the day from town services in response to the message I left on the answering machine. Again, I posed my hypothetical which is what if there is an at home mother with a husband who makes $70,000 where father agreed to court ordered child support, and agreed to a court order to pay for utilities, but subsequently refuses to pay. Now you are a mother with no source of income, young children, and your electricity has been cut off--what do you do? Does the fact that father makes a high income prevent you from obtaining fuel assistance and other kinds of relief?
The town social services representative told me that this mother should, indeed, go to town services and apply for relief. Town social services will investigate the situation and connect the mother to whatever is necessary to make sure that she and her children are safe in their home, particularly during the winter months. As long as the mother can verify her circumstances town social services will do whatever they can to help out. This is includes referrals to the broad range of supports that they have available. Often, town social services can speak directly to utility companies and work out a sensible solution.
The town representative told me that the theoretical peron I described should definitely be working with Interval House or the Susan B. Anthony House or some other domestic violence shelter to obtain guidance in regard to how to manage her circumstances. She also suggested that mothers in this situation check in with The Connecticut Woman's Educational and Legal Fund. The link to this organization is below:
The town services representative stated that for some women it is very hard to acknowledge that they are in trouble and need help. Many such women have always taken care of themselves and paid their own bills. For them it is tough to recognize that they have to reach out and let others support them. What is important is that such Mothers accept the situation and recognize there is no shame in needing help. This could happen to any person any time and anywhere. So definitely take that first step to give town social services a phone call and set up a time to meet. Don't wait until you have put yourself of your children at risk, particularly in regard to young children.
Still, despite these safeguards, there will be some women who fall through the cracks and end up being victimized by their ex-husband's refusal to live up to the responsibilities he took on to pay utilities and fuel. That is, ultimately, what happened to me and it will continue to happen to other women. This is one of the most common forms of economic abuse that men get up to during divorce with the collusion of the family court system.
I was recently taking a look at a Memorandum of Decision dated October 8, 2013 in the case FA10-40222992S Shawn Tittle v. Susan Skipp-Tittle. On page 3 of this Memorandum the judge states that the plaintiff, Shawn Tittle owes his counsel over $183,000.
One hundred and eighty three thous....Say, what? This guy has run up a six digit figure of attorney's fees that he owes to his attorney! How did he do that?
I'll tell you right now, a few months ago I owed $3,000 or so to an attorney in a small case that I had in probate court and when I didn't pay that immediately, and I mean, immediately, he dropped me like a hot potato. He wasn't running up any six digit bill.
You pay or you are out, do not pass go, and certainly do not collect $200.
So, how do these guys do it, that's what I want to know? How do they persuade perfectly sane attorneys who will not work a dime over their retainers when it comes to litigants such as ourselves who are abused, but will nonetheless, allow abusers to run up massive attorney's fees seemingly without hesitation.
I'll tell you what my first reaction is--the bills are totally fake! You don't believe an attorney would fake his or her bills? Why not? $183,000 represents at least a year or more of work. If it were you, would you honestly work for that long without getting paid? Can you imagine your average attorney working that long without being paid? I don't see it.
Why is it that attorneys can always seem to smell way before a case is even underway who will win and who will lose. Is it because they already have an agreement set up in advance? So when it comes to the losing side, the attorney there will never extend credit, while the winning side receives endless credit.
I'll tell you right now, if Susan wanted to hire an attorney tomorrow, she would have to provide the retainer up front. No Mr. Nice Guy on the part of any attorney, I can assure you!
In my situation, with my first attorney, as soon as the money was gone, he wrote me a letter and he told me immediately if you don't give me a second retainer, I will not be providing any further services. With another attorney I had, I'd given him $25,000 as an initial retainer, which ran out in six weeks. I came in for a conference with him about the progress of the case and right away, right up front he says, "Unless I get another $25,000 retainer, this meeting is over."
Way to tell it like it is!
So, bottom line is there was no running up the bill to six figures--not for loser me, at least. That's why I am another one of those miserable self represented parties like Susan who annoys the heck out of the court with our multiple motions.
What do you think, guys, if the Court put a cap on the amount of attorneys fees you could run up in family court, would cases resolve themselves a little more equitably?
Don't you think that if Shawn Tittle, the plaintiff in this case, did not have an endless well of credit to draw upon, he might actually be willing to stop litigating, come to the table and find solutions that might work out for the benefit of the children?
Oh, no, but we better not let that happen, because all those court personnel--judges, attorneys, family relations officers, court reporters, marshals--who benefit from long drawn out litigation would lose their jobs, right! I guess that's out of the question.
The majority of my litigation is over now anyway, but I still can't help having a twinge of regret. If only I'd had a money tree like my ex had, I could have saved my kids a whole lot of problems.
If I were to look back at the early days of my divorce, the one mistake I made was listening to my attorney when he said to be restrained about taking money from the joint accounts I held with my ex.
My attorney said only take 50% of what is in there. Well, let me tell you, my ex was never so restrained. He took it all! And he was never held accountable for doing so. What I regret now is that I didn't grab the money when I had the opportunity.
Another strategy I should have considered was during the entirety of my marriage and certainly in the months leading up the divorce when I began to realize that something was going wrong, I should have regularly taken twenty dollars here, twenty dollars there, and placed it in a hidden location, simply as a "just in case".
And by hidden, I mean hidden. That means don't use any bank account that you may have to report later in your financial affidavit. For example, one that bears interest which has to be reported on your taxes, or any kind of account that your ex could stumble across if he had a supoena to the bank and requested all acounts under your social security number.
Many divorces in Connecticut take over a year to litigate. Frequently, if you are a woman the court will provide you with very little if any support and there is nothing you can do about it. In that case, having a little nest egg to tide you over can make the difference between holding on until you get the financial agreement you want or utter desperation which leads you to sign a bad agreement just so you can get access to any money at all to survive and feed yourself and your children.
Don't be stupid. Think ahead. Take the money and run!