So many people have been asking about pandemic parenting, co-parenting, custody, or visitation.  The real issues arise when one of the parties, or child, comes up with a positive test result.  Up until recently the thought of positive test results for many, especially children, was illusive.  But now with these new variants, that’s more of the reality for many.  Regardless, these times we are currently experiencing can’t compare to any other such time in our living history.  So the courts, like its constituents, are still trying to make sense of all of it.  Things like, to vaccinate or not vaccinate, to allow virtual school or in-school sessions, to enforce visits or suspend them…are all examples of issues plaguing the Family Court.

Pandemic Parenting

Pro-vaccination vs Anti-vaccination Parents

It is no secret that most judges are very conventional in their view on vaccinations, the Covid vaccination is no different.  So in the past when a Family Court judge was presented with the issue of whether a minor child should be vaccinated when one of the parents opposed, the outcome was almost always predictable.  Judges would almost always override the opposing parent’s authority by ordering that the child gets a vaccination, except in rare instances. The reason judges have always been mostly pro-vaccination is that they relied on science, data & statistics to support their position.  The only exception was when the child’s treating doctors recommended against the vaccinations for medical reasons. Even then, the level of scrutiny was always above the norm.  Judges are almost in agreement that Covid vaccinations are the safest bet for all involved.

Virtual School vs. In School Session

This issue is a new phenomenon to some degree.  If either parent has sole legal custody, then this is not an issue, that parent gets to decide.  The only exception is if the other parent seeks to change or modify the sole legal custody order. In that case, the issue of in-school vs. virtual can actually serve as the basis for the modification. In the past, the issue that most resembled this one was homeschool vs. in school.  The courts in those cases were inclined to rule in favor of in school.  This started to change in the past few years when homeschooling became a viable option.  When the data showed that homeschooled children were actually doing better academically it became easier to influence the courts.

However, the issue with Covid is a little different.  Academics is not really the focus in these pandemic times, it’s about safety.  This makes this issue very tricky because it’s not necessarily the safety of the target child but of the entire school population.  Judges are forced to consider whether the parent’s “right” to send the child to school should be trumped by the safety of the public (school). Although judges are still obligated to apply the best interests factors (which vary from state to state) to help it make its determination.   But even with that in mind, they can’t ignore their duty to keep the public’s safety in mind even if they don’t state it.

Covid Positive: Suspend Visits vs. Enforce Visits

This is where things get very volatile.  If a parent (or their paramour) or a child tests positive, should the child stay where they are, return home, or do something else.  Better yet, what happens if the child is in a blended family and one of its members tests positive, how should visits happen then?  These are all very likely scenarios and have been happening a lot.  The courts are all over the place with this issue.  In New York, for instance, the courts are ordering that custody orders be exercised no matter what anyone’s (or their family members’) Covid status is.  This means that if the child has Covid or the parent who is supposed to have visited has it, the visits are to happen regardless.

The other scenario is whether a positive child who was exercising visits with a non-custodial parent should return to their home. Either way, the rationale is that both parents still have rights to their time with the child.  The courts have always taken the position that parents can take care of their sick child during their respective visitation times.  And them testing positive for Covid doesn’t change that.

The CDC, on the other hand, suggests quarantining and so are doctors who are treating the Covid positive parent/child.  They are recommending that the child not expose anyone else to the virus by leaving their environment.  So who should influence the judge more, the rights of the parents or the medical community? This is not really a “best interests” issue, as much as it is a public safety issue.  The child’s well-being might be affected if visits are suspended because of either way someone is missing out on their time.  But the time can be made up once the positively tested party is cleared.

Theory vs. Practice

In a practical sense, the only issue that might be worth going to court over is school.  In theory, to vaccinate or not to vaccinate is disputable. But what if the other parent gets the child vaccinated before court involvement?  You can’t unring a bell, meaning you can’t unvaccinated the child. So the issue then becomes one of Contempt.

The same with the visits, if the disputing parent decides to proceed to court it might be too late.  By the time the case gets in front of a judge, the visiting time has already passed.  So, again, the issue presented to the court would be about Contempt, Modification, or both. Either parent can conceivably seek to modify a current custody order based on how this issue was handled. The way the other parent exercised judgment, for example, deciding to ignore the doctor’s recommendations, can be considered in a modification case.

The school issue, on the other hand, is always a relevant one.  It’s the only one of these issues that can change at any time.  So, in other words, it hardly ever becomes a moot issue.  The judge’s decision has the propensity to take into account things that might happen in the future.  So it’s best to get the court involved at any time when Covid, or any other issue, has a direct impact on academic performance.

Final Thoughts on Pandemic Parenting

The courts are still all over the place on some pandemic parenting and other pandemic-related issues.  So I strongly urge Family Court parties to get a consultation from a local family law Attorney Family Court.

child support

 

Child support and child custody intercepts at times, but that depends on several factors. In most states Child support is determined by statutory guidelines imposed by that state. Those guidelines usually takes into consideration parents’ income (either one or both), number of children, previous financial orders and some excepted expenses (like employment deductions). Some states also consider the custody arrangement.


Best Interests of the Child Custody Each State


The Purpose of Child Support

Child support is intended to provide financial support for children. That generally means that each parent contributes to providing all the basic needs of their child(ren), including medical and educational too.  Although the Child Support Standards Act is the federal law governing child support, each state has its own law with respect to parents financial obligations to their children. Most states statutes base their guidelines on cost of living among other things.

There are 3 models each state chooses from, which are as follows:

Income Shares Model– this is based on the premise that children should receive the same proportion of their parents income that they would have received if the parents loved together. Most states, 41 to be exact, use this model. (Get more details here on each states guidelines.)

Percentage of Income Model– sets out a percentage of ONLY the noncustodial parent’s income. The custodial parents income is NOT taken into consideration. There is the Flat Percentage and the Varying Percentage variations. Four states use the former, while two states use the latter.

Melson Formula-a more complicated (and rarely used) version of the Income Shares Model. This takes into account each parents needs as well as the children’s. Only 3 states use this one. (See Delaware’s child support law.)

Child Custody Impact on Child Support

There is a difference in joint custody, shared custody and 50/50 custody. (Read here for in depth discussion from one of my previous blog posts.) In cases where either parent has sole or primary custody the noncustodial parent pays child support pursuant to their state statute. However, with respect to shared or 50/50 custody, where the child(ren) spend equal time with both parents obligation varies based on which Model the state uses.

With respect to Income Shares Model, the parents combined incomes and the number of children results in a figure. That figure is then divided proportionately based on the amount of time the children lives with each parent.

In the Percentage of Income Model, custody and support usually takes a different approach. Typically, only the noncustodial parent’s income is used to calculate support obligation. However, in shared  or 50/50 custody arrangements, the custodial parent’s income is a factor. The custodial parent’s income is compared to the noncustodial’s income to determine which is the highest. The parent with the highest income pays child support.

Some states’ statutes allows for the court to use discretion in rendering a final support order. In these instances, shared or 50/50, or any variation of joint physical custody, can justify the court coming up with an amount different from the statutory calculation.

In conclusion

 You should definitely familiarize yourself with your state’s child support and child custody laws before attempting to negotiate any settlements.

If you would like to discuss the options I have to help you prepare your case for settlement, mediation or trial, please feel free to set up a free consultation. Visit my Home page for details about the services I offer.

Child Custody & Abandonment

In child custody & abandonment situations (and child support too) biological parents can have their rights terminated by court. Even though the right to being a parent in the USA is a fundamental one , pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment, states have the power to infringe on those rights. Of course Due Process, also afforded by the Fourteenth Amendment, applies making it a requirement that laws & procedures are fair.


Where Child Support & Custody Intersect


What is Child Custody & Abandonment?

Abandonment, with respect to custody, is when a parent voluntarily fails to have any sort of contact with their child and fails to provide financially for the child for a specified period. It is NOT parental alienation, which is willful interference with the non- custodial parent having contact with their child.

Abandonment can only occur when the biological parent is aware of the child being born. So a parent who seeks Abandonment where the other parent is unaware of the child even exists will have to first prove otherwise. In some states, the period of abandonment only starts from the moment the parent is made aware of the child’s existence.

Proving Abandonment

 Proving abandonment is not easy feat, not by a stretch. The courts are not sweet on the idea of depriving parents of such a basic right under most circumstances. The burden is on the parent seeking termination to prove that all the elements are met upon a preponderance of evidence.

Those elements include:

  1. That the non custodial had noticed of the child; and
  2. That they willfully chose to withhold contact; and
  3. They failed to provide any financial support; and
  4. Set period of continuous non-contact & support; and
  5. Termination is in the best interests of the child; and
  6. That a stepparent is ready to adopt the child.

These requirements vary from state to state.

Objections or Defenses to Abandonment                                          

Non-custodial parents may have some valid reasons for being absent or not providing for their child. As I stated above, instances where the custodial parent intentionally interferes with contact is one of them.  There are others, like lack of notice of the petition, having no knowledge of the child having been born or if he can prove that termination would not be in the child’s best interests.

A child born out of wedlock, where the father never acknowledged paternity or where paternity was never established, may also be a defense. Most states require that paternity be established first. If the father’s location is unknown, the court may require that the mother incorporate “due diligence” methods  in locating him.

Also, if there is not a “fit” stepparent ready to adopt the child, then chances are the court will not order the termination.

A Finding of Abandonment 

If all of the elements are met and the court believes that termination is in the best interests of the child, then the biological parent no longer has obligation to support the child.  Emotional, physical and financial support are no longer the responsibility of the terminated parent.  However, there are some exceptions with respect to the child’s rights to that parent’s entitlements, property, estate, etc.  In some states, adopted children may have legal rights to the possessions of their biological parent in the event of that parent’s death.

It is advisable to discuss, in depth, the legal ramifications of termination with all parties involved.

In Conclusion

Child abandonment is a very complicated issue and requires the assistance of an experienced attorney.

If you need assistance with your child custody matter, please feel free to contact me for a FREE 15 min. consultation.

Contempt in Family Court
Making the best decisions

I’ve touched up contempt in family court several times in the past. But what is or is not contempt in family court matters is worth a lengthy discussion. It is defined as “the offense of being disobedient to or disrespectful toward a court of law and its officers…”.  (Wikipedia) This covers orders, rulings, decisions issued by a judge of court.  So basically when a party to an action is ordered or directed to act or not act and they do the opposite, they are acting in contempt.


Change to Child Custody Arrangements during Covid


Family Court Order vs Other Court Order Violations

Family court orders typically come about by examination of a confluence of things.  Laws, statutes and regulations are just a part of what comes into play. Social norms, public policy issues and bureaucratic influences also have a significant impact in family court decisions.  In other courts, criminal court for instance, the application of the law has a much bigger influence.  And as a result, acts of contempt are generally more explicit.  The court order is usually clear with respect to consequences for disobeying it.  Violating a criminal court order usually entails a fine and/or incarceration because the violation is usually against the court itself or public policy. In family court, on the other hand, no such clarity exists.

First off, making a “finding” that contempt actually happened is not as clear cut.  Non-compliance is usually the court’s finding, which is very different from contempt.  When someone violates a family court order by not paying child support or spousal support, not following a custody/visitation order or ignoring provisions in a divorce judgment they are not necessarily in violation against the court itself.  Their defiance is against the other party. Next, family court violations need to be examined in context, not on isolated bases. This too, makes them privy to being viewed as less egregious as criminal court violations.  And last, family court orders tend to include lots of provisions where execution is conditioned upon other provisions being executed.

Actual vs. Perceived Contempt in Family Court

As I mentioned, what may be thought of as contempt may in fact be viewed as violations, non-compliance, etc.  Although by definition there is no distinction, what matters is how the court views it.  The court is the factfinder and it will determine what rises to the level of contempt using a different level of scrutiny than it would in any other court.

Let’s examine a few scenarios to get some insight on how the court views violative behaviors.

  1. Court order directs that the non-custodial parent (NCP) pays the custodial parent (CP) $500 per month for child support.  After 3 months of missed payments, late payments or partial payments the CP seeks contempt against NCP.
  2. Court order states that the NCP is to exercise their visits with the child every Fri. eve at 6PM until Sunday afternoon at 4PM. In the past several months, CP repeatedly shows up to drop off an hour or two late.
  3. Court order, by way of Divorce Decree, orders that the Defendant is to turn over all personal property in their possession within 30 days of the Decree. 90 days have passed and Plaintiff still has not received any such property.

Although all of these scenarios clearly exhibit some violations, non-compliance and/or disobeying court orders, they rarely arise to the level of “contempt” in a family court setting.  However, when these acts are considered in context, reviewed in light of other issues in the case, a finding of contempt is possible.

Strategy
Strategy

Making a Case for  Contempt in Family Court

Although the elements of contempt are usually spelled out in some form, the courts usually use a less stringent standard of proof in family court.

The key to getting the court to make an actual contempt ruling requires a strategic approach.  You need to look at the violative behavior in with a look at the entire case. This means looking at past behaviors, considering the judges position of related issues, social norms, local practices, etc.

So when you are faced with a repeated nonpayment of support it makes sense to consider the NCP parent’s track record with paying, if there is an issue with ability to pay because of a change in employment, if the court had to reprimand NCP previously for nonpayment and so on.  Additionally, you should ask yourself “what is your judge’s history with this particular violative act”.

When the issue is with late drop-offs or early pickups, consider things like quality of visits, ability to makeup for lost time, the harm done to the children, etc. Again, what your judge’s views are on this issue, what the judge would say or do in this situation, etc. are also very important.

When you are faced with making a case for contempt, one great source to refer to is the actual order itself. Review it over and over again if necessary, to see if there are any “gray” areas of interpretation.  Read it from the other party’s perspective to see if there are any viable potential arguments they can make.  Read it to with a view from the judge’s viewpoint to see if their intent was clearly stated.

Sum it Up

In conclusion, understand that what you may perceive as a clear case of contempt may not be considered such by family court.  It is a good idea to think, plan and strategize on what your next move should be in the event of violations of your court order.

A step or blended family is a family that consists of parents and children who are not biologically related, the parents are remarried or cohabitating with someone other than the biological parent. Blended families make up almost half of all families in the US, according to Stepfamily.org. That means that a large amount of children are being raised in a home with one or more non-biological adult and children. This arrangement raises several family law related concerns, moreso than the mundane issues. Let’s take a look at how the various legal concepts apply to step families.

Coparenting in Step or Blended Families

Coparenting within a step or blended family is a little different than coparenting amongst solo parents.  Although coparenting amongst solo parents poses challenges, co-parenting amongst step families takes on a different set of challenges.  

Depending on how the custody agreement arose, whether it came to be as a result of a settlement (verbal or written), a court order or negotiations, the way coparenting happen looks different.  It is not uncommon to overlook custody provisions that specifically address stepparents’ rights and responsibilities. It’s obviously not because stepfamilies are rare.  Stepparents are not discussed in custody agreements because the courts don’t have jurisdiction over persons who are not parties to the action.  However, some parties are savvy enough to ask that specific provisions be included, making the parties themselves responsible for their partners compliance. One of the ones I see often is a provision that speaks to if and when the child can call the stepparent “Mommy” or “Daddy”.


What You Say in Family Court Matters


Additional provisions that may be included in custody agreements are; whether and to what extent the stepparent can discipline the child, if they can consent to medical treatment, if they are allowed to access school records or attend events, etc. Even if some of these NOT covered in the actual custody document, federal and state laws govern the rights of stepparents with respect to health and education. Stepparents cannot consent to medical treatment of a stepchild, even in emergency situations. They can transport the child to the hospital or medical appointments but need written consent to do more than that. Consent to treatment requires written consent from the parent/spouse who must have joint custody or legal custody.   

Same with respect to accessing school records or attending school events, consent (although written consent is not required it is recommended) from the parent/spouse is needed.  As for discipline, no specific laws address stepparent rights in the event the custody agreement fails to mention it. However, the extent to which a stepparent can discipline a stepchild relies solely with the biological parents (as long as it is within the legal confines of their state). Whatever rules the parents agreed to also extends to stepparents. Nonetheless, it is prudent to cover stepparent discipline in the custody agreement. Stepparents should be viewed as authority figures, of course, and should step into that role with confidence but boundaries should be established and maintained.

Custody/Visitation in Blended Families

There is a difference in step parents rights and responsibilities in sole custody arrangements.  In sole custody households, the biological parent does not have to confer with the other when making major decisions.  However, in joint custody, shared custody or 50/50 arrangements, this is not the case. (For a detailed explanation of the difference in custody arrangements go here  http://www.thedivorcesolutionist.com/will-the-court-award-sole-custody).  When consent is required in joint custody arrangements, there are times when that consent can be trumped by the other biological parent.  However, situations that do not need consent, still make copaStep or Blended Familyrenting amongst stepfamilies difficult. The issues that directly affect custody/visitation are communication, pickups and dropoffs, attendance at special events, household rules, etc. For the most part, stepparents are to adhere to the provisions of the custody agreement even though if they are not mentioned in the agreement.  Furthermore, stepparents should not meddle in communications or discussions between biological parents except in exigent circumstances. Particularly in high conflict custody arrangements, stepparents should keep their input or involvement to a minimum. Maintaining boundaries should be paramount to ensure coparenting goes smoothly.

Child Support or Financial Obligations in Blended Families

Child support guidelines applies to biological parents but can bring stepparents into the fold. The purpose of child support is to ensure that children have the benefit of maintaining the same or similar standard of living as if the parents were still living in the same household. However, this principle gets tricky in its application when children have the addition of a stepparent and their income. Although the courts cannot obligate stepparents to provide for children that are not biologically theirs (except in adoption) they cannot ignore the windfall uncalculated income provides. A payor non-custodial solo parent should not have to give up more than his/her proportionate share of income to a payee custodial remarried parent who has the financial advantage of another income in the household.  

What happens with child support in stepfamilies? Well, most courts will not “add” the stepparent’s income into the formula.  However, what they are permitted to do is to “consider” the stepparent’s income when deciding if they should deviate from the child support guidelines.  And where there a huge disparity in income, and thus standard of living, they will try to balance them out by applying its discretion. 

Conclusion

In sum, stepparents should take every aspect of the new family dynamics into account before taking on the role in a step or blended family.  Although having a custody agreement in place helps a lot, it is nearly impracticable to follow every provision to the letter.  Emotional bonding, physical conditions and financial limitations can make implementation even more challenging.  

Preparing Your Case & Gathe Other Evidence

It helps to have an idea of what is important, what is admissible, what is legal with respect to preparing your case of divorce or child custody. Emails & text messages are usually full of pertinent information and should be high on the list. Although text messages should be formatted in a form that is easier to comprehend, some courts will allow them to be submitted in their original context. Correspondence from caretakers, therapists, etc. are also particularly important and given considerable weight when appearing before the court. Some third party correspondence is subject to hearsay rules however, and may be rejected on that basis. Reports from doctors and other related professionals are also considered “material” to issues surrounding custody or divorce.


Using Discovery in Divorce and Child Custody


 

Better to Overdo it than Not

Typically, the first appearance is for foundational purposes only. The court is going to spend time getting a clear understanding of the issues that are relevant to the case. It is best to bring all documents, texts, photos, etc. even though the chances of the court actually reviewing them are slim. These things are more appropriate for settlement conference, mediations or court hearing/trial but do serve a purpose at the initial appearance. Having all of these will help you to narrow down what is most relevant to the case from the court’s perspective, which in turn guides you through the overall process.

Prioritizing Your Evidence

Background information is not as important as you think. When preparing materials start with the decision you want the judge to make and provide only the information that will help the judge get to that decision.  You should have an idea of exactly what you want the judge to rule on, which should include an alternative or second choice.  You do not need to disclose these to the court or your adversary but have an idea of what the other favorable options look like.

In addition, include things that can dispute your adversary’s position. These documents, evidence, etc. should certainly be ranked according to how “strong” their evidence is but the important thing is to not overlook their importance.

To keep things simple and easy for your judge to read, your documentation should clearly answer three questions:

  • What’s the issue to be decided?
  • What’s the result you are looking for?
  • Why should you get it?

Some background is often needed, but too much of it clouds the most important & relevant questions. Sticking to the relevant facts that support your desired outcome tells the judge you are a focused & organized and that she/he should pay attention to you. The more time you spend on things unrelated to your end goal, the more it seems that you do not know exactly what you want or why you deserve it.

Keep your documents brief and to the point. Otherwise, it is like not knowing where you want to go. And in that case, you may end up somewhere else.