COVID-19 Update- What can now be done in your divorce and family law matter

COVID-19 UPDATE-  Starting Monday, May 25, 2020, the Supreme Court will be allowing new, non-essential matters to be filed via e-filing.  This means new divorces can now be calendared and processed.  As there is expected to be an overwhelming amount of new cases filed, it is recommended that you file as soon as possible for your case to be heard as expeditiously as possible.

While Family Courts are still only hearing emergency/essential applications, Family Courts on Long Island are allowing Support Petitions to be mailed in to preserve the filing date for retroactive awards.

If you are seeking a divorce or have a family law matter that needs attention, please contact Rachel Silberstein, Esq. to get started!

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What Legal Actions can be Taken During the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Quarantine

We are currently in the midst of week 3 of the COVID-19 “pause” in New York State, and the question on everyone’s mind is “when will things get back to normal?”  Unfortunately it seems that the pause will not be lifted any time soon, as the number of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths throughout the state (and particularly throughout the city) continue to rise.
 It is easy to feel helpless in times like this, when it seems we do not have much control over our lives.  This feeling becomes even more pronounced if you are trapped at home in an unhappy or abusive relationship, if you have lost your job and cannot meet your support obligations or you have concerns about releasing your child for parenting time in the midst of this pandemic.
 Although courts are currently closed, there are still actions that can be taken to help you.  The following is not an exhaustive list.  Please contact us with any questions or if you are in need of legal services.
 Divorce Actions:    While the Court is not currently accepting applications for new index numbers, we can still help you get started on your divorce matter. 
 The date a divorce action is commenced is extremely important, as it “stops the clock” on the accumulation of marital assets, and is often used as the retroactivity date for any support orders. As the Court is not able to process new actions at the present time, it is unclear how retroactivity/commencement date issues will be handled once the Court resumes normal functions.  It is possible that the Court will look at what evidence there was of intent to start an action during the time the Court was closed, and deem that the commencement date.  This “evidence” could include the date an attorney was retained and/or the date your spouse was notified of your intent to seek a divorce.
 
If you choose to retain us for a new divorce action, we can begin work on certain aspects of your divorce despite not being able to purchase an index number.  These aspects include negotiations with your spouse or their attorney, demanding and exchanging discovery, and exchanging settlement proposals.  If we are able to come to an agreement and resolve the aspects surrounding your divorce, we can draft and have you sign a separation agreement, which acts as a binding contract.  NY executive order No. 202.7 allows a document to be notarized using audio-visual technology, and will have the same force and effect as if it were notarized in person.
Mediation:  If you are seeking to initiate, or continue mediation, all appointments and meetings can be conduct through zoom, google hangouts, skype, or a variety of other digital meeting platforms.  In the event all terms are agreed upon, a separation agreement could be drafted, signed and notarized, as explained above, which would be a binding contract.  The divorce packet could be prepared and would simply need to be filed once the Court resumes normal function.
 Modifications to Child Support: While the Courts are not hearing non-emergency cases, certain counties are allowing attorneys to file petitions to modify child support by email in order to preserve retroactivity dates.  Other counties are allowing us to send in petitions by mail, using the postmark as a guide. 
 
In addition to filing petitions/preserving retroactivity dates, we can help you negotiate with your co-parent and speak with the Support Collection Unit to go over your options if your income has been altered due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
 Domestic Violence: There has been a surge of domestic abuse since people have essentially become trapped in their homes with their abusers.  If you are in immediate danger, call the police and/or seek refuge at a shelter.  The Courts are hearing emergency cases, including Family Court applications for temporary orders of protection, which could order the offender out of the home.  New York City is currently running virtual court hearings on emergency applications to reduce foot traffic inside the courthouse.  If you do not have access to the internet, you can call in to the hearing on the telephone.
 
Parenting Time during this “Pause”: Although the governor has directed us to limit our exposure to people and remain home as much as possible, little guidance has been offered on how to handle children being shuffled between homes, and custody and visitation orders remain in full force and effect.  Justice Jeffrey Sunshine of the Kings County Supreme Court wrote an article in the New York Law Journal warning parents that using this pandemic as a means to obstruct parenting time, or come between a relationship between a child and there parent, could have dire consequences and could even result in a change in custody. 
 But what if there is a legitimate concern for the child (or parent’s) health?  My last article covers this very concern, and while we have no definitive answers as to how the Court would address such an issue, it is imperative that the child’s well-being be at the forefront of both parents actions.  During this time, we can help you negotiate with your child’s parent or their attorney to achieve an outcome that will ensure your child’s health and well-being, while maintain the child’s relationship with both parents.
 Don’t succumb to that feeling of helplessness.  We are ready, willing and able to help you with your legal needs.  Please contact us today with any and all questions.  

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Custody and Parenting Time Amid the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Outbreak and Quarantine

The last couple of weeks have marked new and uncharted territory in all New Yorker’s lives. Governor Cuomo has issued sweeping executive orders on a weekly, if not daily basis, restricting more and more businesses and group activities, as the state attempts to get the Coronavirus outbreak under control. Amongst the most recent orders is a directive that all non-essential workers stay home, and that New Yorkers stay in their homes as much as possible.

So how does this apply to shared parenting time when children’s parents are separated? Is the non-custodial parent still permitted to exercise their parenting time? Will the custodial parent risk being deemed in violation of a court order if they determine that it is not in the child’s best interest to leave the home? The answer is not straight-forward.

The first priority should be the health and safety of everyone involved. How many people live in the non-custodial parent’s home? Are any of them sick? Has anyone in the non-custodial parent’s home been exposed to the Coronavirus? Is the child or anyone in the custodial parent’s home high risk? Does public transportation need to be utilized in order to transport the child from one home to the other? These are just some of the factors that should be considered when determining the best course of action.

Ideally, parents should come up with a game plan together, but this is not always possible. Attorneys for Children appear reluctant to weigh in on this issue and be held responsible if they make the wrong call. If, either by agreement or over objection, it is determined that the child should need leave the home for an extended amount of time, other modes of communication, especially video chat, should be used as often as possible. Additionally, a log should be kept of all missed visits, and the custodial parent should be prepared for the non-custodial parent to exercise make-up time once the threat of COVID-19 has passed.

While the Courts are not currently entertaining non-emergency applications, those who plan to use the shutdown to defy court orders and withhold their children without good cause should bear in mind that doing so could come at a very hefty price. This situation is temporary. The Courts will resume their functions, and judges with backed up schedules will not be happy to hear that someone used this crisis as a means to wilfully disobey a court order and keep a child from having meaningful contact with their other parent. Consequences to these actions could be as severe as loss of custody.

If you are not sure how to handle your parenting time schedule in the wake of the Coronavirus quarantine, or you feel that your child is being unjustifiable withheld, please contact us. We can advise you how best to proceed, contact your ex-spouse or their lawyer and attempt to resolve the matter, and document the situation to be addressed when Court is back to running at full capacity.

We wish everyone safety and health during this time.

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How Your Posts on Facebook and Other Social Media Sites Could Affect Your Divorce

HOW YOUR POSTS ON FACEBOOK AND OTHER SOCIAL MEDIA SITES COULD AFFECT YOUR DIVORCE

With the rise of social media comes the rise of people who choose to share intimate and personal details of their life where hundreds, if not thousands, of people could potential see it. At some point in our lives, the majority of us have heard “be careful what you post on Facebook, you never know who will see it.” We’ve heard about employers searching potential employees’ social media sites before hiring them, we’ve read about employees being fired after posting racial slurs or inappropriate photos. Notwithstanding, there are thousands of people that cannot help but air their dirty laundry to anyone who will “listen”. Many feel they are safe as long as their page is private and they can choose who sees their posts. Is this really this case? How can social media posts affect the outcome of your divorce or family law matter?

To answer the above questions: no, your posts are not safe from discovery simply because you make them private, and your posts can influence the outcome of many aspects of your divorce or family law matter. Your posts can be used to contradict a myriad of claims you may make.

For example, in a custody case a court will look at, among other things, who has been the primary caretaker of the child, and who is most likely to facilitate and encourage the relationship between the child and the non-custodial parent. When there is a dispute about these factors, social media posts can prove to be quite revealing. In a 2015 case out of Westchester County, the Court determined that how much a party traveled outside of the city was relevant to the question of how much time the party spent with the child, and ordered that printouts be delivered to the Court of all relevant photos and posts on Facebook with date/location stamps showing how often the party was away. See A.D v. C.A., 16 NYS3d 126 (Westchester Cty. 2015).

In another case out of Monroe County, the court found the Father to be a better candidate for custody and that the Mother was “less fit” and unable to put the needs of the children before her own. This conclusion was reached after Facebook and blog posts were admitted into evidence wherein the Mother badmouthed the Father, calling him a “horrible excuse for a human being” and accused him of being lazy, unemployed, owing child support. Other posts claimed that the children were miserable whenever they were with him. Additionally, the Mother had posted a picture of her hand bandaged after she injured herself, claiming that she lost her temper. See Elissa N. v. Ian B., 930 NYS2d 174 (Monroe Cty, 2011).

Social media posts have not only affected the outcome of custody disputes, they’ve also affected a Court’s determination on the duration/ entitlement to spousal support. In a Staten Island divorce case, the Wife was unemployed and claimed that she was disabled and unable to work. She requested an award of lifetime maintenance, meaning that the husband would have to pay spousal support for the rest of her life. During the course of the trial, over 100 comments on Facebook, as well as blog posts, were admitted depicting the Wife’s involvement in belly dancing. The Court noted that when one commenter asked why the Wife didn’t post any pictures, the Wife responded, “gotta watch what goes online. The ex would love to fry me with that.” Based upon the amount of posts, the time stamps and the indication that the Wife often traveled into Manhattan for belly dancing classes, the Court rejected the Wife’s claim that she was unable to work, and found that she could sit at the computer for great lengths of time and travel into the city. Accordingly, her request for lifetime maintenance was denied, and she was awarded only two years worth of spousal support. See B.M. v. D.M., 927 NYS2d 814 (Richmond Cty, 2011).

Now, to answer the first questions posed: what if the social media posts are private, meaning that only people you choose can see them? This may not matter. The New York Court of Appeals recently (less than one month ago) rejected the notion that the account holder’s privacy settings would govern the scope of discovery and disclosure of social media postings and materials, as this would allow an account holder to obstruct discovery simply by making their account private. This does not mean that the entirety of a social media account is automatically subject to discovery, as this would be overbroad. Rather, the determining question remains “are the materials sought reasonably calculated to contain relevant information?” If the answer is yes, the Court will grant access to the materials whether or not the account is private or public. See Forman v. Henkin, NY Ct of Appeal, February 2018 (not currently published in New York Reports).

So how can you protect yourself? The answer is simple. Refrain from posting anything potentially damaging on social media. While it is tempting to “get people on your side” or humiliate your ex, the cost is far too great.

If you are interested in mediation, or are seeking a matrimonial or family law attorney, please contact Rachel Silberstein, Esq at 646-470-0780 or email her at rachel@rssfamilylaw.com. Consultations are available in Long Island, lower Manhattan or by telephone. Please visit our website at www.rssfamilylaw.com for more information.

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The New Maintenance Cap and What it Means for Your Divorce

 

 

 

THE NEW MAINTENANCE CAP AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR YOUR DIVORCE

If you are going through a divorce, then you are most likely aware of the “maintenance guidelines”, a statutory formula that directs how much maintenance (spousal support), if any, should be paid to the less monied spouse. There is a cap on how much combined income the court is required to apply to this formula (it is in the Court’s discretion to use income over and above this cap). Until January 31, 2018, that cap was $178,000. It has since been increased to $184,000.

What does this mean for your divorce and your how much maintenance you will be awarded (or ordered to pay)? This increase will not affect you unless you and your spouse earn a combined income in excess of $178,000. If you do, and it is determined that one party is entitled to maintenance, then maintenance award may be higher than it may have been with the old cap.

There are two things you should be aware of with respect to this new cap:

1. It applies to all cases, not just those that were commenced subsequent to the new cap taking affect.

2. The Notice of Guideline Maintenance, which is required to be served upon the Defendant along with the Summons after the divorce action is commenced, has been revised to reflect the new cap. You must serve the Defendant with the revised version of the Notice, otherwise you risk having your divorce packet rejected when it comes time to finalize it. For the revised version of the Notice of Guideline Maintenance, click here.

If you are interested in mediation, or are seeking a matrimonial or family law attorney, please contact Rachel Silberstein, Esq at 646-470-0780 or email her at rachel@rssfamilylaw.com. Consultations are available in Long Island, lower Manhattan or by telephone. Please visit our website at www.rssfamilylaw.com for more information.

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Getting Through Valentine’s Day While Going Through Divorce

Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays that people either love or hate. If you are involved in a new, budding romance, you are most likely caught up in the fanfare and looking forward to the big, romantic, public gestures that Valentine’s Day promises. However, those that are single, in a rocky relationship or going through a divorce or separation would just assume Valentine’s Day didn’t exist. In fact there is an entire “Anti-Valentine’s Day” movement complete with events for people that are either single or simply can’t stand the sappy decorations and public displays of affection that go along with the consumer-based holiday.

If you are going through a divorce or separation, or are even contemplating it, you most likely would rather not even acknowledge the existence of Valentine’s Day. However, there are ways to get through the holiday or even find silver-linings when it seems like everyone around you is hopelessly in love. Here is a list of ways to make it through the holiday, and even enjoy it:

1. Remind yourself that you are dissolving this relationship for a reason. Rather than reminiscing about past Valentine’s Days, think about the fact that you are in the process of moving forward to a new beginning, which includes a happier household, a happier you and happier relationships.

2. Valentine’s Day is not just about romantic love, it is about acknowledging all kinds of love in the world. Surround yourself with the people that love you, whether it be family or friends.

3. If you have children, make the holiday about them. Bake cookies/cupcakes, make Valentine’s Day projects, watch a movie together. Relish in the fact that your children are no longer exposed to the tension and fighting that invariably comes along with the end of a marriage. Your children are your greatest loves, and this is a perfect day to celebrate them!

4. If you don’t have children, or they are spending the day with your (soon to be) ex, focus on you! Take a well-deserved break and get together with friends, or have a quiet day at home. Take a relaxing bath, read a good book, or even get a massage.

Remember that while it feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, this too shall pass, and happier days are ahead of you. Valentine’s Day is just a day, and tomorrow it will be forgotten. You are taking the steps necessary to a better life, and for that, you deserve to celebrate!

If you are interested in mediation, or are seeking a matrimonial or family law attorney, please contact Rachel Silberstein, Esq at 646-470-0780 or email her at rachel@rssfamilylaw.com. Consultations are available in Long Island, lower Manhattan or by telephone.  Please feel free to visit our website at www.rssfamilylaw.com for more information.

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The Mediation Process and When You Should (or Should Not) Choose Mediation

As an attorney that has been practicing Matrimonial and Family Law for over ten years, I’ll admit that I was not a big fan of Mediation until recently. I have always been a big proponent of settling cases out of court, but it seemed to me that the best way to do that was to have lawyers for each party representing their best interests, ensuring that every base was covered and that their rights were protected.

Too many times during the course of my career I’ve had a potential client come to me with a mediated agreement that they felt was either not being followed, or they wanted modified. These agreements often had vague terms that made it difficult to interpret, or the terms were so obscure that they were impossible to follow, and even harder to enforce. For that reason, I felt that mediation caused more problems than they solved.

However, as time went on in my career, I started thinking more and more about training in mediation, so I could offer it as an alternative way to resolve a divorce or family law issue. While I am passionate about helping people resolve these problems, a lot of times it feels like litigating these issues create more problems than it solves. My clients are going through some of the worst times in their lives, and litigation often fuels the fire. For example, if a single issue like custody or support cannot be resolved out of court, the only alternative is to make a motion and ask the court to decide. This invariably involves digging up as much dirt as you possibly can about the opposing party and carefully crafting a document that explains why this person is the most awful human being imaginable. In turn, the opposing party then responds to the motion by detailing every awful quality of the other party and explaining why it is actually the other party that is a horrible human being. In short, a lot of times litigation takes a strained relationship and damages it beyond repair, to the point where these people who once promised to love each other forever cannot even be in the same room together.

This kind of “mud-slinging” is just not what I envisioned as a career. At the risk of losing some business, if you are looking for a “shark who will take [your] ex for everything they are worth”, I am probably not the lawyer for you. This is not to say that I cannot be an aggressive lawyer. When the situation calls for it, I can write a mean motion and argue my heart out in Court. I’ve been successful on almost every Objection I’ve filed in Family Court and almost every appeal I’ve made to the Appellate Division. I am especially passionate about children (even more so since I became a mother of 4), and if they are being used as pawns or being alienated from a parent or loved one, I will do everything necessary to expose that in Court and take steps to ensure no more damage is done. However, helping someone get revenge because they’ve been scorned simply is not for me. I want to help untangle the issues surrounding the end of a marriage, not make them worse.

Becoming educated in the mediation process was an eye-opening experience. I assumed that mediation was not much different than having a settlement meeting as an attorney. I was very wrong. It is very rare during a settlement meeting that the clients are actually able to take the lead. The attorneys do all the talking and negotiating, with the parties usually scribbling notes to their attorney while the other side is talking, and either agreeing or disagreeing with what is being said. When we come to an area where we cannot come to an agreement, whether it pertains to dividing assets, support payments or time with the children, it is often resolved by simply “meeting in the middle” for the sole purpose of getting to an agreement, without considering whether or not this resolution really benefits the family.

Conversely, with mediation, it is the parties that take the lead, with the mediator acting to guide the parties to a resolution that works best for them. While knowing the law is certainly helpful, no one is bound to it when determining a solution that works best for your family. In mediation you take the time to explore why each party wants things a certain way, and we usually find out the parties have a lot of common goals: i.e.: they want to make sure their children are taken care of, they want the children to have time with both parents without being shuffled around too much, they want to ensure that their family is supported but they also want to make sure they can pay their own bills. Once this comes out, it often becomes a lot easier to figure out a resolution that everyone is happy with, especially since the parties are on the same team and working towards a common goal, rather than in an adversarial position. A comparison of the two engagement agreements highlights how different the processes are. Click here to see a sample retainer agreement and here to see a sample mediation engagement agreement.

So why do I still practice law? Why don’t I shut down my law practice and concentrate solely on mediation? Unfortunately, not every situation can be mediated, and not every case has two reasonable parties that are able to put their personal feelings aside and figure out what would best work for everyone involved. In order to engage in mediation there needs to be an ability for the parties to speak freely. There cannot be a power struggle between the parties, or someone who is “dominant”. Most importantly, there needs to be a commitment to work things out amicably by both parties. If this is not the case, then mediation will not work, and in that case a lawyer is needed to either help negotiate fair terms or seek court intervention. If you are a candidate for mediation, I believe that my experience as an attorney is invaluable to the mediation process, as I am all too aware of the pitfalls that can lead to the breakdown of an agreement, as well as how to draft the terms of the agreement so that they are clear and easily interpreted, so you hopefully will not have to step foot in a courtroom at a later date.

How do you know if you are a candidate for mediation? Well, first of all, you need to be able to speak with your spouse about whether they are willing to engage in mediation as well. You do not need to be on good terms. Your marriage is ending for a reason. There are many cases in which the marriage has ended due to infidelity or other acts of betrayal. The feelings accompanying the end of the marriage are not ignored, but acknowledged during the mediation process, and the idea is to get to a point where you can move past these feelings and transition to your new roles in each other’s lives, if any.

Mediation is not for you if any of the following applies to your situation:
– you or your spouse are physically, emotionally and/or verbally abusive
– you believe your children are in danger if left alone with your spouse unsupervised
– you or your spouse abuse drugs and/or alcohol
– you or your spouse is financially controlling

Additionally, you and your spouse have to be able to work out for yourselves how the mediation will be paid for. The financial benefit is that you are only paying one fee, rather than each party paying their own attorney. Also, there is no motion practice, nor are there Court appearances, which makes the process cheaper. As each session is paid for at the time of the meeting, you will have to determine who will be making the payment, or if you will be splitting the fee in some fashion. If you cannot come to an agreement on this issue, it is unlikely you will be are ready to mediate the other issues surrounding your divorce 🙂

 

If you are interested in mediation, or are seeking a matrimonial or family law attorney, please contact Rachel Silberstein, Esq at 646-470-0780 or email her at rachel@rssfamilylaw.com. Consultations are available in Long Island, lower Manhattan or by telephone.  Please visit www.rssfamilylaw.com for more information

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Proposed Amendments to Take Guesswork Out of Maintenance Awards

 

maintenance amendments

One major aspect of resolving any divorce is resolving support issues. While child support sometimes becomes complicated, there is a statutory formula that has been in place for decades which governs the calculation of basic child support, as well as contribution to add-ons such as medical expenses, child care and education expenses.

However, the same is not true for maintenance (more widely known as alimony). New York’s Domestic Relations law provides several factors that the Court must consider when determining an award of maintenance, but once these factors are considered, maintenance is largely left up to the discretion of the Court. When the Domestic Relations Law was amended in 2010, a formula was put in place to determine an award of temporary maintenance (i.e. maintenance while the divorce action was pending) but it was made clear that this formula would not be applied when determining post-divorce maintenance and no further guidelines were added to aid in this determination.

Without such a formula, cases in which maintenance is an issue become very hard to resolve, as it is very hard for lawyers to predict with reasonable certainty what a Court would award if the matter went to trial, in terms of both amount and duration of maintenance. Additionally, since temporary maintenance has virtually no bearing on an award of post-divorce maintenance, and there is no “cut-off” point for an award of temporary maintenance, a recipient of a sizeable award of temporary maintenance has no motivation to resolve the matter. In fact, recipients of such an award may be tempted to attempt to prolong the action so they may receive such temporary maintenance for as long as possible.

However, a new bill which was passed by the NY State Senate on June 24, 2015 may put an end to the uncertainty of post-divorce maintenance, as well as the indefinite nature of a temporary maintenance award. Bill number A7645 proposes several amendments to the Domestic Relations Law. The major highlights of the proposed amendment are as follows:

1. The income cap for determining temporary maintenance is reduced from $543,000 to $175,000. The same cap would apply when determining post-divorce maintenance. It will be in the court’s discretion to consider income above this amount when determining temporary maintenance.

2. Two different formulas for determining post-divorce maintenance, not unlike the one for determining temporary maintenance. Which formula is used depends upon whether child support is to be paid, and whether the recipient of such maintenance award is the custodial or non-custodial parent.

3. The Supreme Court has the power to limit the duration of temporary maintenance, and the length of the marriage is one factor that is to be considered when determining such duration.

4. An advisory formula for the duration of post-divorce maintenance would become part of the Domestic Relations Law. It is not required that the Court use this formula, but it is designed to guide the Court in determining duration, and provides ranges to afford the Court more discretion depending upon the circumstances of the case (for example: for a marriage lasting 0-15 years, the duration of maintenance would be 15% -30% of the marriage, or 2.5 – 4.5 years).

For complete details on the proposed bill, as well as to follow the actions taken on this bill, go to http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?default_fld=%0D%0A&bn=A7645&term=2015&Summary=Y&Actions=Y&Memo=Y

If this bill passes, it will take a lot of guesswork out of one of the major ancillary issues of a divorce, and I believe it will aid in settling many cases in which maintenance is an issue.

Any updates on the signing of this bill into law will be reported on this blog, so please stay tuned!

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Supreme Court Ruling on Same-Sex Marriage Necessitates Revision of Custody/Visitation Laws

same sex marriage

Several people are rejoicing today as the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages. This was a big, very important, and long overdue step towards equality in the LGBT community.

However, along with this ruling comes some very poignant questions as to how the children of these couples will be treated, and whether the laws regarding rights to children need to be revamped. A few weeks ago I wrote an article on rethinking the presumption of legitimacy. The recent Supreme Court ruling further supports the argument that it is time for a change in how custody rights are determined.

To sum up the current law in a nutshell: when a mother is married at the time of conception and/or birth of the child, it is presumed that the child is legitimate and the person the mother is married to is the father. This presumption is so strong, it could prevent another man from asserting paternity (or the mother claiming another man is the father) and being entitled to a DNA test.

How will this presumption come into play with same sex couples? New York courts have already dealt with the issue of custody, visitation and support in a few cases, but they don’t seem to be consistent and don’t deal with the fact that these rulings contradict the law and controlling precedent, without actually overruling said law.

Specifically, in 2010, two different cases went before the New York Court of Appeals; one pertaining to child support and one pertaining to visitation rights.  In one case, the Court of Appeals ruled that a woman who gave birth while in a committed same-sex relationship was entitled to child support from her former partner. In the other case, the Court of Appeals ruled that the former partner of a woman who had conceived a child by artificial insemination after the parties entered into a civil union was entitled to seek visitation of the child. However, four years later, the Nassau County Family Court ruled in the completely opposite direction and held that the non-biological parent in a same-sex relationship had no standing to seek custody and/or visitation of an almost two year old child despite the fact that the parties made the decision together to conceive the child, that for almost two years the child knew both parties as his parents, and the parties were married three weeks after the child was born.  Less than a year later, Suffolk County Family Court determined that a woman who was joined to her partner by civil union did have standing to seek visitation right to the child conceived by artificial insemination.

The Courts need direction as they try to determine how to handle these cases. An argument could be made that, now that same-sex marriage must be upheld in all fifty states, the presumption of legitimacy should remain in full force and effect, and, as long as the parties were married at the time of conception and/or birth, both parties would have rights to the child in the event of a break-up. However, the Court of Appeals has already ruled that only a “committed relationship” is required to have rights to a child. After all, it certainly does not seem to be in a child’s best interest to deny the non-biological parent rights to a child after being this child’s caretaker for several years simply because the parties were not married at the time of conception or birth. But this leads to further questions and confusion. What is the definition of committed relationship in this situation? How does this ruling apply to heterosexual couples? Would this confer rights to step-parents that don’t formally adopt children? What about heterosexual couples who are not married that conceive a child with donor sperm? What rights do the other biological parent have?

In the 21st century there is no longer any such thing as a “typical” family. Conferring rights to seek custody and visitation of children by using the presumption of legitimacy and DNA testing only would be a miscarriage of justice for many American families, not to mention the children caught in the middle. While these factors are still important, they only complete a small fraction of the puzzle. At some point Courts and Legislature will have to concede that the law needs to be updated, or the inconsistent rulings will continue and children will continue to be ripped from their parental figures. The remedy must include a best interest analysis for the child. Perhaps it is also time to consider that a child can have more than two legal parents. Only time, several appeals and, unfortunately, many broken families will tell.

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Relocation Issues: How Days of Our Lives Got It Wrong

Many of us watch soap operas, dramas centered around medical issues or dramas centered around legal issues, and we wonder how accurate they are and how much research the writers really did before they wrote about the particular issue. If you’ve ever watched these shows with people that actually work in the profession, you’ve most likely seen them get extremely frustrated while watching these shows. This happened to me while I was watching Days of Our Lives a couple of weeks ago, when one of the characters went to a lawyer for advice regarding a custody and relocation issue, one of the most complicated issues in Family Law.

For those of you that do not watch the show, I will give a very brief rundown of what happened: Brady and Teresa found out they had a son together. Brady and Teresa are not in a relationship. Brady is in love with Melanie. Teresa informed Melanie that if she did not get out of town, she will take her son and move to California. Brady went to a lawyer to find out if he could stop Teresa from doing this. The lawyer (who admitted this was not his area of expertise) informed him that given Brady’s history of drug abuse, his grandfather’s history of illegal activities and past actions towards Teresa’s mother, and notwithstanding Teresa’s history of drug abuse and her attempt to kill Brady’s Father (which was not on record), it was very unlikely a judge would keep Teresa from leaving town with the baby. Based upon this very wrong advice, Melanie left town and Brady, so Teresa would stay in town with the baby.

First, relocation is NEVER an easy issue to determine. A court is required to balance the desires of the custodial parent to move for whatever reason he or she presents, against the desires of the non-custodial parent to continue to be close with their child, parent them on a regular basis and be involved in their life. It is the parent requesting the move that has the burden of presenting the Court with evidence that this move is in the child’s best interests NOTWITHSTANDING the fact that the move would prevent the non-custodial parent from seeing the child on a regular basis. There are several factors that a Court considers when making this determination pursuant to the Court of Appeals case Tropea v. Tropea 87 NY2d (1996). These factors are included but not limited to:

1. Each parent’s reason for seeking or opposing the move;

2. The quality of the relationship between the child and the custodial and noncustodial parent;

3. The impact of the move on the quantity and quality of future contact with the noncustodial parent;

4. The degree to which the custodial parent’s and child’s life may be enhanced economically, emotionally and educationally by the move;

5. The feasibility of preserving the relationship between the noncustodial parent and child through suitable visitation arrangements.

The first thing the court investigates is why the custodial parent wants to move, and why the other parent is opposing the move. There are only a few scenarios that are considered “valid” reasons for wanting to relocate away from the non-custodial parent. These are included but not limited to: financial reasons (such as being unable to support oneself in the current location and having better economic opportunities in the place where the parent wants to relocate), more emotional support from friends and family, and remarriage where the spouse is established in a different state/jurisdiction.

In the above scenario, Teresa’s true motive for wanting to move is because she does not want Brady with another woman. This would immediately be rejected by a Court. Even if this were not revealed, and she informed the Court that she wanted to move so she could have her parents’ help in raising the child, this motive would most likely not be enough to grant permission to move. First, Teresa has a large extended family surrounding her where she currently lives. The only family Teresa has in California are her parents. Any good lawyer would bring out the fact that Teresa’s relationship with her parents is not a close one and Teresa was all but estranged from her parents until this child was discovered, raising a question about the environment in which the baby would be raised. Moreover, the child would miss out on being surrounded by extended family who love him, on both Teresa’s and Brady’s side, which is contrary to his best interests.

As for financial reasons, Brady and his family are worth millions, and Brady has offered to support both Teresa and the baby and pay all of their living expenses. Moreover, Teresa has a steady, full time job (most likely with benefits) where she currently lives, and has no job waiting for her in California. Thus, she cannot claim that she does not have the means to stay and has better economic opportunities in California.

The move would not provide the child with an intact family (i.e. Teresa is not moving in order to marry someone established in California). Thus, the move would in no way enhance Teresa’s or the child’s life economically or emotionally (educationally is not yet a factor as the child is an infant). In fact, given Teresa’s relationship with her parents and her past troubles with the law when living in California, there is a good chance both Teresa and the child’s quality of life would be downgraded if the move were permitted!

As for prong number 2, 3 and 4, a Court is much more likely to permit a move when the non-custodial parent is not a big part of the child’s life and/or there is a reasonable proposal for alternative parenting time to make up for the fact that the parent and child can no longer be together on a regular basis. This usual includes the non-custodial parent having the child for all school breaks, vacations and the entire summer.

In this case, the child just came into the parents’ life about a week ago, and neither parent has even had an opportunity to bond with the child. It cannot be said that the quality of one parent’s relationship with the child is better than the other’s. In fact, the impact this move would have would be even more detrimental to the child given that the child has not yet had an opportunity to bond with Brady, and this would make it exceedingly more difficult for him to do so. Of course, no proposal for alternative parenting time or ways to keep in contact were even discussed.

As complicated as relocation cases tend to be, it seems this one is as close to a guarantee as one could get that relocation would not be permitted. The facts Brady was told would be considered are wholly irrelevant to the issue of relocation, and are not even that relevant to the issue of custody (an entirely different analysis).

The number one lesson to take away from this (other than “don’t take legal advice from TV shows) is, when it comes to an issue as intricate as relocation, it is imperative to have a lawyer that has extensive experience in this area of law. The second this lawyer told Brady that this is not his area of law, Brady should have found an experienced and competent family lawyer to advise him.

NOTE: This blog is a professional blog concerning issues relating to Matrimonial and Family Law. Please limit all comments to the legal issues discussed.

Rachel S. Silberstein is a Matrimonial and Family lawyer in New York City.  To learn more, please visit her website at www.rssfamilylaw.com

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