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.