Month: March 2017

Florida Alimony Reform: R.I.P.

Alimony reform in Florida will have to wait. With 35 days left in the Legislative session, the bills are not getting a hearing in either the House or the Senate, meaning the alimony reform bills will likely die in committee.

Florida Alimony

In Florida, alimony is awarded to a spouse when there is a need for it, and the other spouse has the ability to pay for alimony. Alimony can take various forms.

For example, alimony can be awarded to “bridge the gap” between married and single life. This is usually a short term form of alimony, and in fact, can’t exceed two years.

Alimony can also be rehabilitative – to help a party in establishing the capacity for self-support by developing skills or credentials; or acquiring education, training, or work experience. The underlying goal is to get you into a position where you can take care of expenses without assistance.

Durational Alimony is awarded when permanent periodic alimony is inappropriate. The purpose of durational alimony is to provide you with economic assistance for a time after a short or moderate term marriage, or even long marriages, if there is no ongoing need for support on a permanent basis.

Permanent Alimony is awarded to provide for your needs and necessities of life as they were established during your marriage, if you lack the financial ability to meet your needs and necessities of life following a divorce. However, a court has to find that there is no other form of alimony that would be fair and reasonable.

Although people often think of alimony as paid on a monthly basis, it can be awarded in a lump sum or be a combination of the two. In making a determination of whether or not to award alimony, the court may consider non-monetary factors.

Alimony Reform

Alimony reform is a nationwide phenomenon. A few states have already limited alimony, especially in cases where the marriage is less than 20 years.

Florida is not alone in moving for alimony reform. Currently, there are two bills in Florida trying to be passed to amend our alimony statute. However, many state bills, like Florida’s, are in progress, or are constantly evolving.

Unlike child support, which is common when a divorcing couple has kids, alimony awards have always been very rare, going from about 25% of cases in the 1960s to about 10% today. In one study of Wisconsin cases, it was only 8.6%.

Florida’s Alimony Reform Bill

This year’s bills would have provided judges with a set of guidelines for calculating alimony, and would also have provided judges and lawyers reasons to deviate from the proposed alimony guidelines in special cases.

I wrote about the failure of the alimony reform bills before. First, in 2015, when the Florida House of Representatives made a surprising end of their session, killing all bills.

Last year, Governor Scott vetoed a similar bill, but last year’s bill had a major difference. Last year’s bill added a provision that made equal timesharing a presumption in every case. Because of the equal timesharing presumption, the governor vetoed last year’s bill.

Withering on the Vine

For people who oppose alimony reform, there is good news: the bills are dead for the year. Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, the Naples Republican who’s carrying the Senate version (SB 412), this week said the chair of its first committee of reference refused to hear the alimony bill.

“Chairman Garcia determined that he was not interested in hearing it and I respect that decision,” Passidomo said. “I don’t think leadership weighed in on it.”

Sen. Passidomo also noted that the House version of the bill (HB 283), sponsored by Lakeland Republican state Rep. Colleen Burton, has also not gotten a hearing. Given that the House subcommittees are wrapping up work this week, that virtually dooms the legislation there.

The Florida Politics article is available here.


Against All Odds: Voiding Prenups

What do prenups, and singer Phil Collins have in common? We will soon find out. Phil may be a witness in a divorce trial where Phil’s ex-wife is testing the validity of an agreement she signed with her new husband.

As the Miami Herald reports, the five-day trial on the validity of an agreement is scheduled to start April 24. The trial is a part of Phil Collins’ ex-wife, Orianne Mejjati’s, current divorce from Miami developer Charles Fouad Mejjati.

This part of the trial is designed only to validate, or declare null and void, a prenup or postnup agreement that Orianne and Charles signed in May 2015 – about the time Collins moved to be near Orianne.

Under the agreement in question, Orianne would be forced to turn over her $10 million Miami Beach mansion to Charles, in addition to giving him half the value of her property near Geneva, Switzerland. It has been on the market for $62 million.

Easy Lover: Prenups and Postnups

I’ve written about prenups and postnups in the past. Prenuptial agreements, or “prenups,” are contracts entered into before marriage that outline the division of assets in case of divorce or death. Postnuptial agreements are contracts entered into after the marriage.

Both prenups and postnups help try to resolve things like alimony, ownership of businesses, title of properties, and even each spouse’s financial responsibilities during the marriage.

True Colors: Voiding Agreements

Because of Florida’s policy of enforcing agreements, prenups and postnups can be difficult to void – but not impossible. Florida has both case law and a statute to help lawyers, judges and the parties determine if a prenuptial agreement, for example, is enforceable.

In Florida, to test the validity of a prenuptial agreement, courts must consider things such as fraud, duress, coercion, in addition to the unfairness of the agreement, and whether there was any financial disclosure.

Under Florida’s Uniform Premarital Agreement Act, a prenup may not be enforceable if a party can prove, in part, that it was not signed voluntarily; or was the product of fraud, duress, coercion, or overreaching; or it was unconscionable.

Some of these defenses may also require a party to show they were not given a fair and reasonable disclosure of property, and did not voluntarily and expressly waive that right, and did not have adequate knowledge of the property or financial obligations of the other party.

That’s Just the Way It Is

In Orianne’s case, she stands to lose a large portion of her fortune, so Phil Collins has been cooperating with the court system. He was grilled by lawyers for several hours in January on what he knew about Orianne’s mental state when she signed the post-nuptial agreement.

According to media reports, Orianne now believes her condition at the time she signed the agreement made her legally incompetent to sign anything and says she was ‘coerced’ and ‘bullied.’ Charles’ side claims Orianne was properly represented by a lawyer, and he has been playing hard ball.

‘The husband threatened that he would disclose and make public allegations about the wife,’ Orianne’s original divorce petition reads.

‘That would cause the wife great personal, professional and social embarrassment, humiliation and upset and would, the husband threatened, also result in the wife losing custody of her child.’

In 2015, Phil Collins bought Jennifer Lopez’s old house for $33 million. Collins then paid Mejjati, a builder by trade, to make substantial alterations to the property where Lopez broke up with longtime love Ben Affleck in 2004. Within months, Orianne had left her husband, and moved in with Collins.

The Miami Herald article is here.


Same Sex, Common Law Marriages

Florida deems common law marriages void. What about a common law marriage from another state? In many same-sex relationships, which were not legal until recently, that is now an issue.

Groundbreaking New Case

In South Carolina, Debra Parks wanted to be treated the same as anybody else. She wanted her relationship, which ended last year, to be considered a common-law marriage under South Carolina law. Parks is gay. But until 2014, same-sex marriage was illegal.

In a groundbreaking case for South Carolina, a Family Court judge has ruled that Parks and her former partner had a common-law marriage under state law. And the state must recognize that their common-law marriage has been legal for almost 30 years, the judge ruled.

The ruling means same-sex couples now have the same retroactive rights as heterosexual married couples, experts say. Those rights include alimony, health insurance, taxes, the division of property and others.

I’ve written about same-sex relationships before. The South Carolina ruling immediately becomes a legal precedent, and has the potential to impact thousands of people in same sex relationships because it backdates the period of effect to the beginning of the common-law marriage.

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’” the judge wrote. “The law established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell should be applied retroactively in South Carolina.”

Florida Common Law Marriages

South Carolina is one of eight states that recognize common law marriage. The case is important because same sex marriages were not recognized until 2014 and left an entire group of people “out in the cold” without the protections the law provides to heterosexual couples.

Florida law is different. No common-law marriage entered into after January 1, 1968, is valid in Florida.

The South Carolina case could create a conflict between Florida Statutes – which makes common law marriages in Florida void as of 1968, the Parks case, which recognizes the creation of same-sex, common law marriages in South Carolina.

The order states that Parks’ common law marriage is retroactive to the time when Parks divorced her husband while already living with her same sex partner. The larger question for interstate actions is whether Florida would give full faith and credit to the South Carolina judgment.

Interstate Problems

The generally established principle is that the validity of a marriage is determined by the law of the place where the marriage occurred. So, while Florida no longer recognizes common law marriages, nevertheless, it may to recognize the validity of common law marriages in other states.

Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to recognize same sex marriage, everything else from the marriage follows including rights of the parties, including marital property, alimony, divorce, and anything else. The rights and duties of marriage now apply to same sex couples.

The South Carolina Herald article is here.

No-Fault Divorce Around the World

A British woman who alleges she was “desperately unhappy” being married lost her divorce. Unlike Florida, many places require proving fault, you can lose your case, and have to stay married!

As the BBC reports, Tini Owens, 66, asked the Court of Appeal to overturn a family court judge who turned her down when she asked to divorce her husband Hugh Owens, 78.

You read that correctly. Of all of the issues facing you when you divorce: who gets custody, how will I support myself, what are the tax implications of alimony, in some places you could actually lose your request to divorce and have to stay married.

The appellate court judges in Great Britain upheld the trial judge’s ruling. Mrs. Owens claimed that her marriage had broken down, but Mr. Owens disagreed.

The Husband argued that the couple still had a “few years” to enjoy. And the trial judge agreed with him. The judge ruled the Wife’s allegations were “of the kind to be expected in marriage”. Parliament decreed “it is not a ground for divorce that you find yourself in a wretchedly unhappy marriage, though some people may say it should be.”

Florida is a “No-Fault” state. No-fault laws are widespread across the United States, but not everywhere. No fault laws have helped to reduce animosity in divorces by reducing the need to distort, lie, and air dirty laundry.

I’ve written about no-fault divorce before. Florida abolished fault as grounds for filing a divorce. The only reason you need to file for divorce in Florida is that the marriage is “irretrievably broken.” But as the case of Mrs. Owens shows, in other places, that is not always true.

While Florida is a No-Fault state for divorce, it is interesting to know why people divorce. A recent study out of the UK reveals some surprising reasons why people divorce. Interestingly, adultery is a declining factor.

It appears that couples are less likely to cite adultery as the cause of a divorce than they were 40 years ago. However, claims of “unreasonable behavior” (a British term) have skyrocketed to more than 5 million divorce cases.

The BBC article is available here.

Alimony & Short Marriages

Married at First Sight’s Sonia Granados and Nick Pendergrast are filing for divorce “after almost a year of marriage.” The length of your marriage may impact the amount and length of alimony.

Married at First Sight

According to US Magazine, the could reports:

“We are sad to share that after almost a year of marriage we have decided to separate and file for divorce. Thank you in advance for your love and support through this difficult time! We look forward to growing and continuing to learn about ourselves from what we still consider to be a meaningful experience with MAFS.”

Florida Alimony

Alimony is governed in Florida by a statute. The alimony statute requires judges to consider several factors, including the duration of the marriage.

For purposes of determining alimony, there is a rebuttable presumption that a short-term marriage is a marriage having a duration of less than 7 years.

Florida Alimony Reform

However, Florida has been struggling in an alimony reform battle for years. I have been reporting on the alimony reform movement for years. This year, the Legislature is considering a bill that sets out a formula for judges to use when deciding alimony payments.

The House Alimony Bill, which would take effect October 1st if passed, would set guidelines for judges to set alimony based on the duration of marriages and the incomes of the parties. If a judge deviates from the guidelines they would have to explain why in writing.

The bill replaces permanent alimony with new formulas based on the length of the marriage, and the spouses’ incomes. Those formulas help set the amount and duration of the payments.

Also, the alimony reform bill re-defines marriages for purposes of alimony. Marriage would be divided into “low end” and “high end” marriages based on the length of the marriage.

Under the proposed alimony reform bill, in marriages of 2 years or less, there is a rebuttable presumption that no alimony shall be awarded.

For purposes of calculating the presumptive alimony amount range, 20 years of marriage or less shall be used in calculating the low end and high end for marriages of 20 years or more.

Short Marriages & Alimony

The former stars of Married at first Sight, Granados and Pendergrast were married for less than 1 year, and under the alimony reform bill would not be entitled to alimony.

The pair met on season 4 of the television series, and struggled early on in their relationship. Granados was scared of dogs (he owned one), and felt that he wasn’t physically attracted to her and that he lacked emotion.

The US Magazine article is here.

Grandparent Visitation Rights. Yes, really.

Jessica and her mother-in-law used to have a great relationship. It ended when her mother-in-law moved in. Fights lead to grandparents being cut-out. Grandparent visitation rights don’t exist in Florida, but that is changing.

As the Chicago Tribune reports:

“Rules don’t apply to her. We don’t want her living with us anymore.”

It’s the little things. When Fromm throws her clothing into the washing machine, she’ll return to find it tossed on the floor. And when she has friends over, Fromm notices that her mother-in-law is eavesdropping on her conversations.

Grandparents are Becoming Essential

According to the Pew Research Center, there were 57 million Americans — or 18 percent of the population — living in multi-generational households in 2012, which is double what the number was in 1980.

Some are doing it for financial reasons, and others are doing it because they could use help raising children while both parents work. Regardless of the reasons, it’s very common for personality clashes and other issues to occur, but there are ways to make the transition smoother.

“Changing the basic family structure always has an impact on everyone’s relationships, no matter how simple or easy it may look before it happens; and no matter what the reason, when a couple moves in with one partner’s parents, or when a parent moves in with a couple, it is a change in family structure.”

Current Florida Law

I’ve written about grandparent visitation rights. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Troxel v. Granville, held that the Due Process Clause protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.

So, as long as a parent is adequately caring for his or her child, there will normally be no reason for the state to inject itself into the private realm of the family. The basic presumption in Troxel is that fit parents act in the best interests of their children.

However, the Troxel court did not hold that the Due Process Clause requires a showing of harm or potential harm to the child as a condition to grandparent visitation. That is a Florida law.

Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court left those decisions for the states to decide on a case-by-case basis.

It surprises many Floridians – because of the large percentage of grandparents here – but grandparent visitation rights don’t exist here.

Grandparent custody and time-sharing rights do not exist in Florida without showing harm to the child; otherwise, it is deemed to violate parents’ privacy.

Recent Florida Changes

Things could be changing for grandparent visitation rights. In 2015, the Florida Legislature passed a law allowing a grandparent of a minor child whose parents are deceased, missing, or in a persistent vegetative state, or other listed facts, to ask the court for visitation with the grandchild.

Last month, the Florida Supreme Court recently enforced an interstate custody decree which granted grandparent visitation rights, even though grandparent visitation rights with fit parents violated Florida law.

This year in the Florida Senate, there is a new bill introduced relating to grandparent visitation rights. The bill would authorize a grandparent of a minor child – who has exclusively cared for the minor child for at least 6 months – to petition the court for court-ordered visitation with the child under certain circumstances.

The bill would also require the courts to consider the totality of the circumstances, including a specified criterion, in its determination of substantial mental or emotional harm to the child, to better comply with the Florida Supreme Court’s case law.

The Chicago Tribune article is here.

Divorce, Paternity & Mediation

A judge has agreed to halt a contested divorce between former Vice President Joe Biden’s son and his estranged wife, ordering them to try at least four hours of mediation.

As the New York Daily News reports, Thursday’s ruling came after lawyers for both Hunter Biden and Kathleen Buhle Biden filed court papers saying they want to end their marriage without continued litigation.

The Bidens recognize the benefit in finalizing their divorce “amicably and privately.”

Last week’s request to put the case on hold came after Kathleen Biden accused Hunter Biden in court documents of squandering their money on drugs, alcohol and prostitutes. Kathleen Biden filed for divorce in December.

I’ve written about mediation and settlement in the past. In Florida, every case of divorce and paternity must attempt to resolve their difference through mediation before their case can proceed to trial, but you don’t have to wait for a court order.

Pre-Suit Mediation

For many clients, especially for high profile clients such as the Bidens, discretion and privacy is very important. Athletes and celebrities, in addition to politicians, have big stake in keeping their divorces out of the news as the New York Daily News article proves.

Why? Often, people are concerned that their financial disclosure, net worth, and details regarding their income will become available to the public through the court files. For businesses, this could even include having sensitive business information available to business competitors.

Also, many people are often concerned about their private affairs being played out in the news or newspapers or elsewhere in public, which could potentially jeopardize careers and social status.

There is also a big cost saving to mediating before filing a family law or divorce action. If both parties can agree to deadlines to exchange their financial documents, and cooperate with children’s issues, thousands of dollars can be saved in a pre-suit settlement.

What is Mediation

In a mediation, the parties and their attorneys meet with a neutral mediator – sometimes together, sometimes separately – to try to negotiate a settlement agreement.

Ideally, both the mediator and the attorneys should have enough experience to anticipate what will happen if the case goes to trial. Drawing on that experience, they can help the parties negotiate an agreement without any need to have a judge decide the issues for them.

At mediation, you will discuss issues that are highly personal and emotional. Accordingly, there are many factors to think about when choosing the right family mediator. Below are a few to think about:

Choosing a Mediator

Trust is the most important consideration in choosing a family law mediator. Your mediator should be someone you feel comfortable with as a person and as a professional.

Specialization is another important criterion. Ask your attorney if the mediator in your case has a practice area dedicated to divorce and family mediation. Family is not an area to dabble in. To be effective in family mediations requires patience as well as skills. Ideally, you want the percentage to be 100%.

Cost is always an important consideration. While it can be expensive to spend the day in mediation, if you’re successful, you are likely to save thousands on your total legal fees.

When comparing mediation fees, base your decision on selecting a mediator with a high success rate for settlements. $200 per hour sounds better than $400 per hour, but not if your $200 mediator spends 8 hours without a resolution, you have not saved anything.

Final Thoughts

Mediation is a great way to resolve your divorce without paying for a full trial. Choosing a mediator is the first step, and may be the most important decision you can reach in your divorce.

The New York Daily News article is here.

Property Division & Getting Your Name Off Title

Long after your divorce’s property division, you remember that your name is still on the deed and mortgage to your old home. It may be important to remove your name from title in order to buy a new home or get credit.

Getting A Court Order

One way to remove your name from title is to go back to the family law judge, and ask for an order requiring that your name be removed from the deed and mortgage. However, to remove your name from title, your ex-spouse will have to refinance the property.

A controlling issue in these types of cases is whether your spouse has the ability to refinance. If your spouse has bad credit, is unemployed, or gets turned down for a loan, it will be hard to force your ex to do something that can’t be done.

However, if your ex-spouse has the ability to remove your name off the mortgage, but has never bothered to, a court order could work. However, you whenever you file for an order in court, you are going to incur attorney’s fees and costs, and that could get expensive.

I’ve written about real estate and property divisions before. Unless your marital settlement agreement or final divorce decree is clear, there may not be any choice but to run back to court for an order.

However, if your name is still on title, your ex-spouse can’t sell the home unless you sign the deed over to her or a new buyer. Additionally, the home cannot be further mortgaged unless you sign on the mortgage papers too.

Selling the Home

If you and your ex agree to sell the property, the sale will usually require the payoff of the existing mortgage with your name on it. That would take your name off the loan and ownership of the home. The same is true if your ex refinances: a new loan should pay off the old mortgage, and a satisfaction of mortgage will be recorded.

Hidden Problems

There are other problems in a property division in which your name is still on title. In the even that your ex-spouse does not pay the mortgage timely, your own credit will suffer the late notices.

Additionally, if someone is hurt visiting your old home, that person will sue the record title owners for their damages. If your name is on title as an owner, you could be sued. Having liability insurance may be in order, which requires talking to an insurance agent.

My Florida Bar Journal article on property is here.

Three Parent Custody Cases

A Long Island couple, and a neighbor with whom they had a threesome, have been granted custody of their 10-year-old son to three parents in a groundbreaking ruling.

New York residents Dawn and Michael Marano, married in 1994. They had a conventional marriage, until they befriended downstairs neighbor Audria Garcia in 2001.

Garcia had been living with her boyfriend, but when they split up, she moved upstairs and “began to engage in intimate relations” with the Maranos.

No one told these three people to create this unique relationship Suffolk County Supreme Court Judge H. Patrick Leis III wrote in the ruling for the first-of-its-kind case in New York. It was agreed, before a child was conceived, that [the Maranos and Garcia] would all raise the child together as parents.

The threesome was one big happy family for 18 months, until Garcia and Dawn Marano decided to become a twosome and left Michael. They moved out and into a new home nearby in 2008.

Then Michael Marano sued Garcia for custody of their son. Dawn Marano then sued her husband for divorce. Michael Marano and Garcia agreed to joint custody, but Dawn felt left out.

As neither a biological nor adoptive mom to the boy, Garcia had no automatic legal right to custody. Although she still lives with the mother, Dawn Marano.

Dawn Marano then filed another suit “to secure custody rights because she fears that without court-ordered visitation and shared custody, her ability to remain in the child’s life would be dependent on obtaining the consent of either Audria or [Michael],” Judge Leis explained.

In awarding Dawn Marano shared custody, Leis cited a ruling by New York’s highest court that allowed non-biological or adoptive parents to seek custody of a child if they had a prior relationship with that child.

While the two women are “absolutely thrilled” with the ruling, the New York Post reports that the father, Michael Marano, intends to appeal.

I’ve written about custody issues in Florida before. In one Florida case a man reached a verbal agreement about donating sperm for his two same-sex female neighbors, who would raise their child together.

But shortly before the baby was born, the Father decided he wanted to be considered a parent and not a sperm donor. The women disagreed. Under Florida law, sperm donors have no legal rights to children.

Under the Florida judge’s decision, the two women will have sole parental rights, although the Father will be allowed to visit the child. He will not be expected to provide child support.

The New York Post article is here.

Religion: Divorce or Stay Married?

A woman sued her divorce lawyers for negligence, claiming they failed to tell her finalizing her divorce would end her marriage. Crazy, right? It also places the issue of religion and divorce back in the news.

According to the U.K.’s Independent, the divorce malpractice case had already been rejected by the court, but was before a higher British court on appeal.

Jane Mulcahy had argued that the lawyers should have made it clear that a divorce would cause her marriage to be terminated – something which she apparently wanted to avoid.

The lawyers failed to regard her Roman Catholic faith, and should have recommended judicial separation – a step down from full divorce – as an alternative course of action, she said.

I’ve written about religion and divorces before. Each religion has its own requirements for completing a divorce. Although religion is not a factor Florida courts can consider in granting a divorce, for the parties, religion can be extremely important.

Islam has a waiting period. The Catholic Church has the Decree of Invalidity and other remedies so spouses are free to marry again. In Judaism, a husband must give his wife a “Get”.

To avoid problems such as the British woman’s Florida allows people to file for alimony and child support unconnected with dissolution.

In Florida, if a spouse has the ability to contribute to maintain and support the family, but fails to, the other spouse can apply to a court for alimony and for support for the child – without seeking a dissolution of marriage.

Many people are often unaware that there are serious consequences to ending your marriage (loss of health insurance and tax implications for example) and that you can’t simply annul your marriage the way you can divorce.

In the British case, Lord Justice Briggs said:

“The most striking of Mrs Mulcahy’s many allegations of negligence against her solicitors was that, having regard to her Roman Catholic faith, Mrs Boots had failed to give her the advice which was requisite in view of her firmly held belief in the sanctity of marriage…

The Independent article is here.