Who gets the family pet in a divorce?

Posted October 27, 2014 in Estate Planning, Family Law by Lonich and Patton.


October 27, 2014
Who gets the family pet in a divorce?
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If I had to ask you to put a price on your dog, cat or your pet hermit crab, could you? For some, perhaps they could but the vast majority would likely agree that their pets are priceless. However, disputes regarding who gets the family pet in divorce proceedings has become commonplace in family law.

Earlier this year, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas made a statement that they were ending their two-decade marriage but vowed to remain friends and to move forward lovingly. However, shortly after, reports surfaced that a custody battle was flaring up – not over their 17 year old daughter, but over the couple’s three dogs.

Although these days some people treat their pets better than their own children, in the eyes of the law pets are still only considered the property of their owners, much like their furniture is[1]. Legal experts agree that pet owners invest hundreds sometimes thousands of dollars and hours researching proper training, good food choices, and the perfect toys, groomers and veterinarians for their pets. Those same individuals might also take precautions with their estate by writing a prenuptial agreement. But how often do those pet owners think about legal issues associated with pet ownership?

Family law attorneys agree that the best way to handle a situation with a pet is to put it in a prenup. If you came into your relationship with Maxwell, put it in writing that if you are to leave the relationship Maxwell is coming with you. If you and your significant other purchased a pet together during the relationship, but you both agree that one of you should have the pet in the event of a breakup, a post-nuptial agreement would make sure that in the event of a divorce or separation the pet would go with the spouse more bonded with the animal.

Without something in writing, trouble could land you arguing in court. Last year a New York judge granted a divorcing couple the right to engage in oral arguments over pet custody for the first time in the state’s judicial history. The landmark legal showdown was ultimately averted. The couple settled out of court.

In the event of a heated breakup, pets can be protected.  If a party feels that he/she and the pet is in danger at the hands of the other party, California law provides for the family pet to be included on a protective order. Since 2008, courts have had the ability to make an order that the restrained person stay away from the pet. Family Code Section 6320 provides that upon a showing of good cause, the court may include in a protective order a grant of the exclusive care, possession, or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by the spouse or minor child resident in the residence.

Family Code section 6320 makes strides toward addressing the established connection between animal abuse and family violence commonly referred to as the “Link.”[2] One of the first studies that described this Link found that of a survey of women with pets who had entered a shelter in northern Utah, seventy-one percent reported that their partner had threatened or actually hurt or killed one or more of their pets.[3]Another study of fifty of the largest shelters in the United States found that eighty-five percent of battered women and sixty-three percent of children with pets had experienced incidents of pet abuse.[4] An alarming consequence of these studies is that victims may feel that they cannot leave their abuser because they worry for the safety of their pets.

The Certified Family Law Specialists at Lonich & Patton have decades of experience handling complex family law matters.  If you are interested in learning more about prenuptial or post-nuptial agreements, please contact the Certified Family Law Specialists at Lonich & Patton for further information.  Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.

[1] Kimes v. Grosser (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 1556

[2] Am. Humane Ass’n, Learn About the Link, http://www.americanhumane.org/site/PageServer?pagename=lk_about (last visited Aug. 4, 2007); see also Senate Judiciary Committee, Committee Analysis of SB 353, at 2-5 (Mar. 27, 2007) (explaining the connection between animal abuse and family violence). There are also several studies that report that children who witness abuse, or are abused themselves, tend to, in turn, abuse animals. See Phil Arkow & Tracy Coppola, Expanding Protective Orders to Include Companion Animals 5 (2007), http://www.americanhumane.org/site/DocServer/PetsinPO2007.pdf? docID=5061 (describing the harmful effects upon children of witnessing domestic violence).

[3] Frank R. Ascione, Battered Women’s Reports of Their Partners’ and Their Children’s Cruelty to Animals, 1 J. Emotional Abuse 119, 125 (1998).

[4] Frank R. Ascione et al., The Abuse of Animals and Domestic Violence: A National Survey of Shelters for Women Who are Battered, 5 Soc’y & Animals 205, 211-12 tbl.1 (1997), available at http:// www.syeta.org/sa/sa5.3/Ascione.html.

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Common-Law Marriage in California

Posted September 19, 2014 in Family Law by Lonich and Patton.

A common-law marriage is an informal marriage by agreement, without compliance with the statutory formalities associated with a marriage license. Only a handful of states recognize common-law marriage, and each state has specific requirements. In Texas, for example, the elements of a common law marriage include 1) an agreement presently to be husband and wife, 2) living together as husband and wife, and 3) holding each other out to the public as such. Once a common-law marriage is established, the spouse has the same rights as a married spouse and the marriage can be terminated only by death, divorce, or legal separation.

California abolished common-law marriage in 1895, and a couples’ failure to comply with the statutory marriage requirements will invalidate a marriage. However, non-marital cohabitation is not a barrier to the enforcement of express and implied agreements. California courts recognize Marvin claims, where unmarried individuals can enforce property, support, and other financial agreements arising out of their relationship. Such equitable remedies include: action on an implied contract based on the parties’ conduct (e.g., to share earnings and provide support or for support upon termination of relationship); action for specific performance of personal property with sentimental value (e.g., to return family heirlooms); and action to recover the reasonable value of services rendered, less the reasonable value of support received. Further, if traditional remedies prove inadequate, trial courts may create additional remedies to protect the parties’ reasonable expectations.

In other words, there is no way to form a common-law marriage in California, no matter how long you live with your partner. Under Family Code section 308, California will recognize common-law marriages validly established in other states. This means that a couple who establishes a common-law marriage in Texas will be treated as married if they move to California. Non-marital parents have the same custody and visitation rights as married parents. However, the recognition of a common-law marriage comes with the recognition of a spousal status, and this is significant with regards to tax, property, and inheritance issues.

For example, the Texas couple can use the “married filing joint” status with both the IRS and the California Franchise Tax Board. An employer, even the California government, must provide medical insurance to the spouse. The spouses receive community property rights. Each spouse will be considered a surviving spouse for purposes of the California intestate system and for social security survivorship benefits. Additionally, to end the marriage, the common-law spouse must file for divorce.

Recognizing a common-law marriage in California can quickly become a complicated legal matter and should be discussed with an attorney. If you have any questions about a Marvin claim or common-law marriage, please contact our California Certified Family Law Specialists. Our attorneys have decades of experience handling complex family law and estate planning matters and offer a free consultation.

Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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The Ways to End Your Marriage

Posted August 8, 2014 in Family Law by Lonich and Patton.

In California, a marriage is dissolved by (1) the death of a spouse, (2) a final judgment of divorce, or (3) an annulment. Alternatively, if spouses do not want to completely end their marriage but do want to terminate their marital rights, they can (4) file for legal separation. Here is a look into each one:

(1) Death of a Spouse

When a spouse dies, dissolution occurs automatically, as a matter of law. This can be significant in family law proceedings if the spouse dies after divorce proceedings have begun, but before a final judgment of dissolution. In this scenario, spousal status is not officially terminated and the surviving spouse will still be considered “married” for inheritance purposes. Additionally, any pending dissolution proceeding is rendered moot at the death of a spouse and the court has no power to hear any remaining unresolved issues.

(2) Divorce

Divorce is the proceeding that legally ends the marriage or domestic partnership. Under Family Code section 2310, the grounds for divorce may be either “irreconcilable differences” or “incurable insanity.” Most marriages are dissolved on the ground of “irreconcilable differences.” A dissolution granted on the grounds of “incurable insanity” requires evidence – including competent medical or psychiatric testimony – that your spouse is incurably insane. In fact, this ground is so uncommon that there are no known reported decisions defining “incurable insanity” in the dissolution context. Further, it offers no tactical advantage so even if your spouse is incurably insane, pleading irreconcilable differences is much easier.

The determination of whether “irreconcilable differences” exist is essentially a ministerial function and is rarely a matter of contention. California is a no-fault divorce state, which means that any evidence of specific acts of misconduct (such as cheating, gambling, or heavy drinking) is improper. Courts recognize that ending a marriage is an intensely personal decision and only need to be convinced that the marital differences are substantial. Thus, direct proof of objective reasons supporting the divorce is not required.

(3) Annulment

An annulment declares the marriage was not legally valid – it was never entered into – and like other defenses to contracts, an annulment can occur if one party was not of sound-mind at the time of the marriage or if the marriage was procured by fraud.

A famous example of an annulment due to lack of capacity is Ms. Britney Spears’ 55-hour marriage to her high school friend, Jason Alexander, in Las Vegas. Ms. Spears sought an annulment stating that she “lacked understanding of her actions to the extent that she was incapable of agreeing to the marriage because she and Alexander did not know each other’s likes and dislikes, each other’s desires to have or not have children, and each other’s desires as to State of residency.” In other words, she was drunk and this was a joke that went too far.

Marriages can be annulled for fraud, if the fraud relates to a matter that California deems vital to the marriage relationship and the fraud directly affects the purpose of the party deceived entering the marital contract. Usually, annulments based on fraud involve the sexual and procreative aspects of marriage, such as a secret intention not to live with the other spouse or a concealment of sterility. False representations about earning capacity, wealth, or social status are not the type of fraud that will warrant a nullity. Nor will a failure to fulfill wedding vows or commonly understood spousal obligations, such as being a loving and supporting partner.

(4) Legal Separation

The grounds for legal separation are the same as those for a divorce but it does not end the marriage. Legal separation is an alternative to divorce, where the spouses do not want to completely sever the legal status of the marriage. Otherwise, a legal separation operates similarly to a divorce, separating all finances and property.

Spouses often seek a legal separation for religious or other personal reasons, or to retain eligibility for medical insurance, veteran’s benefits, or social security benefits that would have otherwise been lost by a divorce.

If you have any questions about the proper way to end your marriage, please contact our California Certified Family Law Specialists. Our attorneys have decades of experience handling complex family law proceeds and offer a free consultation.

Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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“No good marriage ever ended in divorce” – Louis C.K.

Posted July 30, 2014 in Family Law by Michael Lonich.

“Divorce is always good news. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce. That would be sad. If two people were married and they just had a great thing … and then they got divorced, that would be really sad. But that has happened zero times.”

-Louis C.K.

This inevitably leads to the question: what is a “good” marriage? Likely, the answer is there are no good or bad marriages. Instead there are a range of risk factors associated with divorce. When two people get married, they usually aren’t thinking that the marriage will end in divorce. But then hard times arise and sometimes they find themselves thinking either casually or seriously about divorce. Is there a way to know if your marriage is statistically likely to end in divorce? Below, we will take a look at some of the most common risk factors in the United States.

Current state of divorce

In the United States, researchers estimate that 40 to 50 percent of all first marriages will end in divorce or permanent separation. The risk of divorce is even higher for second marriages at about 60 percent. Divorce has always been present in American society although it has become more common in the last 50 years. Surprisingly, the highest divorce rates ever recorded were in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Since then the divorce rate has actually decreased a little but still remains at a historically high rate.

Researchers have found that individuals considering divorce make their decision to stay or leave based on the rewards they gain from the marriage, the barriers against leaving the marriage, their perceptions about finding a better relationship, and the amount of investment they have made in their marriage.

Barriers to leaving a marriage, such as concerns about money and the effects of family breakup on their children, can keep marriages together in the short term. However, unless there is improvement in the relationship, eventually the barriers are usually not enough to keep a marriage together in the long run.

What factors are associated with a higher risk for divorce?

The statistics which show that almost half of all marriages end in divorce might make it seem like staying married has the same odds as roulette – namely 50/50. However, research has identified various factors that are associated with a higher risk for divorce. Some couples may have a low risk and others might have a higher risk of divorcing. Understanding these factors may not directly help improve your marriage or make a decision about getting divorced, but they may help couples understand why they’re facing challenges. Researchers have identified the most common factors as:

  • Young Age. Marrying at a young age increases your likelihood of divorce, especially in the early years of marriage. People who married in their teens are at dramatically higher risk for divorce than those who married as early as age 21 or 22.
  • Less education. Researchers estimate that individuals who have some college education as opposed to not finishing high school have a lower chance of divorce. Investing in an education is a good way to build a foundation for a better marriage, not just a better job.
  • Less income. Tied to education is income. Research has estimated that individuals with incomes exceeding $50,000 have a lower chance of divorce. Finances can be stressful and having at least a modest income can help couples avoid stresses that can lead to divorce. If you argue with your spouse about finances once a week, your marriage is 30 percent more likely to end in divorce than if you argue less frequently about finances.
  • Premarital childbearing and pregnancy. In America, more than one-third (37%) of children are born to parents who are not married, and few of these parents eventually marry. Most of those parents will separate before the child begins school, some will never really get together.
  • If you have a daughter, you’re 5% more likely to divorce. This figure multiplies with the number of daughters. Researchers believe that this happens because fathers are more invested in family life when they have boys.
  • If you or your partner have had a previous marriage. Data shows that second (or third or fourth) marriages should be more successful than first marriages. However, this statistic is skewed by serial marriages and researchers have been unable to take the Elizabeth Taylors out of the equation.
  • Parents’ divorce. Of course, some risk factors for divorce you can’t control. If you experienced the divorce of your parents, unfortunately, that doubles your risk for divorce. If your spouse witnessed their parents’ divorce, then your risk more than triples. This does not doom your marriage to failure but rather suggests that individuals who experienced the divorce of their parents need to work harder to make good marriage choices and to keep their marriage strong and happy.
  • Same-sex marriages are more likely to end in divorce. Although the LGBT community is just starting to have legally recognized marriages in the United States, a research team led by Stockholm University on legal partnerships in Norway and Sweden found that male same-sex marriages are 50 percent more likely to end in divorce than a heterosexual marriage. If you’re a female in a same-sex marriage, this figure soars to 167 percent.

These are only a few risk factors that researchers have identified and none of them represent automatic doom for a marriage. However, if a number of these and other risk factors are present, seeking pre-marital or other counseling may be recommended, even if nothing seems wrong at the moment. Much like roulette, one can increase the odds in their favor by learning more about marriage, themselves and their partners.

If divorce seems inevitable, it is also recommended that couples take time to try to fix the relationship through counseling or some other professional service before making the decision to call it quits. However, we understand that sometimes there are no alternatives besides divorce.

If you are considering divorce or have questions about divorce planning, please contact our California Certified Family Law Specialists (as certified by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization). Our attorneys have decades of experience handling complex family law proceedings and offer a free consultation.

Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may detail general legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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How Much Does Divorce Cost?

Posted July 22, 2014 in Family Law by Rachel Leff-Kich.

Divorce can be really expensive. For example, the 2007 Connecticut divorce  between travel entrepreneur, Peter Tauck, and his ex-wife racked up around $13 million in legal fees. The bill reflected two years of highly-contested litigation costs, including nearly 700 filings and an 86-day trial. It is common for such strikingly high-cost divorces to reach news headlines, but how much does getting a divorce really cost?

Plenty of websites have popped up that promise an “easy and affordable divorce” ranging from $99 to $300. These cheap alternatives may be enticing, and could be useful for couples who have few assets and agree on every aspect of child custody and visitation – they just need lawyers to fill out the required forms.

However, most spouses disagree about at least a few things in connection with their divorce. One of the most hotly contested issues is often child custody and visitation. California courts require divorcing parents to attend mediation to see if custody issues can be resolved without a trial, and they often can be. However, in some cases it is necessary to have a child custody evaluation, which can be either broad or specific in scope.  This involves retaining a child custody evaluator, who is an expert, usually a forensic therapist or psychologist. The evaluator meets with both parties, the children, and sometimes collateral contacts, and then prepares a report to assist the court in making custody and visitation orders. Evaluations range substantially in cost, which is usually divided equally between the parties.

Aside from custody disputes, divorces mostly concern money and can require complicated financial calculations to determine and equitably divide the community’s interest in your marital estate. Such calculations may include the percentage you contributed to your 401(k) during marriage, or the amount of post-separation mortgage payments on the family home. Sometimes these issues are complicated enough to require hiring a CPA or a forensic accountant. In addition, many people receive stock options, or RSU’s as part of their employment compensation packages, and it can be necessary to retain an expert for division. Further, sometimes it is necessary to obtain real property appraisals or fair rental surveys, which range in cost depending on the size of the property.

If you and your spouse have acquired a substantial estate, the work to  determine the community’s interest and agree on an equitable division can really add up. Even in what seems like a simple case, the cost can be high depending on many factors. Hourly rates for attorneys can range anywhere from $150, at the very low end, up to $1,000. Spouses can definitely expect to pay attorney fees and court costs, and there may be additional costs for parent education classes, co-parent counseling, private mediation, or retaining various experts.

The good news is that most of the cost is a function of how quickly you and your spouse can reach an agreement – it is in part under your control. If agreement cannot be reached, it may be necessary to file motions, which can cost between $3,000 and $10,000 for preparation and appearance at a hearing. The need for depositions and trial will also increase the cost of your divorce. If you have no assets and no children, it is possible to walk away only spending the filing fees. If you are able to reach a global or partial settlement agreement then the cost of dissolving your marriage will be greatly reduced. However, if you cannot be in the same room as each other without becoming outraged, your divorce could easily cost more than your wedding.

However, if your spouse makes more money than you, or has a greater “access to income,” you may be able to obtain an order for “need-based” attorney’s fees, payable by your spouse. In addition, if your spouse or their attorney is being really unreasonable, you may have the right to obtain sanctions in the form of attorney fees and costs from your spouse. These sanctions can be ordered when conduct frustrates the policy of the law to promote settlement.

On July 13, 2014, a Nebraska man, Michael Peterson, plead no contest to the first degree murder of his divorce attorney. After an unsuccessful malpractice suit seeking reimbursement for over $57,000 in attorney fees, Peterson shot his divorce attorney in the back with a high-velocity rifle. In order to avoid murderous rage upon receiving your bill, it is important to have an open and honest conversation about fees and costs, and ask for an estimated budget before going to trial.

Please be aware, however, that it is simply impossible to accurately estimate the cost of your divorce – there are too many possible factors for anyone to promise a certain outcome for a certain amount. If you have questions or are worried about the cost of your upcoming divorce, please contact our California Certified Family Law Specialists. Our attorneys have decades of experience handling complex family law matters and offer a free consultation.

Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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