Herbert Smith Freehills Attorneys Help Mother in Contested Divorce Secure Child Support and Equitable Distribution of Marital Debt

Joanne Liu is a litigation associate at Hughes Hubbard & Reed and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a pro bono team from Herbert Smith Freehills’ New York office consisting of New York Managing Partner Scott S. Balber and former Associates Micaela McLean and Laura Paliani.

“It was a great experience working alongside the Sanctuary team on this case, and we are honored to have been a part of achieving a positive outcome for Rachel and her son. Herbert Smith Freehills is very happy to be able to contribute to the wonderful and important work Sanctuary does.” –Scott Balber

In May 2016, this Herbert Smith Freehills team, together with attorneys from Sanctuary for Families’ Matrimonial/Economic Justice Project, began representing “Rachel,” a former advertising and marketing executive, in a contested divorce. Rachel and her husband accrued significant debt during their marriage, which exceeded their assets, but unbeknownst to Rachel, her husband had taken out additional loans without her knowledge—and he wanted the court to allocate some of these additional personal debts to Rachel.  Her husband also refused to provide child support for the son he and Rachel had together. Over a five-year period, Rachel’s husband provided less child support in total than the court later would order him to pay each month—a small fraction of the financial support Rachel needed to care for their teenage son, who was applying to college. He claimed to be penniless and to have earned no income since 2013, even though he frequently traveled all over the world for a variety of business endeavors, received benefits from the French government, and lived rent-free in Paris, Brussels and Brooklyn in that time.

This was a challenging case because of the many, apparently unrelated, business endeavors that Rachel’s husband pursued—on every continent except Antarctica—and the dearth of evidence documenting Rachel’s husband’s income and how he supported himself. Discovery was particularly difficult.  Rachel’s husband represented himself pro se, and was uncooperative and consistently resisted and delayed producing documents.  The documents he did produce were often incomplete. The team painstakingly reviewed the documents, some of which were in French, and devoted considerable time and resources to requesting additional documents and preparing to depose and cross-examine Rachel’s husband and witnesses at trial.

“This case helped me grow as an attorney. It was a new area of law for me, and I got to prepare for and take a deposition. It was a great learning experience.” –Laura Paliani.

The team was there for Rachel, both in and out of the courtroom. The process was not easy for her. She was a under a lot of pressure, especially because she had to continue to care for and support her son while receiving no financial support from her husband.  She also worried that she would be unable to meet the complex requirements to renew her visa, and her visa restricted the employment she could seek, further limiting her income opportunities. At the same time, Rachel was regularly fielding threatening emails from her husband’s family and friends who believed that Rachel was jointly responsible for repaying the significant sums of money loaned to her husband and demanded repayment from her. These threats, from former friends who knew only her husband’s version of events, understandably upset and frustrated Rachel, and she often turned to her team at Herbert Smith Freehills for counsel when she received them.

“We had to be strategic with the issues to focus on for trial, but those are not always the same issues that a person in Rachel’s position is most affected by. We wanted Rachel to feel like she had a team behind her and an opportunity to tell the whole story, even if it could not all be conveyed to the Judge.” –Micaela McLean.

Rachel’s case went to trial in 2018 after the Herbert Smith Freehills and Sanctuary team was unable to come to any resolution with Rachel’s husband despite their best efforts. Herbert Smith Freehills’ attorneys expertly conducted the trial, putting together voluminous exhibits and affidavits and cross-examining the witnesses Rachel’s husband called to testify via video conference. Following the trial, they drafted a comprehensive post-trial written summation for the Court.

“Working on this case was especially rewarding because we had to be counselors in the truest sense of the word and worked closely with Rachel to resolve these issues that were so impactful on her personal life.” –Laura Paliani.

All of their efforts paid off. In April 2019, the Court ruled in Rachel’s favor. The judge found that she was not responsible for her husband’s additional debt, granted her child support going forward, and ordered her husband to pay her retroactive child support back to her commencement of the case in 2015.

“Herbert Smith Freehills’ involvement in this case and dedication to Rachel was truly invaluable both to Rachel and to Sanctuary.  Given the complexity of the financial circumstances of Rachel’s case, having a dedicated and expert pro bono team was crucial in obtaining a favorable outcome for Rachel and her son. Rachel is so grateful to the Herbert Smith Freehills team for enabling her to move on with her life in the best way possible.”  –Lisa Vara, Director of Sanctuary’s Matrimonial and Economic Justice Project and co-counsel on the case.

Rachel was not the only beneficiary of the team’s efforts. For her son, who was unfortunately caught in the middle of the divorce, its conclusion was a relief.  He could move on with his life and no longer be caught in between his parents. It allowed him to focus on finishing high school and getting into college. He enrolled in a prestigious university in September 2019.

“It was rewarding knowing that Rachel’s son could get on with his life, finish high school, and focus on getting into college, and not worry about his parents’ divorce.” –Micaela McLean.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 12, 2019, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor Herbert Smith Freehills’ outstanding pro bono work. You can buy tickets here

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.