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The Moneyist: ‘I hugged him. All I felt were bones’: My father, 90, and my abusive mother are divorcing. I’ve already fired four attorneys. How do I find a good lawyer?

Dear Quentin,

My 90-year-old parents are in the midst of a gray divorce. Upon my return to my parents’ state from California four years ago, my elderly parents picked me up from the airport. Dad stepped out of the car, he was rail thin, and his eyes glazed over. I hugged him. All I felt were bones. 

My mother was hostile and the electricity had been turned off for the third time that year because he forgot to pay it. His cancer had a two-year advantage and has impacted his brain and memory. Mom has always been mean, but she’s on steroids. 

Dad went from 230 pounds to 155 pounds and no one thought to get him medical help. By no one, I mean my 65-year-old brother, 30-something niece and my 85-year-old mother. For the next month, she would scream at both of us, and he would cry in my arms. 

Six weeks after my arrival, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I moved to get him the medical help he desperately needed. Even after the diagnosis, my mother was still abusive. Adult Protective Services was brought in to get her evaluated for dementia and him protected.

“‘Dad went from 230 pounds to 155 pounds and no one thought to get him medical help.’”

They, in my opinion, failed to see what was happening. Instead, they pitied my mother, and tried to have me removed from the house. By then, I secured a power of attorney for my father in Virginia. They believe that she’s fine as long as she can drive, shop and scream.

We finally moved out, to our own home where Dad was raised as a boy. That is where he will be buried. She used everyone to force him to return, finally filing for divorce. He shocked her by agreeing to it. 

I have gone through four lawyers because they have negotiated against his interest behind my back. Most recently, the judge ruled on a fraudulent narrative and distribution chart, giving everything to my mother. 

I fired the last lawyer on the spot, in court. I conferred with both the state and national bar associations who confirmed that the attorney acted unethically in the courtroom, and the act qualified him to be disbarred.

My 90-year-old father has never been more peaceful, but I need to get this reversed. It is clear that this is how the lawyers function in our state, but all I need is one skilled, ethical lawyer to help my father through his divorce.

The Daughter

Dear Daughter,

It’s concerning that no one sees what you have seen, and that even highly trained professionals Adult Protective Services disagreed with your own assessment and/or perception of events. Four lawyers during one divorce? That’s quite a turnover. You are either extremely unlucky, or your expectations about what your father can walk away with after this divorce are unrealistically high.

But to answer your letter in good faith: The positive news is that your father is comfortable, he has a roof over his head, and — given that you did not mention otherwise in your letter — he is financially stable. Given your father’s medical history and failing health, I would hope that he will end up with enough to see him through his remaining years.

Virginia is an equitable distribution state, not a community property state, so marital assets are not necessarily divided 50/50. That means a judge will divide the property “equitably” but not necessarily evenly. Given his prognosis and his age, these divorce proceedings are probably a secondary concern. Of course, you need to ensure that he has enough money to see him through his remaining years.

Roughly 36% of people who get divorced are over the age of 50, Susan Brown, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, told MarketWatch. “Gray” divorce is typically more financially devastating for women than men, partly due to the gender wage gap, and women working in lower-paid jobs.

“‘An effective lawyer not only advocates for you, but also levels with you when the facts or law are against you.’”

— Mitch Mitchell, associate counsel with Trust & Will estate planning

As to your question about lawyers: You can file a complaint against a lawyer with the Virginia State Bar. The National Association of Estate Planners and Councils and the National Elder Law Foundation have lawyers in your area that can help. Ask them what kind of cases they typically deal with, tell them what your expectations are for your father’s case, and your preferred outcome. 

The American Bar Association advises caution: “Always be careful about believing everything you read and hear—and nowhere is this truer than with advertisements. Newspaper, telephone directory, radio, television, and Internet ads, along with direct mail, can make you familiar with the names of lawyers who may be appropriate for your legal needs.”

I assume you have exhausted recommendations from your own personal and business contacts. The ABA has an interactive search engine, which should also help you. You can search by state and by area. Choose an attorney that specializes in elder law and/or family law. Find out what kind of outcomes the lawyers have achieved in similar cases.

Mitch Mitchell, associate counsel with Trust & Will estate planning in San Diego, recommends asking for referrals and cross-referencing those referrals with other people. “Interview more than one lawyer before selecting one, especially if the matter will be long or contentious,” he says. Financial advisors, bank officers, or CPAs may also help.

“Ask them to tell you the bad news,” he adds. “Make sure they feel comfortable telling you when you are wrong. An effective lawyer not only advocates for you, but also levels with you when the facts or law are against you. Tell the attorney first and discuss how it can be made right. Regardless, all attorneys are subject to bar discipline.”

In the meantime, gather all of the relevant facts and documents — bank accounts, mortgage and insurance documents, and medical reports — and be prepared for when you find a lawyer that fits your needs, and one that levels with you about your expectations, and what is possible under these circumstances. I hope your father continues to get the care and attention he needs.

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch. By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.

Also read:

My son’s wife got pregnant by a registered sex offender, which delayed their divorce. He pays child support for this child. What now?

‘Am I the world’s biggest fool?’ I married my husband after being together for 25 years. Now he wants a divorce. I’ll be left with nothing. What can I do?

After my mom died, they did not visit my dad’: My parents left me $800,000. My 2 sisters predeceased them, leaving 6 kids. Do they deserve any inheritance?

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