Last week I started a 3-part series on incorporating strategy in Family Court appearances. The goal is to show you how having a solid game plan enables you to position your case advantageously. Last week I focused on the first court appearance in custody or divorce, the Initial Conference. This week’s focus is on using the Family Court appearance that follows the Initial Conference, the Family Court Status Conference as part of creating your strategy.

 

What the Family Court Appearance Status Conference Is

A status conference, in divorce or custody, gives the parties the chance to update the court on what has occurred since additional documents have been filed, to follow up on how temporary orders are working, or to check-in whether certain conditions have been met. The court will want to know how things have been going with respect to visitation to see if things can be resolved without a trial. If at the last court appearance either of the parties was self-represented, the court will want to know if that party(ies) hired a lawyer.

If the judge ordered certain procedural things, like a drug/alcohol screening, a mental health evaluation, or a home investigation, it would follow up with whether those things have been done. Also, if a GAL has been appointed, then the court will want to know the status.

 

The Goal of the Family Court Status Conference

Family Court, like most other courts, has an interest in saving time and resources. This means that the judge will always aim to get the parties to settle their case.  Family Court appearance Status Conference in custody or divorce is slightly different than the Initial Conference. The court’s hope is that by employing the tactics or measures mentioned above, they will flush out the perceived issues from the real ones. A custodial parent who insists that the noncustodial parent is incapable of taking care of their child for more than a few hours may realize that that’s not a real concern. The court will examine resolution tactics outside of a trial, like mediation. If the court decides on an alternative dispute resolution, it will set dates for the parties to adhere to.

A Discovery plan might also be discussed at a status conference. This usually entails setting rules & restrictions on Discovery as well as a timeline for the exchange of Discovery.

The last major thing to be addressed in a status conference is overall scheduling. In addition to setting dates for mediation and Discovery, the court will also set a deadline for any motions or amendments to petitions. In addition, the court might establish a pretrial conference date and a trial date.

The process for the status conference might differ when both parties and one party is self-represented. The court will try to encourage pro se litigants to get an attorney at this stage of the case with the thinking that they’d be more inclined to settle.

 

Using this Family Court Status Conference Strategically

This is the time to use what you have gathered outside of the courtroom, because of the court’s directions, to your advantage. In other words, the orders the court issued, the procedures the judge directed, etc. all offer you vantage points that didn’t exist before. You might have had suspicions about some issues that question the other party’s “fitness” as a parent. Or questions about the safety conditions of the other party’s home. Or speculation about the mental or physical health of the other parent. Either way, the status conference is the ideal time to gauge the court’s position on these specific issues. If, for instance, you mentioned your concern about drug abuse and the judge ordered drug screenings, then this shows that the judge takes this issue seriously. How many times have you raised concerns in court that were dismissed by the judge, often I bet? But if the judge thinks the issue, you raise has some semblance of merit, they will respond accordingly.

The other strategic way to use the Status Conference is by incorporating the information you acquired to help you decide if you should settle or proceed to trial. At this stage of your case, there have been several discussions about settling at least a portion of your case. However, having the results of tests or investigations only helps you to make a much more informed decision when it comes to negotiations.

And last, if you are pro se (self-represented) you can learn a lot about the court process, the laws, and the local procedures at the status conference. You should always be on full alert, listening, watching, and taking mental notes.

 

In Conclusion

Every stage of your case offers some advantage as it progresses along. You might see going to court as a war zone, triggering all sorts of emotion, while I see it as an opportunity. Any time you are in an environment where you can learn the opposing party’s objective, you should see it as a potential advantage.

My new Pro Se Family Court Membership Program is the perfect solution to your custody or divorce situation.  Having a solid game plan that focuses on using strategy can make or break your case.  Interested in the details? Check here.

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.

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.