Monday, March 28, 2011

Time to Plan Your Summer Visitation Schedule

This is a brief Public Service Announcement.

Attention all Texans with a Texas standard visitation schedule! If you read your summer schedule section, you will probably see that you have to notify the other parent of your desired summer possession schedule by April 1 or April 15, depending on whether you have the right to choose the primary residence of the child. If you don't have primary custody/possession of the child, you probably are required to notify the other parent by April 1. If you don't do so, you will probably have have the child for the month of July.

Please read the language of your court order very carefully. Sometimes the language is customized and the dates and other details may be different from the standard provisions.

If you have a standard Texas visitation schedule, and if you have primary custody of your child, you probably have until April 15 to designate your summer possession times.

Please read the language of your court order very carefully. Sometimes the language is customized and the dates and other details may be different from the standard provisions.

There are two lessons to be remembered here: (1) Dates and deadlines in court orders are important and may limit your choices, so you should plan ahead. You can act before the deadlines. (2) It is important to read the exact language of your court order and follow the directions. Don't guess or make assumptions about what your order says. Read it and then act.

The Good News:

Of course, you and the other parent can agree on whatever time-sharing arrangement for the summer that you want. Be creative and you can figure out how both parents can enjoy the summer with your child. How ever you do it, have a great summer vacation with your child!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Can You be a Friendly Parent?

While scanning the Internet the other day, I ran across an interesting article in "The Australian". I don't remember how I got there, but it was fun reading about what was going on in Australia in the realm of family law.

While I don't have all the context of Australian law, it is apparent that some revision of their family law statutes is being considered. The article mentioned what they referred to as the "friendly parent provision". It appears that judges in Australia will consider, in making a custody decision, whether each parent has been cooperative or "friendly" with the other parent. An uncooperative, unfriendly parent apparently will be at a disadvantage in a custody fight.

While Texas and probably all other American states don't explicitly list that as a statutory factor to be considered in a custody fight, being a friendly parent certainly is an important component to be considered. It is clearly a factor considered by many judges and I have seen it have a major effect on custody decisions.

Why Being a Friendly Parent is Important
  • It can help minimize stress for both parties and the children. Naturally, the less fighting there is, the less stressful the situation will be. Even if the parties disagree about some things, they can do so respectfully and at appropriate times and places. They can still make changes in their schedules with the kids and share information about school and the kids' activities, even if there are some underlying tensions. Kids don't need to participate in or observe their parents' disagreements.
  • Parents can teach kids how to behave as adults by modeling good behavior with each other. There will always be some disagreements between parents and kids, and parents need to be able to count on each other and work together to provide a safe and secure environment for their kids.
  • Cooperative parents can maximize their "quality" time with their kids. Instead of fighting over turf or trying to be inflexible to maintain control over the situation, parents can arrange to adapt their times with the kids to meet work, travel and family schedules. If a parent must work on a weekend, it makes sense to trade that time for other time when the parent will be available to be with the kids. Everybody has conflicts from time to time that can't be avoided. Being flexible with the other parent will create goodwill, future time trades and better times with the kids.
How Can You be a Friendly Parent?
  • Be willing to changes schedules. Be flexible. Don't just insist on following the rigid court order.
  • Don't keep strict score of who has the most time with the kids. Recognize that not all time is equally valuable. Make sure that the kids have valuable time with each parent.
  • Figure out what the kids really want or would want. Keep their best interests in the forefront.
It looks like we could learn a lot from our friends in Australia. Being a friendly parent will pay dividends, not just in "winning" custody, but in raising children in the best possible environment.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

IRS Forms and Information Resources

Jeanne M. Hannah is a family law attorney in Traverse City, Michigan who has written an excellent family law blog for a number of years. She recently gathered links to a number of IRS tax resources and publications and published them in her blog. The following is the text of her post of March 14, 2011:

The IRS has released updated publications and forms that help divorced and divorcing people understand and deal with these issues:
  • income tax filing status
  • the right to claim tax exemptions
  • how to protect against tax liabilities arising from FOC intercepts of tax refunds on joint returns when, in fact the intercept is for child support arrearages of only one spouse and some of the tax refund belongs to the other spouse.
  • how to claim "innocent spouse" relief from liability caused by unreported income by the other spouse are now available.

See, in particular, IRS Publication 504 Divorced or Separated Individuals [January 10, 2011]

Other recently published and/or updated publications or IRS Forms that family lawyers' clients will find helpful and informative are:

Injured Spouse Relief: IRS Form 8379 is filed by one spouse (the injured spouse) on a jointly filed tax return when the joint overpayment expected was applied (offset) to a past-due obligation of the other spouse (e.g., a tax intercept for unpaid child support arrearages. This is how the injured spouse recovers her tax refund. See also the instructions for using Form 8379 here.

IRS Publication 971. How to Claim Innocent Spouse Relief. [Revised February 2011]

Innocent Spouse Relief: IRS Form 8857 is used to request exemption from tax liabilities cause by the under-reporting of income by the other spouse on a joint return filed during the marriage. See also Instructions for Filing Form 8857

Other recently revised publications of interest to those recently divorced or divorcing are these:

Publication 501: Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information [Published January 5, 2011]

Publication 544: Sales and Other Dispositions of Property, including transfers to spouse, rollovers or retirements accounts

Publication 555: Community Property, including information about how to handle income from separate property [Revised December 2010]

Publication 590: Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs) [Published February 3, 2011]

This should be useful information for anyone going through a divorce, considering starting a divorce, staring at an impending divorce or recovering from a divorce. For other interesting and helpful information, you can check periodically on Ms. Hannah's blog, Updates in Michigan Family Law. I highly recommend her work.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Starting with the Small Stuff

There's an old saying that has application to negotiations as well as other life issues. "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." In other words, don't try to take on the whole task all at once. Take it a step at a time.

Seth Godin recently had a post on his blog that got me thinking about negotiations. His point was that people shouldn't start with fighting the impossible battles first. You should start with smaller battles and have some wins before moving up to the more difficult fights.

In many contexts, we are often admonished to "don't sweat the small stuff". That's usually good advice, but in negotiations, it sometimes works out better to start with the small stuff instead of the overriding issue that will eventually have to be resolved.

I have had many clients who insisted on starting on the biggest, most difficult overriding issue in negotiations to test the willingness of the other side to "be reasonable/realistic/fair", etc. These clients didn't really expect to reach agreements, whether the case was in mediation, Collaborative Law or just plain negotiations between the parties or attorneys. They say they don't want to waste time negotiating if they the other side isn't committed to doing the right thing.

Such an approach ignores the need to build a road to reach the goal they want. The road requires a foundation and planning. Roads are usually built in small sections, rather than building the whole road all at once.
Negotiations in family law cases also require a foundation and planning, working a section at a time.

In a custody case, the parties may be able to come to agreements on how to share the powers, rights and duties of parents, even where they can't immediately agree on who should have "primary custody". (Part of the underlying problem may be the use of certain labels that make one parent appear to be inferior to the other, but that's a topic for another post.) If the parents will spend some time reaching agreement on the sub issues, such as the parental decision-making powers, how they share time with the kids and sharing involvement with extracurricular activities, for examples, they may not have such a big issue remaining.

When the parties have to negotiate property division terms, there will always be some assets that are pretty easy to divide, and that can make a good starting point. Beginning with some simple decisions can help build momentum that can lead to more progress on the bigger items. Working on furniture and personal property, or the IRAs that are in each party's name, can be a low-conflict point where they can readily agree. As the smaller items are eliminated, sometimes it becomes easier to resolve the other issues because the end is in sight.

Similarly, when dealing with taxes, retirement, debts, investments or many other issues, it makes sense to start with the small, easy-to-agree-to terms. Momentum develops and sometimes a little good will is created when each side sees the other side sacrificing or at least being reasonable.

When you are starting to negotiate a settlement in a family law case, your chances for success will be enhanced if you plan ahead and start work on some smaller issues so that your successes will build momentum to help with the bigger issues.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Having an Exit Plan

For a variety of reasons, some people get surprised or ambushed by the news that their spouse wants to get a divorce. No matter how unhappy a spouse may have been or how many times one or both spouses talked about divorce, it is not unusual for a husband or wife to be taken off guard by the announcement that their spouse is leaving and filing for divorce.

If you get hit by the unexpected news, or if you see it coming, you probably immediately start wondering what to do. Taking a rash or dramatic action is probably not in your best interest. Instead, you should take some small, defensive steps and allow yourself time the think and the opportunity to get expert help.

From an entirely unrelated source, the Attorney at Work blog, I recently saw an article about what an attorney should do if facing a loss of a job. The suggested emergency exit plan for an employment situation easily translates into some useful steps for someone to follow who is "losing" their marriage. Here are my slightly modified suggestions for an immediate exit plan in case of impending divorce:

1. Gather your legal documents. It's never too early to gather up what you can, make copies and then put them in a safe place, which could be with a friend. Even if your spouse is just "thinking about" getting a divorce, it would be wise to get all the financial records you can while you have your greatest access to them. Waiting is not a good idea. Documents tend to disappear.

2. Get a referral for a divorce lawyer. While you still have some time, seek out recommendations from friends and other people you respect. Do some research on line. Look at web sites and blogs to find out about what to expect in the process and to get a feel for how the author would approach a case. You can look at on line directories and rating services to get more information about possible attorneys.

3. Control and limit what you say. That is true about face-to-face discussions (don't escalate arguments), as well as on line opportunities, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or listserves. Also, be very careful what you put in writing, including by texting. It's easy to do audio recording anywhere and to take movies and photos anywhere. You should always think about how what you say, do or write would appear if presented in court.

4. Protect personal information. That includes information on computers, laptops, telephones, etc. Don't leave personal information accessible. Use passwords and don't leave the hardware lying around.

5. Breathe. Remember the airline announcements just before takeoff when the flight attendants tell you to put on your own air mask ("in the unlikely event of an emergency") before you put your child's mask on him/her. In any crisis, it sure helps to stop for a second and take some deep breaths. It will help clear your head and reduce your stress level.

These are all helpful suggestions for a sudden potential divorce emergency, but the original article also has good ideas for anyone facing a job loss, an unfortunately all-too-common occurrence. Anyway, while you are initially searching for answers and starting to come up with a plan, these suggestions are a good starting point.