The More The Merrier Revisited: Tri-Custody in New York

Posted March 31, 2017 in Family Law by Michael Lonich.

As we have discussed on this blog before, California allows a child to have more than two legal parents.  With the rise of assisted reproduction and wider recognition of non-traditional family units, it is growing apparent that children may receive substantial physical and emotional care from more than two people.

In California, the Martinez v. Vaziri case concluded that a child’s biological mother, biological father, and third person—the man who cared for the child and was the child’s only father figure—could all claim legal parentage.  The case’s holding was grounded in a California statute (Family Code Section 7611) that allows children to have more than two legal parents if recognizing only two parents would be detrimental to the child.

Now, New York has stepped up to the plate in a case involving a polyamorous family.  After a lengthy custody battle, a judge awarded custody of a child to three different people.  When the child was born, the three people had been involved in a longstanding intimate relationship.  Two of the people were married, and the remaining person lived next door.  The married woman (Wife) could not conceive, so the family decided that the married man (Husband/Father) would impregnate the third woman (Mother), and the family would raise the child together.  Ultimately, Mother gave birth to a boy, but then, Wife and Husband/Father got divorced while Wife and Mother continued their relationship.  Even though Wife continued to see her son during his custodial time with his biological mother, Wife wished to formalize her own legal link to the boy.

Concluding that the child viewed both women as his mothers and would be devastated if any of his three parents were removed from his life, a New York judge granted parental rights to Wife, Husband/Father, and Mother.  Unlike in California, this decision is not grounded in a statutory right to have more than two parents, but the case evidences an emergent shift in the judiciary’s interpretation of what constitutes a family unit.

If you have any questions about establishing your child’s legal parentage, please contact the experienced family law attorneys at Lonich & Patton—we can help you understand and secure your and your child’s legal rights.

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.

SOURCE:

http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/14/health/three-parent-custody-agreement-trnd/

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Understanding the Impact of the Spousal Fiduciary Duty on Estate Planning

Posted March 21, 2017 in Estate Planning, Family Law by Michael Lonich.

We have outlined the spousal fiduciary duty on this blog before; now, we’re delving a bit deeper to discuss the impact of the spousal fiduciary duty on estate planning.  Traditionally, California courts rely on a common law burden-shifting framework when confronted with the possibility that a spouse has unduly influenced his/her spouse’s estate planning decisions.  However, a 2014 case from a California Court of Appeal—Lintz v. Lintz— took a different approach, and instead, relied on the statutory spousal fiduciary duty articulated in California Family Code section 721 to resolve an estate planning/undue influence claim.

The common law framework provides that the person alleging undue influence bears the burden of proof.  However, the challenger can shift the burden to the proponent of a testamentary instrument by establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, three elements: 1) a confidential relationship, 2) active procurement of the instrument, and 3) an undue benefit to the alleged influencer.

Departing from the common law, the Lintz court—faced with an allegedly abusive wife who intimidated her husband into amending his trust to her tremendous benefit and to the extreme detriment of her stepchildren—looked to Family Code section 721 when it decided in favor of the husband’s estate.  Section 721 creates a broad fiduciary duty between spouses that demands a duty of “the highest good faith and fair dealing.”  Further, neither spouse may take unfair advantage of the other.  As a result, if any inter-spousal transaction advantages only one spouse, a statutory presumption arises under section 721 that the advantaged spouse exercised undue influence.  The presumption is rebuttable—the advantaged spouse can demonstrate that the disadvantaged spouse’s action was freely and voluntarily made, with full knowledge of the facts, and with a complete understanding of the transaction.

California Family Code section 850 describes three categories of inter-spousal transactions: 1) community property to separate property, 2) separate property to community property, and 3) separate property of one spouse to separate property of other spouse.  Notably, the section does not consider transferring community or separate property to trusts.

The court concluded that section 721 applies because section 850 does include property transferred to revocable trusts—in Lintz, Wife’s undue influence caused Husband, via his trust, to transmute a large part of his separate property to community property.  Accordingly, the court held that Family Code section 721 creates a presumption of undue influence when one spouse names the other as a beneficiary in a revocable trust.

Criticism of the decision abounds—all estate plans that name a spouse as a beneficiary, by their very nature, benefit one spouse.  In turn, use of the Family Code undue influence presumption threatens to disturb all testamentary instruments, and litigation may flood the family courts as spouses seek to rebut the seemingly automatic presumption that Lintz creates.  On the other hand, some commenters believe Lintz does not indicate a new paradigm, but rather, showcases a court’s eagerness to remedy the serious injury inflicted by a spouse’s egregious influence.

At the very least, the Lintz case does demonstrate that estate planning and family law are deeply intertwined.  Consulting with an attorney to learn how a marriage or divorce can impact your testamentary wishes is always wise.  If you have any questions about your family law and/or estate planning needs, please contact the experienced attorneys at Lonich & Patton—we offer free half-hour consultations.

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 section 721

California Family Code section 850

Lintz v. Lintz (2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1346.

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The “Brangelina” Custody Battle

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

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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