Month: November 2017

Religious Marriage & Divorce

A recent survey found that 6 in 10 women who had Muslim religious weddings are not in legal marriages, depriving them of spousal rights. Many people have religious weddings, and don’t get a marriage license. What is the importance of the marriage license, and is the religious ceremony enough?

According to the London Guardian, nearly all married Muslim women have had a nikah, a religious marriage ceremony.

However, about 61% had not gone through a separate civil ceremony which would make the marriage legal.

If you have a religious marriage only, and the marriage breaks down, you may be unable to go to family court to divide marital assets, such as the family home and your spouse’s pension.

This trend of having a religious ceremony, but no civil marriage license, is becoming a problem as more people think having religious marriage ceremony is enough.

Florida Marriage Law

I’ve written about marriage validity, and the intersection between religious marriage and civil marriage before. First off, in order to be validly married in Florida, you need a license from the government.

No, you don’t get your marriage license from the DMV, but from the Clerk of the Court.

Getting a marriage license may seem like a trivial obligation, but if you want your religious marriage recognized in court, you must get a marriage license.

There is a fee for getting a marriage license, and that fee is reduced for attending pre-marital counseling. The license is valid for 60 days. The officiant at the ceremony must certify that the marriage was solemnized.

The certified marriage license must be returned to the clerk or an issuing judge within 10 days, and the clerk or judge is required to keep a correct record of certified marriage licenses.

Florida courts have repeatedly warned people that they cannot depart from the requirement of the Florida Statutes to have a license, otherwise the courts would be creating common-law marriages, which are not recognized here.

If you only have the religious marriage, but do not file for a marriage license, your marriage will not likely be recognized, and you cannot divorce, and cannot make claims for equitable distribution, or ask a court for alimony.

That can be a devastating surprise for many people.

Religious Only Marriages

Every religion has there own method of marrying. For Catholics, the celebration normally takes place within a Mass. In Judaism, there’s a marriage contract, a marriage canopy, and the breaking of a glass. In the Islamic nikah, there is a reading from the Qur’an, and the exchange of vows in front of witnesses.

Religious marriage without a license, is not only a major problem, but a growing problem.

Religious marriages are also easier to terminate than legally registered marriages, so marriage has become easy and divorce has become easy. It’s a disturbing trend.

Generally in Florida, regularly ordained ministers of the gospel or elders in communion with some church, or other ordained clergy, and all judicial officers, clerks of the circuit courts, and notaries public may solemnize the rights of matrimonial contract, under the law.

The Guardian article is here.


Losing Custody through Parental Alienation

In Britain, parents can now lose child custody, and even be denied contact with their children, if they attempt to poison their children against the other parent under a new pilot program to stop parental alienation. What is parental alienation and why should you lose custody over it?

According to the London Independent, the groundbreaking initiative, being tried by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), is designed to tackle the problem officially known as “parental alienation” where one parent turns a child against the other so they do not want to see them.

In the UK, Cafcass represents children in family court cases to make sure that children’s voices are heard and decisions are taken in their best interests.

Cafcass is independent of the courts, social services, education and health authorities. It was established in 2001 to bring together the family court services previously provided by the Family Court Welfare Service, the Guardian ad Litem Service and the Children’s Division of the Official Solicitor’s Office. It is accountable to the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice.

Cafcass – which has been criticized for being slow to tackle the issue – said the problem is widespread and occurs in a substantial number of the 125,000 cases it deals with annually.

Florida Child Custody Modification

I’ve written about interstate and international child custody issues before, and how to modify child custody provisions.

The custody provision in a final judgment can be materially modified only if:

  • there are facts concerning the welfare of the child that the court did not know at the time the decree was entered, or
  • there has been a change in circumstances shown to have arisen since the decree.

To satisfy the substantial change of circumstances test, the party seeking modification must show both that the circumstances have substantially, materially changed since the original custody determination and that the child’s best interests justify changing custody.

Parental Alienation

Parental Alienation is a mental condition in which a child – usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict separation or divorce – allies strongly with one parent and refuses without good cause to have a relationship with the other parent.

This process takes place when a parent or caregiver encourages the child’s rejection of the other parent.

Parental alienation is driven by the false belief that the rejected parent is evil, dangerous, or not worthy of affection.

When the phenomenon is properly recognized, the condition is preventable and treatable in many instances.

Parental alienation, if proved by competent, substantial evidence, can justify a request for a modification of a time-sharing provision in a final judgment.

Parental Alienation in Britain

Cafcass’s, Sarah Parsons, said: “We are increasingly recognizing that parental alienation is a feature of many of our cases and have realized that it’s absolutely vital that we take the initiative.

Our new approach is groundbreaking.

From spring 2018, Cafcass caseworkers will be issued with guidelines known as the “high conflict pathway” setting out steps social workers should take when dealing with suspected cases of parental alienation.

The pathway will spell out at what stage children should be removed from the parent responsible for the alienation and placed with the “target parent”.

A father who was the victim of alienation, speaking anonymously, told the Guardian:

I’ve lived through and witnessed the inexorable alienation of my older daughter over the past five years, which has culminated in complete loss of contact.

The Independent’s article on alienation is here.


Foreign Custody and Sex Discrimination

A recent interstate child custody case from Mali sheds light on sex discrimination in foreign courts. Should an American court honor a foreign court’s custody order if the foreign country favors men over women in custody cases? An Indiana court just answered that question.

A Mother appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals a trial judge’s refusal to modify a child custody order from the west-African nation of Mali in favor of the Father.

The Mother argued that the trial judge was not required to enforce the Malian court’s order under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) because the order from Mali was the product of laws that violate fundamental human rights.

Indiana, like Florida, has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). Under the UCCJEA courts must enforce foreign custody decrees if it was issued by the country that was the child’s home state.

Enforcement is especially required if everyone was given notice and opportunity to be heard, and the child custody laws of the foreign country don’t violate fundamental principles of human rights.

The big question was whether Mali child custody laws violate human rights principles as Indiana courts understand them.

Florida and the UCCJEA

I’ve written and spoken many times on international custody involving the UCCJEA and The Hague.

The UCCJEA is a uniform act, and was adopted by all U.S. states except Massachusetts; which still follows the older UCCJA.

The UCCJEA was made to harmonize custody, visitation, timesharing and parental responsibility because different states and countries have different approaches to family law issues.

Florida treats foreign countries as if they were states of the United States for purposes of applying the UCCJEA. So, a child custody order made in a foreign country in substantial conformity with Florida’s UCCJEA must be recognized and enforced here.

However, under the UCCJEA Florida does not need to enforce or recognize the foreign order if the child custody law of a foreign country violates fundamental principles of human rights.

That was the issue the Indiana court had to decide.

The Indiana Case

The Mother and Father are both dual citizens of France and Mali, and divorced in Mali. Both parties asked for custody of the children.

After the trial, but before the Mali court issued an order, the Mother took the children to France, and the Malian court then awarded the Father custody.

The Mother never returned the children, unsuccessfully sought Mali and France then moved to Indiana and filed her case there.

The Indiana court rejected the Mother’s argument under the UCCJEA that the custody laws of Mali violate fundamental human rights because it favors men over women.

The Mother argued that Mali’s divorce law is fault-based, have a preference for men in child custody decisions because under Mali law, the following were tru:

  • The husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband.
  • The husband is deemed the head of the household,
  • The husband has the right to choose the family residence, and the wife must live with him and he must receive her.
  • A woman is prohibited from running a business without her husband’s permission.
  • Mali has failed to outlaw female genital mutilation

However, the Indiana court found that Mali did not actually apply the statutory custody presumption in favor of Father.

Instead the Indiana court found that under Mali law, custody could be awarded to Father or Mother. Additionally, in the Mali case under review, the best interests of the children controlled this decision.

The Female Genital Mutilation Argument

A 1999 United States Agency for International Development funded study in Mali was conducted, and found that 93.7% of women had gone through some form of female genital mutilation, usually when they are young.

The Indiana court rejected the Mother’s argument about Mali’s failure to outlaw female genital mutilation – in part because it noted that the father had condemned the practice.

Under the UCCJEA, while female genital mutilation is itself a human rights violation, Mali’s failure to pass a law specifically prohibiting the practice does not in and of itself constitute a violation of fundamental principles of human rights.

The Indiana Court of Appeals decision is here.


Ban Child Marriages

A pressing family law problem is the more than 200,000 children married in the United States. No, that’s not a statistic from frontier life in the 1800s, that covers marriages over the past 15-years. What is the status of child marriages?

According to the Independent there is a surprising number of child marriages: three 10-year-old girls and an 11-year-old boy were among the youngest to wed on the U.S., under legal loopholes which allow minors to marry in certain circumstances.

The minimum age for marriage across most of the US is 18, but every state has exemptions – such as parental consent or pregnancy – which allow younger children to tie the knot.

In May, the high-profile Republican governor for New Jersey declined to sign into law a bill that would have made New Jersey the first to ban child marriages without exception. Chris Christie claimed it would conflict with religious customs.

At least 207,468 minors married in the US between 2000 and 2015. The true figure is likely to be much higher because 10 states provided no or incomplete statistics.

Florida Child Marriages

I’ve written about marriage and divorce before. Many people would be embarrassed to know that Florida actually allows child marriages.

Our statutes say that if anyone seeking a marriage license is under the age of 18, all that’s required is the written consent of the parents. Even written consent isn’t required if the parent is deceased, or the child was previously married.

Currently, there is a Florida Senate bill which would prohibit a judge or clerk from issuing a marriage license to any person under the age of 18.

The current exceptions that permit a minor to marry, such as parental consent, the fact that a couple already has a child, or a physician’s written verification of a pregnancy, would be repealed. This bill would end child marriages in Florida.

The Scourge of Child Marriages

The problem of child marriages is concerning.

Between 70% and 80% of marriages involving individuals under age 18 end in divorce, and getting married and later divorcing can more than double the likelihood of poverty.

Children are trapped, because they face many obstacles when they try to resist or escape marriages that adults forced into marriage don’t.

Unless a child is legally emancipated – given the rights of an adult – a child has very limited rights, leaving children trapped in a marriage with an adult.

Last month New York banned children under 17 from marrying. Previously minors as young as 14 were allowed to in New York.

The Independent article is here.


British Grandparent Rights

A British grandmother who wanted to assert some grandparent rights for her grandchild, fought local authorities after a recommendation that the baby be put up for adoption. She won, and now the child is in her custody.

In Britain, the parents of the child were unable to look after the baby, and the paternal grandmother put herself forward to be the special guardian, a role similar to foster care.

The grandparent rights case, heard in Britain last month, raises questions about the challenges faced by families trying hold on to children as special guardians for their relatives’ children – mostly grandparents.

Florida Grandparent Visitation

I’ve written about grandparent rights to visitation several times. 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 granting rights of 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 don’t have visitation rights here.

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

British Grandparent Battle

The grandparent rights case involved a professional who works with children, initially received what the judge described as “very positive and full assessments” about her suitability as a caregiver.

However, more than five months after care proceedings began it was followed by a second negative report who questioned her commitment. At this point, the social work team recommended that the baby instead be put up for adoption.

When the case came to court, the judge ordered that the grandmother should become the baby’s special guardian after all.

Describing the hearing, the judge said the grandmother had “expressed profound dissatisfaction about the way in which she had been assessed and treated”.

The protracted battle has meant the baby only recently joined the grandmother after a long stay in foster care.

The judge paid tribute to the grandmother as “an intelligent and courteous woman” who had “put herself out considerably to offer her grandchild the opportunity of being cared for within the natural family”.

The Buzzfeed article on grandparent rights is here.


Inns of Court Award

I was honored last night to receive an award for serving as President of our Inn of Court, the First Family Law American Inn of Court, for the 2016-2017 Inn year.

I have written about the American Inns of Court before. The First Family Law American Inn of Court in Miami is a group consisting of lawyers, judges, magistrates, and judicial officers dedicated to professionalism, ethics, civility and excellence in the area of divorce, family law, child custody and related matters.

In recent Inns news, our Inns sponsored a Town Hall meeting for the Family Law Bench and Bar of the Family Division of the 11th Judicial Circuit. The event was held at the Lawson E. Thomas Courthouse and hosted by the Hon. Scott Bernstein, Administrative Judge of the Family Division, and attended by members of the Bar, and almost all of the family division bench – including many incoming judges.

Sponsorship of Town Hall meetings helps our Inns of Court fulfill its mission to inspire the legal community, and to advance the rule of law by achieving the highest level of professionalism through example, education and mentoring.


Viva Las Agreements

Some lucky hound dog is going to buy Elvis Presley’s marital settlement agreement. It is now or never if you want to bid on the King’s agreement with Priscilla Presley too, because it’s going up for auction.

Return to Sender

As People magazine reports, one of rock-n-roll’s most famous marital settlement agreements will soon be a very expensive keepsake for any fan with a burning love of Elvis.

The document marks that period when Elvis checked into the Heartbreak Hotel, signifying the end of the Elvis and Priscilla Presley marriage, and is dated Aug. 15, 1972.

Fans may be all shook up, because each of the 12 pages contains fascinating details and offers the reader a snapshot into the details, and struggles involved between both parties that only legal documents can give.

Priscilla may have told the King don’t be cruel to her, because the agreement states that the former couple agreed to divide up their property via to avoid “emotional stress.”

Florida Marital Settlement Agreements

Many people don’t realize it, but most family law cases are resolved by agreement, not by trial. A Marital Settlement Agreement is the method to resolving all of the issues, and is the final product of the negotiations.

A marital settlement agreement puts in writing all the aspects of the divorcing parties’ settlement. Topics covered in the Marital Settlement Agreement include the parenting plan, the division of assets and liabilities, alimony, child support, attorney’s fees, and any other items agreed to.

A marital settlement agreement entered into by the parties, and ratified by a final judgment, is a contract, subject to the laws of contract. Because they are contracts, they are subject to being set aside.

I have written about marital settlement agreements before. You can set aside an agreement in Florida by establishing that it was reached under fraud, deceit, duress, coercion, misrepresentation, or overreaching.

There is another ground to vacate a marital settlement agreement in Florida, and it has a few elements. First, you have to show that the agreement makes unfair or unreasonable provision, given the circumstances of the parties.

Once you have shown the agreement is unreasonable, a presumption arises that there was either concealment by the defending spouse or a presumed lack of knowledge of the finances at the time the agreement was reached.

The burden then shifts to the spouse defending the agreement, who may rebut these presumptions.

Can’t Help Falling in Love

“The parties were married on May 1, 1967 in Las Vegas, Nevada,” the agreement states:

Unfortunate circumstances and unhappy differences have arisen between the parties by reason of which they have lived separate and apart since February 23, 1972, and by reason of which they intend to dissolve their marriage.

For suspicious minds wondering what’s in the settlement signed by both Elvis and Priscilla: the music legend signed over his famous 1971 Mercedes Benz, his 1969 Cadillac Eldorado, a 1971 Harley Davidson motorcycle and $100,00.

Priscilla was definitely not moving into the Ghetto. She also received half the income from their three homes located in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles and Palm Springs, California.

A pre-sale estimate of the settlement is between $26,318 to $32,898. The last time the settlement documents came up for sale in 2011 they sold for just under $8,000.

The former couple married on May 1, 1967. Elvis was 32, while Priscilla was 21. The had daughter Lisa Marie less than a year later in February 1, 1968.

The People magazine article is here.


New Alimony Penalty

The GOP proposed tax plan has something for everyone. Including a huge surprise for divorcing couples: a tax penalty for divorce. The new law may dramatically change how we treat alimony for taxes, and whether your case will settle.

As Business Insider reports, the tax bill released last week could drastically change the tax treatment of alimony. Currently, alimony is tax-deductible for the paying spouse and taxable to the receiving spouse.

But if you get divorced after the plan is enacted, that would change: Alimony would be paid out of after-tax dollars and would be tax-free to the recipient.

This change would tend to increase the total amount of tax paid by divorced couples, since the ex-spouse who pays alimony is typically the one with the higher income and who faces a higher tax bracket.

Florida Alimony

In Florida a court can grant alimony to either party. There are different types of alimony a court can order: bridge-the-gap, rehabilitative, durational, or permanent, or any combination of these forms of alimony. In any award of alimony, the court may order periodic payments or payments in lump sum or both.

The court can even consider the adultery of either spouse and the circumstances in determining the amount of alimony, if any, to be awarded.

But the very first finding the court has to make in determining whether to award alimony is whether either party has an actual need for alimony or maintenance and whether either party has the ability to pay alimony or maintenance.

If so, the court must consider all relevant factors, including, the standard of living established during the marriage; the duration of the marriage, the age and the physical and emotional condition of each party, and the financial resources of each party, among other factors.

Alimony Tax Reform

I have written about alimony and taxes, and alimony reform proposals for many years. This time the proposal comes from Congress, no the Florida Legislature.

All told, the proposed change under the tax proposal would lead to the federal government collecting an additional $8.3 billion in taxes from divorced couples over the next 10 years, according to the bill summary.

Arguably, imposing such a substantial tax penalty on divorce could encourage people to stick it out and make their marriages work. But it could also financially trap people in unhappy marriages.

One argument for this change is that it would be easier for the IRS to administer, and IRS data shows that alimony sometimes shows up deducted on one ex-spouse’s return but is not reported as income by the other ex-spouse.

The Impact on Divorces

There are many ways to settle a divorce case and render a judgment. And, one of the most important facts to consider in any divorce is the tax deduction for alimony payments.

Overwhelmingly, divorces include some sort of alimony payment provision. The problem for the new tax bill is that if couples are less likely to reach an agreement on alimony, divorce proceedings could become more gridlocked, time consuming and expensive.

The Business Insider article is here.


Temporary Attorneys’ Fees

Canada’s Financial Post has an article explaining temporary attorneys’ fees to get you through a divorce. The process is similar in Canada to here, but then again, there are important difference in attorneys’ fees you should know about.

As the Financial Post asks:

What happens when the parties are not in an equal financial position? As contingency fees are not available in family law, how can a spouse with few assets or little income retain the professionals?

In Canada, the answer is found in the Family Law Rules, which say:

A Court can make an order that a party pay an amount of money to another party to cover part or all of the expenses of carrying on the case, including lawyer’s fees.

The test before interim disbursements may be granted is to show that the case cannot proceed unless the funds are granted. In addition, the party must show that their position is sufficiently meritorious to warrant pursuit, and that special circumstances exist to allow the Court to exercise this extraordinary remedy.

Florida Attorneys’ Fees

Costs can be high in divorce in Florida too. One way to level the playing field of high divorce costs in Florida is to ask one side to pay for attorneys’ fees.

In Florida attorney’s fees may be awarded in a divorce, including enforcement and modification proceedings, separate maintenance, custody and support proceedings and appellate proceedings.

The court may from time to time, after considering the financial resources of both parties, order a party to pay a reasonable amount for attorney’s fees, suit money, and the cost to the other party of maintaining or defending any proceeding.

I’ve written about reducing attorneys’ fees through various means before. The purpose of awarding attorneys’ fees is to make certain that both parties in a divorce proceeding “will have similar ability to secure competent legal counsel.”

There are also fees for frivolous cases. A reasonable attorney’s fee can also be awarded to the prevailing party if the court finds that someone brought a claim that was not supported by the material facts the then existing law to those material facts.

Leveling the Playing Field

While temporary attorneys’ fees may sound like a windfall for the recipient spouse, in many complex matters, one spouse alone may spend $50,000 or more on experts’ fees, with legal fees being in excess of that amount in a divorce.

When making an order for interim disbursement, the court has discretion to decide both when the payment must be made by the wealthier spouse, and the way in which a payment will be accounted for.

Often in Canada, the payment is advanced against a future equalization (property) payment owing by the wealthier spouse. In many cases, it is clear early in the litigation that a property payment is owing — the only issue is “how much.”

Courts also have the discretion to order that the payment of attorneys’ fees be advanced as a loan to the recipient spouse, or on account of spousal support.

And sometimes, a court will simply order payment to be “uncharacterized,” meaning that whether or how the payor is credited will be determined in the future by the trial judge.

The Financial Post article is here.


Prenups are Nothing New

A 2,480-year-old Egyptian scroll was recently found. But the scroll is not some royal decree from the ruling Pharaoh, or an ancient poem written on the shores of the Nile. Egyptologists report that the scroll is a prenuptial agreement.

Ancient Prenups

Written in demotic script — demotic being derived from the hieratic writing system, a kind of shorthand for hieroglyphs — the prenup was made to ensure that if the union between the signers didn’t work out, the wife would be adequately provided for.

Her compensation would include “1.2 pieces of silver and 36 bags of grain every year for the rest of her life.”

Most people have no idea that women in ancient Egypt had the same legal rights as men. Egyptian women, no matter their marital status, could enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and serve on juries and as witnesses.

In ancient Egypt, women used to be able to acquire and own property, and fairly often, they did: a fragment of papyrus from 1147 B.C., denoting thousands of land holdings names women as the owners of about 10 percent of the properties listed.

Back then, married women could file for divorce, and they were even ensured alimony — provided they had a document like a prenup, which they could write up any time before or during the relationship — at which point it would be more accurately described as a postnup.

Florida Prenups

Prenuptial agreements aren’t just for ancient pyramid dwellers, they are important for any couple planning to marry. I have written extensively on prenuptial agreements.

A prenup can help keep your non-marital property yours. The property you brought into the marriage is yours – mostly.

But over time it is common for people to start mixing things up. Inheritance funds get deposited into joint accounts; properties get transferred into joint names…and all for good reason.

Unfortunately, tracing commingled property is expensive, and hard to prove. But, if you put it in writing at the beginning, you might be able to avoid this task, and save some money down the road.

Prenuptial agreements also help you to change the law. For example, right now in Florida, there has been an ongoing debate about alimony. When you go to court, a judge has to follow state law regarding alimony.

However, through prenuptial agreements you can modify Florida’s legal standards for awarding alimony, in addition to modifying what the current law says about the amount of support and the duration of the alimony period.

Nile Negotiations

This ancient Egyptian prenup was signed in 365 BCE. Such contracts were extremely advantageous to the wife. The prenups were purely economic, promising not eternal faithfulness or mutual responsibility – but cold, hard cash.

The ancient Egyptian prenup ensured the wife could survive with or without her husband, although she had to pay for the privilege, giving him 30 pieces of silver upfront in exchange.

The prenup process was simple in ancient Egypt. The marrying couple would get together, and bring along a scribe and some witnesses. The person proposing the agreement would speak it aloud, and the scribe would write the terms down, translating them into legal language along the way.

Then the second person would either accept or refuse to sign the prenup. If he or she accepted, the contract was considered binding. If one of the signatories broke the terms, he or she would appear before a court.

The Atlas Obscura article is available here.