Denise K. Houston is a Partner with the Firm of Tzangas Plakas Mannos Ltd. Attorney Houston has been in practice since 1995, and is admitted to practice before all Ohio Courts and the United States District Court, Northern District of Ohio.
Attorney Houston’s practice focuses primarily on Family Law matters, including but not limited to divorce, dissolution, civil protection orders, child custody, and child support. Attorney Houston primarily practices in Stark and Summit Counties, but also takes cases in Holmes, Carroll, Tuscarawas and Portage Counties.
Attorney Houston is a 1991 graduate of DePauw University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature with a minor in Philosophy. While in college, Attorney Houston was an active member of the Alpha Gamma Delta Sorority, participated in a variety of philanthropic programs such as Habitat for Humanity, and studied abroad in Athens, Greece. She was also a member of the University’s volleyball and track teams.
In 1995, Attorney Houston went on to graduate from the University of Akron School of Law where she received her juris doctorate. During her years at the University of Akron School of Law, Attorney Houston was a member of the University’s trial team and worked and the University’s Appellate Review Office on a variety of criminal cases pending at various appellate levels, which included issues involving habeas corpus relief and post conviction relief. Part of her responsibilities at the Appellate Review Office included arguing cases in front of the Ninth District Court of Appeals. She was also one of the original members of the School of Law’s Phi Delta Phi chapter.
Straight Talk on Divorce Process
When your marriage is ending, it is often difficult to imagine how you will navigate a process that you know very little about. You will wrestle with questions pertaining to your parental rights, child and spousal support, and the division of your assets and debts. You have no idea how long it will take or whether the issues that exist between you and your spouse can be resolved. You will hear conflicting information from family members and friends who have gone through a divorce, and wonder just how your life will be once your divorce is final.
Attorney Denise K. Houston will call upon her experience as a domestic relation lawyer to help you through every stage of your divorce case. In each case, Attorney Houston will prepare a Litigation Plan that will outline each stage of your divorce, document related deadlines, and note when certain tasks are completed so you are always aware of how your case is proceeding.
The following is a brief description of what you can generally expect as you go through the divorce process.
A divorce begins when one spouse files a Complaint for Divorce against the other spouse. Typically, the Complaint is accompanied by a Motion for Temporary Orders and mutual Restraining Orders. In many counties, these initial pleadings will contain hearing dates for the Temporary Orders Hearing as well as a pretrial. Your attendance will be required at each of these hearings.
In response to the commencement of the Divorce Case, the other spouse will file an Answer to the Complaint, a Motion for Temporary Orders, and in most cases, a Counterclaim for Divorce. Thereafter, the spouse who originally filed the Complaint will file an Answer to the Counterclaim. This signals the completion of the initial filings that are typical for a Divorce Case.
TEMPORARY ORDERS HEARING
In most counties, the Temporary Orders Hearing will be the first time you appear in Court. The Court’s goal at this hearing is to establish a list of instructions that will direct how you and your spouse are to live during the pendency of your case. Temporary Orders may include determinations as to which parent will be the temporary residential parent of the children, parenting time schedules, the establishment of temporary child and/or spousal support, an allocation of monthly debts between the parties, a referral to mediation, and the appointment of a Guardian ad Litem if custody is in dispute between the parties.
During this phase of your case, you will work with your attorney to gather all information and documentation that is relevant to your case. This includes documentation that verifies your income, values for all retirement accounts and pensions, secured and unsecured debt balances and monthly payments, and values for your other assets, such as the marital home, business interests, and vehicles. In some instances, expert opinions as to these values will need to be obtained during this period of time. It is also common for counsel for each spouse to submit written questions referred to as interrogatories for the opposing spouse to answer and return.
After each spouse exchanges this information with the other, many attorneys schedule depositions in order to follow up on significant issues in the case. A deposition is similar to an interview where your spouse’s attorney will ask you questions while you are under oath. Your attorney will attend the deposition with you, and a record of the entire process will be made by an official court reporter.
PARENTING RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
When spouses find themselves entrenched in a custody battle over their children, Attorney Houston will develop a trial strategy that is conducive for carrying out what is in the best interests of the children. Due to the volatile nature of custody battles, it is not unusual for this strategy to change over the course of the case.
For purposes of this summary, it is important to bring a few points to your attention. Courts in Ohio do favor shared parenting plans. It is a common misconception that shared parenting means that the children spend an equal amount of time with each parent. In actuality, shared parenting means that the parents shall continue to work together as though they are still married when it comes to major decisions affecting their children. Shared parenting can include an equal division of time, but this is not a requirement.
If shared parenting is not desired, then the Court will be asked to name one parent as the residential parent. The non-residential parent will have a parenting time schedule, which at a minimum will typically be alternating weekends and one midweek visit per week.
Many courts in Ohio utilize in-house mediation services if custody is in dispute. In such courts, a mediation referral will be made early on in the case to see if the parenting rights and responsibilities of each parent can be agreed upon by the parties. It is the belief of Ohio courts that if the issues involving the children can be resolved early on, then the rest of the case has a better chance of settling.
In cases where mediation fails, a Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”) will likely be appointed to your case. Although a GAL may very well be a licensed attorney, the GAL does not represent your children. Instead, the GAL represents what is in their best interest. In order to make this determination, the GAL will investigate the case by speaking to you, observing your interaction with the children, interviewing the children, talking to your spouse, and watching the children interact with your spouse. You may also direct the GAL to speak to your children’s physicians, counselors, teachers, coaches, or even relatives and friends of the family.
A GAL will ultimately submit a report to the Court that will contain recommendations as to what is in the best interest of your children.
It is important to note that the GAL fees are separate and apart from your attorney fees. Retainers paid to the GAL are commonly ordered by the Court, and the Court will also determine how the GAL fees will be ultimately divided between you and your spouse.
In high conflict cases, the Court can require both spouses to participate in a parenting or custody evaluation. For this evaluation, a psychologist will meet with both parents separately as well as with the children. After administering objective testing and conducting the necessary interviews, the expert will draft a report and make a recommendation to the Court as to what the parental rights and responsibilities of each parent should be based upon the evaluator’s opinion. These evaluations are rather expensive, the Court may order that each parent will be financially responsible to cover his/her share of the cost before a report to the Court is issued.
CHILD AND SPOUSAL SUPPORT
Because most courts will equally divide the marital assets and debts between the spouses, the financial issues in a divorce case that spawn the most questions are the amount of child support and the amount and duration of spousal support.
The starting point when determining child and/or spousal support is to obtain verification of each spouse’s income. For child support, the Court will also need information as to whether a spouse has mandatory deductions from his/her income such as union dues or uniform expenses, the cost of daycare expenses, and the cost of health insurance coverage. The amount of child support is generally predictable under Ohio law if the incomes of the parents are easily determinable. However, questions such as whether a spouse is underemployed, the true amount of income earned from all sources, the amount of spousal support awarded, or whether a spouse should be required to work after the Divorce is final can all impact the final determination of what child support should be.
When considering an award of spousal support, Ohio law grants a court significant latitude and discretion when determining the amount and duration. Attorney Houston will call upon her experience and knowledge of the Court’s tendencies to estimate the range of possible spousal support awards and the duration; however, there is a wider range of potential outcomes for spousal support than for child support.
This is in part due to the multiple factors that are considered before deciding if spousal support is appropriate and if so, the amount and duration. In addition to each spouse’s income, the Court must consider various factors that include but are not limited to the age and health of the spouses, their earning abilities, their retirement benefits, the lifestyle of the parties during the course of the marriage, the extent of each spouse’s education, the duration of their marriage, and the tax consequences of any spousal support award.
It is not unusual for some courts to equalize the post-tax incomes of the parties through an award of spousal support. Other courts pay close attention to each party’s reasonable monthly budget, and strive to divide their combined post-tax incomes in a manner that will allow each party to meet his/her budget. The law gives courts significant discretion in awarding spousal support.
As to the duration of spousal support, many courts use a ratio that awards one year of support for every three years of marriage, while others use a ratio of one year for every four years of marriage. If temporary spousal support was paid over the course of the divorce proceedings, a court may, but is not required to, credit the number of months the temporary support was paid against the determined duration.
Going through a divorce is never easy, even if you are able to reach an agreement with your spouse along the way. However, the Litigation Plan we customize for your case is intended to assist you in navigating this difficult time in your life by providing you with a general road map of what you will encounter as your case proceeds. As we update your Litigation Plan throughout the pendency of your case, it will summarize all of the deadlines we are operating under as well as outline when each task has been completed. Overall, we believe that you will find the Litigation Plan to be an effective and informative guide of where you are and how your case is developing at any given stage.
High End/High Conflict Cases
Although Attorney Houston handles all levels of divorces and dissolutions, she concentrates her practice on high-end divorce cases. Drawing upon her jury litigation background, Attorney Houston’s approach to a high-end divorce case is to be concise and to clearly illustrate the foundation of your position in order to demonstrate why it supports the requested relief. Attorney Houston’s attention to detail permeates every aspect of your case, including her preparation of all experts for your trial. It is not unusual for her to bring the courtroom technology commonly used in jury trials to the domestic relations court in order to explain the complexities of a high-end divorce case. Attorney Houston’s techniques are designed to not only educate the court on your position, but to also effectively challenge the credibility of your spouse’s case.
High-end divorce cases have complex litigation issues that are deeply rooted in the valuation of business interests, professional practices, retirement benefits, real estate, motor vehicles, and other marital assets in the marital estate.
High-end divorce cases will often contain an element of investigative lawyering. Once discovery begins, if it appears that the marital assets and debts are not clearly identified, or if the marital estate is not as valuable as the client believes it should be, there may be a need for a forensic accounting and tracing of the marital income into the marital estate. Financial misconduct may also be apparent and spark the need for immediate attention in order to preserve the value of the marital estate.
When high incomes and related wealth support a high standard of living, the child and spousal support issues become even more complex. It is not unusual for these financial issues to affect or otherwise cause a custody dispute during the pendency of your case.
If the parties entered into a prenuptial agreement before their marriage, the divorce proceedings may very well start off with a dispute as to whether the prenuptial agreement is valid and therefore enforceable. In these types of cases, significant litigation will occur over the validity of the prenuptial agreement because the Court must determine whether the prenuptial agreement is enforceable. The outcome of that decision will define the marital estate subject to division.
Attorney Houston has significant experience with these common high-end, complex litigation issues in divorces cases. Through her advocacy skills, your interests will be not only well represented, but presented to the Court in a concise and logical manner.