Is A Telephone Marriage Valid

After a Husband challenged the validity of his Bangladesh telephone marriage, many brides should be concerned whether their religious marriage is valid. A family judge in Ohio, presiding over the parties’ divorce, recently ruled that their Bangladesh telephone marriage was valid. But, how would an appellate court view it?

Marriage Valid

A Fairy Tale Telephone Wedding

On August 22, 2005, a couple got married during a telephone marriage ceremony, which was conducted over a speaker phone.

At the time of the wedding, husband resided in the United States, wife resided in Bangladesh, and both were citizens of Bangladesh. The Husband traveled to New York and was with friends and relatives during the ceremony. Wife was in Bangladesh with friends and family members and husband’s father.

Also present in Bangladesh was a person who solemnized the marriage and identified himself as an assistant marriage registrar, and a community leader who appeared to sign the marriage register on husband’s behalf as his “pleader.”

Pictures of the marriage ceremony were provided and witnesses said the solemnization was according to Sharia law.

On July 15, 2019, after wife filed for divorce in Ohio, the Husband countered arguing that their marriage was invalid under Bangladesh law. The Husband reasoned that because the marriage was unlawfully registered in violation of the Muslim Marriages & Divorces Registration Act, the marriage was invalid and his Wife was not entitled to spousal support or property rights.

But the Wife countered that under Bangladesh law, an invalid registration would not render an otherwise valid marriage invalid. That’s because it is purely a civil contract, and further, that neither writing nor any religious ceremony is essential to validate a marriage under Bangladesh law.

The trial court disagreed with the Husband, and entered summary judgment and then a divorce. The Husband appealed.

Florida Marriage Validity

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.

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.

The Mesh in Bangladesh

The Husband appealed after the trial court concluded his Nikah Nama marriage was valid. He argued on appeal that the trial court erred because of the lack of a validly executed contract and an invalid registration under Bangladesh law.

The appellate court found that the parties’ marriage in Bangladesh was valid. Wife demonstrated that their telephone marriage met the essentials of a valid Mohammedan and Bangladeshi marriage, and that registration of the marriage is not an essential element in order to establish the validity of a marriage.

The evidence also showed that the parties had a prolonged and relatively continuous cohabitation for over 12-years, held themselves out as husband and wife, they consummated the marriage, and they had a child together.

In a concurrence, one judge expressed his incredulity with the Husband’s position that there was no legal marriage. After all, the Husband entered into this country for his spouse, filed joint U.S. tax returns with her, and also took advantage of his employer’s generosity by getting a tuition benefit for the spouse of an employee.

The appellate opinion is here.

 

Arab Divorce Rates

Much like divorce rates around the world, according to recent studies, Arab divorce rates throughout the Middle East and North Africa have been increasing in recent years. Many are openly discussing the reasons why.

Arab divorce rates

Riddle of the Sphinx

A study by the Egyptian Cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Center found that Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar are the four countries in the Arab world with the highest divorce rate, which rose to 48% of all marriages in Kuwait, 40% in Egypt, 37.2% in Jordan and 37% in Qatar.

Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates follow with 34%. A licensed psychologist and family therapist at the American Hospital in Dubai told The Media Line that the majority of people seeking out couples therapy are females who sometimes manage to convince their male partners to join afterward.

“Arab females have gained a lot of self-awareness and are thriving toward their self- actualization, so sometimes these clashes with the Arab image of the woman being a homemaker”.

Mahmood Al Oraibi, an attorney in Bahrain said that many different aspects of the Arab community have changed, and divorce is just one of those changes. Women now are independent, they are educated, they have some power, they have some demands.

The Arab community is still struggling between the past. Women were just housewives, and they handled the needs of the entire family, taking care of their husbands as well as his parents, cousins and their own children. In the modern world there are working women who are independent, and who come home late after spending 8 hours to 10 hours away from home.

Florida Divorce

I’ve written international divorce rates before. In the United States, many complained that no-fault divorce led to an increase in divorce rates here. Historically in Florida, in order to obtain a divorce one had to prove the existence of legal grounds such as adultery.

Proving fault often required additional expenses on behalf of the aggrieved party, only serving to make the divorce process more expensive and cumbersome than it already was.

In the years leading up to the enactment of “no-fault” divorce, courts often granted divorces on bases that were easier to prove, the most common being “mental cruelty.”

Over time, the “no-fault” movement expanded to other states, although interestingly it only reached the typically progressive state of New York in 2010. Whether or not it is intimacy or communication, you do not need to list a reason for a divorce other than an irretrievable break in the marriage.

Arab World Divorce Rates

An Egyptian sociology teacher living in Kuwait, believes that divorce has increased due to women having the freedom to speak their minds and make their own decisions, unlike in years past.

“Women are educated now and have their own careers, so when they decide to get a divorce, they will not have financial worries since they can now support themselves”.

According to some analysts, the increased divorce rate has also changed women. High levels of divorce have forced women to depend on themselves, which have made women grow stronger and forced men to learn to respect women.

The Arab community is considered very conservative. Pre-marital relations are not permissible socially, religiously – and in some cases – by law. So, people who are newly married get into relationships with no experience. On top of that, the community is very reluctant to sit and talk in a transparent way about all the pros and cons in marriage.

Al Oraibi believes that the best way to lower the divorce rate is for couples to try to interact with each other before marriage, or to take time to get to know each other better after they get married and before having children.

As a lawyer in Bahrain, Al Oraibi explained that divorce is a right for both men and women. Despite that, he noted that men can choose to divorce women without the need for proving justification. Women, on the other hand, have to provide proof of a justification for ending the marriage.

Islamic laws concerning divorce can also differ between the Shia and the Sunni courts. For instance, said Al Oraibi, according to Sunni law, the man has the right to divorce without any witness; while in the Shia court, at least two witnesses are required.

The Media Line article is here.

Google Divorce and Prenups

If you google divorce and prenups, you will find different results based on which state you are in. One thing is for sure, Elon Musk’s brief affair with the wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, will get you much different search results, and may even call into question an expensive prenup.

Divorce Prenups

I’m Feeling Lucky

Elon Musk is the richest person in the world, with an estimated fortune of $240 billion. While Sergey Brin is no slouch himself, he is clearly struggling to catch up in the rankings with a meager $95 billion.

Despite their competitiveness, Brin provided Musk with about $500,000 for Tesla during the 2008 financial crisis, when Tesla was struggling to increase production. In 2015, Musk gave Brin one of Tesla’s first all-electric sport-utility vehicles.

But in recent months, there has been growing tension between the two. Reportedly, Brin ordered his financial advisers to sell his personal investments in Musk’s companies

Brin filed for divorce from Nicole Shanahan in January of this year, citing “irreconcilable differences,” according to records filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court. The divorce filing was made several weeks after Brin learned of the brief affair, people have said.

At the time of the alleged liaison in early December, Brin and his wife were separated but still living together, according to a person close to Shanahan. In the divorce filing, Brin cited Dec. 15, 2021, as the date of the couple’s separation.

But Shanahan’s side is arguing that the prenuptial agreement they entered was signed under duress, while pregnant.

Florida Prenuptial Agreements

I’ve written about prenuptial agreements before. Prenuptial agreements are not just for computer programmers and awesome car makers, and they are about much more than just resolving expensive millions of Tesla stock acquired during a marriage.

Any couple who brings any personal or business assets into their marriage can benefit from a prenuptial agreement. Prenups are important to have in place before a couple starts investing in start-up, electric car companies, DNA ancestry search companies, and other investments.

But prenups are frequently challenged in court.

Florida has both case law and a statute to help lawyers, judges, and the parties determine if a prenuptial agreement is enforceable. For example, Florida adopted the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act. The Act requires that all premarital agreements be in writing and signed by both parties. It is enforceable without consideration other than the marriage itself.

Couples wanting to sign one can enter into a premarital agreement with respect to their rights and obligations in any of their property, whenever and wherever acquired or located; their right to buy, sell, use, transfer, or otherwise manage and control their property and the disposition of their property if they separate, divorce, die, or any other event.

Prenuptial agreements may be challenged in court, as Shanahan may be attempting using the duress defense. When ruling on the validity of a prenup, Florida courts must consider things such as fraud, coercion, in addition to the unfairness of the agreement, whether there was any financial disclosure, and of course, duress.

Ludicrous Mode

About 11 hours after the Wall Street Journal article about the affair was published online, Musk tweeted:

This is total bs. Sergey and I are friends and were at a party together last night!”

Over the past two months, Musk’s personal life has drawn considerable attention. He has been accused of exposing himself to a flight attendant at SpaceX, which he denied. He also reportedly had two children late last year with a female executive at another company he co-founded, Neuralink. One of his 10 children has publicly disavowed him.

Then there’s Twitter. Earlier this month, Musk sought to back out of an agreement to buy Twitter, saying the company hasn’t provided the necessary information to assess the prevalence of fake or spam accounts. Twitter has sued Musk to force him to honor the deal, and a Delaware court has agreed to an expedited trial in October.

Brin and Shanahan already were facing problems in their marriage in the fall of 2021, primarily because of Covid pandemic shutdowns and the care of their 3-year-old daughter.

The liaison with Musk took place in early December 2021, at the Art Basel event in Miami. The alleged affair happened after Musk had broken up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, the singer Grimes, in September.

Brin and Shanahan are now involved in divorce mediation, with Shanahan seeking more than $1 billion. The two sides have yet to come to an agreement, with Brin’s side claiming that Shanahan is asking for much more than her prenuptial agreement entitles her to.

The Wall Street Journal article is here.

Spare the Rod: Family Law and Spanking

Family law and spanking are in the news. Newly released documents show that a religious candidate for the Oklahoma House of Representatives holds some controversial views on divorce and child discipline which go back to his own divorce.

Custody Spanking

You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma!

A candidate is running for the Oklahoma House of Representatives with some interesting views on divorce and punishment. He advanced from the Republican primary on June 28, 2022.

According to local media reports, he has been on record saying people would be in the right to stone homosexuals. Demonstrating diplomacy and good governance, he reportedly told Oklahoma’s KFOR that if elected, he would not try to make homosexuality a capital offense.

Interestingly, he wants to make divorces harder to get in Oklahoma. Recently released documents found the candidate harassed his pastor and an elder of his Church in Oklahoma City. Records show the case stemmed from his own divorce “because of his physical and emotional abuse towards her and the boys.”

According to a court order from the Court of Civil Appeals of the State of Oklahoma, while trying to get standard visitation with his kids, the candidate allegedly told the judge:

“I respectfully declare that there’s nothing I did that should have led to what they did wrong. I was deprived of my God-given right to apply corporal discipline to my children.”

The court replied:

“So we are here because you haven’t had an opportunity to spank your boys enough. Is that what you’re telling me?”

The candidate replied, “I think that’s a big factor, sir.” The candidate reportedly acknowledged certain actions he took towards his wife and sons, he would not admit that they were abusive actions.

Florida Divorce and Discipline

I’ve written about divorce and child discipline before. Florida no longer uses the term “custody” after the parenting plan concept was created. For purposes of establishing a parenting plan during a divorce, the best interest of the child is the primary consideration.

The best interest of the child is determined by evaluating all of the factors affecting the welfare and interests of the particular minor child and the circumstances of that family, including evidence of domestic violence, child abuse, child abandonment, or child neglect.

Historically, parents have always had a right to discipline their child in a ‘reasonable manner.’ Florida laws recognize that corporal discipline of a child by a parent for disciplinary purposes does not in itself constitute abuse when it does not result in harm to the child.

Harm does not mean just bruises or welts for instance. Harm also can include that the discipline is likely to result in physical injury, mental injury, or emotional injury. Even if the child is not physically harmed, a parent’s discipline could be criminal.

Florida’s parental privilege to use corporal discipline does not give absolute immunity either. A run-of-the-mill spanking may be protected from charges of child abuse, but punching a child, pushing a child onto the floor and kicking him is not.

Many people involved in custody disputes forget that lawyers, guardians, investigators, and judges are watching what transpires during the divorce process, and disciplinary methods can become an issue in any custody case.

Oklahoma O.K.

KFOR also reports the religious candidate’s wife allegedly blames the divorce on, not just his discipline, but adultery. While the candidate denied adultery, he then “set out on a mission to get them to ‘repent’ of their part in this ‘sin’ of a divorce” and to “have them removed as church members.”

The candidate began a crusade of weekly e-mails, replete with accusations against the pastor. A church elder complained the candidate rode his bicycle by his home, shouting “‘Repent!’”

Ultimately, he was banned from his church, while his wife and the pastor filed Victim Protection Orders against him. According to his campaign efforts on different social media, changing divorce laws is one of his goals.

“those who are getting married will know from the get go that they are to remain in their marriage ’til death do they part.”

KFOR reached out to his political opponent for House District 87, Gloria Banister, who said “the court records are public documents, and they speak for themselves. There’s really nothing for me to add.”

Oklahoma’s KFOR article is here.

New Grandparent Visitation Law

After Governor DeSantis signed House Bill 1119, a new grandparent visitation law becomes effective this month. Often denied any rights to custody and visitation, the new ‘Markel Act’ is a significant step towards increasing Florida grandparent visitation rights in some very narrow, and tragic, situations.

Grandparent Visitation

Dan Markel Tragedy

The Markel Act was inspired in part by the 2014 murder-for-hire of Florida State law professor Dan Markel. Professor Markel was killed by hitmen in his driveway after he dropped his two sons off at preschool.

At the trial for Katherine Magbanua and Sigfredo Garcia in 2019, prosecutors claimed that Charlie Adelson – Markel’s ex-brother-in-law, arranged to pay $100,000 for the murder so that Markel’s ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, could get full custody of their two sons and relocate to South Florida.

Garcia was found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy but the jury was unable to reach a verdict on Magbanua. She was recently retried and found guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation to commit murder.

In April 2022, Charlie Adelson was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and solicitation to commit murder. Markel’s ex-wife Wendi and ex-mother-in—law Donna Adelson were also named as co-conspirators.

During the intervening years, Dan’s parents, the paternal grandparents of the two boys, have been denied any contact with their grandchildren.

Grandparent Visitation

I have written about how Florida courts have consistently held as unconstitutional statutes that have attempted to compel visitation or custody with a grandparent based solely on the best interest of the child standard.

The courts’ rulings are premised on the fact that the fundamental right to parent without intrusion by the government is a long-standing liberty interest recognized by both the United States and Florida constitutions.

However, a grandparent may be awarded visitation rights under very limited circumstances, such as when a child’s parents are deceased, missing, or in a permanent vegetative state.

New Grandparent Visitation law

The Markel Act amends Florida law to create a rebuttable presumption for granting reasonable visitation with a petitioning grandparent or step-grandparent under certain circumstances.

Under the bill, if the court finds that one parent of a child has been held criminally liable for the death of the other parent, or civilly liable for an intentional tort causing the death of the other parent, a rebuttable presumption arises that the grandparent who is the parent of the child’s deceased parent is entitled to reasonable visitation with the grandchild.

The presumption may be overcome only if the court finds that visitation is not in the child’s best interests. The bill does not distinguish between biological grandparents and step-grandparents.

Specifically, the bill says that grandparents can petition courts for visitation with their grandchildren where the living parent was found culpable by a criminal or civil court for the other parent’s death.

“The tragedy of Dan’s murder was compounded by this cruel, unnecessary separation — but until now, Florida law gave his parents no recourse toward reuniting with their grandchildren.”

The new law became effective on July 1st. A copy is available here.

No Charm for Florida Alimony Reform

The third time is not a charm for Florida Alimony Reform 2022. Declaring the bill unconstitutional, Governor, Ron DeSantis vetoed SB 1796. This is the third time a Republican governor has vetoed an alimony bill, and comes a few hours after another important decision is made.

Lucky Charm Alimony

No Lucky Charms for Alimony Reform

If politics makes strange bedfellows, what is behind governor DeSantis’s veto? Interestingly, the alimony reform bill was sponsored by the state chairman of his own Republican party, and opposed by the National Organization for Women and the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar.

Even more interesting, the veto was signed mere hours after the U.S. Supreme Court released its long-awaited opinion which overturned Roe v. Wade.

Florida’s own abortion ban, HB 5, is currently before the Florida Supreme Court. But on Friday afternoon, many wonder how the Republican controlled legislature and Gov. DeSantis will react in the era of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

The alimony reform bill this year, in part, would have done away with permanent alimony and set up maximum payments based on the duration of marriage. The bill also required a court to prioritize bridge-the-gap alimony first, followed by rehabilitative and durational alimony.

The bill also addressed equal timesharing:

Unless otherwise provided in this section or agreed to by the parties, there is a presumption that equal time-sharing of a minor child is in the best interests of the minor child who is common to the parties.

Finally, the bill provided for bifurcation of a divorce proceeding after 365 days has elapsed since the petition was filed, and authorizes the court to enter temporary orders on substantial issues until such issues can be ultimately decided.

Florida Alimony

I’ve written about alimony reform in Florida. In every Florida divorce case, the court can grant alimony to either party. Not many people realize there are several types of alimony in Florida: bridge-the-gap, rehabilitative, durational, or for the moment, permanent alimony.

Florida courts can also award a combination of alimony types in a divorce. Alimony awards are normally paid in periodic payments, but sometimes the payments can be in a lump sum or both lump sum and periodic payments.

Typically, courts consider any type of earned income or compensation — that is, income resulting from employment or other efforts — along with recurring passive income, such as dividends on your investments, in establishing the amount of support you will be responsible to pay.

In Florida, once a court determines there is a need and the income available to pay alimony – sometimes referred to as the ability to pay alimony – it has to decide the proper type and amount of alimony.

In doing so, the court considers several factors, some of which can include things like: 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, including the nonmarital and the marital assets and liabilities distributed to each.

Magically Unpalatable

One of the most-controversial parts of SB 1796 was how it changed the process for modifying alimony when people retire. The bill threatened to impoverish older ex-spouses who have been homemakers and depend on the payments.

Commentators remarked that the portions of the bill allowing for modification of alimony based on retirement of the payor were retroactive, and that retroactivity made the bill unconstitutional. In fact, governor DeSantis pointed this out in his letter:

“If CS/CS/SB 1796 were to become law and be given retroactive effect as the Legislature intends, it would unconstitutionally impair vested rights under certain preexisting marital settlement agreements,” the governor wrote.

Many ex-spouses who appeared before legislative committees to speak against the bill said they agreed to give up assets at the time of their divorces in exchange for permanent alimony awards.

The Family Law Section of The Florida Bar, which lobbied against the bill, thanked the governor for understanding the bad precedent the retroactivity of the measure would have established.

A statement attributed to Family Law Section Chair, Philip Wartenberg and immediate past chair, Heather Apicella, stated:

“If signed into law, this legislation would have upended thousands upon thousands of settlements, backlogging the courts and throwing many Floridians’ lives into turmoil”

People and organizations on both sides of the issue heavily lobbied DeSantis’ office. As of last Friday, the governor had received 5,939 emails in support of the bill and 1,250 in opposition, along with 349 phone calls in favor and 289 against the measure.

When asked for a tally of phone calls and emails about the bill, DeSantis’ office also provided excerpts from messages pleading with the governor for a veto.

The WFSU article is here.

New Hague Child Abduction Case

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a new opinion, its fifth, in a case involving the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. In settling the circuit court conflict, the Supreme Court addressed the undertakings requirement in grave risk cases.

Hague Convention

Last Supper for Undertakings Plus?

Narkis Golan is a U.S. citizen who married Isacco Saada, an Italian citizen in Milan, Italy. She soon moved to Milan, and their son, B.A.S., was born in Milan, They lived in Milan for the first two years of B.A.S.’ life.

But their marriage was violent from the beginning. The two fought on an almost daily basis and, during their arguments, Saada would sometimes push, slap, and grab Golan and pull her hair, yelled and swore at her and frequently insulted her and called her names. Much of Saada’s abuse of Golan occurred in front of his son.

In 2018, Golan flew with B.A.S. to the United States to attend her brother’s wedding. Rather than return as scheduled, she moved into a domestic violence shelter.

Saada filed in Italy a criminal complaint for kidnapping and initiated a civil proceeding seeking sole custody of B.A.S., and also filed a petition under the Hague Convention and ICARA in a New York District Court seeking to return their son to Italy.

The U.S. District Court granted Saada’s petition, determining Italy was the child’s habitual residence and that Golan had wrongfully retained him in violation of Saada’s rights of custody.

But the trial court found returning the child to Italy would expose him to a grave risk of harm because Saada was “violent — physically, psychologically, emotionally, and verbally — to” Golan and the child was present for much of it.

Records also indicated that Italian social services had also concluded that “‘the family situation entails a developmental danger’ for the child and that Saada had demonstrated no “capacity to change his behavior.”

The trial court still ordered the child’s return to Italy based on Second Circuit precedent that it “‘examine the full range of options that might make possible the safe return of a child to the home country’” before denying return. To comply with these precedents, the District Court required the parties to propose “‘ameliorative measures’” for the child’s safe return.

The trial court rejected Golan’s argument that Saada could not be trusted to comply with a court order, expressing confidence in the Italian courts’ abilities to enforce the protective order.

The Second Circuit affirmed, concluding the trial did not clearly err in determining that Saada likely would comply with the Italian protective order, given his compliance with other court orders and the threat of enforcement by Italian authorities of its order.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the circuit split and decide whether ameliorative measures must be considered after a grave risk finding.

Florida Child Abduction

I have written and spoken on international custody and child abduction cases under the Hague Convention. The Convention is supposed to provide remedies for a left-behind parent, like Mr. Saada, to obtain a wrongfully removed or retained child to the country of their habitual residence.

When a child under 16 who was habitually residing in one signatory country is wrongfully removed to, or retained in, another signatory country, the Convention provides that the other country: “order the return of the child forthwith.”

There are defenses though. For example, in the Golan case, the court considered Article 13(b), which states that a court is not bound to order the return of the child if the court finds that return would expose the child to a “grave risk” of physical or psychological harm.

The grave risk defense is narrowly drawn. There is an assumption that courts in the left behind country can protect children, which is why courts in some circuits are required to consider ameliorative measures.

New Hague

Il Duomo di Washington D.C.

The Supreme Court noted that the interpretation of a treaty, like the Hague Convention, begins with its text, and nothing in the Convention’s text either forbids or requires consideration of ameliorative measures.

The Court held that judges may consider ameliorative measures with the grave risk determination, but the Convention does not require it. By requiring ameliorative measures, the Second Circuit’s rule re-wrote the treaty by imposing an atextual, categorical requirement that courts consider all possible ameliorative measures in exercising this discretion, regardless of whether such consideration is consistent with the Convention’s objectives.

The Court also held that a trial court “ordinarily should address ameliorative measures raised by the parties or obviously suggested by the circumstances of the case, such as in the example of the localized epidemic.”

First, any consideration of ameliorative measures must prioritize the child’s physical and psychological safety. Second, consideration of ameliorative measures should abide by the Convention’s requirement that courts addressing return petitions do not usurp the role of the court that will adjudicate the underlying custody dispute. Third, any consideration of ameliorative measures must accord with the Convention’s requirement that courts “act expeditiously in proceedings for the return of children.

The Court then remanded to allow the District Court to apply the proper legal standard. Recognizing that remand would delay the case, the opinion hinted the District Court will move “as expeditiously as possible to reach a final decision without further unnecessary delay.”

The opinion is here.

 

Catastrophic Fraud After Divorce

Fraud can lurk in every divorce case. After the divorce ends, lawyers, professionals, experts, and judges have all moved on to other cases. That is the time many clients and their divorce settlements can be exposed to catastrophic fraud – as one Tennessee woman is reported to have discovered.

divorce fraud

Beale Street Blues

Lawyers act as fiduciaries to their clients during a family law case. Accountants, financial planners, and others can become fiduciaries after the divorce. In a fiduciary relationship, the  duties involved need not be strictly legal; they can also be moral, social, domestic or personal.

In 2003, Ms. Loveland received approximately $1.3 million dollars in connection with her divorce. Knowing that these funds would be vital to her future retirement, she sought out an investment advisor who could manage her assets as she claims she had no knowledge or experience with investments, securities, or financial markets.

Ms. Loveland met with her long-time accountant, who referred her to his friend, Mr. Lentz. She then agreed to allow Lentz to manage her assets. She alleges she informed him that she knew nothing about finance or securities, and that she was relying entirely on his discretion and judgment to manage her investments for her.

Mr. Lentz reassured her that he would take good care of her and would manage her assets in a reasonable and responsible manner, ensuring that she would enjoy some return on her investments while protecting her principal asset base.

However, Ms. Loveland discovered to her shock that Mr. Lentz filled out an Options Account Request Form, purportedly on her behalf, in which he allegedly indicated that her investment objective was “Growth” and that her trading experience was “Extensive.”

According to the lawsuit, Lentz allegedly used “DocuSign” to forge Ms. Loveland’s signature to the Options Account Request, and is also alleged to have cut and pasted customer’s signatures onto forms without their authorization, and arranged to receive Loveland’s financial statements on her behalf.

Last summer, after discussing employment prospects for roughly an hour, Lentz told her:

“now for the bad news . . . you have no money left, it’s all gone.

Loveland’s divorce settlement of around $1.3 million is now worth around $7,000 and she has filed a lawsuit in a Tennessee federal court against Lentz and his companies.

Florida Divorce Fraud

I’ve written about various aspects of divorce fraud before. Interestingly, Ms. Loveland’s case is not about fraud against her ex-husband, but misconduct which occurred after her divorce, involving the loss of her $1.3 million divorce settlement.

What happens if the fraud is caused by a spouse? 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, happens a lot. Less common are scams like forging names and diverting financial statements. 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 manner of which the other spouse disapproves, such as day trading stocks. There has to be evidence of intentional dissipation or destruction.

However, if the fraud is not from a spouse during divorce, but mismanagement of your divorce settlement by anyone who is not your spouse, you are limited to civil causes of action in civil court, as opposed to family court.

Going to Graceland

Ms. Loveland’s lawsuit alleges a lot of damages. She was forced to surrender a Long-Term Care policy that she paid premiums on since 2004 and surrender a $250,000 Life Insurance Policy in which she had invested over $18,000.00 because she can’t pay the nearly $5,000 premiums.

Loveland alleges that as a result of Lentz’ actions:

“now, at the age of sixty-four, forced to work long hours for Uber and DoorDash merely to make ends meet.”

Ms. Loveland has sued in civil court for violation of the Tennessee Securities Act, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, among other causes of action, and is seeking punitive damages.

The Wealth Professional article is here.

International Child Abduction Case Goes Blue

What happens when a German family court, a Michigan family court, and a U.S. District Court all get involved with the same international child abduction case to return wrongfully removed children at the same time? One Michigan family just found out.

International Child Custody

Going Blue

Father and Mother share two children. The mother, alleged that the children were wrongfully removed from Germany to the state of Michigan by their Father.

From the time of their births, the children lived with both parents in Plymouth, Michigan – about 20 miles from Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Then the family moved to Germany in 2014. The children visited the United States multiple times during the time they lived in Germany.

The parties agreed that the father could take the children to visit relatives in the United States for the summer of 2020 until early September. However, the Father never returned to Germany with the children despite the Mother’s demands that he do so.

In November, the Mother filed a Hague return petition in U.S. District Court in Michigan. They tried mediation, but mediation was a failure.

Concurrently with the federal Hague action, [Mother] also filed a UCCJEA action in the family division of the Wayne County Circuit Court to register and enforce a Germany custody order requiring the return of the children from Michigan to their home state in Germany.

In December, a Wayne County family court judge ordered the Father to bring the children to state court so the Mother could return to Germany with the children in compliance with the German family court order awarding the Mother custody of the children.

In January, the Mother filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss the Hague return action because the federal Hague petition as moot after the children were returned to Germany in accordance with the Wayne County family court ruling.

But incredibly, the father opposed the dismissal of the mother’s Hague petition.

Florida International Child Custody

I’ve written and spoken about international child custody cases under the Hague Convention and the UCCJEA before. The Hague Convention seeks to deter child abductions by a parent by eliminating their primary motivation for doing so: to “deprive the abduction parent’s actions of any practical or juridical consequences.”

The removal or the retention of a child is to be considered wrongful where it is in breach of rights of custody attributed to a person, an institution or any other body, either jointly or alone, under the law of the State in which the child was habitually resident immediately before the removal or retention; and at the time of removal or retention those rights were actually exercised, either jointly or alone, or would have been so exercised but for the removal or retention.

The Hague Convention is implemented in the United States through the International Child Abduction Remedies Act. What is unique about the Act is that Congress expressly provided for both original and concurrent federal jurisdiction. This means a parent has the option of either filing the petition in a state family court, or a federal U.S. district court.

Unlike the U.S. however, many countries are not signatories or treaty partners with us in the Hague Convention. That means that you cannot file a Hague return petition here, because both countries have to be treaty partners. Fortunately, when one of the countries is not a signatory to the Hague Convention, the UCCJEA may provide relief in state court.

Florida, Michigan, and almost all U.S. states passed the UCCJEA into law. The most fundamental aspect of the UCCJEA is the approach to the jurisdiction needed to start a case. In part, the UCCJEA requires a court have some jurisdiction vis-a-vis the child.

That jurisdiction is based on where the child is, and the significant connections the child has with the forum state, let’s say Michigan. The ultimate determining factor in a Michigan case then, is what is the “home state” of the child.

Alternatively, Michigan could possibly hear the case if it was the Home State of the child within 6-months before filing or the children are in Michigan and the court has emergency jurisdiction.

Defense!

Back in Michigan federal court, on March 15, 2022, a U.S. Magistrate Judge issued a report recommending that the mother’s motion to dismiss be granted, and that this matter be dismissed with prejudice.

The Magistrate Judge explained that the only relief available under the Hague Convention petition is return of the children to Germany. Because this relief has already been affected by the Wayne County family court judge, the federal Hague petition is moot.

The father could not, as the respondent, obtain return of the children to the United States by continuing to litigate the Mother’s petition. Nevertheless, the father objected to the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation and asked for a trial.

The U.S. District Judge reviewed the Father’s objection, noted that it had failed to include any argument or cite to any legal authority holding contrary to the conclusions reached by the Magistrate Judge, and failed to identify any specific factual issues the Magistrate Judge erred on.

Accordingly, the Father was found to have waived any objection to the substantive analysis of the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation.

The Magistrate Judge’s order is here.

 

Family Court and Religious School

In a race between schools for your child, when can a family court judge choose the religious school over a secular one? For one Kentucky family’s child custody dispute, the court of appeals decides which school enters the Winner’s Circle.

Custody and School

Starting Gate

In the Kentucky case, a Mother and Father shared joint custody of their daughter, who has been at the center of a protracted legal dispute since the parties’ separation in 2016. The parties could not reach an agreement as to where the child should attend kindergarten, and asked the court to resolve the issue.

The Father, who is Catholic, liked that Seton was a Catholic school but noted that the curriculum also emphasized general Christian principles, as well as secular subjects such as Darwinism and evolution (ed. wow)

Father said that he was willing to pay Seton tuition costs. Father expressed concern about child attending Berea Independent due to Mother’s pending criminal charges in Berea for second-degree animal cruelty. Because Berea is a small community, Father worried child could be stigmatized, even if Mother was acquitted.

Mother, who is Baptist, was not comfortable with child attending a Catholic school and preferred that child attend a secular school. Mother testified that Berea Independent was her primary choice because it was less than a mile from her work, was in a small town, and was where she went to school as a child. She also liked that it provided a K-12 grade education in one place and liked the open classroom layout of the school.

Following the hearing, the family court judge entered an order with detailed findings of fact, concluding that it was in child’s best interest to attend Catholic school.

The Mother appealed.

Florida Divorce and Religion

I have written about the intersection of religion and custody before, especially when that intersection relates to harm to the child. For example in one area there is a frequent religious controversy: whether to give a child their mandatory vaccinations.  Usually, religion is used by the objecting parent as a defense to vaccinating children.

Whenever a court decides custody, the sine qua non is the best interests of the child. But, deciding the religious upbringing of a child puts the court in a tough position.

There is nothing in the Florida custody statute allowing a court to consider religion as a factor in custody, and a court’s choosing one parent’s religious beliefs over another’s, probably violates the Constitution.

So, unless there is actual harm being done to the child by the religious upbringing, it would seem that deciding the child’s faith is out of bounds for a judge. One of the earliest Florida case in which religion was a factor in deciding parental responsibility restricted one parent from exposing the children to that parent’s religion.

In one Florida case, the Mother was a member of The Way International, and the Father introduced evidence that The Way made the Mother an unfit parent. He alleged The Way psychologically brainwashed her, that she had become obsessed, and was neglecting the children. The Florida judge awarded custody to the Mother provided that she sever all connections, meetings, tapes, visits, communications, or financial support with The Way, and not subject the children to any of its dogmas.

The Mother appealed the restrictions as a violation of her free exercise of religion. The appellate court agreed, and held the restrictions were unconstitutionally overbroad and expressly restricted the Mother’s free exercise of her religious beliefs and practices.

When the matter involves the religious training and beliefs of the child, the court generally does not make a decision in favor of a specific religion over the objection of the other parent. The court should also avoid interference with the right of a parent to practice their own religion and avoid imposing an obligation to enforce the religious beliefs of the other parent.

The Home Stretch

Mother argued on appeal that the family court’s order compels her to send her child to a Catholic school she is conscientiously opposed to in violation of her constitutional rights.

The appellate court found that when parties to a joint custody agreement are unable to agree on a major issue concerning their child’s upbringing, the trial court must evaluate the circumstances and resolve the issue according to the child’s best interest.

The appellate court found substantial evidence to support the family court’s decision that sending child to Catholic school was in child’s best interest. The court specifically mentioned the school’s proximity to the interstate, its later start time, its teacher-to-student ratio, its on-site aftercare program, and the fact that child would know other students attending.

Perhaps most importantly, the family court felt it was not in child’s best interest to attend the secular, Berea Independent because of the possibility that child might experience negative social stigma due to Mother’s pending animal cruelty case in Berea.

Further, the trial court specifically noted its decision was not based upon religious interests. Mother “bear[s] the burden of proving that the decision of the trial court was based upon religious interests and such impropriety [will] not be presumed merely because the school selected had a religious connotation in addition to its academic offerings.”

The Kentucky Court of Appeals opinion can be found here.