Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Michigan Family Law Updates

Over the past several months, as Michigan and the nation grind through a sustained recession, many articles have appeared pointing to the trend of couples staying together, despite a doomed marriage.  The fact is, divorce is very expensive. 

In the attached article from the Star-Ledger (New Jersey), Attorney Susan Reach Winters answers the editor's questions on this tough subject.  The article focuses on some of the financial aspects of divorce and provides some common-sense answers that readers of this blog may find quite useful in the -painful- contemplation of a divorce proceeding. 

Setting aside the costs of divorce; what about the pain caused when a child results from an ill-fated union between two people, when the woman is married to another man?  This is the subject of a recent Detroit News article, covering a few heart-breaking cases here in Michigan, as well as a proposed change in Michigan's Child Custody Act (CCA).

Currently under the CCA, if a child is born during an intact marriage, and the biological father is not the husband, the bio-dad has no standing in court and thus, no rights to parent his child whatsoever, unless and until a divorce action is filed.  Even in cases where a divorce is filed, the rights of a bio-dad are limited should the bio-dad intervene in the divorce proceeding. 

The bill, introduced by Sen. Michelle McManus of Leelanau County, proposes giving biological fathers a short window (one-year) to bring a proceeding in family court to assert his rights as the father of a child.  Positive DNA results would be required along with a showing that the mother was separated from her husband at the time of conception.  The latter requirement, if added to the Child Custody Act, will guarantee plenty of work for family law attorneys.  Currently, the bill is being vetted by the State Bar of Michigan's Family Law Counsel.  Thus, it may be some time (years) before the CCA is amended along these lines.

If you have family law issues, and you want answers, contact our firm to discuss your options.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

WSJ Readers Respond Emotionally to Article on Alimony

Alimony, now known as spousal support here in Michigan, is one of those topics in family law that elicits an emotional response from nearly everyone.  In tough economic times, most people have a gut reaction to the concept of paying financial support for an ex-spouse. 

Whether alimony is appropriate, however, is a fact-specific analysis, with each family bringing much different facts into court and into the equation.  A recent WSJ article by Jennifer Levitz takes an anecdotal look at the concept of alimony.  Her readership posted 175 emotionally-charged comments to the article on this apparently sore subject.

Levitz's article focused on the inequities that can result from alimony awards when years pass, and circumstances change.  The article also noted that many states, (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina, among them), are considering legislation to limit alimony.  Some of the states have activitst groups (with memberships of "burned" former spouses, no doubt) that have hired lobbyists for the task.

In Michigan, spousal support is alive and well; but it's not your Grandfather's alimony.  Unlike child support which is calculated by a formula using the inputs of the relative incomes of the parents, and the number of overnight parenting sessions with the "non-custodial" parent, alimony is always negotiable.

Significant considerations include whether spousal support is forever barred, or whether it is awarded and, if so, whether the award is modifiable.  In some cases, it makes sense to bargain for the certainty of non-modifiable alimony; the payor knows what he's in for, and for how long.  Other cases call for a compete ban on alimony, either because each spouse is professionally equal, the marriage was of relatively short-term, or because the property division favored the "lesser-earning" spouse.

These are all considerations one must take into account as a divorce proceeds toward judgment.

If you are facing a divorce that may include some of these issues, contact our firm to discuss your options.  We can provide you with immediate peace of mind with sound legal advice based on your specific circumstances.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Child Support Reduction & Collection Requests Flood Friends of Court

The pain is inflicted on both sides of the fence in family court cases across the state.  For those paying child support, and for its recipients, the depressed economy in Southeast Michigan is taking a toll.   

As a recent article in the Detroit News makes clear, the Friend of the Court in counties accross Michigan are scrambling to field the flood of requests filed to reduce child support, or to enforce an existing support order.  Most of the parents seeking a support reduction are doing so because they've either lost their job or have been handed a pay-cut.

Child support in Michigan is calculated using an algorithmic equation known as the Michigan Child Support Formula.  This formula is based on three main inputs: the payor's income, the recipient's income, and the number of overnight parenting sessions for the payor.  A payor's support obligation is modifiable if there is a "change in circumstance" to justify the request.  One such justification is when a payor, through no fault of his own, loses a job or suffers a significant decline in income. 

In difficult economic times, county Friends of the Court (the administrative arm of the family court) experience an increase in the volume of motions from payor's and custodial parents alike, seeking relief from the financial pain.  In the case of a payor, the support automatically deducted from his paycheck may exceed more than half of his take-home, especially when that "take home" is an unemployment check.  Across town, the custodial parent is used to receiving a certain amount of support to help make ends meet for the children.

When a party files a motion to modify his or her support, the matter is reviewed by a Friend of the Court Referee (a quasi-judicial official) before it goes to the family court judge.  Most FOC Referees utilize support specialists; professionals trained in the application of the child support formula.  The court rules provide for the Referee to make a recommendation to the judge regarding whether the payor's support should be reduced or not.

Each November, as the year-end approaches, parties realize there are only a few weeks left to get their matter heard before the courts shut down for the holidays.  Many scramble to file motions, hoping they can obtain some financial relief.  Wanting to save money, they forego hiring an attorney.  When a party files a motion on their own behalf, however, it can take quite a long time before the FOC grants them a hearing.

One advantage to hiring legal counsel is that the attorney knows how to get a client's motion on the dockett by the end of the year.  In addition, family law attorneys know the many angles and tricky aspects of the support formula, and how to apply that formula to a variety of compensation packages and parenting schedules.

According to the Detroit News, child support arrearages rose by approxiamtely $113 million from 2005 to 2008, although the number of support payors decreased.  These support arrears are expected to increase as unemployed payors lose their state benefits.  The situation has attracted the attention of Congress, which is proposing legislation designed to extend unemployment benefits for child support payors.

If you or a family member need relief from an acute child support situation, contact our law firm for immediate relief.  Our firm handles dozens of such cases throughout the year.  Our service is excellent and our fees reasonable.