Local Specialist Talks Emotional Reality of Family Law

| by Donna Smiedt |

When this story is published, it shall no doubt be tucked away in an issue where happy, smiling, successful professionals silently beckon you into splendid receptions where well-dressed and friendly staff cater to your every need. Or that is the dream of many young lawyers, clutching their recently minted law degree in sweaty hands. But, to the “seasoned” family law litigator, as I am often now described, this is not always the life of a family lawyer.

Behind those white-washed walls, in paper-strewn conference rooms and paralegals’ offices, the work pile too colossal to have time to ponder the despair of the trade in which they deal, the hard work is done. The creator of the chaos must bring it into order to end the tireless trek that most clients are on when they first step into their office.

I have an intimate knowledge of this dark side of the profession, having labored in the pits of people’s personal miseries for years. I watch daily as love turns violently and relentlessly into hate from the family home to the cold confines of the courtroom. Once lovers, now haters, these family members battle each other ruthlessly for custody. The daily practice of family law pulls at the strings of your heart and attempts to unwind the very core of your soul. For 30 years, I have battled through, fighting for justice at every turn. 

Many members of both bar and bench alike are never touched by this insanity in their practice, and those that are don’t often discuss this malaise with the general public.

When something very drastic occurs in these broken families, the public sees a small sliver of what family law attorneys view daily. Charlott Livingston was a 53-year-old grandmother who shot her 15-year-old grandchild, Fayth Norman, to death before taking her own life in February at a downtown Fort Worth hotel. Charlott left a suicide note that police officers discovered, stating the reason she took Fayth’s life was because she didn’t want her to have to live the type of life that Charlott did.

From the outside, Charlott Livingston looked successful. She was a professor at North Lake College at the time of her death. She had raised her own children early in life but had obtained custody of Fayth when Charlott’s daughter, Fayth’s biological mother, could not care for her. Daily bread for family law attorneys. I represented her in that custody case and then later in her divorce.

I knew Charlott Livingston quite well. I was her family law attorney for over 10 years. And Charlott was what I sometimes refer to in jest as a “repeat offender,” for Charlott had needed my services more than once in those 10 years. This may seem glib and uncaring of me, but I must joke to do my job every day and represent my clients to the best of my ability, zealously advocating for their positions. If I didn’t joke, I would cry all the time. I have determined that there is only so much anguish and disappointment that human beings can suffer through in the tragedy that has become their life, before they hit bottom and despair overtakes them. They probably didn’t intend to be in the family court system, both public and private, when they started their family or fell in love and married. They have so many broken dreams.

As a family law attorney, it’s often hard to determine whether the mental illness involved was present throughout her life or occurred as a result of having had to endure so much sadness and disappointment in life, especially in relationships with lovers, partners, children and grandchildren. I never thought that Charlott Livingston would be one of the sad, tragic stories on the evening news. But then, there is a fine line between sanity and insanity, and it does not take much to cross that line. Charlott succumbed to the depths of despair and sadly slipped over that edge and took her own life and, tragically, took that of a child she had loved, raised and nurtured as her own for over 10 years, leaving behind a biological mother and siblings devastated by this final act of despair. And so, they too shall have to deal with the emotional sins that a mother, or a grandmother, has perpetrated upon them. And so, the cycle continues.

As family law attorneys, all we can hope and pray for is that our work helps these families, not harms them. But sometimes that line too becomes indistinguishable in the practice of family law.

Donna Smiedt is a board-certified family law specialist practicing complex family law litigation. She moved to the United States from South Africa at age 14 and graduated from the SMU Dedman School of Law as one of the school’s youngest graduates at age 22.