Thursday, December 27, 2012

The 2013 Michigan Child Support Formula Manual

Back in January 2008, the Friend of the Court Bureau of the State Court Administrator's Office published a fairly comprehensive set of changes to the Michigan Child Support Formula.  Next week, their new child support manual comes out; the first since those 2008 changes.  This post covers all the significant changes that take effect on January 1st.

The 2013 Michigan Child Support Formula Manual is available online; you can access the manual by simply clicking this link.  As set forth in the manual, here is a summary of the changes scheduled to take place:

In the first significant change referenced above, section 1.04(E), a series of deviation factors are listed for consideration when strict application of the formula would generate inequities; the new factors are:

(18) A child in the custody of a third-party recipient spends a significant number of
overnights with the payer that causes a significant savings in the third party’s
(19) The court ordered nonmodifiable spousal support paid between the parents before
October 2004.  
(20) When a parent’s share of net child care expenses exceeds 50 percent of that
parent’s base support obligation calculated under §3.02 before applying the
parental time offset.
The most significant change in the 2013 MCSF Manual lies in the treatment and explanation of the self-employed individual or business owner.  Section 2.07(E) essentially has been re-written to include an introductory statement of tenets to consider when attempting to calculate a business owner's or self-employed individual's income.

The basic "add-backs", however, remain the same.  Such add-backs include things like: rent paid by the business to the owner-payor; depreciation allowances; home office expenses; entertainment expenses; travel expenses; and vehicle allowances.

While the authors of the manual(s) would not agree, we here at this blog perceive a slight editorial shift in the new manual, going from a pro-payor to a pro-payee treatment of such individuals.

Although the exact language of the income and deduction sections [2.01(C) and 2.07(E)] has been  slightly modified, the effect remains that: a) income includes retirement contributions from either the employee parent payor or the employer; and b) an employee parent deducts up to 5.5% of these contributions from the income calculation.

The 2008 MCSF Manual set the minimum child support obligation at $25 per month; this has been removed in the new manual.

And finally, a better explanation is offered in the 2013 MCSF Manual relative to the treatment of a payor's supplemental contribution to the children's benefit with items such as health care savings accounts or flexible benefit plans frequently offered by employers.

With our headquarters in Oakland County, Michigan, and a proven track record of case management in all the adjacent counties, we provide a free consultation for family court litigants that may have issues arising due to the changes in the MCSF.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Divorce Detox California Style

Divorce can be thought of negatively and accurately as a self-inflicted wound that harms people other than the once-married couple.

Divorce Detox is a therapeutic counseling regimen for folks going through divorce; divorce "recovery" may be more apt.  The Santa Monica, CA based program will not cure you, but you will feel better about yourself.  And in the Hell that is the divorce process, that has high value.

This peace-of-mind does not, of course, come cheaply.  The standard fee is $2500 and basically includes their "group therapy" package; an extra thousand gets you a series of individual counseling sessions.  That's about what folks out here in the Midwest pay as an initial retainer for their divorce attorney.

Divorce Detox features hours of classes, therapy and homework.  A 100+ page workbook accompanies the materials.  One of the tools that caught our eye is the letter each seminar attendee is required to write to oneself at the beginning of the seminar.  Collected upon "intake", this letter is mailed back to the participant several months after completion of the course.

The core principle of Divorce Detox is to turn a [very] negative experience into a positive.  The program focuses on mind, body and soul.

The process involves one common to most forms of therapy generally: identifying one's problems through careful and deliberate introspection; and addressing those problems, owning them, prior to moving on as a divorcee.

The program even has a blog, although we here at the electronic divorce attorney note that quite a bit of time goes by between posts...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Six Holiday Parenting Tips

This is a seasonal re-post from last December.  The suggestions apply to divorced or separated families this time of the year.

Often, tensions escalate over the holidays as divorced parents struggle with the demands of scheduling the children to accommodate two households.  Holiday schedules are already difficult without the complications of a divorce judgment or divorce proceeding.

Here are some practical tips in dealing with holiday parenting time gleaned from divorce lawyers around the state.
  1. Reduce an alternating holiday schedule to a court order.  It is always best for the children when the parents can agree on a schedule.  Alternating holidays is most common when drafting the parenting schedule.  When both parents live close to one another, many families utilize a shared holiday model where the children spend time with one parent until noon, and the other  parent for the balance of the day; then the next year, they switch.  This works for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and other holidays.  
  2. Discuss the schedule with the children.  One solid co-parenting tactic is for both parents, once an agreement is reached, to communicate the schedule to the children.  This way, the children know in advance what to expect.  This can best be accomplished when both parents commit to rational communication and reasonable compromise for the children's sake.
  3. Keep the activities simple.  This tip is particularly essential when the children are relatively young and if the divorce is still fresh.  The wounds of the once-whole family have yet to heal; holidays are particularly painful for both children and parents.  Therefore, it makes sense to tone down the activities and avoid rushing hither and yon during your now-scheduled parenting time.
  4. Let your child express her feelings to you.  It is important to allow your children the opportunity to express their feelings of loss and disappointment and for you, as the parent, to validate those feelings.  What the child once experienced as an intact family unit has been fractured by divorce.  Therefore, pretending that everything is fine, or over-scheduling a whirlwind of activities to the point of distraction, will only add to the stress of your holiday parenting time.
  5. Involve your extended family.  The more love the child feels during the years immediately following a divorce, the better.  Therefore, schedule some quality family time with members of your extended family.  Certainly, this would be a great opportunity for your children to spend time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  If your extended family is highly dysfunctional then, er, not-so-much.  
  6. Avoid including a new "significant other".  This is the last thing you want to do at the holidays; not the time or the place.  Including your "significant other" too soon is a selfish thing to do to your children.  Upon reflection, you would probably agree that you would be doing that for yourself, certainly not for your children.  Children of divorce already struggle with guilt, a sense of loss, and insecurity.  They often perceive the introduction of a stranger, especially one that is close and intimate with their parent, as a threat, not a benefit from their parents' divorce.
Of course, the above holiday parenting tips must be adjusted to be age-appropriate.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this touchy subject.

Finally, a positive parental attitude over the holidays does wonders for a child's comfort and confidence.  Be the adult, not the child.

Post Note: For another local attorney's take on this subject, take a look at our friend, Henry Gornbein's post in the Huffington Post Divorce Blog.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

False Claims in Custody Battle Will Bite You Back

Written by Family Law Lawyer Amanda Chapman

Let’s face it – it’s no surprise that emotions run high during a divorce where custody of the children is at issue.  With divorce comes uncertainty, and uncertainty regarding where your children will live, and with whom, is a nightmare for most parents.  

Sometimes, when in the midst of doing battle for those that we hold most dear, we think in terms of winning “at any cost.”  But be wary if you find yourself contemplating such thoughts – you may do yourself more harm than good.

To illustrate the point, a recent unpublished Michigan Court of Appeals opinion, Henry. Henry (decided December 22, 2011) involved a divorcing couple, Christine and Doug, and their six children.  The parents were both battling for custody of the children, which resulted in a trial held in Wayne Circuit Court. The trial court was required to contemplate the statutory “best interests” factors, which include making a determination as to the “moral fitness of the parties involved.”

In weighing the “moral fitness” best interest factor, a trial court must determine a party’s fitness as a parent, looking to the parent-child relationship and how that parent’s conduct affects that relationship.  In the Henry divorce, the trial court heard testimony from various individuals who suggested that Christine had filed false reports [involving issues of possible child abuse or neglect] with several professionals and agencies.  Ultimately, the trial court did not find Christine’s testimony credible, as the court weighed more heavily in favor of witness testimony which supported Doug’s claims that the reports were “inaccurate, manipulative, and designed to force additional investigations.

The court, in evaluating the “moral fitness” best interest factor, must determine the effect of a parent’s conduct on the relationship with their child. In this instance, the trial court deemed this factor to weigh in favor of Doug, determining that Christine’s false reports to various agencies “could have a negative effect on the children.”  The Court of Appeals, in reviewing the trial court’s decision, deferred to the trial court, as this was ultimately an issue of credibility.

The moral of this story: don’t make false claims against the other parent in an effort to make them look bad in your custody case. Not only does it waste precious resources for those who need protection, but it might ruin your credibility in the eyes of the Court. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Sibling Visitation - Does it Exist?

We have all heard the term “visitation” before, especially if you have been involved in a child custody dispute or divorce.  The term most often used by family law lawyers and professionals is “parenting time”; referring to the legal right [and obligation] of a parent to spend time with one’s child following a divorce.  

Even grandparents, under limited and specific circumstances, may have a legal right to visit with their grandchildren according to Michigan law.

But what about siblings?  Does a brother or sister have the right to visit their sibling, if for some reason they are no longer living within the same household? 

The short answer is that sibling visitation is not recognized as a legal right in Michigan.   The Child Custody Act does not provide for visitation rights between siblings.  Add adoption into the mix and the result remains the same – but for a more specific reason.  

Earlier this month, the Michigan Court of Appeals grappled with, and attempted to decide
this very issue in Wilson v King; a published thus binding opinion of the intermediate appellate court.

Marquita Wilson, the plaintiff-mother in this case, had three children who were eventually adopted into a new family in 2008 after her parental rights had been terminated.  Ms. Wilson then gave birth to a fourth child; Mac.  

The adoptive parents of Ms. Wilson's three children initially allowed Mac to visit with his siblings.  Sadly, for reasons not stated in the Court of Appeals opinion, the adoptive parents ultimately discontinued these sibling visits.  

Ms. Wilson filed suit on behalf of Mac in Wayne County Family Court.  The family court judge dismissed the claim on the basis that the right to “sibling visitation” does not exist under Michigan Law.  On appeal, Ms. Wilson argued that Michigan law does provide for a cause of action for sibling visitation and that the lower court had erred in dismissing her case.  

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision – but did not find one way or the other on whether or not Michigan law provides for a cause of action for sibling visitation.  Instead, the Court focused on the fact that Mac’s older siblings had been adopted.  

Adoption legally severs any ties to the prior, natural family, and creates, in its place, a new adoptive family recognized at law.  This means that, legally speaking, Mac’s older siblings (once they had been adopted) were no longer his legal siblings in the eyes of the law.   

The Court of Appeals held that even if a cause of action regarding sibling visitation existed (which the Court made sure to footnote that they offered “no opinion as to the viability of such a claim”) in Mac’s instance the claim must fail as the three adoptive children were no longer his siblings. 

While we recognize the psychological importance of eliminating contact with biological parents in order to facilitate growth in the new adoptive family, this ruling strikes us as similar in spirit to the old paternity act that denied a biological father standing to seek any parenting time with his child whatsoever.

The ruling seems to foster the notion of wiping-out all traces of the adopted child's  biological family.  Many adopted children, as they mature, seek out traces of their biological families.  Some of these children, as they mature into adulthood, obsess over their lost families and seek therapy to deal with the loss.

At base, however, there is really no-way in cases like this to allow sibling visitation, without also focusing on the biological parents.  Our adoption laws currently do not provide for the maintenance of two families; just one: the adoptive family.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Women Often Lose Health Insurance in Divorce

Long-term marriage has been an endangered species for some time in our society.  Couples in the United States divorce at the rate of approximately one million times each year.

Divorce is Hell for both men and women.  Even in our post-modern society, however, women still seem to get the brunt of the pain.

According to a recent study published by the University of Michigan, approximately 115,000 women nationwide lose their health insurance coverage as a direct result of the divorce process.  Of these, some 65,000 never re-gain coverage.

The study was conducted by Bridget Lavelle, a UM sociology doctoral candidate.  Ms. Lavelle examined literature and data from survey respondents who divorced between the years 1996 and 2007.  The December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior will feature the study.

Lavelle postulates that women's loss of health insurance benefits is not just a temporary disruption resulting from the divorce process.  Rather, she concludes that the loss of health insurance coverage for women is a long-term problem that compounds the economic losses of divorced women.

What's worse is that mid-income women have the greatest risk of loss of coverage because they do not qualify for Medicaid or other safety-net coverage options available to lower income divorcees.

We here at the Law Blogger wonder what effect Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act will have on this equation next year when everyone must carry insurance by mandate of federal law.

When facing a divorce, if you are at risk of losing your health insurance coverage, consider demanding some form of short-term alimony payments sufficient to cover the 3-year period of COBRA available from your spouse's employer.  Or, in the alternative, shop for comparable affordable health insurance.

The short-term alimony approach will at least cover women during the initial transition from marriage when, as posited by Ms. Lavelle, they are most at risk to lose health insurance coverage, and suffer even greater economic hardships as a result.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Grey Divorcee

A recent study published by the Bowling Green State University concludes that divorce has replaced widowhood as the primary reason many seniors are single later in life.  No surprise there, as the United States has long held the highest divorce rate in the world.

As the baby-boomer generation ages, more of its members have been divorced than in any prior generation at any point in history.  Add to this the more complex marital biographies of average baby-boomers [second marriage, recently divorced, ever divorced], and you cannot ignore the growing prevalence of divorce in our society.

The study concludes that as widowhood has declined over the past two decades, the divorce rate among the middle-aged and seniors has doubled.  Also of note in this demographic is that, among divorced seniors, they achieved this status much earlier in their lives than in the past.

Another conclusion drawn by this study is that over the next two decades, as the growth of the "older" population accelerates, so will the divorce rate among mature adults.

One option to consider is separate maintenance.  This option, although not for everyone, has the advantage of allowing an unemployed spouse to maintain health insurance coverage.  In most cases, this saves the unemployed spouse approximately $500 per month by not having to  pay an insurance premium.

If you are over 50 and facing the tough options of divorce in Oakland County, contact us for a free consult. We can  provide you with answers to your questions and concerns.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Double-Dipping for Alimony

The original "double-dip".
Many of us, when we think of “double-dipping,” immediately envision George Costanza nonchalantly eating chips and dip at a boring party. He bites the chip, dips, bites again, dips again, oblivious and happy.

Meanwhile, a fellow party-goer and disgusted onlooker cannot contain the impulse to put a stop to this obvious dip-contaminating behavior and confronts George. Inane hilarity ensues; check it out here.  [Note: Post-Seinfeld generation and long-time Seinfeld enthusiasts – you’re welcome.]

Double-dipping, in the world of family law, typically refers to the way assets are valued in the division of a marital estate.  A recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision, Loutts v Loutts, addresses this issue of “double-dipping” in the spousal support context.

This divorce case originated in the Washtenaw County family court.  One of the main issues in the case was how to determine an appropriate spousal support award where the marital assets included a business valued at more than a quarter million dollars.

The husband started, owned, and operated the business. When the family court awarded half of the business value to his wife, the question became: what income should be imputed to husband now that half the value of the business had been conveyed to wife?

When determining spousal support, the parties’ incomes must be determined so that the family court may decide how to equitably balance the incomes. The Michigan Court of Appeals has articulated a balancing test such that:
the primary purpose of spousal support is to balance the parties’ incomes and needs such that neither party will be impoverished, and spousal support must be based on what is just and reasonable considering the circumstances.
The family court can only perform this balance test on a case-by-case basis – typically unwilling to follow any bright-line rules for determining the rate and term of a spousal support award.

The family court in Loutts, after awarding wife half the value of the business, imputed approximately $130,000 income to husband.  This imputed income was utilized to “equitably balance” the incomes of the parties.

In doing so, the family court judge relied on case law to determine that “the value of a business may be used for the purpose of either property distribution or spousal support, but not both.” On appeal, wife argued that the court should have used the full-value of the business in determining her spousal support award.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, remanding this issue back to the family court for a re-determination of spousal support based upon the specific facts and circumstances of the case.  In their opinion, the Court of Appeals stated that the trial court’s reliance upon the Heller v Heller case was misplaced to the extent that, “the appellate court stated that its determination that a double-dip was inequitable was based on the facts of that case alone and was not a determination that double-dipping is never permissible.”  [The emphasis is ours.]

The obvious "take-away" from this recent case is that, when it comes to determining spousal support, bright-line rules simply do not apply. Rather, the family court judge should consider a variety of factors, including: the conduct of the parties, their ability to work, their ages, needs, health, present situation, prior standard of living, ability to pay alimony, and general principles of equity.

Double-dipping might be ok – given specific factual and equitable circumstances.  Exactly what those circumstances are remains a fuzzy, mutable, arguable enigma, ripe for the art of legal persuasion.

The one constant is that each case before the family court is unique and should be considered so by the judge.

Also of note in the Loutts decision is that the Court of Appeals wasted no time in upholding a 3-year non-compete provision that applied to the business and to which wife agreed, but appealed.  The Court held that you get what you bargain for.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Former Lesbian Finds Religion Kidnaps Child

This case from Vermont displays some of the worst features of a parent taking family law into her own hands.  It is one thing for a parent to denounce her same-sex union and her lesbianism; it is entirely another to then plunge into a "born-again" culture, kidnapping her child to Central America and removing her from the other legal parent.

The case of Lisa Miller, Janet Jenkins and their 10-year old daughter, Isabella, is in the headlines as the Mennonite pastor that assisted Miller in fleeing the country goes on trial today in federal court in Burlington, Vermont.  No one knows where Miller and Isabella are today; Jenkins has not seen her daughter in over 3-years.

The civil union between the two women began to deteriorate 8-years ago when Miller denounced lesbianism in favor of her born-again conversion into a conservative Christian sect known as the Beachy Amish Mennonites.  Miller moved with Isabella to Virginia to be near church headquarters and tried to terminate Ms. Jenkins' parental rights.

The resulting protracted family court battle, waged in two state courts, resulted in an order of the Vermont Supreme Court granting custody to Jenkins; the Vermont ruling was honored and upheld by the courts in Virginia, where Miller tried to plead her cause.

Apparently, Miller had a change-of-heart regarding the family she created with Jenkins, and the lifestyle to which the parents belonged.  Once Miller "found God" within the conservative Christian Mennonite sect, she saw lesbianism as an "addiction" and found her partner to be an unfit parent who would not be allowed into heaven because she lived, in sin, with women.

At that point, as is so often the case with folks who find religion later in life, no laws of man or high court rulings could hold her back from her religious convictions.  In Virginia, Miller was employed for a time at Liberty Christian Academy, a school with close ties to Liberty University, the conservative christian college founded by Jerry Falwell.

Miller was represented in the family courts in the two states by lawyers from the Liberty Counsel, affiliated with the Liberty University's School of Law.  Her lawyers took the position that Virginia law, not Vermont law, should apply to the custody dispute in this case on the basis that the latter state "recognized as a parent a person that is not a parent", contrary to "biblical truths."  Virginia does not recognize same-sex unions as Vermont does.

Nevertheless, the Virginia family court and appellate courts ultimately ruled that Vermont properly had jurisdiction of the case.  When the Vermont family court judge ordered a parenting schedule that Miller refused to follow, he changed custody of the child to Jenkins in Vermont.

Shortly after this custody ruling, Miller disappeared with her daughter to Nicaragua.

Stay tuned to see how the federal jury that is being selected today in Virginia decides the fate of the local pastor that assisted Miller with fleeing the country, and whether Miller and her daughter will ever turn-up.

Clashes over child custody, lifestyle and religion; this case features all that and then some.  But we here at the Law Blogger must insist that it is never a good idea to take the law into your own hands.  That principle holds true whether you are the parent, or the pastor.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Contempt in the Family Court

Just prior to the July 4th holiday, the Michigan Court of Appeals decided an unpublished case that has caught our eye.  This case, Klass vs Klass, details the custody battle of a family from Midland County.

The case is notable, not because of the incredible dysfunction demonstrated by the parents of the minor children, particularly the mother, but because the guts of this 10-page decision lays out the legal background behind the "contempt of court" sanction in the context of family court.

This blog has noted a trend of recent Court of Appeals cases holding that a parent's selection of a "significant other" can be greatly regulated by the family court.  If a parent elects to ignore a family court's ruling, that parent, as in this case, can be jailed and fined.  These rulings will be upheld by the Court of Appeals.

As a divorce lawyer with 24-years experience, I realize that parents often do not "play fair" in the family court system, and even good parents sometimes lose sight of the true best interests of their children.  It's one thing, however, to have a legitimate difference of opinion as to those interests; it's another thing altogether when a parent places their own interests above those of the children.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Military Divorce: Part I

This post is the first in a three-part series addressing divorce in the context where one or both spouses are in the military.  With so many returning servicemembers, our hope is to provide some guidance for those who find that their pre-deployment marriage is no longer tenable.

Divorce is a painful enough when it’s relatively straightforward—a couple living in the same state, no children, pre-nuptial agreements, etc. However, when one of the divorcing spouses is a member of the armed services, a series of other complications exist. 

Laws, codes and manuals all contain regulations intended to protect both service members and their soon-to-be former spouses. Generally, the various branches of the armed services view divorce as a civil matter best left for state family courts to sort out. One exception, where the armed services can become directly involved (addressed in a later post), involves adultery.

What Law Governs?

First things first.  What law do we need to look at when diving into divorce among military members? For the most part, the laws of the state court where the divorce is occurring govern divorces involving military spouses. However, there are two federal statutes that anyone facing the prospect of a military divorce should be aware of.

The first law is the Uniformed Services Former Spouses Protection Act (USFSPA). Passed in 1982, the law serves the exact function its title suggests—protecting ex-spouses by ensuring they don’t lose entitlement to benefits gained from having been married to a military spouse. 

In particular, the law allows state courts to divide military pensions as marital property. This does not mean that an ex-spouse will automatically receive a portion of her service member husband’s (or visa versa) benefits. However, it does give the courts the option to award the ex-spouse a portion of the benefits if the laws of the state and the interests of justice allow it. There are certain limitations to the amount of benefits an ex-spouse will receive, but that will be discussed later.

Another law of import is the Servicemember’s Civil Relief Act. One of the main purposes of this law is to suspend court proceedings that would “adversely affect the civil rights of service members during their military service.” In other words, the law protects those in the military from the proverbial rock and a hard place that can occur when military service conflicts with pressing civil obligations, in this case, divorce proceedings. Articles 522 and 524 are particularly pertinent.

Section 522 allows any active or recently released (active service must have ended within the previous 90 days) service member to ask for a stay of any civil proceedings. The service member will have to explain how “current military duty requirements materially affect the service member’s ability to appear and stat[e] a date when the service member will be available to appear.” Section 524 allows the court, either on its own or at the behest of a service member, to stay a judgment or vacate any court order (such as a garnishment) if it can be shown that the member’s active military service prevented him or her from complying with the original judgment or order.

There are a few other important documents that require mention in any discussion of military divorce procedure. The Uniform Code of Military Justice gives military tribunals jurisdiction over all armed service members. While it generally does not cover divorce, there is one provision that is often used to prosecute adultery, which we will tackle later. The Manual for Courts-Martial is an executive order that provides administrative rules to enforce the UCMJ and also has a section directly addressing adultery. 

Over the next two weeks, the Law Blogger will post the rest of this series for our readers affected by, or interested in the military divorce.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sex Offender Status Now Terminates Parental Rights

Murder, felonious assault resulting in serious injury to a child, voluntary manslaughter; these are convictions that cause parents to lose their parental rights while doing time in the penitentiary.  Now add to that list: registration on the Sex Offender Registry.

As of May 1, the applicable statute now states that the Department of Human Services is not required to take "reasonable efforts" to unify parent with child if the parent is required to register as a sex offender under what is known as SORA.

Of course, some controversy has surrounded this legislation.  On the one hand, critics observe that family court judges can now essentially terminate parental rights for no reason other than the SORA requirement.  On the other hand, those same family court judges apparently have the discretion to order the DHS to make "reasonable efforts" to reunify parent and child, same as always.  Apparently, in the passage of this law, there was significant consideration given to obtaining federal grant money available if this was the law in Michigan.

This leads to some interesting implications for us criminal defense attorneys.  For example, Ionia County Family Court Judge David Hoort asks:
In criminal cases does this then require advising a defendant that his/her plea to an offense resulting in registration under the SORA could result in a termination of his/her parental rights?  Even if unrelated to the existing charge?  
That's a good question.  No surprise that SORA will continue delivering harsh consequences for those caught-up in its net.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Boyfriend's Background Check Refusal Causes Child Custody Modification

In this modern day, it is very important to know with whom your children are associating.  Danger lurks everywhere, including in the home next door, down the street, across town, or across the country.

Earlier this week, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued an opinion for publication [meaning that it now binds all lower courts] in a case from the Newago County Family Court.  The case, Mitchell v Mitchell, holds that a Mother's refusal to abide by a family court's ruling to provide a background check on her live-in boyfriend is "just cause" to modify custody.

In Mitchell, the parents divorced and Mother eventually moved to Texas.  Apparently, Mom's boyfriend was instrumental in the all-too-common process of alienation directed at the non-relocating parent.  Mom did not fire-up the Skype and botched a few Texas to Michigan trips, as ordered by the family court at the time it granted leave for the relocation.

Most importantly, however, Mom and her boyfriend refused to provide the court-ordered background check.  This proved fatal to her custody case and now, Dad has the kids.  What a mess.

From time to time, our law firm gets cases where one parent, in moving on to other relationships, exhibits risky behavior relative to the selection of his or her live-in partner.  In such cases, what can the other parent do; just sit back and wait for the damage to be done?

Now, thanks to the published Mitchell decision, one safeguard that can be requested is for the family court to order a background check of the individual.  If used properly, this device will provide some information that would otherwise be unavailable.

A competing concern is, of course, the privacy of the individual.  This ruling can, and no doubt will, be used offensively and improperly as often as it is used in the fashion intended by the 3-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals.

All we here at the Law Blogger can say about that is: is he or she really worth it?  Best to err on the side of caution for the safety of the children.

In our practice, we routinely counsel clients to take it slow when it comes to introducing young children to the new "significant other".  Divorce is unsettling enough; the new person is most often seen by the kids, even when nice, as a threat.  They may repress their anxiety in order to gain approval from the relocating parent.

What a mess we can make right in our own kitchens.

The best defense to all of this is to exercise good judgment and to err on the side of putting the kids first; something that Kate Mitchell was found not to have done.  In so doing, she has unwittingly handed us family law attorneys a defensive weapon which can be wielded in the protection of the children.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Divorce in the UK: Plenty of Fault to Go Round

London, England Divorce Attorney 
Vanessa Lloyd Platt
Here in Michigan, we have a "no fault" divorce system.  In many ways, the divorce process has been transformed into a largely administrative process that takes place outside the courtroom; this is a good thing.

In the UK, from where our common law system is derived, the divorce process remains fault-based.  Courtroom prowess is purchased in order to convince others to take of dim view of one's spouse.

Sunday's NYT profiled an already high-profile UK divorce attorney; Vanessa Lloyd Platt.  Although below the fold in Easter Sunday's paper, Ms. Platt, who practices in London, England, was nevertheless on the front page in an article featuring the fault component to the UK's divorce laws.

While most experienced divorce lawyers could, "write a book", Ms. Lloyd Platt's "war stories" are remarkable.  Take, for example, the client who sought a divorce because her husband demanded she dress and speak Klingon.  Yep, or the client that sued because his wife would only serve him his least favorite dish, tuna casserole, for month's on end.  Yum, and then there was the husband that refused to speak with his wife for 15-years, communicating solely via post-it notes.  Note to hubby: "get a life".

The family court judges in counties throughout Michigan would not care to hear such drivel.  Their UK counterparts, however, are compelled to sit through the details in order to assess fault in their divorce cases.  This feature of the storied UK legal system was the subject of some recent criticism propounded by Judge Mathew Thorpe, sitting on London's Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals judge was perhaps prompted to make the critical remarks on the record when forced to review a case that featured: alleged tampering with a television antenna; control of the household washing machine; and the wife's "revulsion for intensely farmed meat."

The legal issue in the case involved the existence of "fault" as a legal basis for a judgment of divorce.  In the UK, a divorce can only be granted upon an evidentiary showing that one of several categories of fault is established by the spouse lodging the divorce proceeding with the court.  In other words, they take the plaintiff's burden of production and persuasion seriously across the pond.

In turn, Judge Thorpe's remarks may have emboldened Ms. Lloyd Platt to lead the drive to chuck the "old-school" requirement of demonstrating fault in a divorce proceeding.   The London lawyer's campaign has included a published list of some of the most outrageous and remarkable cases of fault she and her UK colleagues could conjure.

The no-fault system works very well.  Our county family courts here in Michigan are well served by devoting scarce judicial resources to a determination of the "best interests" of the parties' children and an equitable property settlement.  There should be no occasion to air the details of a beauty contest turned pissing match.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Shariah Law and Divorce

In an unpublished decision released in the middle of last month, the Michigan Court of Appeals found fault with the Wayne County Family Court in a divorce case that touched on the application of Shariah law.

Specifically, the Hammoud case involved the imposition of spousal support in a realaitively short-term marriage. The Court of Appeals was troubled that the family court conditioned the duration of the "open ended" support on wife obtaining an "Islamic divorce" decree, noting:
As structured by the trial court, plaintiff has no incentive to become self-sufficient or to vigorously pursue an Islamic divorce as she is assured an ongoing income ad infinitum.  The trial court also failed to address or seek further clarification of plaintiff’s contention that she was in possession of a document that would permit others to assist or assure her the attainment of an Islamic divorce without defendant’s consent.  Plaintiff indicated that an agreement existed that would permit her brother and brother-in-law to authorize the Islamic divorce, potentially rendering it within plaintiff’s control to prolong her receipt of spousal support.
The implication, as held by the Court of Appeals, was that the family court pressured the husband into agreeing to an Islamic divorce when, under the establishment clause, it had no power to do so.

The Court of Appeals was not impressed with the lower court, the litigants, or their attorneys.  The case also featured an [untranslated] Arabic language prenuptial agreement proffered by husband to support his position that his wife agreed to forgo any spousal support.

The Hammoud case received national attention with a reference in Law Professor Eugene Volokh's law blog; the Volokh Conspiracy.

We here at the Law Blogger agree that family court is not the place for the implication or enforcement of religious laws; that is for the house of worship and is a private matter between the litigants.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What Happens to Cryopreserved Embryos After A Divorce?

In happier times, the Stratfords, Jude and Jayane, did what an increasing number of marital couples are doing; they froze one of Jayane's eggs that had been fertilized by Jude's sperm; i.e. they cryopreserved an embryo.  When the dust settled in their subsequent St. Clair County divorce proceeding, the now-divorced couple realized they had forgotten to address their frozen embryo in the consent judgment of divorce.

Jude went back to the family court seeking permission to allow an anonymous couple to utilize the single fertilized and frozen egg.  Jayane objected, asserting her desire to donate the embryos for research.

After carefully balancing the respective interests of the parties following an evidentiary hearing, St. Clair County Family Court Judge Elwood Brown concluded that Jude held a "superior interest" in the embryo, and promulgated a thoroughly-researched opinion and order on this ground-breaking topic that has no precedent in Michigan's statutory or common law.

Judge Brown ruled that: "[Father] may provide for the embryo to be donated anonymously by the fertility clinic for the purpose of adoption by another willing couple."  Jayane appealed Brown's ruling to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The MCOA reversed the family court in an unpublished and thus non-binding per curiam decision, holding that the lower court erred by obligating the fertility clinic, not a party to the Statford divorce, and further held that the family court order was too vague relative to Father's right/duty to donate the fertilized egg to another "willing couple".

The appellate court was particularly troubled by the lack of a contract between the divorced parties and the fertility clinic.  Addressing the family court's creation of duties to a non-party, the MCOA stated:

Aside from the permissive nature of the order, the order imposed upon the clinic several obligations that the clinic may be unwilling to accept or unable to perform.  For example, the record does not indicate whether the clinic is able to make the embryo available for adoption.  Similarly, the record contains nothing to demonstrate that the clinic is willing or able to accept the order’s apparent restriction that the embryo be adopted only by a willing couple.  In addition, the record does not identify who, if anyone, is currently paying for any of the clinic’s costs arising from cryogenic preservation until a “willing couple” is available for adoption.  We are further left to assume from this record that there is preservation in fact, viability, and, non-abandonment of the embryo.  Moreoever, in the event plaintiff opts not to donate the embryo, the record does not indicate whether the clinic is willing or able to continue to preserve the embryo indefinitely.

In so ruling, the MCOA compared the Statford's circumstances with an earlier "zygote" case from 1999, Bohn v Ann Arbor Fertility Clinic, which involved a similar family court "custody" dispute, along with a companion "breach of contract" cause of action.

In each case, the Court of Appeals focused on the agreement, or lack thereof, between the biological donors and the fertility clinic.  In deciding each case, the MCOA emphasized the poor quality of the lower court record relative to upholding the plaintiff's claims or, in the Stratford case, the lower court's rationale.

Nor did the Stratford panel endorse the lower court's "balance of interests test", ruling that such was within the purview of the legislature and not the courts.  We here at the Law Blogger heartily agree.

Stay tuned to see whether either party applies for leave to further appeal or whether there will be additional proceedings in the family court.

Also stay tuned to see whether our state legislature passes legislation to address the proprietary rights of zygotes, oocytes, and other pre-embryonic cells.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Should Your Divorce Go To Trial

Yesterday, I was sure that I was going to spend the entire day in a divorce trial; my first in a quarter century of practice. Didn't happen.

Why? Because trial in divorce rarely makes sense. This case, in Genesee County, had it all: a GAL for the minor children; a joint bankruptcy in the middle of the proceedings; two [failed] mediation sessions; motions from each side, jousting for the entry of temporary support and parenting orders.

The case was positioned for trial because both sides held onto rigid positions on many of the issues important in any divorce proceeding: custody, parenting time, child support, alimony and debt apportionment. My law clerk, a third year student at Wayne State, prepared an excellent trial brief; she had compiled a trial notebook, and we were prepared and ready to go.

As the case was the oldest on Judge Kay Behm's docket [18-months], I knew it was going to resolve one way or another.

The case did resolve, after 8-hours in the courtroom, because each of the parents made common-sense, strategic compromises. In the end, the parents each looked past their own personal wounds, and their self-centered agendas, and took into account the best interests of their minor children.

Don't get me wrong, I would rather conduct a trial than spend the entire day as I did yesterday, painstakingly going over, discussing, negotiating, and resolving every aspect of a failed marriage and the flotsam that goes along with it. But as a divorce lawyer, I keep the best interests of the client in mind. Trial almost never makes sense.

So it may be that when I finally retire, I will have never conducted a divorce trial. Actually, that is a client-service goal of mine.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Narcissus Gets A Divorce

Narcissus admires his reflection.
In my decades of divorce practice, I've encountered folks who, if a psychological evaluation was completed, would be characterized as having narcissistic personality disorder.  A few of these peeps have been clients; others have been on the opposing side.

Either way, everyone involved is in for a rough ride.

Over the past several years, "narcissism" has also taken on a connotation-du-jour.  The diagnosis being made by dime-store psychologists (i.e. parties to family court litigation) whenever the object takes an opposing or contrary view. 

What is narcissim, really?

According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissistic personality disorder is "characterized by dramatic, emotional behavior, which is in the same category as antisocial and borderline personality disorders."   A person with this personality disorder may exhibit some of the following characteristics, according to the Clinic:
  • Believing you are better than others;
  • Fantasizing about your success, power and attractiveness;
  • Exaggerating your achievements or talents;
  • Expecting constant praise and admiration;
  • Ignoring other's feelings and emotions;
  • Believing and acting like you are really, really special;
  • Taking advantage of others;
  • Expecting others to go along with your often super-sized schemes and plans;
  • Exhibiting jealousy toward others;
  • Believing others are jealous of you;
  • Unable to maintain healthy inter-personal relationships;
  • Easily hurt or rejected;
  • Fragile self-esteem
If you know someone with more than a few of these traits, run.  If you are married to such a person, get ready for the inevitable divorce proceeding when you finally throw in the towel, realizing that your spouse will never change. 

If you are a lawyer representing such a person, affix your chin strap and bring a lunch.

In the divorce context, the narcissist fares quite poorly.  The above-listed features of this personality disorder are routinely identifed and rigorously addressed by family court professionals. 

In this process, the personality flaws of the narcissist are forced itno the lab for a full-on forensic evaluation.  Many of the tools in the family court professional's arsenal will be brought to bear upon the conduct of the narcissist in an effort to force short-term modification, and to achieve a stable platform.

Some red flags that I've gleaned over the years: a narcissist will change lawyers often, blaming the status of the case on the mistakes of prior legal counsel.  Also, the register of actions in the case of a narcissist will often be a mile long, peppered with hearings, motions, and more hearings.

When a narcissist is embroiled in a divorce proceeding, the children are used as pawns.  Any input from the Friend of the Court [either via a referee, family counselor, or social worker] or from a therapist, is rejected; the narcissistic parent must be dragged to court, kicking, screaming and cursing.

In the years leading up to such a divorce, the other spouse will often report being chronically verbally abused and bullied by the narcissist.  In fact, this dynamic will set the initial tone of the proceeding.

The process will next feature a series of attempts, which will take some time, where the professionals try to arrest the insidious and pervasive conduct of the narcissist.  Arrest, but not change; this person will not change.

The other spouse many times will exhibit classic signs of emotional abuse during this painful process: low self-esteem, exhaustion, a desire to give up or give in.  This person needs a strong focused divorce lawyer.

And counseling. 

During the divorce process, the other spouse is well advised to minimize the face-to-face contacts with the narcissist.  If children are involved, then communicate through emails and texts. 

If you feel threatened at home or during parenting exchanges, seek exclusive use of the marital home.  If you are separated, use a neutral transition point for the parenting exchanges; most family court judges will grant such a request simply to err on the side of everyone's safety.

Finally, stay focused on the process knowing that the process will eventually come to an end.  The Michigan Supreme Court has mandated that county family courts conclude divorce proceedings within a year.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nagging Outstrips Adultery as Primary Engine of Divorce

Toward the end of last month, you may have noted the stir that a WSJ article caused over the issue of nagging and its toxic effect on marriages. The article concluded that nagging may have more potential to bust apart couples than adultery.

As a divorce attorney in the third decade of practice, I’ve witnessed many clients complain about their spouse’s nagging; and about their cheating.  It is impossible to say which is more toxic to a marital union.

Nagging, as a relationship dynamic, is all about a breakdown of communication, and an attempt to reassert control.  The article clearly stated that it was women who did the nagging while men were on the receiving end.  The “experts” interviewed for the article opined that this was because of a woman’s role as a “manager” of the family; meanwhile men tend to, “feel like a little boy being scolded by his mother.”

For their part, women complain that, when they ask about something, they just want it handled. 

Problems arise, however, when a couple takes it to the next level, and begin to argue about the nagging, rather than the root problem.  Communication breakdown.

If a couple, even a committed couple, does not learn how to cope with the dynamic, they often wind up divorced in the long-run.  Professor Howard Markman of the University of Denver, cited and quoted in the WSJ article, says nagging is the “enemy of love”.

The real barometer here is the 400-plus comments on the article; they are hilarious.  Take a look for yourself.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Military Divorces for Returning Soldiers

As our soldiers return from war in the Middle East, many cases of post traumatic stress disorder are becoming manifest.  Often, the PTSD shatters an already fragile marriage, strained to the break point from years long separation.

Many soldiers, having survived the war, come home only to be placed in a trick bag: struggling with PTSD while their marriage falls apart.  To complicate things even more, there are special rules that apply to military divorces.

The psychology of both partners to the marriage is affected by the homecoming.  The state-side spouse absorbed 100% responsibility for managing household tasks, child rearing, education, and all other domestic issues.  A sense of independence may have seeped into the spouse's "mindset" that often requires an adjustment when the other partner returns from war.

For his part, the returning soldier needs time and some space to decompress from war; especially if the individual is not only returning state-side, but also discharging from the armed forces.

If the soldier's deployment was for several years, a spouse may have developed an "interim relationship" which must now be dissolved if the marriage is going to survive.  Many do not.

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) [formerly known as the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act] is a federal statute that governs issues of defaulted servicemembers and the related stay of proceedings in divorce actions.  One feature of SCRA is that divorcing servicemembers are entitled to have the judge appoint them an attorney in the family court.  Interestingly, however, the statute is silent as to the scope of the appointed attorney's duties and her right to compensation for services rendered.

In a military divorce, support is also governed by federal regulations; each branch of the armed services has promulgated policies in the form of regulations that require the servicemember to provide adequate support for family members.  To calculate support, the servicemember's "leave and earnings statement" must be obtained and deciphered.

To enforce a support order, the support payee must turn to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.  The DFAS website has references to garnishment resources and information on designated agents.

Custody issues are resolved, for now, in accord with the state laws governing this issue within a divorce proceeding.  Many states have specific provisions within their custody statutes that deal with a servicemember.

Congress, however, has been considering various amendments to SCRA that would federalize custody issues arising within military divorces.  The ABA has prepared a "white paper" on the subject.