I have just finished working on a case where the attorneys for both parties failed to close their files after the parties reconciled, and failed to properly dismiss the divorce action. Later, when the parties fell apart again, this presented a procedural quagmire. A recent decision, Brewer v. Holiday, No. 2011-CT-00964-SCT (1/9/14), also highlights the problems that can come from failing to double-check file closing details.
There, the parties and their attorneys signed an Agreed Order for a change in custody and child support which the parties operated under for years. However, neither attorney ever presented the Agreed Order to the Judge. When things fells apart, Momma sued Daddy for back due support pursuant to the unmodified order. The Chancellor refused to even hear testimony about the prior Agreed Order, ruling (correctly) that only he could modify an order and since he was never given the order, it meant nothing. The Court of Appeals agreed. The Supreme Court reversed and instructed the Chancellor to examine the equities of the matter.
That being said, all of these problems can be avoided if attorneys follow a meticulous procedure of determining when their responsibilities are concluded and following a “File Closing Checklist.” Among the things on the checklist:
- Have all fees and expenses been paid?
- Have all original materials been returned?
- Have all pertinent provisions of the order been complied with?
- Is there a final order of some kind that has been signed and filed which absolves the attorney from responsibility and ends the matter?
One of the forms in my book is a “File Closing Checklist” found in Forms, Checklists, and Procedures for the Family Lawyer, published by the ABA and which may be purchased at ababooks.org.