Thursday, December 30, 2010

Can I Sleep with my Wife or Husband during our Divorce?

This question was recently posted on Avvo.com and as a regular contributor I answered the question on that site. Since I have received a positive response to my answer I have decided to reprint it here:

Question: What are the rules about husband and wife sleeping together while they are getting a divorce? One of the pair doesn't want the divorce and is willing to work hard to turn things around. Right now there is no hope but I want there to be and am praying for a miracle. (spelling errors corrected)

Answer: There are no court rules or statutes that prevent a husband and wife from sleeping together before, during or after a divorce. In fact, the only law in Massachusetts preventing people from sleeping together is a prohibition on adultery which is not enforced anyway.

However, it could be extremely unhealthy for you to continue to sleep with your spouse if you are hopeful that it will result in a reconciliation but your spouse is adamant that it will not.

In Massachusetts, if only one person in the marriage believes that the marriage is over, then they may file a Complaint for Divorce under Section 1B. Under this no-fault statute if that person is willing to state under oath that they believe the marriage is irretrievably broken down with no chance of reconciliation, then the Judge will grant the divorce and the other party is helpless to stop it once the person's mind is made up.

If there is any chance of saving your marriage, it is most likely to come from marriage counseling and not from "sleeping together". You may also want to consider marital mediation. For more information about reconciliation visit our previous post as well.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Is it a Crime if my Spouse Reads my E-mail?

The short answer is that your spouse has probably not violated any law by reading your e-mail, even if it is against your wishes. The law of technology is constantly changing, though, and you may want to think twice before snooping in your spouse's email.

The current law varies from state to state and you might be subject to criminal charges as the law catches up with technology. In Massachusetts, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 ruled that e-mail snooping was not a violation of the wire-tapping statute, and therefore not a crime under that law. If combined with concerning communications, e-mail snooping may be enough to trigger the criminal harassment statute in Massachusetts, though this would depend more likely on the nature of the other communications.

There is a Federal Law, the Electronic Communication Protection Act (ECPA), that prohibits interception of an e-mail while it is being transmitted. However, ECPA does not prohibit snooping in your e-mail inbox or outbox (i.e. before or after the e-mail has been transmitted).

Although snooping is not considered "hacking" under the ECPA, it may be under some state laws. In Michigan, prosecutors are attempting to apply their anti-hacking statute to a case of a Husband accessing his Wife's account to gain information about an affair. Although, many experts are quoted in a Today story as questioning this application of a law intended for a different purpose, the case raises interesting questions about two issues: What expecation of privacy does a Wife have on a shared computer (especially where her passwords were written down next to the computer) and how has the "snooping" damaged the Wife?

The damage to the Wife is certainly different than the damage experienced by a victim of identity theft or other more typical security "hacks", but this doesn't mean she is not damaged as well. It may be the case that applying the anti-hacking statute to a domestic case is not a good fit, but it is time for the legislature to catch up with today's technologies and impose either civil or criminal sanctions on e-mail snooping. The fact that such behavior is very often associated with controlling and/or violent domestic relationships should be enough to warrant prohibition of these activities.

If you are considering this type of snooping, even if you live in a jurisdiction where it is not against the law, you should consider the possible backlash. A Family Court Judge could consider this threatening behavior or otherwise hold it against you and the backlash could be much more damaging than any information discovered (even if it was admissible).

If you are concerned about your e-mail being wrongfully accessed, read our previous post about protecting your privacy.

You can view the Today Story video below:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Scaling the Summit Word Cloud

Wondering what we've been writing about. Below is a word cloud generated by Wordle displaying our most written about subjects:

Wordle Image

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Should Parenting Plans include Holiday schedules?

As discussed in a previous post a Parenting Plan is a comprehensive agreement which sets out both the time that children will spend with each parent as well as the rights and obligations of each parent to the children and the other parent during their parenting time. Parenting Plans can be made specific or flexible depending on the requirements of each case but usually contain a base schedule.

In most cases it is also advisable to supplement the base schedule with a holiday schedule. At Kelsey & Trask, P.C. we have a template holiday plan that includes proposed schedules for many of the typical holidays that parents and children enjoy sharing together. However, we often encourage our clients to try and create their own holiday plans based on their family traditions, trying to keep as much of the family traditions intact for children already experiencing many changes.

If you are a separated or divorcing parent, we suggest that you pay special attention to how your children experience holidays and how each parent can continue to share in those traditions.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why You Should Try to Avoid Divorce Court?

Although sometimes necessary, appearing in Court is often a lengthy, expensive, and disappointing trial (pun intended). Any combination of failed preparation, miscommunication between client and attorney, or incomplete discovery can cause the process to result in imperfect and incomplete Orders. Sometimes just the limitations of the court process (such as the limited time of the Judge to hear each case) can result in frustrating court appearances.

In order to avoid unnecessary costs, you may want to consider alternatives to litigation such as Mediation or Collaborative Law. For more information about those processes read our past posts:

What are the Advantages & Disadvantages of Mediation

Dramatic Impact of Mediation on Children of Divorce

Mediation, Collaborative Law or Litigation: What's your Vote? - A 3 Part Post:

The Cleavers Divorce: Collaborative Law, Mediation or Litigation - Part I

The Huxtable's Divorce: Collaborative Law, Mediation or Litigation - Part II

The Honeymooners' Divorce: Collaborative Law, Mediation or Litigation - Part III

Even if mediation or collaborative law is not available in your case (these processes both require joint and volunteer participation), it is still possible to reach agreements with the proper preparation and forethought. Make sure that you provide your attorney with all of the information necessary for them to properly and timely prepare your case, and they should be able to make appropriate and timely proposals for settlement that could help you avoid costly and disappointing court appearances.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The 15 Most Expensive Divorces

There is very little that the average person can say they have in common with celebrities. We don't get chased by the paparazzi, we don't have personal chefs or personal trainers, and we can't get lost in our homes. But when it comes to celebrity marriages, they are just as likely (if not more likely) to end up in divorce court. Of course, when a celebrity, CEO or media mogul gets divorced the financial scale of their marital estates is very different than the average divorce case.

Below is a graph of the top 15 most expensive divorce payouts, ranging from 80 million to 1.7 billion dollars:

Wikipedia List of Most Expensive Divorces
The Telegraph Article: Tiger Woods: the world's top ten highest divorce settlements
Burns & Associates: Top 15 Most Expensive Divorces Of All Time

Friday, December 10, 2010

Does a Criminal Record affect Child Custody?

If one of the parents in a custody case has a criminal record, the types of crimes on their record could have an effect on their chances of obtaining custody. In custody cases the issue is always going to come down to whether or not the best interests of the child might be affected.

In the most extreme case, in which one parent has been convicted of first degree murder of the other parent, the law specifically prohibits visitation with the children until they are of a suitable age to assent.

Similarly, but to a less serious degree, in making custody and visitation determinations the court will consider crimes that would cause one to question the fitness of a parent. These types of crimes would obviously include any violent crime convictions which could call into question whether the children would be in danger around a parent who has shown themselves to resort to violence when faced with conflict. In addition, drug and alcohol abuse offenses would call into question a parent's ability to care for their child without supervision.

Other crimes that might seem unrelated, such as theft or prostitution, may not cause a Judge to question the parent's ability to care for the child, but rather their suitability as a role model. These types of convictions might be a reason to limit time with the child, but may not require supervision (assuming that this criminal behavior is in the parent's past).

Judges have access to the criminal record of parents, and when issues are raised like those discussed above, the court will often request the records of both parents before making a determination. This is also true in any 209A Restraining Order cases.

It is also important to note that the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system is changing in 2012. All of the changes are listed here. Some of the changes that could affect your case, include a new procedure for having an inaccurate record amended, and new permissions for access to sealed CORI by court order in domestic abuse/child custody actions and where a person’s safety is at stake.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

How Much Will my Divorce cost? How Can I Pay for it?

The one question that everyone asks at the end of their initial divorce consultation is "how much is this going to cost?" And with good reason, because cost is a valid concern, especially for many of our clients who have lower or middle class incomes and lifestyles. Unfortunately, the answer is vague and unsatisfying because it depends on so many factors. I try to provide clients at the initial consult with some idea of what I expect the range to be for their case based on what I've learned during that brief time. But some of the factors are truly unpredictable, most significantly how much the other side wants to fight.

There are many ways to reduce the cost of a divorce. In some cases, where both parties are well-informed and willing to cooperate, mediation can be a cheaper option then hiring two lawyers for the whole process. Even if you both have attorneys, following the court Rules and providing documents and other information in a timely fashion can help reduce the costs. For example, just spending the time to draft a complete Financial Statement saves your attorney time having to walk you through each individual question.

Unfortunately, if your spouse does not cooperate with the court Rules and Orders by trying to hide assets, or delaying the disclosure of documents, the costs increase because your attorney has to do more work to chase down the information necessary to advise you. This can be frustrating for clients because it means they do not have control over some of the reasons that attorney's time (and therefore fees) can increase significantly. Because family court is a court of equity it is possible to request that the opposing party pay for fees that are due to their delay or wrongdoing, but often these requests are denied or ordered only partially.

So what do you do if you don't have the funds to pay for divorce counsel, or don't have access to the funds because your spouse controls the finances?

For those with significant marital estates, a recent New York Times article has highlighted the latest in divorce funding options: companies that invest in your divorce. Of course, these companies request a contingency fee in exchange for funding your legal fees (something which attorneys are not allowed to do in divorce cases pursuant to the ethics rules). Because they expect a contingency, these companies only invest in high asset cases, one of the owners describing their ideal case as one with two to five million dollars in marital assets.

For many of our clients and probably many of our readers, these figures are not realistic. However, if you cannot pay for a lawyer there are a number of options for you to still obtain legal advice. There are numerous legal aid services that you may qualify for, and there is a webpage that contains a directory of these services available in Massachusetts.

In addition, it is possible that the Judge will order your spouse to pay your legal fees if he or she has control over assets that would help you pay for counsel. This request will depend on the specific facts of your case and the availability of funds. You may be able to find an attorney who will take your case and file such a Motion based on a small retainer and the likelihood of receiving further funds.

Also, many attorneys offer a free or reduced fee initial consultation. Even if you are unable to eventually hire that attorney, the initial consultation could still provide you with invaluable information regarding your rights and obligations in a divorce case.

Finally, there is also a Lawyer-of-the-Day program in many courts in Massachusetts. As part of that program an attorney volunteers their time for the day to answer legal questions and help potential litigants fill out forms in the courthouse. If you plan to meet with the Lawyer of the Day try to get to the Courthouse early (it opens at 8:30 A.M.) because the line can fill up quickly on a busy day and sometimes they only stay until 3:00 P.M.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What's in a Name? - The Problem with Labeling Parents "Custodial Parent" vs. "Visiting Parent"

It's difficult for people who haven't been involved in a divorce case to understand why divorcing spouses can be so mean to each other, especially when children are involved. But the emotions that couples experience when going through a divorce can be like riding a roller coaster. Many experts describe the emotional process of dealing with a divorce as similar to that of dealing with the death of a loved one, including all the same stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When divorces involve children, these emotions are amplified by parent's fears that they will "lose" their children.

This is why the labels of "custodial parent" and "visiting parent" carry so much baggage with them, and can make people fight when they don't need to. When it comes to figuring out the best way that both parents can remain involved in the lives of their children, we believe it is more important for clients to focus on what the actual plan is, rather than the labels. We recently wrote a post about Parenting Plans, that focused on how parents can come up with a Parenting Plan as part of their divorce case.

But it is also important to know what significance the labels have. As the court moves away from the "custody vs. visitation" model towards a "parenting plan" model much of the old significance to these labels has been drained from them. For example, the Child Support Guidelines use to simply specify that the custodial parent pays the non-custodial parent the figure calculated by applying the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet. However, the new Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines clarify as follows:

"These guidelines recognize that children should enjoy parenting time with both parents to the greatest extent possible consistent with the children’s best interests.

These guidelines are based upon the child(ren) having a primary residence with one parent and spending approximately one­third of the time with the other parent.

Where two parents share equally, or approximately equally, the financial responsibility and parenting time for the child(ren), the child support shall be determined by calculating the child support guidelines twice, first with one parent as­ the Recipient, and second with the other parent as the Recipient. The difference in the calculations shall be paid to the parent with the lower weekly support amount..."

This clarification obviates the need for using the label of custodial parent, because the amount of time the child spends with each parent in the parenting plan will define how we apply the guidelines.

Likewise, the title of "sole custody" vs. "joint custody" used to have definite legal significance regarding what standard would be applied when a parent wanted to remove the child from the Commonwealth and move to another state. The differences in the applicable standards was the weight that should be given to the benefit of the relocation to the parent seeking to move. In the case of "sole custody" the benefit to the relocating parent is given so much weight that it is a difficult burden to overcome, and in many cases relocation is allowed. In the case of "joint custody" the benefit to the relocating parent is not given as much weight, and the disruption to the non-moving parent's parenting time will often outweigh the benefits of the move, and so in many cases relocation is not allowed.

But recent court decisions have cut back on the significance of the labels in these cases as well, focusing more on the actual parenting time spent with the children by each parent to determine whether the children were truly living equally with both parents or not. In Altomare v. Altomare 77 Mass. App. Ct. 601 (2010) the Court held that the parenting time arrangement, which involved significantly more time with the Mother, was more important than the label of shared physical custody. The Court in Altomare looked past the "shared physical custody" label and indicated they would treat the case as a "sole physical custody" case for purpose of applying a removal standard, because that was what the parenting time actually reflected. See also Katzman v. Healy, Appeals Court of Massachusetts.No. 09-P-2341. (2010) in which the Appeals Court overturned a trial judge who, according to the appeals court, mixed the standards together in the case where the Mother's label was "sole physical" custodian, but also where Mother had significantly more parenting time with the children.

Because the history of these cases is important, we do not mean to imply or express the opinion that the labels have lost all legal meaning. However, it is clear that the Court is leaning away from these labels and towards an analysis of how the actual parenting time impacts the social, emotional and financial effects on children and their parents. If you are mired in a fight over labels, you should consider re-focusing your attention on the best Parenting Plan for your family and let the realities of that plan inform these other issues, rather than letting the cart lead the horse.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What if I want to try Reconciliation? Is there a way to protect myself?

One of the questions that I ask clients in our free 1-hour initial divorce consultation, is whether or not they believe their marriage is irretrievably broken down with no chance of reconciliation. This is the standard in Massachusetts for a Judge granting a divorce. Many potential clients, despite having scheduled a divorce consultation, are actually unable to answer this question because there is still some "chance of reconciliation." In these instances I explain their rights in a potential divorce case but recommend that they try counseling and not come back to my office unless they are sure about their answer. For some, they fear that trying to reconcile will put them in a vulnerable position financially and for those instances there is now a solution: Post-nuptial agreements (also called marital agreements) allow married couples to make contracts that will control what happens if they get divorced.

A post-nuptial agreement can resolve the financial concerns and assure someone they are protected, so they can then focus their energies on a true reconciliation without worrying if they are being taken advantage of. Similar to a pre-nuptial agreement, there are very specific restrictions, on how a post-nuptial must be created for it to be enforceable in Massachusetts.

As delineated by a recent Massachusetts Supreme Court case, there are even more requirements for a valid and enforceable post-nuptial agreement than there are for a pre-nuptial agreement (though many of the requirements are similar). Ansin v. Craven-Ansin, No. SJC-10548, July 16, 2010.

Links to news stories, the opinions of numerous attorneys and mediators as well as the Ansin opinion itself are all available at MaritalMediation.com. As a summary, the Ansin decision requires that a post-nuptial agreement withstand the following scrutiny to be upheld:

  • Both parties must have had the "opportunity for counsel of own choosing."
  • The agreement must be in writing.
  • The agreement must be made with clear knowledge of the specific marital rights being waived.
  • There must not be any fraud or coercion.
  • The agreement must be fair and reasonable in view of M.G.L. c. 208 s 34 and not so different from a division under that statute as to be unreasonable.
  • The agreement must be fair with respect to the impact it will have on the children of the marriage.
  • The agreement must be fair with respect to the impact it will have on any third parties.
  • The parties must have disclosed in writing a statement of assets with approximate values.
  • The parties must have disclosed in writing a statement of their approximate income.
  • The parties must have disclosed in writing a statement of any reasonably expected income changes in the "near future".
  • The commitment to reconciliation must not be falsely misleading.

In order to ensure that you comply with these requirements, each party to a post-nuptial agreement should consult with their own counsel and review this list (as well as the Ansin decision).

Thank you to Fern Frolin of Grindle, Robinson, GoodHue & Frolin for bringing this latest news to our attention in her presentation at the MCFM Family Mediation Institute on November, 22, 2010.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Alimony Reform: Stay Tuned!

UPDATE: There is pending legislation for major changes to the alimony statute in Massachusetts. The Alimony Reform Act of 2011 was filed on January 18, 2011 and you can learn more about the Act at MassAlimonyFormula.com or in our recent blog post highlighting the differences between the bill and the current law.

As previously reported on this Blog, there is an ongoing (and at times heated) debate in Massachusetts right now over how to amend the alimony statute. Despite how long this debate has been going on, it appears that we may finally be closer to some changes.

The Legislative Task Force appointed by Newton Senator, Cynthia Creem, is reportedly close to a recommendation which could have the backing of Judges, attorneys and at least some of the reformists. Although the final Bill is not complete yet, it will likely be filed prior to the deadline for this session, January 21, 2011, and include provisions relating to guidelines and duration as recomended by the Joint Task Force Report. It is also likely that the new Bill will address issues raised by the recent Pierce decision as to how alimony should be affected by retirement.

We'll have to wait until the Bill is filed to report on the actual specifics, but stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Are Gifts from my Family considered Income by the Family Court?

The following is a joint Blog Post prepared by Justin Kelsey, Esq. of Kelsey & Trask, P.C. (co-author of Scaling the Summit: A Family Law Blog) and Danielle G. Van Ess, Esq. of DGVE law, LLC (author of the Massachusetts, Wills, Trusts, and Estates blog).

The Judges in the Probate & Family Court have a lot of discretion to decide what constitutes income when the Court is considering child support or alimony.

According to M.G.L. c. 208 s. 34, the court can consider "amount and sources of income... and the opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income" when dividing property or awarding alimony. This language obviously leaves a lot of leeway for the court to consider all "sources of income" including potential "future" income.

Similarly, the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines indicate that the court can consider "gross income from whatever source regardless of whether that income is recognized by the Internal Revenue Code or reported to the Internal Revenue Service or state Department of Revenue or other taxing authority." The specific list of possible income ends with "any other form of income or compensation not specifically itemized above." Just like with alimony, this broad language provides the Court with discretion to include family gifts as income, especially if the gifts are regular. For example, this could include the right to withdraw funds from an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust (ILIT) established by parents to reduce estate tax liability and made available to their children as evidenced by regular Crummey notice letters.

The MA Appeals Court recently confirmed this in an unpublished decision holding that a Judge did not abuse his discretion by attributing income to a father based on family gifts, and using that attributed income to calculate child support. DiMambro v. DiMambro (Lawyers Weekly No. 82-281-10) (3 pages) (Appeals Court – Unpublished) (No. 09-P-1387) (Nov. 9, 2010).

“Future income” under the alimony statute, or “attributable income” under the child support guidelines may also include cash gifts such as annual gifts according to the gift tax exclusion amount, which is presently $13,000 per year per individual or $26,000 per year for a married couple to another person.

As the courts may consider all sources of income, particularly where one’s adult child is separated or divorcing it may be best to leave real property (such as a home or vacation home), gifts, and inheritances to one’s adult children in protected trusts rather than outright to attempt to ensure that those gifts will be preserved for one’s child and any grandchildren and not be subject to claims of the child’s ex-spouse. Parents of adult children should also be very cautious about putting their adult child’s name on their real property or bank accounts for purposes of convenience and assistance with management as those assets may become assets of the child as well and subject to claims in bankruptcy or divorce.

Given the Judge's broad discretion in this area, families should discuss gifts and the impact of those gifts with their attorneys to ensure they understand all the relevantthose gifts might have.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Can I Prevent my Ex from Moving Our Children if they Still Live in-State?

As discussed in a previous post, M.G.L. c. 208 Section 30 states that a child who the Massachusetts' probate courts have jurisdiction over shall not be removed from the Commonwealth without consent of both parents or Order of the Court. This statute does not apply to vacations, but rather is intended to prevent the "removal" of children to another state of residence without permission of both parents or the Court's permission.

In a 2003 decision, the Massachusetts Appellate Court expanded this prohibition on removal to include relocation within the Commonwealth if the relocation would "involve significant disruption of the noncustodial parent's visitation rights and the parents cannot agree." D.C. v. J.S., 58 Mass. App. Ct. 351, 355-356 (2003).

If your ex is threatening to move to another part of the state with your children and it would significantly disrupt your parenting time with the children, then you can ask the Court to prevent this move. If the Court agrees that the move would significantly disrupt your parenting time then the court should apply the same standard as in a case involving a removal out of state. It may be prudent for a parent who wants to move, even within the Commonwealth, to ask the Court's permission if the other parent disagrees. This could prevent costly requirements if the Court disallowed the move afterwards.

Monday, November 29, 2010

What is a Parenting Plan? What is the best Parenting Plan for my children?

A Parenting Plan is a comprehensive agreement which sets out both the time that children will spend with each parent as well as the rights and obligations of each parent to the children and the other parent during their parenting time. It can include a holiday visitation schedule, pick-up and drop-off locations, and even agreements relating to what will happen if one of the children becomes ill. Parenting Plans are necessary when two parents live apart (whether because they were never married, are divorced, getting divorced, or simply choosing to live separate and apart).

Parenting Plans can be made specific in instances where it is necessary to prevent future conflict, and they can be made flexible so that you and the other parent can make agreements outside of the parenting plan in unforeseen circumstances.

The best Parenting Plan for each family will depend on the ages of the children in that family,the schedules of both the parents and the children, the relative parenting abilities of each parent, any special needs of the children, and the family's traditions. Many people have trouble figuring out where to start in creating a parenting plan and in order to assist separate parents, the Massachusetts Courts asked a a Task Force of judges, lawyers, probation officers and mental health professionals to provide Model Parenting Plans. The Plans are available on the Massachusetts Courts website and although not mandatory or presumptive they can be helpful in designing a Parenting Plan that reflects the ages of the children and the relative involvement of each parent. While these schedules may not work for every family, they are instructive as to what many experts believe are the types of schedules most likely to encourage positive child development.

When considering the best Parenting Plan for their family, we encourage our clients to review these Model Parenting Plans as well as the guide: Planning for Shared Parenting: A Guide for Parents Living Apart.

Thank you to Fern Frolin of Grindle, Robinson, GoodHue & Frolin for bringing this latest news to our attention in her presentation at the MCFM Family Mediation Institute on November, 22, 2010.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Could I be Forced to Pay Child Support for someone else's Child?

Casino Billionaire to pay $100,000 per Month in Child Support for Non-Biological Child: As reported in a recent Boston.com Article, Billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, the major shareholder of MGM Resorts International, has settled with Lisa Bonder Kerkorian, to whom he was married for only 28 days, to pay over $10 million in child support arrears as well as $100,000 in child support per month. Even more shocking than the figures and the short term of the marriage is the fact that Mr. Kerkorian is not the biological father of the child and was purposefully defrauded by the mother who faked a DNA test.

In Massachusetts, a person who is married within 300 days of the birth of the child to the mother is the legal parent of the child even if they are not the biological parent. This is a presumption that can be overcome with a paternity test. However, even if the paternity test proves that the husband is not the biological father, this does not necessarily mean he is not the legal father. Someone who acts like a parent for a period of time long enough for the child to be attached to them as a parent has certain rights and obligations. The best interest of the child require that a "de-facto" parent continue to be involved in their life (i.e. have custody and visitation rights), and in some cases also pay child support.

Even absent a marriage, if a father signs a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity and is added to the Birth Certificate, then they are presumed to be the Father. After one year passes it becomes almost impossible to undo this legal acknowledgement of parentage. In the case of a faked paternity test or other fraud it might be possible to have a Court undo the acknowledgement even after the one year period. However, in many cases, as was the case with Mr. Kerkorian, the father has now been involved in the child's life and would be considered a "de-facto" parent anyway.

Although, California law may be different than Massachusetts law regarding these types of cases, it is still refreshing to see Mr. Kerkorian willing to pay significant child support and take responsibility for a child that is biologically not his. Of course, this reinforces what we've already learned from so many other non-traditional and adoptive families: You don't have be genetically related to a child to be a good parent.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Dramatic Impact of Mediation on Children of Divorce

According to a 12 year study by Dr. Robert E. Emery, Ph.D., a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Virginia, Mediation can have a dramatic impact on children of divorce and their relationship with a non-residential parent. Dr. Emery summarizes his findings in the recent issue of the Family Mediation Quarterly.

The study used a coin-flip to decide whether high-conflict custody cases would try a short-term (five hour average) mediation. The results of only five hours of mediation were amazing, especially with relation to the children.

Twelve years after the average divorce in America, nonresident parents saw their children weekly in only 11% of cases. In the cases where the parties tried mediation based solely on a coin-flip 28% of nonresident parents saw their children weekly after 12 years. This is a significant difference and the difference is even more significant with reference to telephone contact (weekly telephone contact: national average 18% & mediation average 52%).

To see how these effects extended to other parental involvmenet as well (school, discipline, religous upbringing, etc.) check out the article on the MCFM's website here.

Even in high conflict cases these results suggest that just giving mediation a try can be beneficial to your child's relationship with their parents and therefore beneficial to your child's health. Tough statistics to ignore if you care about your children.

To schedule a 1-Hour Free Mediation Consultation with Kelsey & Trask, P.C. call 508.655.5980 or e-mail us.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Role of new Technologies in Divorce Cases.

At Kelsey & Trask, P.C. we recognize that the state-of-the-art technology affects not just the positive aspects of our lives but also the negative. For example, constant access to e-mail, facebook, twitter and similar services provides us with both ways to connect and ways to be distracted (as described further in this NPR article about cell phones interfering with marriages).

It is important therefore to make effective use of technology to help you in your divorce case and also to recognize how the use of technology could hurt your case. These new technologies can also be used to help us learn more about the statistics of divorce (as described in this article about the break-up trends displayed in Facebook posts). Below you can find some resources on our blog and website that deal with both the positive and negative impact of technology on divorce.

We have written many times on this site about the many ways in which Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites are being used in Divorce cases:

- Facebook & Twitter causing Divorces?

- When a Tweet is a Threat

- Protecting your Privacy in a Divorce. Who has access to your mail, e-mail, etc.?

- 5 Worst Divorce Mistakes - Mistake #3: Telling the World your Side of the Story.

- When a Facebook Friend Request is Against the Law

We also use new technologies and social media to assist our clients (and other lawyers) in dealing with and helping to settle divorce cases:

- Waiting in line for the new iPhone? There's no wait (and no cost) to download our Apps!

- Latest iPhone App now available in the App Store: Alimony Calculator

- What is the Stevenson-Kelsey Spousal Support Calculator (now known as The Divorce Spousal Support Calculator)?

- Attorney's Kelsey & Trask on Twitter

- The Kelsey & Trask, P.C. Facebook Fan Page

- The Kelsey & Trask, P.C. Website Resources for Divorce & Mediation

We hope that our clients use these resources to make the divorce experience less traumatic but also take our advice on how to protect themselves when using these resources.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Is it Possible to have More than Two Parents?

Whether or not everyone approves, it is a fact of life that the "traditional nuclear family" is becoming less the norm. In the practice of family law we are encountering more and more unique family structures; some brought on by the advance of technology (like artificial insemination or surrogate parenthood), some brought on by divorce and re-marriage creating step or second families, and some brought on by the changing laws around gay marriage and adoption.

There are situations in the law in which the Courts have already dealt with the issue of whether a non-biological parent could be a "Parent" as well. For instance, in Massachusetts there is a Grandparent Visitation Statute that provides for visitation for grandparents with their grandchildren if they have been significantly involved in the children's lives. Although this standard is strictly applied by the Courts, a win on a grandparent visitation case is essentially a recognition that a child's grandparent is acting as another parent in some capacity and it would benefit the child to continue that relationship.

Similarly, the Courts in Massachusetts have also recognized "de facto" parents in situations where another person (such as an aunt or uncle or step-parent) has been so involved in a child's upbringing that they have become indispensable in that child's life. The Courts have awarded "de facto" non-biological parents rights of custody or visitation (and sometimes obligations for child support) when it is found that that person has been such a large part of the child's life that it is in that child's best interest to maintain that relationship.

Within this framework, the Court has in the past recognized that third-parties can sometimes be indispensable in the raising of a child. Despite the complications that a third player in the custody/visitation arena can cause, the Courts have recognized in some situations it is more beneficial than cutting that person out of the child's life.

Similarly, this same logic is being applied in expanding how the court views parenting arrangements created by "non-traditional" family structures. As discussed at length in a recent Boston Globe Article, Johnny has two mommies – and four dads, this is becoming more common when lesbian or gay couples involve a third biological parent in the conception of the child.

Also discussed in the article is the opposition by some to the inclusion of any third or non-biological parents in parenting (despite the proven value of quality involvement by step-parents in many families). Of course, much of this opposition is just a thinly veiled opposition to any recognition of gay or lesbian rights as depicted in this news story video posted on the website of colleague Gabriel Cheong. As depicted in this news video and in this article, the law is struggling to catch up with how to categorize these different relationships despite the fact that we already have some precedent in how we deal with "de facto" parents.

In the news video the victim-Mother indicates that she was advised she didn't need to adopt her non-biological child because the law in Vermont recognized her parental rights under her marriage. Since all states don't recognize that marriage, though, it might have been more prudent for her also to adopt the child.

Even for parents in more unusual arrangements that involve three parents, some jurisdictions are now allowing third-parent adoptions.

The takeaway point from this struggle should be that until the law becomes clear in how it treats these relationships documenting your rights and agreements should be clear from the outset. No matter what your family structure is like, if it is "non-traditional" the law might be uncertain in how it treats you or require more "proof" of parental relationship. In order to protect your parental rights you should explore your options when everyone is "getting along".

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Can I be sued for Divorce in Massachusetts if I don't live there but my spouse does?

If your spouse has lived in Massachusetts for one year or can establish that the breakdown of the marriage occurred in Massachusetts (as explained in a previous post) then they can obtain a divorce in Massachusetts. However, they will not be able to obtain personal jurisdiction over you and your property except in specific circumstances. In other words, Massachusetts can dissolve the marriage, but unless the Massachusetts courts can establish personal jurisdiction over you they cannot order you to transfer property that is outside Massachusetts or pay alimony.

Jurisdiction over the Dissolution of the Marriage

The United States Supreme Court in Williams v. North Carolina, 317 U. S. 287 (1942), decided that each State can determine the marital status of any spouse domiciled in that state, even if the other spouse is absent. Williams v. North Carolina, 317 U. S. 287, 298 (1942). In addition, the Court decided that under the Full Faith and Credit Clause that divorce decree must be honored in other states including the state where the other party lives. Id. at 299.

This means that if your spouse meets the requirements to obtain a divorce in Massachusetts then that Divorce Judgment ends your marriage legally in all states.

Jurisdiction over the Person

Having jurisdiction over the marital status of their residents, does not also extend to the property of out of state residents. In order for Massachusetts to have jurisdiction over the division of property outside the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Court must have jurisdiction over the person of the Defendant. Personal Jurisdiction can be accomplished in a number of ways other than residency but is limited to very specific circumstances. M.G.L. ch. 223A Section 3, commonly referred to as the "long-arm statute" describes these circumstances as follows:

"(a) transacting any business in this commonwealth;

(b) contracting to supply services or things in this commonwealth;

(c) causing tortious injury by an act or omission in this commonwealth;

(d) causing tortious injury in this commonwealth by an act or omission outside this commonwealth if he regularly does or solicits business, or engages in any other persistent course of conduct, or derives substantial revenue from goods used or consumed or services rendered, in this commonwealth;

(e) having an interest in, using or possessing real property in this commonwealth;

(f) contracting to insure any person, property or risk located within this commonwealth at the time of contracting;

(g) maintaining a domicile in this commonwealth while a party to a personal or marital relationship out of which arises a claim for divorce, alimony, property settlement, parentage of a child, child support or child custody; or the commission of any act giving rise to such a claim; or

(h) having been subject to the exercise of personal jurisdiction of a court of the commonwealth which has resulted in an order of alimony, custody, child support or property settlement, notwithstanding the subsequent departure of one of the original parties from the commonwealth, if the action involves modification of such order or orders and the moving party resides in the commonwealth, or if the action involves enforcement of such order notwithstanding the domicile of the moving party."

Under section (g), the determination of what is an "act giving rise to such a claim" has been defined rather broadly in two Massachusetts cases, Miller v. Miller, 448 Mass 320 (2007) and Cherin v. Cherin, 72 Mass. App. Ct. 288 (2008), and can include "an exchange of words between husband and wife" that "leads one or both of them to conclude the marriage is over" or engaging in "a persistent course of conduct, by committing various acts in Massachusetts, which created for the wife the impression that he would soon be moving to Massachusetts to retire with her, even though he secretly had no intention of actually doing so."

If you are concerned about whether or not you have committed any "acts" that might give rise to such a claim you should discuss your case with an attorney with experience in these types of cases.

Jurisdiction over the Person for Custody and Child Support Orders

Although the Court may not have jurisdiction over you for the purpose of ordering alimony or property division, if you have children with your spouse and those children now live in Massachusetts, Massachusetts may have jurisdiction over custody/visitation orders and child support orders.

After children live in Massachusetts for six (6) months, under the current law, Massachusetts obtains jurisdiction over any custody or visitation issues regardless of whether any previous custody orders exist (although the orders would be considered before any changes are made).

If a previous support order exists, Massachusetts may have jurisdiction over that order depending on the circumstances. If no previous support order exists then a Massachusetts Court may obtain personal jurisdiction over a non-resident to make support orders under much more lenient standards than in the long-arm statute above. This jurisdiction can be obtained under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) which has broad standards such as personally serving you within the Commonwealth or if you ever resided with the child in the Commonwealth, etc.

If you are concerned about whether or not Massachusetts may have jurisdiction over your case under UIFSA, you should discuss your case with an attorney with experience in these types of cases.

To schedule a one-hour Free consultation with Kelsey & Trask, P.C. click here or call (508) 655-5980.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

When a Tweet is a Threat

Following up on an earlier blog post discussing how contact through social networking websites, such as Facebook, may be an arrestable offense when there is an existing restraining order in effect, threats posted on social networking websites may also give rise to the issuing of a restraining order. In Arizona, an argument between two college students was escalated when one of the students wrote on his Twitter account that he would "not hesitate to punch [the other student] in the face if I saw him . . . Just sayin." The other student then obtained a restraining order because of the "tweet."

Regardless of whether the "tweet" was a legitimate threat, it is important to realize that writing something of that nature on a social networking website makes it possible that the individual to whom you are referring might read it, and might take it seriously. Be smart. Don't take your arguments to the internet. You are just documenting the "he-said-she-said," which could come back to haunt you.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Most "Non-Custodial" Parents can still be significantly Involved in their Childrens' Lives

Many parents facing the prospect of a divorce or break-up where children are involved place a great deal of importance on obtaining "sole physical custody" or "joint physical custody" of the child or children. Parents are often devastated to find out that their former significant other is seeking sole physical custody, as if that phrase automatically means that there is an intent to preclude one parent from the child's life. These phrases have unfortunately taken on pop culture definitions that more often than not vary from reality.

Physical custody refers to where the child lives. If a child lives primarily at one place, usually thought to be about two-thirds of the time or more at the same residence, that child is considered to be in the "sole physical custody" of the parent who shares that address. Usually, children who are living in the sole physical custody of one parent have some sort of "visitation" schedule with the "non-custodial" parent. The details of that visitation schedule, also sometimes called a "parenting plan", are dependent on both parents. For some "non-custodial" parents it is every other weekend, for others it could be two or three days each week.

Even a parenting plan that falls into that two-thirds vs. one-third mold still includes a significant amount of time that the children are with the "non-custodial" parent.

In addition, not having sole physical custody does not mean that a parent cannot be involved in major life decisions involving the child. Or put another way, non-custodial parents are still able to contribute to the major life decisions necessary for their child. The ability to be involved in such decisions is determined by which parent or parents have legal custody of the child. In other words, while the sole physical custodian of the child may decide what clothes your child will wear to school, legal custodians can (and in most cases should) still be involved in decisions such as who the child's doctor will be, whether or not your child will have surgery, and what school the child will attend.

Finally, absent a restraining order or other order of the court to the contrary, all parents have the right to attend their children's public events, such as sporting events, concerts, etc. Most courts do not consider these types of public events the exclusive time of either parent. Although how you interact with the other parent at these events may depend on your ongoing relationship and the appropriateness of said interaction, it is usually still beneficial for a child to know that both parents are there cheering them on, even if separately. While this is not necessarily "quality time" with your child it remains another way non-custodial parents can remain involved in their children's lives.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Should I bring my new Significant Other or my Children to Family Court with me?

In most cases bringing your new significant other or your children to court with you is a bad idea.

Bringing a Significant Other:

In most cases having a third party in the courthouse (especially a significant other) inflames the other party and makes settlement less likely. While this is not always the case, the risk of making settlement more difficult is usually not worth the benefit of having a third party there.

Also, court is relatively boring. Your significant other will be able to wait with you in the courthouse but he/she will not be able to attend any family service meetings (i.e. required mediation prior to the court hearing). Court involves a lot of waiting around and there is usually something better that people can be doing with their time. For these reasons I usually recommend that clients come alone to court, but in the end it is your call.

Bringing your Children:

Whether or not the hearing involves your children bringing them to court with you is a bad idea for numerous reasons.

1. There is a saying that in criminal court we see bad people acting their best, and in family court we see good people acting their worst. Family court is a stressful place and oftentimes involves very personal and emotional issues. Exposing your children to this is unnecessary and can be damaging psychologically.

2. There is nothing for children to do in the courthouse. These buildings are not designed with children in mind and are not fun places to be. Your children will be able to wait with you in the courthouse but they will not be able to attend any family service meetings (i.e. required mediation prior to the court hearing) and they are typically not allowed in the courtrooms. Court involves a lot of waiting around and children will be very bored.

3. In the event the case does involve your children, it is even more damaging to have them in court. Children pick up on more than most people give them credit for, and knowing that a court hearing is happening (never-mind being there) can be very stressful for children. Children will take responsibility for the outcome even though they have no control over it and blame themselves if their parent is unhappy. Don't place this burden on your child.

4. Finally, there is no added value to having your children in court. In the unlikely event that the Judge wants family service to speak to your children, you will be given the opportunity to come back with them. Having them there at the time of hearing exposes them to unnecessary stress without any potential benefit.

For more information about best practices to protect your children from the detrimental affects of court actions between parents read the following brochure: Planning for Shared Parenting: A Guide for Parents Living Apart.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Do I have to Disclose My Residential Address in a Divorce?

Where you reside can affect whether or not the Court has jurisdiction over your case as discussed in a previous post: Where you get Divorced matters! - British woman loses rights to £1.2 Million Pension.

Assuming that Massachusetts has jurisdiction, you still need to disclose your address pursuant to Massachusetts Domestic Relations Procedure Rule 11 which states in pertinent part: "A party who is not represented by an attorney shall sign his pleadings and state his address, telephone number, and e-mail address if any." The Court needs to know your address so that the Judge can verify that jurisdiction is proper and in the event the court needs to send you Notice of any hearings or other matters. Likewise the opposing party needs your address in order to send you proper notice of pleadings pursuant to Massachusetts Domestic Relations Procedure Rule 5(b) and a P.O. Box is not considered sufficient.

It is possible to withhold your address from a party to a divorce case if you have reason to believe that disclosing your address will place you in danger. If this is the case, you must file any paperwork with the Court in person with a Motion to Impound Address and explain to the Judge why you need your address to be kept hidden from the other party. This is usually used in cases of domestic violence.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

New Divorce law in New York includes Temporary Spousal Support Guidelines

UPDATE: There is pending legislation for major changes to the alimony statute in Massachusetts. The Alimony Reform Act of 2011 was filed on January 18, 2011 and you can learn more about the Act at MassAlimonyFormula.com or in our recent blog post highlighting the differences between the bill and the current law.

In March of 2010 Attorney Justin Kelsey of Kelsey & Trask, P.C. was contacted by the NYS Law Revision Commission because of his involvement in co-authoring the Divorce Spousal Support Calculator. The NYS Law Revision Commission was asked by a member of the New York State Assembly to investigate how other states were addressing the issue of alimony formulas. Attorney Kelsey discussed the issues at length during a telephone conversation with the executive director of the Commission and expressed his opinion (as described in a past blog post) that a formula at least has the advantage of treating everyone the same and offering consistency to the treatment of alimony by different Judges. It is possible that Attorney Kelsey played some small part, therefore, in the newest changes to New York's alimony provisions.

In addition to adding No-Fault Divorce, a recent New York law that went into effect this month also contains a formula for calculating "temporary maintenance." This temporary spousal support defined in New York Domestic Relations Law Section 236 Part B(5-a) only lasts until either party dies or a final award of maintenance is awarded under Part B(6). Although, there is no formula for post-divorce maintenance, the temporary maintenance formula would likely be instructive for long-term maintenance in many cases.

Similar to the Massachusetts statute, post-divorce maintenance is based on numerous factors including length of the marriage, age and health of both parties, income-earning capacity, needs of the children etc. The calculation for temporary support in the new statute, however, is based on a formula, with the ability to deviate if application of some of these same factors suggests the calculated award is unfair. Essentially this sets up the presumption of a formula with the ability for parties to still argue against the use of the formula.

The formula is explained in Appendix B of the Temporary Maintenance Guidelines Worksheet available on the NY State Court's website. Essentially it calculates whether the payee's net income is more than 2/3 of the payor's net income, in which case there is no alimony award. If the payee's net income is less than 2/3 of the payor's net income then the award will be the lessor of

a. 30% of payor's net income minus 20% of payee's net income; or
b. 40% of the total net income of both parties minus the net income of the payee.

In addition there is a low income adjustment in some cases and the temporary maintenance formula only applies for payors whose net annual income is below $500,000.

For more information and a critique of this new law read this news story on YNN, or this blog post on Legal Match Law Blog.

We will not be updating the Divorce Spousal Support Calculator to include this formula at this time because the New York formula deals only with temporary maintenance orders, while the other formulas currently included in the calculator are intended for post-divorce support.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Why does the Texas GOP want to rescind No-Fault Divorce?

The Texas GOP in releasing their 2010 State Republican Party Platform have raised considerable amount of controversy over their ultra-conservative positions on criminalizing gay marriage, regulating school teaching of alternate theories to evolution, banning pornography, and other issues.

Included in the Platform is also an "urging" that the Texas legislature rescind no-fault divorce laws stating "We believe in the sanctity of marriage and that the integrity of this institution should be protected at all levels of government." Not surprisingly, the Texas GOP has joined the Catholic Church here by claiming that no-fault divorce is an attack on the "sanctity of marriage."

The Catholic Church recently claimed that allowing no-fault divorce in New York would raise the divorce rates in New York. Interestingly, the divorce rates in New York, though low compared to all 50 states (ranking 33rd), are still higher than a state like Massachusetts where No-Fault Divorce has been the law for more than thirty years (3.4 per 1000 people per year in New York vs. 2.5 per 1000 people per year in Massachusetts according to StateMaster.com).

The disconnect in this argument stems from the faulty assumption, of both the Texas GOP and the Catholic Church, that making it harder to get divorced and protecting the sanctity of marriage is the same thing. But they are not the same thing. Protecting the sanctity of marriage should be about raising the quality of marriages, about educating people before they get married, and even about saving people from bad marriages. Does forcing a victim of domestic violence to go through a harder process to escape his/her abuser protect the sanctity of marriage or give marriage a bad name?

Making it harder for people to obtain divorces doesn't lower divorce rates, but it does increase domestic violence, crowd courts, and discourage mediation. How do any of these consequences protect the sanctity of marriage?

What happens to my case if I move out of state?

What happens to your case when you move out of state, depends on the type of case, and what stage your case is currently in.

Divorce Cases:

If your Divorce case has not been filed yet and you or your spouse move to another state, that state may gain jurisdiction over your case after a certain period of residency. For persons moving into Massachusetts from other states, Massachusetts gains jurisdiction over your case after 1 year of residency (or in other unique circumstances) and you can then file for Divorce in Massachusetts. If you want to file in another state you will have to meet their residency requirement before you can file there. In addition, another state may not be able to take full control over your entire case if you have left children or property behind in Massachusetts. You should consult with an attorney in both states if you are in this situation to make sure you choose the appropriate forum for your case.

If your Divorce case has already been filed in Massachusetts and you or your spouse move to another state, then Massachusetts still maintains jurisdiction over you and your case. That means that Massachusetts can still make decisions about your property, children, and support issues, even if you don't live here anymore. Although, there are unique issues that relate to relocating children out of state, for the most part you will still need to participate in the Massachusetts divorce case. If you hire an attorney you may not have to attend all hearings, because they can attend for you and explain to the Court the unique circumstances of your case and your current residence out-of-state.

If you have settled a Massachusetts divorce case and both parties agree that there has been an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage and agree on all other issues related to their marriage, as described in a Separation Agreement, then you can file a Joint Petition for Divorce under the provisions of Section 1A. In most cases, both you and your spouse must attend the uncontested divorce hearing and testify under oath that your marriage has suffered an irretrievable breakdown and that you signed the Separation Agreement freely and voluntarily. It is possible for only one party to appear at the hearing if there are special circumstances that prevent the other party from attending. To be excused from the uncontesting hearing you must file a Motion and Affidavit stating the reasons why the party cannot attend. The Affidavit should also include the testimony necessary for the uncontested hearing. You should consult an attorney regarding the drafting of the necessary language.

Modification/Contempt cases:

If you have a Divorce or Paternity Judgment in Massachusetts but have since moved out of state, Massachusetts will still retainer jurisdiction over certain parts of your case. For example, if your children still live in Massachusetts then any Modification or Contempt actions relating to the custody, visitation or support of the children will still take place in a Massachusetts Court. If you have moved out of state with the children you should consult with an attorney to figure out which state now has jurisdiction over these issues.

At Kelsey & Trask, P.C. we have handled many cases for out-of-state clients and can conduct a Free 1-Hour Consultation via telephone or Skype if you are interested in learning more about our services and how we would help you with your case.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What is Parental Alienation?

Put simply, Parental Alienation is the term used to describe when one parent turns a child against the other parent. However, Parental Alienation is anything but simple.

Even the issue of how to define Parental Alienation is hotly contested. As reported in a recent AP article, Psychiatric experts asses parental alienation, the American Psychiatric Association is debating whether or not to include "parental alienation syndrome" as a mental disorder in its updated catalog of disorders. The debate centers around whether the concept is real and all to common or whether it is overused. For example, according to some domestic violence advocates parental alienation is a concept used by abusers to place blame on the other parent and take focus off the abuse.

Regardless of whether you believe parental alienation should be recognized as a mental disorder, it is obvious that any activity intended to turn your child against their other parent is not in the best interest of the child. Even worse, it is not even an effective tactic because any alienating comments to your child are more likely to hurt you in a custody case than help you. As one Judge in the Plymouth Probate & Family Court is fond of stating: "I award custody of children to the parent best able to share with the other parent."

Avoiding parental alienation is one of the reasons that all divorcing parents in Massachusetts are required to take part in the Parents Apart Program, which is designed to inform parents about the difficulties children face in a divorce and how to avoid forcing that conflict on your children.

In addition, at Kelsey & Trask, P.C. we include in the majority of our Agreements relating to children the following language:

"Both Parties are prohibited from discussing (and from allowing others to discuss), in any manner, any Court proceedings with or within earshot of the children.

Both parties are prohibited from disparaging either parent and/or their significant others (and from allowing others to disparage either parent and/or their significant others) with or within earshot of the children."

Of course, putting this in an Agreement doesn't necessarily prevent parents from making comments or taking actions that could alienate the children from the other parent. But at least adding this provision is one more reminder to parents that they shouldn't involve their children in the divorce process or expect their children to be able to handle discussions about adult emotions due to the divorce. In the end it's up to parents to put their children's well-being above their desire to hurt their ex-spouse. As you will hear many divorce attorneys and judges ask: Do you love your kids more than you hate your ex?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Are there any provisions of a Separation Agreement then must Merge?

For an explanation of the difference between merger and survival of Separation Agreement provisions read our past post on this question.

There are two types of provisions that cannot survive a Judgment of Divorce but must be merged. These are provisions relating to child custody/visitation and child support.

The Court retains jurisdiction over provisions relating to child custody/visitation to protect the children. For example, in the event one party becomes unfit to parent the children it would be detrimental to the children to have that provision survive and be unchangeable. Although there is another method by which a parent can give up their parental rights permanently (through a Waiver of Parental Rights), there is not any way that a party can guarantee they will keep their rights forever. The right to be custodial parent will always be subject to your continued fitness to parent your children.

Although typically paid to the custodial parent, child support is also for the benefit of the child, not the parent. Therefore, you cannot give away your child's right to seek greater child support if there is a material and significant change in circumstances. Accordingly, the court requires that child support provisions merge as well.

These are the only two types of provisions that must be merged in any case involving children. There may be other provisions, however, that in certain circumstances the Court may require you to merge. One example of this is in very long-term marriages (such as a 30 year marriage or longer), the Court may refuse to allow parties to survive a waiver of alimony. Some Judges have expressed the opinion that it is not fair and reasonable to completely separate the finances of parties who have been married for such a long time. This could depend on other circumstances in the case as well.

For more information on whether your Agreement properly protects you with regards to the merger and survival clause you should consult with an Attorney. To consult with Kelsey & Trask, P.C. please call us at (508) 655-5980 or e-mail us.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What is the difference between Merger and Survival?

One of the most important legal distinctions for clients to understand when signing a Divorce Agreement (also commonly called a Separation Agreement) is the difference between merger and survival. The distinction between these two designations could mean all the difference in whether an Agreement is fair and reasonable or not. It can affect whether or not you will have to return to court in the future, and could determine issues as important as whether or not alimony can be changed (increased, decreased, added, or eliminated) in the future.

Unfortunately, most pro se parties who prepare Separation Agreements on their own do not understand what this language means. Oftentimes I have also found that parties who used a mediator, but did not review their Agreement with a lawyer, do not fully understand what they've agreed to when it comes to the merger/survival clause. This clause is so important that spending a few hundred dollars to at least review your proposed Agreement with an attorney could save you much more in the long run.

So.... What is the difference between Merger and Survival?

The technical legal definitions of these terms are as follows:

If a portion of the Separation Agreement merges then this means that said portion becomes absorbed into the Judgment of Divorce, and does not exist as a separate entity. Any portion of an Agreement that merges with the Judgment of Divorce is open to modification if one party can show that there has been a significant and material change in circumstances, and that change warrants a change in the Agreement.

If a portion of the Separation Agreement survives then this means that said portion does not combine with the Judgment of Divorce, and continues to exist as a separate contract between the parties. Any portion of an Agreement that survives the Judgment of Divorce is NOT open to modification.

In simple terms:

Merged agreements can be changed in the future.

Survived agreements can NOT be changed in the future.

Although it is very unusual to have property divisions re-opened by the Court, the safest way to ensure that it cannot be is to clearly state that all property division sections survive the Judgment of Divorce. The issue of merging or surviving alimony is often more complicated. For example, while the parties can waive alimony as part of an agreement, that waiver is not forever binding unless the parties also agree to survive that agreement. Obviously this can be a significant difference if there is a change in the future that would warrant an award of alimony (such as one party becoming disabled). We encourage clients to give a lot of thought to this distinction before making a decision on this issue because it could have a significant impact on their future finances.

If you are not sure whether your Agreement protects you when it comes to the merger/survival clause then you should meet with an Attorney to discuss this. To meet with Kelsey & Trask, P.C. you can call us at (508) 655-5980 or e-mail us.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Restraining Orders are not Force Fields

In tonight's episode of Community ("The Psychology of Letting Go" on NBC) one character treats his Restraining order like a force field. By moving towards the defendant, he forces the defendant of the restraining order to move away so that the defendant can stay at least 25 feet away.

In reality, restraining orders are not force fields. Although, a plaintiff cannot technically violate their own restraining order, a Judge will likely vacate the restraining order if they find out that the plaintiff has been contacting or approaching the defendant. That type of behavior demonstrates that the plaintiff is not in fear of the defendant.

In Massachusetts, M.G.L. ch. 209A provides that a plaintiff can obtain an abuse prevention order (commonly referred to as a restraining order) if there is attempted or actual physical harm or "placing another in fear of imminent serious physical harm." If a plaintiff is able to approach or contact the defendant then that is strong evidence that they are not in fear of imminent serious physical harm.

Free One Day Seminar on Coping with Divorce

A group of researchers at Skidmore College will be sponsoring free one-day educational workshops this Fall in the Boston area for parents coping with divorce. At the workshop, you will have a chance to connect with other divorced parents. You will learn strategies for letting go of anger toward an ex-spouse and for moving toward a more peaceful, forgiving perspective. You will also learn strategies for reducing conflict with your ex- over parenting issues.

For more information and to sign up for our FREE coping with divorce workshop and research study: www.tinyurl.com/copingwithdivorce or email: divorce@skidmore.edu or call: (518) 580-8123

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Can I obtain an Annulment?

Annulments and Divorces both accomplish the same result, that being the end of a marriage, however the reasons for getting an annulment and the reasons for getting a divorce differ significantly. A divorce will end a marriage because of something that happened during the marriage, whether that is infidelity, abuse, an inability to communicate, irreconcilable differences, etc. An annulment will end a marriage because of something that preexisted the marriage itself. In other words, because of something that existed at the time of the marriage, an annulment will end the marriage, or treat it as if it did not exist.

There are two categories of marriages that may be annulled: "void" and "voidable." A "void" marriage legally never existed. The law approaches these marriages as so repugnant that to end it would treat it as if it actually existed. This usually means you were not legally able to get married in the first place. In Massachusetts, a marriage is "void" if the individuals are too closely related (either by blood or marital relationship, such as a woman and her stepfather), or because the husband or wife was still married to another person at the time of the marriage (the law does not allow you to have more than one spouse).

In Massachusetts, a "voidable" marriage is treated as perfectly valid until there is a court order declaring that it is invalid. This is done through a Complaint for Annulment. In Massachusetts, examples of "voidable" marriages are as follows: when one spouse lacked capacity to marry (such as a marriage to a minor without consent of parents or a judge), one spouse was impotent (this concerns the ability to engage in intercourse, not fertility), the marriage was the product of fraud, or one spouse was intoxicated to the extent that he or she did not have the capacity to consent to the marriage.

Should you have further questions about whether you qualify for an annulment, contact Attorney Justin L. Kelsey, or call 508.655.5980 to schedule a one-hour consultation.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Legal Differences Between Children Born to Married and Unmarried Parents

Last week, a colleague in North Carolina wrote about the different legal treatment in North Carolina between children born to married parents and "illegitimate" children (children not born to married parents -- many of our laws have not been updated since the dawn of the politically correct era, and label such children as "illegitimate" or "bastards," reflecting antiquated prejudices and stigmas against such children). The purpose of this post is to describe the ways treatment of such children in Massachusetts differs in some instances and is similar in others:

  • Illegitimate children may not inherit property from their father (except through a Last Will & Testament, voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, or an adjudication of paternity);
  • Illegitimate children are not eligible for survivor's Social Security Benefits as a result of the death of the child's father (42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(2)(A); M.G.L. c. 190 § 5);
  • Illegitimate children may sue for wrongful death of their deceased father (Levy v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 68 (1968));
  • In Massachusetts, the father of an illegitimate child may NOT have his parental rights terminated for the father's failure to legitimate the child (M.G.L. c. 119 § 26(4)) M.G.L. c. 210 § 3);
  • The father of an illegitimate child does not have the same notice rights in an adoption proceeding involving the illegitimate child, unless the father has been adjudicated to be the father, but even if he has not been so adjudicated he may still file a parental responsibility claim to obtain the same notice rights (M.G.L. c. 210 § 4A);
  • The birth certificate of a child who is legitimated will be changed to show the father's name (M.G.L. c. 46 § 13);
  • Procedures for the establishment of child support are abbreviated. If a child is born out of wedlock, child support is established in paternity proceedings. If a child is born to married parents, child support is established during divorce proceedings.

Additionally, in Massachusetts there is a difference in the treatment of child support between "illegitimate" children and children born of a marriage. For "illegitimate" children, child support may be sought from the time of the child's birth. For children born of a marriage, child support may only be sought in a divorce dating back to the date of filing or date or service of the complaint for divorce.

Prenups and Postnups

With the rise in divorce rates over the past fifty years, many couples are approaching marriage with a lot more caution than past generations. Some couples are choosing to enter into agreements that, in the case that their marriage did end in divorce, would specify how to divide the assets between the spouses. These agreements are commonly called "prenuptial agreements," or "prenups," but are also known as antenuptial agreements. In Massachusetts, prenuptial agreements are valid so long as:

  • there is a full and fair disclosure of each individual's assets (you have to tell your soon-to-be spouse about everything that you have and vice-versa);
  • the agreement is considered fair and reasonable both at the time that the agreement is entered into and at the time of the divorce (you can't take everything and leave your spouse financially dependent on the state); and
  • there is no fraud or duress (you can't present a prenuptial agreement to your fiancĂ©e right before the wedding and say, "Sign this or we're not getting married.").

Additionally, courts look favorably on prenuptial agreements where both individuals are represented by their own attorneys.

Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts recognized the validity of "postnuptial" or "marital agreements" as well. These "postnups" are very similar to "prenups," but are entered into after the individuals have been married. Reasons for entering into a "postnup" vary, but may make sense if one or both parties operate their own businesses and do not want to worry about the other spouse claiming an interest in the business if the parties were to get divorced.

Should you have any questions about "prenups" or "postnups," contact Attorney Justin L. Kelsey, or call 508.655.5980 to schedule an initial consultation.

Sources: M.G.L. c. 209 §25; §26; Ansin v. Craven-Ansin, 457 Mass. 283 (2010); and Osborne v. Osborne, 384 Mass. 591 (1981).

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why Are More Couples Choosing Divorce Mediation?

Courts in Massachusetts are backed up, always have been backed up, and will presumably be backed up for the foreseeable future. Because of this, divorce cases can often take over a year to complete, and the time that is actually spent in court can feel rushed due to the number of other cases. All too often a decision is made by the court leaving one spouse feeling as if he or she did not get a chance to tell the full story.

Mediation provides an opportunity for divorcing spouses to discuss the process of their separation in a more personal and private forum than in a court room, often times saving the divorcing couple thousands of dollars by avoiding expensive litigation. Divorcing spouses are able to speak to one another in the presence of the mediator, and deal with issues that a court might not want to spend too much time on.

Attorney Justin Kelsey brings his experience as a family law attorney with him into mediation in order to provide divorcing spouses with useful feedback regarding the legal issues of divorce. If mediation is successful, both divorcing spouses can go to court with a separation agreement drafted by the attorneys at Kelsey & Trask, P.C. to be reviewed by the judge before entering it as a judgment. If you and your spouse have decided that you want a divorce, but would like the process to be handled carefully and privately without having to spend a fortune and put your life on hold for years as the court process plays out, or if you have any questions as to how divorce mediation works, call attorney Justin Kelsey to schedule a one-hour consultation at 508 655-5980.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Does my Ex have a right to my inheritance if we get divorced? What is a Vaughan Affidavit?

The short answer is that Judges in Massachusetts can consider inheritance or potential inheritances when dividing property in Massachusetts. This does not mean that inheritances are split equally but they will play a part in how property is divided and may affect support orders as well. Whether an inheritance has been received or not can make a big difference in how it affects the division and support.

Inheritances Received During or Before the Marriage

In Massachusetts the division of marital property in a divorce case is controlled by M.G.L. Chapter 208 Section 34, which states in pertinent part:

"In addition to or in lieu of a judgment to pay alimony, the court may assign to either husband or wife all or any part of the estate of the other, including but not limited to, all vested and nonvested benefits, rights and funds accrued during the marriage and which shall include, but not be limited to, retirement benefits, military retirement benefits if qualified under and to the extent provided by federal law, pension, profit-sharing, annuity, deferred compensation and insurance."

This means that the Judge in a divorce case can consider how to divide all property that is in the name of either person, and this includes property that was inherited during or before the marriage. However, as part of the division, the Judges can consider the "contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation or appreciation in value of their respective estates..."

As an example, if a Husband received inherited property prior to the marriage, then the Wife likely didn't have anything to do with the acquisition. But if the inheritance was then placed in a joint account or used to purchase a marital home, then it is arguable that the Wife had a part in the preservation or appreciation of the asset. This is called "merging" an asset into the marital estate. If the Husband inherited property during the marriage, then it is also possible the Wife contributed to the acquisition if she, for example, had a good relationship with the deceased. These are the types of factors that will be taken into consideration in deciding what an "equitable" division of the inherited property would be.

Inheritances Likely to be Received After the Marriage

One of the factors that the Judges in Massachusetts must consider in dividing assets and determining alimony is the "the opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income." This could include the possibility or likelihood of a future inheritance. Although inheritances aren't guaranteed because living relatives can change their wills before they die, the Court can consider how likely that is to happen, especially if the potential inheritance is significant.

In one case a party's parents objected to providing information about their estate plan arguing that because an expectancy of inheritance cannot be presently divided it should also not be discoverable. Vaughan v. Vaughan, SJC Single Justice, No. 91-485, p. 3 (1991) (unpublished).

The Single Justice in Vaughan held: "Although it is true that Allan's expectancy interests are not subject to division, a [probate court] judge, nevertheless, might properly take them into account in determining what disposition to make of the property which is subject to division."

Since the Vaughan case it has become common practice in a case where there is a potential inheritance for the relative to provide what is referred to as a Vaughan Affidavit describing in some detail the extent of their estate and their current estate plan. A properly completed Vaughan Affidavit should provide you with enough information to know whether a potential inheritance is significant enough to be considered by the Judge when determining the current division or support orders.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...