Author: Ron Kauffman

Is No Fault Divorce Unconstitutional if You’re Religious?

An Orthodox Christian Husband, who is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Lebanon, is claiming that Maryland’s no-fault divorce law is unconstitutional. The Husband is deeply religious, and claims his constitutional rights will be violated if the court grants his Wife a civil divorce outside the Church.

Religious Divorce

The Cedars of Maryland

In 2009, Husband and Wife were married in Tripoli, Lebanon, at an Orthodox Christian church. Husband is an Orthodox Christian, and Wife is a Catholic. The couple had met a year earlier in Beirut, where Wife, a citizen of Lebanon, worked as an opera singer.

Husband, a dual citizen of Lebanon and the United States, has resided in the United States for over 30 years, but often travels to Lebanon to vacation and visit family members. Soon after their marriage, the parties moved to Montgomery County, Maryland where Husband operates a medical practice.

On August 4, 2016, Wife moved herself and her children out of the couple’s home in Montgomery County. On that same day, Wife filed for a limited divorce in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County

The Husband did not want a divorce. He regularly demonstrated combative and belligerent behavior, refused to comply with court orders imposing sanctions on him and did not consistently pay the legal fees awarded to Wife.

I will repeat it, I will say it now, and say it until I die: there will not be a divorce, [she] is married to me until I die. So, she has to kill me to get the divorce.

The court found that Husband was “not credible” and that he “used his resources to disrupt and delay the divorce trial, filing multiple appeals on dubious grounds, failing to cooperate with discovery, and hiring and then firing counsel.

The Husband asked for summary judgment, arguing that only Lebanese courts have jurisdiction over the divorce and that the court’s dissolution of the marriage would infringe on his free exercise of religion as an Orthodox Christian.

He also argued that Maryland’s no-fault divorce statute violated his constitutional right to marry; that the divorce would infringe on his children’s fundamental rights; and that the dissolution of his marriage would impair the obligations under his marriage contract, in violation of the Contracts Clause of the United States Constitution.

The trial court denied the Husband’s motion and he appealed.

Florida No Fault Divorce

I’ve written about no fault divorce before. No-fault laws are the result of trying to change the way divorces played out in court. In Florida no fault laws have reduced the number of feuding couples who felt the need to resort to distorted facts, lies, and the need to focus the trial on who did what to whom.

Florida abolished fault as grounds for filing a divorce. Gone are the days when you had to prove adultery, desertion or unreasonable behavior.

The only ground you need to file for divorce in Florida is to prove your marriage is “irretrievably broken.” Additionally, the mental incapacity of one of the parties, where the party was adjudged incapacitated for the prior three year, is another avenue.

In addition, and what the Husband overlooked in the Maryland case, is the big requirement for divorce: to obtain a dissolution of marriage, one of the parties to the marriage must reside 6 months in the state before the filing of the petition.

Believe it or not, the residency requirement can be a major impediment to divorcing for many people. Almost all states require you to be a resident before you can file for divorce. However, the amount of time you have to reside there can vary from state to state.

Divorce and the Constitution

The Husband argued that the family court lacked jurisdiction over the divorce because the parties were married in an Orthodox Christian ceremony in Lebanon and only Lebanese courts have jurisdiction to dissolve the marriage.

He contended that a Maryland court has no power to dissolve a marriage, celebrated in Lebanon, between two persons who are now residents of Maryland. The Maryland appellate court wasted no time in dismiss his argument as without merit, finding that, like Florida:

[A]n essential element of the judicial power to grant a divorce, or jurisdiction,’” is that one spouse be domiciled within the state at the time the complaint was filed.

The big question for the court then, as to jurisdiction, is not whether they were married in Lebanon but whether the Husband or Wife were a Maryland resident.

The Husband also argued granting a “no-fault” divorce was in violation of the United States Constitution. He claimed his marriage contract does not permit no-fault divorces and that the court impermissibly expanded the terms of the parties’ marriage contract by granting the divorce on the grounds of twelve-month separation,

The court found that, although marriage is a civil contract for some purposes “marriage is not a contract within the meaning of the Constitution’s prohibition and courts have regularly held that marriage is not a contract that is constitutionally protected from interference and can be modified by laws divorce laws.

The Husband also argued the divorce infringed on his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. Because the Orthodox faith does not permit divorces absent fault, a no-fault divorce would unconstitutionally force him to commit a mortal sin according to his religion.

The Supreme Court has long held that legislatures may enact general laws that regulate marriage, even if the application of the law interferes with some religious practices.

Because a trial court granting a divorce merely dissolves a civil contract between the spouses, courts universally hold that no-fault divorce statutes do not infringe on the right to the free exercise of religion, even if a spouse’s religious beliefs prohibit no-fault divorces.

The opinion is here.

The Grey Anatomy of Divorce and Social Media

Posting your kids’ photos on Facebook, Instagram and other social media is a fun and normal event for most parents. But posting those same pics after a divorce may not be so easy, as Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams and his former wife, Aryn Drake-Lee found out.

Greys anatomy

Dr. Avery to the Courtroom

Taking over three years after splitting, the Grey’s Anatomy star, 39, and his former wife, a real estate broker, 38, were deemed legally single by a Los Angeles County judge. The agreement was initially reached in September 2019.

The exes will share joint legal and physical custody of their 6-year old daughter and 5 year old son. However, their divorce is particularly interesting because they are required to first speak to each other before they can upload photos of their children on social media according to the court documents.

One of their bitterly contested issues in the news reports about their divorce centered around their two children. Aryn filed legal motions to stop the “Grey’s Anatomy” actor from posting images of their kids on social media.

Jesse had argued that it’s his First Amendment right to post photos of his own children online. But the Mother argued differently. Aryn believed that by his posting the children’s photos online, he left the door open for Jesse’s fans to become obsessive, or even try to harm the children, in order to get closer to the star actor.

The mother was also  concerned that their children are not public figures like their father, and have their own rights. In court documents, the Mother argued she didn’t care if he shares images of their kids with family and friends, it’s the random people that worry her.

Florida Divorce and Social Media

I’ve written about divorce, social media, and some of the constitutional issues involved when the court limits your ability to post online. The Grey’s Anatomy actor and the Mother’s dispute is typical: he is concerned about his 1st Amendment protections, and she is concerned about the online safety of their children.

Divorce courts have a lot of power to protect children, and that can involve restraints on free speech, such as your ability to post photos on social media. One of the areas where this occurs most often is in domestic violence cases. That’s because speech can be enjoined under our domestic violence laws.

Domestic violence injunctions prohibiting free speech are subject to constitutional challenge because they put the government’s weight behind that prohibition: a judge orders it, and the police enforce it.

In Florida, the term “domestic violence” has a very specific meaning, and it is more inclusive than most people realize. It means any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.

Domestic violence can also include cyberstalking. Cyberstalking is harassment via electronic communications. A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person and makes a credible threat to that person commits the offense of aggravated stalking, a felony of the third degree.

A credible threat means a verbal or nonverbal threat, or a combination of the two, including threats delivered by electronic communication or implied by a pattern of conduct, which places the person who is the target of the threat in reasonable fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family members or individuals closely associated with the person, and which is made with the apparent ability to carry out the threat to cause such harm.

“This is your starting line. How well you play? That’s up to you.”

In court documents filed in August, Aryn allegedly claimed that their kids are being “emotionally compromised” because of Jesse’s dating life, saying he has a “revolving door” of women. She asked the judge to hand down an order that required women to stay away from the kids until he dates them for six months.

Aryn also argued that Jesse has an unhealthy temper. The actor countered that claim, saying that his kids have never seen him angry, but they have witnessed Aryn be verbally abusive to him. He also said she once repeatedly slammed the front door on his leg during an argument.

In July, he filed court documents claiming that his estranged wife refused his request for more time with the kids and so he asked for a “court order for a joint physical custody parenting plan.”

Jesse reportedly has been ordered to pay his ex-wife $40,000 in child support every month, as well as over $100,000 in two upcoming spousal support payments. He first met Drake-Lee while working as a schoolteacher in New York. The pair wed in September 2012 after more than five years together. In April 2017, the actor filed for divorce.

Williams and Drake-Lee were granted joint legal custody of their two children in August 2017 and joint physical custody in March 2018. The agreement according to sources, stated that Williams and Drake-Lee must alternate custody of the children for major holidays.

“When you start spinning, the children start spinning, so even if you’re looking at them and you’re telling them everything is fine, they know it’s not fine because they can feel it’s not fine.”

Jesse is now dating Hit The Floor actress Taylour Paige. They were first linked in January 2019 after spending time together at the Sundance Film Festival. He previously dated SportsNews New York anchor Taylor Rocks, and also dated Minka Kelly for several months before calling it off in January.

The People article is here.

 

Religion LGBTQ+ and Custody Rights Erupt

Religion LGBTQ+ and child custody rights recently erupted in a Washington federal court. Parents usually have the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children, but one couple found their religious beliefs prevented them from even becoming parents.

Parent Custody

Rumblings

James and Gail Blais wished to become foster parents, and eventually adopt, Gail’s biological great-granddaughter, H.V. The first step to adoption requires them to be licensed foster parents. However, they are observant Seventh day Adventists.

The reason for the need to become foster parents so quickly is because shortly after H.V.’s birth – in fact, while she still was in the hospital – H.V. was removed from her biological parents and placed in foster care out of concerns for her welfare. H.V. is an infant. At no time during the application process has she exhibited any issues with regard to sexual orientation or gender preference.

The Blaises wanted to care for H.V. by becoming her foster parents with the goal of adoption if reunion with her mother was not possible. They are the only biological relatives who have expressed an interest and ability in fostering and adopting H.V.

The Department administers the State’s foster licensing and placement program, and the requirements for becoming a foster parent are laid out in Washington law and the Department’s Policy 6900, entitled “Supporting LGBTQ+ Identified Children and Youth.”

The Blaises participated in Department mandated training and required certification courses. They made clear that, as Seventh-day Adventists, they believe it is important to love and support all, particularly youths who may feel isolated or uncomfortable because of who they are.

But with regard to the specific hypothetical questions relating to possible hormone therapy, in the event H.V. one day developed gender dysphoria, the Blaises said they could not support hormone treatments based on their sincerely-held religious convictions, but would still be loving and supportive of H.V.

The Department denied the Blaises’ foster care license application, and H.V. remains in non-relative foster care. The Blaises filed a federal action against the Department seeking to enjoin the enforcement of the Department policy as it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Florida Religion and Family Law

I’ve written about the intersection of religion and divorce – especially as it relates to vaccinations. Religion, religious beliefs, and religious practices are not statutory factors Florida courts consider when determining parental responsibility.

Nor is religion an area in which a parent may be granted ultimate responsibility over a child. Instead, the weight religion plays in custody disputes grew over time in various cases.

That’s because placing restrictions on a parent’s right to expose his or her child to his or her religious beliefs have consistently been overturned in the absence of a clear, affirmative showing that the religious activities at issue will be harmful to the child.

Generally, Florida courts will not stop a parent from practicing their religion or from influencing the religious training of their child inconsistent with that of the other parent.

Eruption

The federal judge found the question in this case was whether Washington’s regulations covertly suppressed religious beliefs. The judge found that in practice, the Department regulations work to burden potential caregivers with sincere religious beliefs yet almost no others.

It also found that the Department’s interpretation of its regulations and policies also favored secular viewpoints over certain religious viewpoints.

For example, the Department favors religious and non-religious applicants who have neutral or pro-LGBTQ+ views over religious and non-religious applicants who have non-neutral or anti-LGBTQ+ views.

The State denied their application because the tenet of the Blaises’ faith flouted the Department’s regulations and policy, and therefore “punished the expression of religious doctrines it believes to be false.”

The Court enjoined the Department from using Policy 6900 against prospective foster parents.

The injunction order is here.

 

Caring is Creepy

In family law, after a relationship ends, caring can be creepy. But is creepy behavior stalking? One Florida man – a father’s former boyfriend when the father’s child was born – recently found out.

caring is creepy

Gone for Good

Santiago had a long-distance relationship with the child’s father, Leon. The relationship took place at the same time the father’s child, M.L., was born through a surrogate. But Santiago and the father never resided together with the child. Their relationship ended after M.L. was about one and a half years old.

But Santiago was not gone for good. Leon sensed Santiago was following them like a phantom limb. Leon filed a petition on behalf of his child to stop Santiago from allegedly stalking the child. The father argued Santiago was engaging in some creepy obsessive behavior, including:

  1. getting a tattoo of M.L.’s name on his body;
  2. posting images of M.L. on Facebook and Instagram, representing that M.L. was his son;
  3. mailing him packages; (iv) emailing the father to express his love for M.L.;
  4. contacting the surrogate for info on them;
  5. appearing outside their home; and
  6. driving by a restaurant the father and child were eating at and making eye contact with them.

The trial court entered a final judgment preventing Santiago from having any contact with M.L. and from posting any images or comments about M.L. on all social media.

Santiago appealed.

Florida Stalking Injunctions

I’ve written about family law injunctions before, especially when free speech is impacted. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children, and that can involve restraints on free speech, such as posting on social media. That’s because speech can be enjoined under our domestic violence laws.

Domestic violence injunctions prohibiting free speech are subject to constitutional challenge because they put the government’s weight behind that prohibition: a judge orders it, and the police enforce it.

In Florida, the term “domestic violence” has a very specific meaning, and it is more inclusive than most people realize. It means any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.

Domestic violence can also include cyberstalking. Cyberstalking is harassment via electronic communications. A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person and makes a credible threat to that person commits the offense of aggravated stalking, a felony of the third degree.

A credible threat means a verbal or nonverbal threat, or a combination of the two, including threats delivered by electronic communication or implied by a pattern of conduct, which places the person who is the target of the threat in reasonable fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family members or individuals closely associated with the person, and which is made with the apparent ability to carry out the threat to cause such harm.

New Slang

The appellate court held that Florida authorizes injunctions against stalking.

“Stalking” is when “[a] person . . . willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person.”

However, aside from finding that Santiago had engaged in “stalking-like” and “creepy” behavior, the trial court did not make any express findings with respect to any of the statutory elements for stalking.

For example, “follows” means to tail, shadow, or pursue someone. In Santiago’s case, the father established, at most, that Santiago had appeared outside the father and M.L.’s and ate at the same restaurants as the father and M.L., but Santiago was never asked to explain any of these occurrences. The court simply found Santiago’s conduct, was not an example of “following” and even if it was, it wasn’t willful and malicious.

Also, the child was “totally unaware” of Santiago’s conduct, there was no evidence that Santiago’s conduct had caused “substantial emotional distress” to the child so as to constitute “harassment.”

In the inverted world of stalking law, getting a tattoo of someone else’s child, emailing the father, mailing packages to that child, contacting the surrogate to gather intel, showing up uninvited outside the child’s home, showing up at the same restaurants at the same time, making eye contact with the child, and social media posts, didn’t amount to “harassing.”

The court found that Santiago’s online postings referenced the child, but didn’t constitute “cyberstalking” because Florida requires social media threats be directed to the individual — not by content, but by delivery.

Since social media posts are generally delivered to the world at large, Florida courts have interpreted a course of conduct directed at a specific person to exempt social media messages from qualifying as the type of conduct, and Santiago never delivered his social media posts to the child.

The court agreed Santiago’s conduct might have been “creepy”, but the to impose a permanent stalking injunction against Santiago, there must be evidence that Santiago “willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly followed, harassed, or cyberstalked.”

The opinion is here.

 

Grandparent Custody Goes to Federal Court

A rare grandparent custody and timesharing case ends up in a federal court after the child in question filed a temporary restraining order to prevent county child services from sending him to Florida to live with a father he claims he’s never met.

Grandparent Custody

The Ruckus in Columbus

“John Doe” is a thirteen-year-old boy in the temporary custody of Franklin County Children Services. He had been living with his mother in Ohio, but Children Services suspected that he was being abused or neglected. So, Children Services filed a case in Ohio state court to have Doe removed from his mother’s home. The court ordered Doe removed, and it is now presiding over the resulting custody dispute.

During the proceedings, the state court gave Children Services custody of Doe. Children Services then placed him with his maternal grandmother, who he has had a relationship with for much of his life and who also lives in central Ohio. A Guardian Ad Litem, who filed a report, recommend placement with his grandmother.

The child claims he has had no contact with his father from the time he has a baby until after the case was filed, that his father has a criminal record and has two family members who died from drug overdoses. He has expressed fear of his safety if made to live with his father, as well as fear of traveling to Florida at this time during the COVID-19 pandemic, and wishes to remain with his grandmother.

However, Child Services decided the child should be put on a plane to live permanently with his father in Florida, for reasons unknown to him, with whom, as best he can recall, he has not had a relationship for his entire life.

The child then filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court, and sought a temporary restraining order (a TRO) claiming he was denied procedural due process and first amendment retaliation claims. The trial court granted his motion.

Children Services appealed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and moved to stay the injunction pending the appeal.

Florida Grandparent Visitation

I have written extensively on grandparent visitation in Florida. In early common law, there was never a right to visitation by non-parents, and Florida has clung to that tradition. That is ironic, as a lot of elderly voters reside in Florida, and politicians have been trying to create visitation rights to grandparent voters here.

Beginning in 1978, the Florida legislature started making changes to the Florida Statutes that granted enforceable rights to visit their grandchildren.

The Florida Supreme Court built a massive wall blocking Florida grandparent visitation rights, explaining that parenting is protected by the right to privacy, a fundamental right, and any intrusion upon that right must be justified by a compelling state interest. In Florida, that compelling state interest was harm to the child:

“[W]e hold that the [s]tate may not intrude upon the parents’ fundamental right to raise their children except in cases where the child is threatened with harm.”

Recently, the Florida Supreme Court held that under the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act any custody determination or visitation determination – including grandparent rights  – are protected and enforceable under the PKPA. And, to the extent that the PKPA conflicts with Florida law, the PKPA controls under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution because it is a federal law.

The Buckeye Way

The Sixth Circuit rejected Children Services’ arguments that the district court should have abstained in favor of state proceedings:

Children Services filed the case to remove Doe from a potentially abusive home, and “the temporary removal of a child in a child-abuse context is … in aid of and closely related to criminal statutes.”

But removal proceedings are not at all “akin to criminal prosecution” as far as the child is concerned. And here, it is the child who has filed the federal lawsuit. That difference matters, because the Court has described proceedings in this second category as those that are “characteristically initiated to sanction the federal plaintiff.”

That does not describe this case, where the federal plaintiff is not an abusive parent, but a child. In the absence of full and thorough briefing, we will not broadly construe the Younger categories to apply to this different situation—especially given the Court’s instruction that Younger “extends to the three ‘exceptional circumstances’ [it has identified], but no further.”

Another argument by the agency was that under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine federal district courts lack jurisdiction to review state court judgments, but the court held it has “no application to judicial review of executive action, including determinations made by a state administrative agency.”

The court found that the child was not challenging a state court judgment; he was challenging the decision of Children Services, an agency of Franklin County, Ohio.

The court also rejected Children Services’ argument that it should get a stay because it’s likely to prevail on the merits of its appeal:

The states’ interest in resolving child-custody disputes is exceptionally strong, and federal court involvement in custody proceedings will almost always be inappropriate.

Finally, the court cautioned all district courts against entangling themselves in this area of traditional state concern.

The 6th Cir. Opinion is here.

 

Your French Divorce

Now that France has created an out-of-court divorce option, travel to Paris could be a ticket to your French divorce. In order to make the divorce process simpler and less expensive, France has streamlined the system, but there are some pitfalls for non-French people.

French Divorce

C’est la vie

In France it is now possible for couples to divorce without going through a long and sometimes expensive court process by signing a divorce agreement – but this may not be ideal for couples where one or both person is not French.

On January 1st 2017, the divorce par consentement mutuel (divorce by mutual consent) was created, allowing couples to acknowledge their consent to divorce in an extra-judicial contract without a court proceeding.

To divorce by mutual consent, it is essential that couples agree on all aspects of their divorce with the help of their respective lawyers. They especially need to settle the consequences of the divorce on their children (custody and residence), on their assets and all financial measures (alimony and compensatory allowance).

The consent reached by the couple is then set out in a divorce agreement, prepared by the parties’ lawyers. Following a 15-day cooling-off period, the divorce agreement is signed by the spouses and countersigned by each lawyer.

Once signed, the agreement is submitted to a French notaire for registration. Registration is what makes the divorce agreement enforceable in France. Signing a divorce agreement is the quickest way to divorce in France.

While the duration clearly depends on how the negotiations between the couple progress, it is technically possible to sign and register a divorce agreement in France within approximately one month.

Florida International Divorce

International divorce often brings up the issue of jurisdiction. Who sues whom, how do you sue for divorce, and in what country are problems in an international divorce case? The answers are more difficult than people think as I have written before.

A British divorce, for instance, might give more money because British courts can disregard prenuptial agreements, and the cost of living is high in London. In France, the financial disclosure requirement is weaker, each party is not necessarily required to answer detailed financial forms.

Rules about children and hiding assets is a problem in every divorce, especially in international cases. The problem of discovery of hidden wealth is even bigger in an international divorce because multiple countries, and multiple rules on discovery, can be involved.

The problems in an international divorce are more complicated because hiding assets from a spouse is much easier in some countries than in others.

Florida, at one extreme, requires complete disclosure of assets and liabilities. In fact, in Florida certain financial disclosure is mandatory. At the other extreme, are countries which require very little disclosure from people going through divorce.

Choosing possible countries to file your divorce in can be construed as “forum shopping”. The European Union introduced a reform called Brussels II, which prevents “forum shopping”, with a rule that the first court to be approached decides the divorce. But the stakes are high: ending up in the wrong legal system, or with the wrong approach, may mean not just poverty but misery.

Residency for divorce is a very important jurisdictional requirement in every case. Generally, the non-filing party need not be a resident in the state in order for the court to divorce the parties under the divisible divorce doctrine. The court’s personal jurisdiction over the non-filing spouse is necessary only if the court enters personal orders regarding the spouse.

The durational domicile or residency requirement goes to the heart of the court’s ability to divorce the parties, because the residency of a party to a divorce creates a relationship with the state to justify its exercise of power over the marriage.

No tears and no hearts breaking

Currently it is not possible to sign the divorce agreement remotely. Both spouses and their respective lawyers need to be physically present on the day of signing.

The French National Bar Association clearly indicated, on February 8th 2019, that:

“the divorce agreement by mutual consent without a judge must be signed in the physical presence and simultaneously by the parties and the attorneys mentioned in the agreement, without substitution or possible delegation”.

International couples should however be very careful when signing a divorce agreement as not all countries recognize this type of divorce. As the divorce agreement is entered into out of court – except when a minor child requests to be heard in court – public authorities from certain countries do not recognize and enforce this type of divorce.

In practice, this means that, a couple having signed and registered a French divorce agreement, would be considered as divorced in France, however still be married in their home country/countries if local authorities refuse to register and enforce the contract.

The Local article is here.

 

Marriage Penalties

Although Florida doesn’t have a state income tax, many people moving here from other states and seeking divorce, frequently ask whether our state has marriage penalties built into the tax code. The Tax Foundation has the answer.

marriage penalty

What is a Marriage Penalty?

A marriage penalty is when a household’s overall tax bill increases due to a couple marrying and filing taxes jointly. A marriage penalty typically occurs when two individuals with similar incomes marry; this is true for both high- and low-income couples.

In other words, a marriage penalty arises any time a married couple pays higher income taxes than they would have paid if they were un-married and filed individual tax returns.

At the federal level, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 definitely lowered the cost of being married for many couples. But being married can be more expensive than being two single tax filers on April 15th.

For example, if a couple has children and both spouses earn income, they can owe thousands of dollars every year just for being married.

Some states have their own income tax. Under a graduated-rate income tax system, a taxpayer’s marginal income is exposed to progressively higher tax rates.

A marriage penalty might exist when a state’s income brackets for married taxpayers filing jointly are less than double the bracket widths that apply to single filers.

Put differently, married couples who file jointly under this scenario face a higher effective tax rate than they would if they filed as two single individuals with the same amount of combined income.

Florida Divorce and Tax

I’ve written about divorce and taxes before. For example, in 2012 the American Taxpayer Relief Act made permanent the Bush-era expanded standard deduction, and the expanded 15% bracket for joint filers.

But for high income earners, the 2012 law raised taxes on couples making more than $450,000, and individuals making more than $400,000.

As it turns out, some couples found out they could save over $25,000 a year if they divorced.

State Marriage Penalties

While Florida doesn’t have a state income tax, fifteen states have a marriage penalty built into their bracket structure. Seven additional states (Arkansas, Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, and West Virginia), as well as the District of Columbia, fail to double bracket widths, but offset the marriage penalty in their bracket structure by allowing married taxpayers to file separately on the same return to avoid losing credits and exemptions.

Ten states have a graduated-rate income tax but double their brackets to avoid a marriage penalty: Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska, and Oregon.

The ability to file separately on the same return is important in states that do not double bracket widths, as is the ability to do so even if the couple files jointly for federal purposes.

While married couples have the option of filing separately—though some states only allow this if they do so on their federal forms as well—this normally creates a disadvantage, because it either disallows or reduces the value of deductions and credits available to the family jointly, which is also a form of marriage penalty.

Filing separately on the same return eliminates this problem, though at the cost of slightly greater complexity than doubling tax brackets for joint filers so that there is no penalty for filing jointly.

The Tax Foundation article is here.

 

Dr. Dre, Divorce, and Dissipation

Rapper, Dr. Dre, and his wife Nicole Young’s divorce is in the news again as she is alleging dissipation in court documents, that Dre “secretly” transferred “valuable trademarks” they jointly owned — both the name “Dr. Dre” as well as his hit album The Chronic— after allegedly kicking her out of their home in April.

Dissipation

What’s the Difference?

Some couples divorce amicably, recognizing that a divorce is best concluded when they come to a quick and fair resolution as soon as possible so they can get on with their lives.

For other couples, divorcing is a lot more difficult. In high conflict cases, greed, anger, and spite are overwhelming, and the process can quickly spiral into all-out war fought over every dollar.

A common dirty trick in divorce is to “dissipate,” or waste, marital assets. When a person tries to dissipate assets, it means they are intentionally squandering marital property to prevent his wife from getting her fair share of it in the divorce settlement.

In the lawsuit, Young alleges that shortly after being “forced to leave their family home,” Dre, 55, registered a new holding company and then began transferring “highly valuable trademarks,” misrepresenting himself as the sole owner.

“Andre’s plan all along was to deny Nicole’s ownership rights,” the lawsuit alleges, claiming that the transfers were made before Dre threatened to file for divorce on June 27. Young went on to initiate proceedings two days later, on June 29.

Although Young claims she has “demanded return of the trademarks,” Dre has “failed and refused to do so. It is inequitable and unjust to retain ownership of the trademarks, and the value they hold, without paying Nicole or allowing her to maintain her equal ownership,” the lawsuit alleges.

Young is seeking damages in an amount to be determined at trial and wants the trademarks in question to be transferred to a trust.

Florida Divorce Fraud

I’ve written about various aspects of divorce and fraud before. In Florida, courts distribute the marital assets, such as bank accounts, between parties under the premise that the distribution should be equal, unless there is a justification for an unequal distribution.

Some of the factors to justify an unequal distribution of the property include things like the financial situation the parties, the length of the marriage, whether someone has interrupted their career or an educational opportunity, or how much one spouse contributed to the other’s career or education.

Another important factor is whether one of the parties intentionally dissipated, wasted, depleted, or destroyed any of the marital assets after the filing of the petition or within 2 years prior to the filing of the petition.

Dissipation of marital assets, such as taking money from a joint bank account, and transferring money and assets into separate accounts. In both cases, the misconduct may serve as a basis for assigning the dissipated asset to the spending spouse when calculating equitable distribution.

Misconduct, for purposes of dissipation, does not mean mismanagement or simple squandering of marital assets in a way the other spouse disapproves. There has to be evidence of intentional dissipation or destruction.

Big Egos

Young, who filed for divorce in June after 24 years of marriage, is asking for nearly $2 million in monthly temporary spousal support and is also seeking $5 million in legal fees, according to court documents previously obtained by People.

Young has claimed that her husband’s “net worth is estimated to be in the ballpark of $1 billion” in the filing, adding that he earned much of that sum during their marriage.

The rapper previously filed a response, revealing that the couple had a prenuptial agreement — despite initial reports that said they did not have one. Young, however, has disputed the validity of that agreement, claiming that she was forced to sign it and that Dre ripped it up, rendering it invalid after they were married.

The People article is here.

 

Cardi B, Divorce, and Infidelity

Singer Cardi B has filed for divorce from rapper husband Offset because of his alleged infidelity. The divorce petition was filed in Georgia, and there is an initial hearing scheduled for November. Many have asked whether infidelity is grounds for a divorce.

Cardi B Divorce

No Longer Migos

Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar, known professionally as Cardi B, became an Internet celebrity and her debut album was number one on the Billboard 200, broke several streaming records, was certified triple platinum and named by Billboard the top female rap album of the 2010s.

Kiari Kendrell Cephus, known professionally as Offset, is a member of the hip hop and trap music trio, Migos. The couple married in 2017 in a secret ceremony.

Our relationship was so new breaking up and making up and we had a lot of growing up to do but we was so in love we didn’t want to lose each other, was one morning in September we woke up and decided to get married … No dress no make up and no ring.

Their daughter, Kulture, was born in July 2018 – Cardi B’s first child and Offset’s fourth. Cardi B is reportedly seeking primary custody, and child support from Offset.

Florida Divorce and Infidelity

I’ve written about the impact of infidelity and divorce before. In practical terms, adultery as a crime poses very little threat of prosecution, but it could have other consequences.

“Cheating on your spouse can even be grounds for losing your job. This is particularly true in the military, where adultery has a maximum punishment of a dishonorable discharge.”

Chapter 61 discusses the “the moral fitness of the parents” as one of the factors the court considers in determining the best interests of a child. Adultery may impact the division of property. Proof that one spouse intentionally wasted marital assets could be seen as dissipation of assets. Adultery of either spouse could be a factor in determining the amount of alimony, if any, to be awarded.

There are times when evidence of adultery comes into evidence. Most often it doesn’t. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that sexual activity between consenting adults is legal.

Bad and Boujee

Their relationship has had high-profile ructions. Following rumors of Offset’s infidelity in 2017, Cardi B said:

“No, it’s not right … But what you want me to do? Start all over again and get cheated on again? This shit happens to everyone.”

The couple stayed together but briefly split in December 2018, with Cardi B saying: “Things just haven’t been working out between us for a long time … we just grew out of love.”

Offset publicly pleaded for a resolution, saying:

“I was partaking in activity that I shouldn’t have been partaking in, and I apologize. For breaking your heart, for breaking our promise, for breaking God’s promise and being a selfish, messed up husband.”

They reconciled in January 2019. But could he “walk it like I talk it?” Their divorce ends one of the highest-profile celebrity relationships in the US. Cardi B is among the world’s most successful and respected rappers – after breaking through in 2017 with US No 1 hit Bodak Yellow she has had three other No 1 singles, more than any other female rapper.

They collaborated with Cardi B on the 2017 single MotorSport. Offset has also released a successful solo album, Father of 4, featuring a hit track, Clout, with Cardi B. He has also guested on US Top 10 hits with Kodak Black and Tyga.

The Guardian article is here.

Photo by Frank Schwichtenberg – Own work.

Free Speech and Domestic Violence

In family law, when a cyberstalking complaint consists of social media posts, free speech and domestic violence can clash. In a recent case, a domestic violence court prohibited one Florida lawyer’s social media comments about the other lawyers in her case.

Cyberstalking

Injunction Junction

Florida lawyer Ashley Krapacs filed a petition for a domestic violence injunction against her ex-boyfriend and represented herself at the DV hearing. Attorney Russel J. Williams represented her Ex.

After Krapac lost the hearing, on jurisdictional grounds, she wrote an article about the opposing lawyer, saying that he lied to the judge on the record during these proceedings. As a result, Williams hired his own attorney, Nisha Bacchus, to sue Krapacs for defamation.

Krapacs responded by writing several social media posts disparaging the new lawyer, Bacchus, with personal insults for representing Williams in the defamation suit against her.

Then Krapacs created a blog post which claimed Bacchus filed a frivolous lawsuit against her, accused her of being a bully, and included a vulgar insult. She tagged Bacchus in more posts and hurled insults at Bacchus and her law firm and identified the car Bacchus drove.

In one of her final Facebook posts, Krapacs stated she was going to connect with Bacchus’s former clients to sue her for malpractice. Bacchus sought to stop this by filing a petition for an injunction, alleging Krapacs was cyberstalking her.

The DV judge entered the injunction and limited Krapacs’ use of her office space since both Krapacs and Bacchus had offices in the same building. The judge also prohibited Krapacs from posting on social media about Bacchus and ordered her to take down all the offending posts about Bacchus.

Krapacs appealed.

Family Law and Free Speech

I’ve written about free speech in family law before. Family courts have a lot of power to protect children, and that can involve restraints on free speech. Speech can be enjoined under our domestic violence laws.

Domestic violence injunctions prohibiting free speech are subject to constitutional challenge because they put the government’s weight behind that prohibition: a judge orders it, and the police enforce it.

Florida, the term “domestic violence” has a very specific meaning, and it is more inclusive than most people realize. It means any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.

Domestic violence can also mean cyberstalking. Cyberstalking is harassment via electronic communications. A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person and makes a credible threat to that person commits the offense of aggravated stalking, a felony of the third degree.

A credible threat means a verbal or nonverbal threat, or a combination of the two, including threats delivered by electronic communication or implied by a pattern of conduct, which places the person who is the target of the threat in reasonable fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family members or individuals closely associated with the person, and which is made with the apparent ability to carry out the threat to cause such harm.

Cyberstalking and Free Speech

The appellate court felt Krapacs’ actions did not qualify as cyberstalking because they did not constitute a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over time evidencing a continuity of purpose.

Retagging in social media posts for four hours constituted, in the court’s view, one instance of qualifying conduct under the statute. The other acts Bacchus complained of were deemed to be constitutionally protected and did not qualify as additional instances of repeated stalking.

The court also found that the injunction prohibiting Krapacs “from posting Nisha Bacchus, Nisha Elizabeth Bacchus or any part thereof, on any social media or internet websites, and requiring her to take down all social media and internet posts that reference Nisha Bacchus was overbroad.

While the appellate court held that her comments could not be subject to an injunction, it did find that Krapacs was not immune from civil liability for her actions and could face money damages.

Then there’s the Florida Bar, which then filed an emergency suspension petition against Krapacs. The Bar viewed her social media tweets, posts and comments as arising out of the opposing lawyers’ representation of clients who were litigating against her.

The Bar called Krapacs strategy “terrorist legal tactics” and felt it was prejudicial to the administration of justice.

After a hearing, the referee recommended a two-year suspension from the Florida Bar. The Florida Supreme Court reviewed the case, disapproved of the two-year suspension, and instead disbarred her.

The opinion is here.