The “Brangelina” Custody Battle

Posted November 14, 2016 in Family Law by Lonich and Patton.

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November 14, 2016
The “Brangelina” Custody Battle
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After more than a decade together and six kids, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are getting divorced. Aside from the challenges presented by the division of their purportedly very high value estate, the parties also face a potentially very challenging custody battle over their six children, who are all under the age of 16 years old.

To determine child custody, California courts look to “the best interests of the child.” While it sounds simple, this standard can prove quite challenging for the court depending on the family. Variables such as the child’s age, maturity, and their relationship with the parents, need to be considered. Moreover, the child’s school and activity schedule and the parents’ work schedules only add to the challenge.  Courts may also, but are not required to, consider the child’s preference if he or she is of appropriate age and capacity. Whether a child is of “appropriate age and capacity” depends largely on their maturity and understanding of the proceedings, usually found to be around age 10.

Each case is different based on the level of cooperation, or animosity between the parents. Ideally, the parents can work together and agree on a workable custody schedule. However, the far more common scenario involves parents who cannot agree, and have difficulty communicating with one another. For these parents, the court must step in and make determinations based on the facts presented.

First, the court will send the parents to mediation. The mediator is a third-party neutral, meant to facilitate the parents’ coming to an agreement. Next, if they are still unable to agree, the judge will meet with the parents at a Judicial Custody Conference. If the parents are still unable to agree, the judge will order the parents to go through an Assessment After the Assessment, an in-depth process where the judge ultimately decides the custody and visitation schedule.

Courts may award sole or joint physical custody to the parents. Sole physical custody consists of the child living with and being supervised by one parent. Joint physical custody, on the other hand, can take many forms depending on the parents’ schedules, proximity to one another, etc. When parents share joint physical custody each parent has “significant periods” of physical custody. This does not necessarily equate to equal time between parents.

In Brangelina’s case, their unique work-life schedules, and global lifestyles will likely play a large role in how custody is ultimately split between the parties. Media sources report that both parties have asserted a desire to have physical custody of the children. Thus, some form of joint physical custody is the most likely result. Given that both, Angelina and Brad are actors, they have similar interests in a less traditional time-split for the children. Both parties will have to concede that they have extended periods of time when they remain on-site, and work long days while filming, which make them less available for the children during those time periods. A traditional 50-50 split is not going to work for them. Thus, it behooves them to try to cooperate with one another and recognize where they share common ground – the desire to give their kids the very best life they can. Luckily, Angelina and Brad have robust means to provide as non-traditional of a lifestyle for their children as they need to in order to fit whatever time-split needs they may have.

If the two cannot agree on an amicable custody arrangement, the court may have to step in. Given the children’s ages, it may consider their preferences depending on whether it finds they are of appropriate age and capacity. The court will likely strongly urge Angelina and Brad to try to agree on their own in light of the inherent publicity that follows their fame and the public’s interest in their celebrity lives. Like all parents, the parties are likely to feel more satisfied with an agreement they formulated rather than a court’s determination.

If you need help with a custody or visitation claim, 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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Grandparents Have Rights Too: Grandparent Visitation

Posted November 11, 2016 in Family Law by Michael Lonich.

The relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild can be one of great happiness and importance for both the grandparent and grandchild. However, sometimes events such as divorce or a parent’s death may strain loving relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren. As a result, the grandchild’s parent(s) may block any further contact with grandparents. However, all 50 states now have some type of grandparent visitation law that allow grandparents to ask the court to give them the legal right to maintain their relationships with their grandchildren.

In California, a statute grants visitation rights to grandparents only when they have a preexisting relationship with their grandchild “that has engendered a bond such that visitation is in the best interest of the child.” Cal. Fam. Code § 3104. In addition, the statute directs the court to balance the interest of the child in visitation with his or her grandparent against the right of the parents to exercise their parental authority. Id. Finally, the statute provides a rebuttable presumption that grandparent visitation is not in the best interest of the child if the parent objects.

However, in a recent case, Stuard v. Stuard, the Third District found that even though Family Code section 3104 provides a rebuttable presumption that grandparent visitation is not in the best interest of the child if the parent objects, the parent’s right is not absolute. Stuard v. Stuard (2016) 244 Cal. App. 4th 768. According to the Stuard court, the law “reflects a legitimate state interest in preserving an already existing grandparent-grandchild relationship that is threatened but in the best interest of the grandchild to safeguard.” In other words, even though there may be rebuttable presumption, it may be overcome. The grandparents will need to show in some detail what it is that they add to the grandchildren’s lives, not just a general statement that they have a close relationship with the children and that continuing that relationship is in the best interest of the child.

In a time when families are constantly changing, grandparent visitation laws have become increasingly significant. If you have any questions about grandparent visitation and would like to speak to an attorney, please contact Lonich & Patton for further information.  Keep in mind 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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Smith/Ostler Order: Accounting for Bonus Income’s Impact on Support Payments

Posted October 19, 2016 in Family Law by Michael Lonich.

When calculating spousal or child support, courts look to a wage earner’s monthly income to determine an appropriate support amount.  However, what if the wage earner spouse or parent receives bonus income in the years after the initial support order is entered?  Support orders can be altered, but the process involves a court room, lawyers, and more legal fees.  In re Marriage of Ostler & Smith offers an alternative answer—the Smith/Ostler order.

A Smith/Ostler order takes into account a spouse or parent’s unearned or prospective income, detailing when and how any future, additional earnings should be incorporated into a support order.  However, because bonus income is prospective only, it may never be realized.  Calculating support based off an unknown and/or unguaranteed dollar amount can underestimate or inflate a support order.  Therefore, to account for the speculative nature of bonus payments, courts deal in percentages.

For example, in the seminal In re Marriage of Ostler & Smith case, the court awarded Wife 15 percent of Husband’s future cash bonuses.  If Husband received a bonus, he would give 15 percent of whatever amount he earned to Wife, but if Husband did not receive any cash bonuses, he would not pay additional support.  Importantly, the original support order would remain intact, and the parties would not need to argue over how much of the bonus income the supported spouse should be paid—the court order took care of those details and created a more easily administered support order.

In addition to cash bonuses, a Smith/Ostler order can account for future stock option income.  For example, in In re Marriage of Kerr, Wife and Husband, while married, improved their standard of living by exercising stock options that had increased in value.  Subsequently, during divorce proceedings, the court award Wife, through a Smith/Ostler order, a percentage of Husband’s income from any future exercise of those same stock options.

However, In re Marriage of Kerr presented an exceptional case where an additional measure besides a percentage amount was necessary to ensure that Husband’s spousal support order was not inflated.  The value of Husband’s stock had increased exponentially after he divorced Wife.  A specified percentage of the stock’s value would have increased Husband’s payments to a point that far exceeded the marital standard of living he shared with Wife.  Thus, the court concluded that under special circumstances, such as the case at hand, use of a Smith/Ostler order is permissible only if the court caps the amount of future income a spouse can receive at a number proportionate to the martial standard of living.

If you are considering a divorce or legal separation and would like more information about how either action may affect your finances, please contact the experienced family law attorneys at Lonich & Patton.  We can help you understand and manage any spousal or child support issues that may arise.

Lastly, 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.

Sources:

In re Marriage of Ostler & Smith (1990) 223 Cal.App.3d 33

In re Marriage of Kerr (1999) 77 Cal.App.4th 87

 

 

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Mediation: Taking control of your divorce

Posted October 10, 2016 in Family Law by Michael Lonich.

The underuse of the mediation process seems to be largely attributable to the fact that many people are unaware of what a mediation session is and how beneficial it can actually be. In family disputes, mediation can be extremely rewarding, saving parties time, money and sanity.

The rules of mediation: you create them

In mediation, parties are not bound by many of the rules that govern judges’ decision making. As a result, parties can reach solutions that might not otherwise be available from a court. For example, if there is a dispute over child support or child custody, rather than having a judge decide the amount of support or amount of visitation based on guidelines and factors required by statute,  parties are free to negotiate an amount or time deemed reasonable to both.

The outcomes: you decide them

In mediation, you are free to discuss with your spouse what is important to both of you and try to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.  It differs from litigation in that parties avoid the uncertainty, time and stress associated with going to trial. Parties are  able to hear and understand the other’s point of view and with the guidance of a mediator, this enables parties to reach a middle ground . Because the mediator does not have the authority to make decisions, it is ultimately the parties making their OWN decisions over their OWN lives.

However, a good mediator should have some family law experience and be able to offer practical guidance to the parties. A mediator with family law experience can offer parties insight as to what might and might not be granted in court, ensuring that no request is unreasonable or disadvantageous to the other spouse. This can make the mediation session much more productive.

Progress: in the mediation room and beyond

Lastly, even if you don’t settle all your divorce issues, chances are you did resolve some. Even having resolved one issue is progress.  Further, the tenants of mediation promote cooperation and communication. Thus because parties are provided the opportunity to resolve their own case, mediation tends to reduce hostility and preserve ongoing relationships.

While divorce mediation works in many situations, it is not always appropriate. Litigation is often the best option in situations where there is domestic violence, one party refuses to cooperate in making required disclosures, or communication between the parties is impossible. If you have any questions about divorce mediation and would like to speak to an attorney, please contact Lonich & Patton for further information.  Keep in mind 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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Understanding the Spousal Fiduciary Duty

Posted September 9, 2016 in Family Law by Michael Lonich.

Marriage prompts a lot of change—last names, bank accounts, estate plans, housing—but one of the most important changes that arrives once you say “I do” is a fiduciary duty to your new spouse. Fiduciary duty may sound like a term reserved for the boardroom, but a broad fiduciary relationship exists between married spouses as well.

At the most basic level and as prescribed by California Family Code § 721, spouses possess a duty of “the highest good faith and fair dealing,” and “neither spouse shall take any unfair advantage of the other.”  Further, the spousal fiduciary duty includes “the same rights and duties of nonmarital business partners” as outlined in the California Corporations Code.  Although the Corporations Code uses business-centric language, the Family Code incorporates partner-based duties and applies them to spouses.  Thus, spousal fiduciary duties include:  1) allowing access to transaction books, 2) providing full and true information about any community property, and 3) an accounting of any benefit derived from any community property transaction by one spouse without consent of the other spouse.  Additionally, spouses owe each other a duty of loyalty—spouses must refrain from dealing with each other as an adverse interest and must refrain from competing with each other—and a duty of care.

Returning to the Family Code, Section 1100 details the fiduciary duties that accompany the control and management of community property.  Of note is subsection (b): “a spouse may not make a gift of community personal property for less than fair and reasonable valuable, without the written consent of the other spouse.”  In other words, even when giving a community fund-purchased gift to his/her children, a spouse needs the written consent of the non-purchasing spouse.  Typically, a nonconsenting spouse is unlikely to challenge holiday and birthday gifts given to his/her own children, but that spouse does have the legal ability to void the gift and receive compensation for its value—an issue usually raised during a separation or divorce proceeding.

Importantly, even after spouses separate or file for divorce, they still owe a fiduciary duty to one another—until all assets and liabilities have been officially divided, spouses must act with respect to each other and fully disclose all material facts and information regarding community property or debts.

Ultimately, most spouses don’t actually keep (or legally, even have to keep) detailed transaction books in the manner expected of business partners, nor do most spouses actually ask for formal consent before making routine purchases, but it is important to note that unilateral transactions could be used as ammunition in a separation or divorce proceeding.  Therefore, if you are pondering a large purchase or gift, it is wise to document the process, seek the written consent of your spouse, and/or use your own separate property to make the purchase.

If you would like more information about the fiduciary duty you owe to your spouse, please contact the experienced family law attorneys at Lonich & Patton.  From pre-nuptial agreements to divorce proceedings, we can help you understand how the spousal fiduciary duty plays a role in your marriage.

Lastly, 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.

Sources:

California Family Code § 721

California Family Code § 1100

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