Custody

GA Supreme Court makes “Pilot Project” for Discretionary Appeals more permanent

The Georgia Supreme Court of Georgia has just changed it’s “pilot project” rule regarding discretionary appeals for domestic relations cases. This process, which has been a “pilot project” for about ten years, is now more formalized. To view the Court’s Order, click here..

The Family Law Review issued a bulletin which summarizes it well (which can be accessed by clicking here). Take a look, and those of you who practice law in Georgia, please review it carefully. Most importantly, let’s be sure we do not abuse this wonderful opportunity the Supreme Court has given us to help clients in need, those who have a meritorious basis for appealing. The court has entrusted us with discretion to not overwhelm the Court with non-meritorious appeals. Let’s oblige.


Do children of divorce suffer poorer grades?

National TV Network news agencies are working on stories based on reports that children of divorce fare worse in school than others. USA Today just printed a story about poorer math scores for children of divorce (click here for the link).

As a divorce lawyer this concerns me greatly. My opinion, based purely on my experience and the experience of the other lawyers in our office and friends throughout the bar, is that it is not necessarily the divorce that can harm children, as much as the kind of divorce that occurs. Certainly a ‘good” divorce between two mature adults might be better for children than a really bad marriage with much tension (or even violence) in the household every minute of the day?

There is life after divorce and the way the process of divorce unfolds may well set the tone, not just for how the parties interact going forward, but how the children do in school and in life. Children that see two parents who treat each other with respect, even if they are divorced will likely do better than children who see their parents consistently embroiled in arguments and litigation. Those children must, at the least, be very distracted by their parents’ tension. Worse yet, many may feel that they (the children) have a duty to support each parent and to comfort them (or at least one). This must take time away from school work and social development.

So what’s the solution? A “good” divorce (if a divorce is going to happen). The parents must recognize that their tension always trickles down and is felt by, and affects their children. There is an old Jewish saying that the best thing a father can do for a child is to love their mother. Well if he can’t love her, he should at least treat her with respect and pleasantness, and it should go both ways. Not for the parents’ sake, but to allow their children to continue to grow socially and educationally and to not be distracted and held back by their perceived need to be a “cructh” or support system for their parents. Such a feeling of having to help a parent through a divorce can certainly not help a child spend the needed time to excel in school and socially.

I know that I am not a psychologist and that these words and thoughts are just those of a lawyer who has practiced family law for almost a quarter of a century, but I believe them to be true and hope lawyers and litigants consider these issues as they proceed through their family law cases each day.


New law-Custody for Military Families

A new law was enacted this week in the Georgia Legislature. It grants certain protections to military personnel in their custody and visitation disputes. An AJC article outlines it well (click here for the article). The bill was passed with overwhelming support and prevents final orders changing custody to be entered simply because a parent is deployed. A draft of the proposed Act can be accessed by clicking here.

For years advocates for military personnel have complained that armed services members were often penalized for simply serving our country. The delicate balance is between rights of those serving our country and the best interests of children. No answer will be perfect for every situation, but this bill was drafted, considered, reviewed, debated and finally passed. No law is perfect, but hopefully this law will help military families and their children, and hopefully does not reduce the emphasis that must always be placed on ensuring that we do what is in the best interests of the child.


2010, the year in family law.

As 2010 comes to a close, I can’t help but look back and realize how much “family law” was in the news (click on the stories for articles on each). There was the Goldman international custody case between U.S. and Brazilian citizens as well as gay marriage debates, laws and rulings nationwide, culminating with perhaps the most reported case of all, Proposition 8 in California (click for Associated Press Video).

There were countless celebrity divorce and family law cases in the news. Just think of Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods, Octomom, Kate Gosselin, Sandra Bullock and perhaps the biggest of all, The McCourts (Owners of the L.A. Dodgers).

There is the Tony Parker v. Eva Longoria case and the Charlie Sheen divorce.

It is time for the media to start looking back and summarizing the stories that made news. CNN has already written one on celebrities’ troubles.

Still, what continues to amaze me, is how interested the public is in other people’s lives. Have we become a voyeuristic society? Or do we simply take comfort in knowing that even those who seem to have it all are not immune from the same type of pain and emotional (and often financial and physical) agony the rest of us may endure?

As a family law attorney it is often difficult to see so much hardship. But our role as lawyers is to help reduce that pain. To counsel and to make a bad situation a little better, or at least tolerable. Often we are the only ones who can see the light at the end of the tunnel; that there will be a tomorrow. So perhaps the most important thing we can do is to reassure our clients that tomorrow does come. And look, here it is, 2011. Many people have suffered in 2010, but many have made it through to a new year. Here’s to hoping that things get better for those who had a rough 2010, and that those who didn’t, continue to be blessed in 2011 and beyond.


International child related issues on the rise.

As the Chair Elect of the ABA’s Family Law Section, I have made it clear that one of my priorities will be to focus on international custody issues. Given the many widely reported cases of international kidnapping and custody battles, such as the Goldman case, it seems we must focus more on these situations to protect all children.

But now there are much more complex issues relating to children across the globe which go beyond mere custody battles. Issues such as surrogacy and adoption. What if one country’s laws do not allow for a certain type of adoption or a certain type of articifial insemination? There are now ways to work around laws in one country by using another country as a vehicle for certain procedures. And this can be dangerous.

A recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “Assembling the Global Baby” discussed these issues in fine detail (click here for a link to the story). There are American companies orchestrating surrogacy and reproductive technology across the globe. While the term “orchestrating” may sound negative, that was not my intent. My intent was to demonstrate the internationalization of child related issues. What body or organization will set the rules? Is this something for the United Nations to look at? Conferences like The Hague will certainly look at these issues, but then a country’s willingness to sign a treaty is purely voluntary.

This internationalization of child birth, adoption and reproduction may be a very good thing. It seems very well intended. The problem is with the unintended consequences. When things go wrong, who is accountable? Which country’s laws apply? Is it more important where the birth occurs, where the semen was taken, where the parties live or which country the egg came from? These are fascinating issues that we must consider before they overwhelm us. I have no idea where we go from here, but I am sure that we need to start asking the right questions which will hopefully lead us to the right answers, or at least to the right forums and formats for seeking comprehensive answers to these emerging issues.


ABA Family Law Section to meet in Fort Worth

This Wednesday through Saturday, the ABA Family Law Section hosts it’s annual Fall seminar (next October we are meeting in Las Vegas). True to form, the programming is excellent, filled with excellent speakers on excellent topics of interest to family law practitioners. New and interesting topics include “Using Stock Options and other Executive Compensation to fund Alimony” and “Parenting Plans for Children Under 3”. There will also be debates/discussions about many far reaching issues, including the need for a uniform act on child support guidelines and the Model Act of the Representation of Children.

Of course, the informal education that comes from the interaction of lawyers from across the country between sessions cannot be overestimated. I look forward to seeing many old friends and to meeting new ones this week in Fort Worth.

The brochure for the program can be found at: http://www.abanet.org/family/events/fall10brochure.pdf

If I can answer questions, before during or after the program, please let me know.


Temporary Custody should not automatically = Permanent Custody

Often in divorce court, a temporary ruling on the issue of custody means there is a near certainty the same result will follow the final trial. But this is not what the law suggests or even allows as a presumption. Nonetheless, many divorcing parties and/or their lawyers focus heavily on temporary custody so that they may be in a much better position to achieve an award of custody on a final basis (I know, I hate the terminology like “achieve” or “winning” when we are talking about the lives of children). However, a recent Georgia case has made it very clear that a trial judge may not simply “do the same thing, based on what he or she already heard at the temporary hearing”. The case is Pace v. Pace, in the Supreme Court of Georgia and has been given the number No. S10F0843 (Oct. 4, 2010).

The trial judge may rely on evidence adduced at the temporary hearing, with advance notice to all, presumably so that the parties will know what evidence the court has in front of it even before the final trial begins. But the court may do so only after “notifying the parties of its intent to do so [rely on evidence from the temporary hearing]”.

One thing the Pace decision did not clarify, is what amount of weight the evidence from the temporary hearing should be given: “Neither the statutory provisions nor the court rules governing the conduct of child custody proceedings addresses the extent to which a trial court may rely on evidence from the temporary hearing in reaching its determination on permanent custody.” The court did however point out how limted temporary hearings can be and that final trials offer the parties a much better ability to present evidence.

Another thing the Pace case did not emphasize, is that even if the evidence was strongly in favor of a custody award to one party at the temporary hearing, things change. Child custody and visitation decisions must always be made with an eye toward what is going on presently. There are many parents who have done bad things. This goes for parents who are not in a divorce or custody struggle. But the real question should be what is in the child’s best interests right now and going forward. Yes the past is important, but if there were poor decisions made years ago that have not been repeated, we should closely examine how best to ensure a good future for the child or children instead of punishing a parent who has made mistakes in the past. There is no question that custody decisions are difficult. No one can predict the future. But if we, and importantly the judges, can know the very present, then we are more likely to formulate plans for our children that will work now, and hopefully into the future.


Recalling the first test tube baby

In 1978. That was the first time in the history of the world that a child was conceived outside of a mother’s body (an egg being fertilized in a dish), and then successfully carried through pregnancy to life by the mother. Until then, we were always certain that if a mother delivered a child, it was her biological child since her egg was fertizlized within her body, even if the sperm was donated. In 1978, everything changed. The child was Baby Louise and her story can be found via an easy internet search (you can read more about her story by clcking here). That was the start of successful in vitro fertilzation and the start of a brand new area of law.

I write about this since a guest lecturer for the Domestic Relations Law School course I teach discussed it last night. Ruth Claiborne is a leader in the legal field of assisted reproductive technology (ART) and her insights made for an exciting and interesting class.

From that day back in 1978, the field of ART has exploded. So have legal quandries surrounding it. Frozen embryos, inheritance by an embryo, custody battles between a surrogate mother and the biological mother, adoption of children not yet born and other legal quagmires have made this area of the law fascinating. There is a growing interest in ART among lawyers and non-lawyers. At our Spring and Fall ABA Family Law Section seminars, we are seeing more and more programs dealing with these topics. The leaders in this field, including attorney Steven Snyder and Professor Charles Kindregan and many others have generously given their time and talent to educating other lawyers about this new and emerging are of the law.

And these issues are everywhere. They have impacted almost every area of family law. For instance, some opponents of gay marriage used to argue that marriage was only for people who could procreate. Well that argument is now gone, or severely dimished since a same sex couple can now have a baby using donated sperm or a donated egg.

By no means am I an expert in this area. To the contrary, I still feel often like a little boy in science class learning new things. Last night during my law school class, I had that feeling again, and it was great.


Closing a door, opening a window (Sandra Bullock for example)

The saying “When God closes a door, he opens a window” can sometimes be very appropriate in family law settings. Sandra Bullock’s situation is a prime example. While a door was closed for her (divorce with ugly allegations that her husband Jesse James cheated), perhaps a more important window was opened, the adoption of a baby boy (Washington Post story can be viewed by clicking here). Her love for her child is so apparent that it is clear that perhaps she was freed of a bad marriage to make time for a person who she could love even more and who could return the love equally and unequivocally.

In our experience as divorce lawyers, we are often fortunate enough to see clients after the divorce has passed. While some struggle for years, many, if not most, move on and find happiness that they may not otherwise have found. That is one of the most gratifying parts of our job. Since the future is never certain, and is almost always frightening for anyone going through a divorce, the ability to watch people go through it and survive and succeed is an awe inspiring experience. Almost everyone who goes through a divorce, never ever dreamed of the possibilty of a separation or divorce. Then, to accept the failure of their marriage, a project they worked on, planned and tried their very best to make work, is always difficult. And much more so when children are involved. Yet inevitably life moves forward. New relationships are formed, different connections are made, and life goes on.

The bottom line is that change is inevitable and when it is as significant as a divorce, everything changes. But as human beings we strive to improve our circumstances, no matter what is thrown at us. And guess what, many people succeed in that. No, not everyone moves on and is better off for divorce. Money is tighter, logistical difficulties preventing non-custodial parents from seeing their kids arise, but we learn to cope with these issues. Of course there are times when the path of divorce was too quickly chosen. But in the majority of cases we see, the die has been cast, as in Sandra Bullock’s case. When the couple has passed the proverbial “point of no return” (one party cheating with porn stars?), then the real question is how to move on respectfully and with dignity. And I suggest that Sandra Bullock, at least from what we can glean through the press, has done exactly that. It is refreshing to see and likely inspirational to many.


Divorce and birth rates down?

A Georgia Public Broadcasting article suggests birth rates and divorce rates are down in this poor economy (Click here for a link to the article). But is this a good thing? We must remember that divorce, is a legal proceeding, not a determinative identification of which marriages are stable and which are not. Perhaps the economy is preventing some folks from filing legal papers or hiring lawyers, but does that really mean more people are staying together (and if so, happily?). I think not. From my perspective, many people who have struggled for years trying to maintain a marriage have had it. On top of years of marital or relationship troubles, the stress of a poor economy puts many couples over the top. The economy may be the proverbial “last straw”.

Couples who are in distress, especially those living in separate residences, often need the court’s assistance to decide how funds are shared between the parties and how time with the children is allotted. But in a poor economy, many cannot afford an attorney so they often ignore the legal process and engage in self help. This may work on an ad hoc basis, but troubles are inevitable. And if we do see a decrease in divorce, unfortunately, in my opinion, we will see a rise in other legal areas, such as child kidnapping, criminal claims of abandonment and even domestic violence as people take out their frustrations on each other (frustrations which a “good divorce” or “good divorce agreement” might have avoided).

So, the real issue is not whether divorce rates are down, but are marriages healthier? Are people now staying together and resolving their issues. Or are they simply not able to afford the safeties and resolution mechanisms divorce courts provide?