Stuart Manoff: Handling High-Stakes Matters
When millions of dollars are on the line in a divorce case, Stuart R. Manoff knows how to build a compelling case for his clients. “I enjoy handling complex financial matters and working closely with forensic accountants to uncover any concealed bank accounts or other assets,” says Manoff, principal of Stuart R. Manoff & Associates in West Palm Beach.
Since it usually takes considerable time for a person to achieve a high income and accumulate wealth, Manoff says many of his clients involved in complex, high-end divorces are in their 40s, 50s or 60s with adult children. “In handling higher-asset cases, it’s usually the finances — not the children — that are the contentious issues in a divorce,” he adds.
In those cases, Manoff draws on his knowledge of finance, accounting and tax to explain key issues to the court. “Family courts are charged with first identifying marital and non-marital assets, valuing them, and then distributing them,” he says. “However, the valuing of those assets can be subject to multiple interpretations, and it’s very important to be able to explain your reasoning.”
Manoff adds that Final Judgments for Dissolution of Marriage now require extensive findings of fact, particularly with regard to alimony. “The court now has to identify and discuss all the statutory alimony factors,” he says. “Otherwise, the appellate court may reverse and remand the judgment. Therefore, today, a family law attorney has to be a technocrat in presenting the facts that the court will rely on in making the final ruling.”
In general, alimony awards have decreased in recent years, since maintaining a spouse’s “standard of living” is just one of the factors that the courts will consider, according to Manoff. “In Palm Beach County, we would often see large alimony awards where an impecunious spouse would spend tens of thousands of dollars a month on luxuries,” he adds. “Today, many judges take that spending into consideration when awarding alimony and find that after a divorce, a spouse isn’t necessarily entitled to every luxury he or she had enjoyed during the marriage.”
Looking at long-term trends in family law, Manoff says prenuptial agreements are on the rise, reflecting the increase in second and third marriages, as well as two-income families. “People are generally more open and comfortable in having these conversations now,” he says. “Prenuptial agreements are not just for the ultra-wealthy anymore.”
Another positive change in family law is the Legislature’s ability to mitigate the issue of child custody, which has been a traditional “hot button” in divorce cases. Parents would argue about who would be the primary custodial parent, which was often more of a label than anything else, Manoff says. Moving to a system of “shared parental responsibility” with time-sharing has defused a lot of the emotional strife that had become synonymous with marital and family law.
A board-certified marital and family law attorney for 20 years, and a practicing attorney for nearly 30 years, Manoff has handled a number of high-profile cases, including representing the interests of “Baby Emily” in a 1994-1995 custody case between the child’s adoptive parents and birth father. The Florida Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the Plantation couple who had adopted and raised the 3-year-old girl.
Deciding on Family Law
Manoff was born in New Jersey. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, College Park, before attending law school at the University of Miami. Although his father, Yale, hoped Manoff would join his law practice in New Jersey, Manoff decided to stay in South Florida.
In January 1985, Manoff was sworn into the Florida Bar and he soon thereafter joined a small Miami firm doing insurance defense work. “I didn’t enjoy it, and decided to open my own practice in Boca Raton a few months later,” he says. “I’ve been in Palm Beach County ever since then and I’ve never looked back.”
After building a general practice that included personal injury, real estate, contracts and commercial litigation, Manoff found himself taking on more marital related matters. “I didn’t choose family law — it chose me,” he says. “It was also a time of strong population growth throughout Palm Beach County, and many new residents did not have established attorney relationships.”
Manoff spent seven years building his practice, eventually adding a partner to handle non-family law matters for the firm. In 1992, he joined longtime West Palm Beach family law attorney Joel Weissman, and practiced there for five years before opening his own firm again.
While he spends his days helping guide others through the family court arena, Manoff himself is no stranger to the family court and shared parental responsibility on a personal level. He was married for ten years, before divorcing in 2006. “I have a son who’s going off to college this summer and a younger daughter,” he says. “We have taken a cooperative approach to parenting and that has really paid off for our children.”
Along with “being a good dad,” Manoff enjoys boating and landscaping his home. “My therapy is trimming the plants in the back yard, and my kids get a kick out of seeing me up on a ladder sawing off palm fronds.”
A Push for Civility
On the professional side, one of Manoff’s personal goals is increasing the level of civility in the courts. “I believe you can be an effective litigator without taking off the gloves and attacking the other attorney,” he says. “In one controversial case that was aggressively litigated, the judge complimented me for being polite to the witnesses and maintaining an appropriate level of decorum. I took that as a high compliment, especially since we won that case.”
Recently, Manoff was among the founders of The Susan Greenberg Family Law American Inns of Court of the Palm Beaches, a local chapter of a national organization whose goal is to promote civility and education in the legal profession. Manoff also took part in Bench Bar,” the annual session of the judges and attorneys of Palm Beach County who get together to discuss the current state of the legal practice, and how to make it better,” he says. “This year, we had a great session that was very educational, and helped build camaraderie.”
In keeping with that spirit, Manoff believes attorneys should be good listeners as well as effective speakers. “You have to resist the normal tendency to interrupt someone else and state your position,” he says. “Be a good listener and you’ll learn far more than if you’re talking all the time. That’s one of the keys to being an effective negotiator and advocate for your client in any field of law.”
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