Ask the Expert — C. Michele Dorsey Family Law Attorney

Sherry: Michele thanks so much for taking time from your busy schedule to join us today. When I was writing Tagged for Death I had a question about divorce laws in Massachusetts. I turned to Michelle for advice.

Name: C. Michele Dorsey, but you can skip the “C.”
Area of Expertise: I am a Family Law Attorney, Mediator and Writer

MicheleHow did you end up in Family Law?

I was a nurse before I became a lawyer. I think working with people in physical pain prepared me for representing people who are experiencing a different kind of pain. People who are going through a divorce face the loss of family and must grieve. My experience as a nurse taught me how to listen, be compassionate and when to tell someone it’s time to stop licking their wounds and start living life again. I use the same skills as a lawyer.

What is one thing we should know about your area of expertise?

Cases are often resolved these days through Alternative Dispute Resolution, “ADR”  (mediation, arbitration, collaborative law, etc.), rather than litigation. If you are going to use ADR in your story, understand it is very different from litigation. The first scene in “The Wedding Crashers” is a mediation. It’s very funny, but it also gets it right.

What do people usually get wrong when writing about family law issues?

People often get a whole lot wrong when writing about family law issues, which is problematic because half of the population, including your readers, are divorced and will catch you if you are wrong. It’s easy to check the law for your jurisdiction with so much information available online. Knowing whether your state still has fault grounds, allows certain claims for alimony and how marital property is divided will lend credibility to your story.

Is there a great idea you’d love to share?

If you are a writer looking for ideas about conflict, human drama and relationships, spend a morning in your local family court listening. What unfolds every day in the courtroom is an amazing array of human tragedy, with an occasional triumph. Your notebook will be full in a few hours.

What are you working on?

IMG_0007My agent is closing a deal on a mystery I wrote set in St John, USVI, but for now my lips are sealed. I am working on a mystery about a divorce lawyer who returns home from court one day to find her husband dead in their bed with a pair of black panties between the sheets that don’t belong to her. I am also writing a nonfiction book to help people choose an enlightened path to divorce.

Do you use your expert knowledge in your writing?

Yes, in many ways. For one thing, I am always filling the well with potential stories when I am in court. I also listen to people, noting how they express themselves, to help with writing dialogue. A family law case is really a story unfolding with all of the elements of conflict evolving much like a plot in a book, which has helped me with structure.
Oh, and it always helps to include a nasty lawyer in a book. They make delicious and vicious villains. I wonder why. But that would be for another conversation.
Thanks for inviting me to your wonderful Wicked Cozy Authors Blog.

C. “Michele” Dorsey writes mysteries, romantic comedy, nonfiction and an occasional poem. She is also a lawyer, mediator and adjunct professor of law, who finds inspiration and serenity on the island of St. John, USVI, where her latest mystery is set. Michele was a finalist in St. Martin’s Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Competition in 2013 for No Virgin Island, in 2012 for Oh Danny Girl, and in 2004 for My Pink Slippers.

Readers: Do you have a question about family law for Michele? She’ll be stopping by throughout the day to answer them.

24 Thoughts

  1. I love St. John, USVI. I haven’t been back for about 20 years, since my friends have moved on, but I remember it well. I will be looking for your books set there. 🙂

    1. If one person believes a marriage is irretrievably broken down, Sherry, then it is and it doesn’t matter if the other person disagrees. You are correct that an uncontested divorce in Massachusetts is final 120 days after you appear in court. A contested case is final 90 days after a judgment of divorce enters, but it can take a couple of years before your case goes to trial.

  2. Oh, Michele – such exciting news! And not sure how I missed your being a finalist last year fro No Virgin Island. Congratulations. Delighted you could join us here today. I also love St. John, but was there only once and it was thirty years ago.

    Do you happen to know anything about family law in Massachusetts in the late 1800s? Was there a legal way to make a man accountable for a child his out-of-wedlock mistress bore, for example?

    1. Edith, I don’t know offhand about law in the 1800’s, but I do know today there are more unmarried couples with children than married couples seeking relief in family courts and that children from either type of family are treated equally, which wasn’t always the case.

  3. Michele, so thrilled about your book news. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us. You’d told me earlier that the fastest someone could get a divorce in Massachusetts was 120 days if nothing was contested — I hope I have that right. What happens if one person wants a divorce but the other doesn’t?

  4. Edith, I don’t know what the law was back in the 1800’s without doing some research. I do know that there are more cases with unmarried parents today than with married parents and, for the most part, children from either type of family are treated equally.

  5. Michele, when I was in law school, I planned to go into family law. I ended up in a large firm and did a custody case pro bono, then worked as a GAL a couple of times. Family law in abstract sounded wonderful. Working with actual, sometimes not rational people, not so much. So I applaud you.

    Anyway, my question. It might be outside your area, but can’t hurt to ask: You often hear on TV that life insurance won’t pay on a suicide. Any idea if that’s true?

    1. Barb, you are correct that the human side to family law can be very challenging, but it can also be rewarding and I can honestly say I am never bored.

      1. The question about suicide is outside my area of expertise, but my understanding is life insurance may be paid when there is a suicide if the death occurs at least several years after the policy was written.

    2. I am a paralegal practicing in the trusts/estates/tax area. Most policies will pay if the policy has been in effect a certain number of years. I know of at least one instance where an employee had a policy that was given as part of a benefit package and that paid out even though the waiting period for suicide payout would not have been met if the employee had purchased his or her own policy.

  6. Hi Michele –

    Congrats on the news.
    Any thoughts on how to research family law in Massachusetts in the early 20th century? Transcripts? Court Decisions? Legal Texts?


    1. Hi Bill,
      I think case law is a great way to get a handle on what was going on in a particular era. Another way would be to pick up a Family Law text book because they provide a sampling of what the law was over the years. They cover those fun topics such as who keeps the ring after a broken engagement and what elements are needed to prove common law marriage, etc.

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