Please welcome my Wednesday guests, Shaun Kaufman and Colleen Collins. Shaun Kaufman has spent 30 years in the criminal justice system, both as a trial attorney and legal investigator. Colleen Collins is a multi-published author in the romance, mystery and nonfiction genres. Shaun and Colleen also co-owned a private detective agency for ten years. Links to their websites: Colleen Collins Books: http://colleencollinsbooks.com; Gams and Gumshoes: http://writingpis.wordpress.com; Shaun Kaufman Law: http://www.shaunkaufmanlaw.com The following is an excerpt from their book, A Lawyer’s Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms, an article they wrote back when they worked full time as private investigations. Readers will like reading about the investigative strategy employed to disprove a woman’s claim that she and her ex-boyfriend had been secretly married.
Our agency was hired by a family lawyer to disprove a common-law marriage between his client, Clay, and Clay’s last live-in girlfriend, Patty, a paralegal for an attorney in the area. Clay and Patty are not their real names.
Patty had just filed for divorce claiming that she and Clay were married under common law. She asserted this based on multiple instances of their representations to people and government agencies that they were married. In the language of common-law marriage this is called “holding oneself out as married.” A court can find this status of marriage in a divorce proceeding based on such evidence as the couple telling others that they are married and that they conduct transactions as a married couple.
In her divorce filing, Patty made substantial claims against Clay’s retirement account and home equity in addition to demanding alimony. In short, this was a full-on divorce and if the court agreed with Patty, she would be entitled to a large settlement. Therefore, our goal was to show that although the couple had lived together, their conduct did not match the legal formula for being married. In short, we had to show that Patty was faking it for the money.
Our investigative strategy was to attack the validity of Patty’s claims, one by one:
- First, she claimed that she and Clay had registered as a married couple at a posh downtown Denver hotel the previous summer where they had a small, informal wedding ceremony in a hotel reception room. By contrast, our client claimed that they had stayed there for a weekend and had attended a Colorado Rockies baseball game with both Clay and Patty’s children (from previous marriages). Clay had paid for the room, and Patty had registered them as using the same last name.
- Second, Patty claimed that they had sent Christmas cards as “Mr. and Mrs. Clay.”
- Third, Patty had two friends from the mixed softball league that she and Clay had played in who were ready to testify that Clay and Patty had openly told others that they were married.
To disprove Patty’s assertions we:
- Researched public records filed by the couple to determine if they had ever filed public, official documents indicating that they were either married or single. We confirmed at the DMV that Clay had purchased a BMW convertible two years before the break-up. Clay told us that Patty drove the car exclusively. Patty asserted in the divorce papers that the car was hers. We learned from registration records that the car was not registered jointly, and that only Clay’s name was on the title and registration. We also learned from bankruptcy records that Patty had filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy 18 months before the break-up, and she had listed herself on those papers as single with no spouse. Coincidentally, she left out any mention of “her” BMW in those bankruptcy papers. Therefore, Patty had to either admit to lying to the bankruptcy court or she would have to agree that just months before she had told a federal bankruptcy judge, in a sworn statement, that she was single.
- Contacted recipients of the Christmas cards, and none had received cards signed by both Clay and Patty.
- Interviewed the softball coach who looked up Patty’s softball registration, which did not show Clay’s name in the space for “emergency contact/spouse.”
There were some unforeseen glitches. We were stymied by hotel management when we tried to get information about the room that Clay and Patty had rented the previous summer. Management would not release information about the room, even though Clay had paid for it, because Patty had signed the room registration, which made it “her” room.
Ultimately, our attorney-client issued a subpoena for those records. The hotel billing records showed that there was never a reception room rented for the ceremony as Patty had claimed.
Tip for Writers: Keep in mind that if you have a PI in your story, he/she will not always have an easy time getting a look at hotel registrations, unlike sensationalized accounts in some private-eye stories.
The end result was that Patty and her lawyer agreed to a tiny settlement, and that there was no marriage, hence no divorce with Clay.
A Lawyer’s Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms by Shaun Kaufman and Colleen Collins (June 2014). Grab a front row seat inside the big top of justice, where a lawyer presents the world of litigation and lawbreakers. Topics include a history of trials; players in the courtroom; types of lawyers; jury experts; private investigators; trial preparation; the steps of criminal and civil trials; articles on such topics as forensics, crimes and dog searches; and much more.
Note free giveaway one copy