Considering Divorce? Put Your Financial House in Order

Stacy D. Phillips

While you may have come to the conclusion that your marriage is over, we recommend that you take the following steps before “crossing the Rubicon” and sharing this news with your spouse. Knowledge is power and your first order of business should be to put your financial house in order.

Know Your Financial Picture. In too many instances, we have met with clients who are unaware of their complete financial situation. Be knowledgeable about both your and your spouse’s finances. Summarize income from all sources. Identify assets and liabilities (in your name, your spouse’s name, and jointly held), including when and how these assets were acquired. List your family’s insurance coverage (medical, dental, property, auto, and life). Once armed with this information, you will be able to obtain a clearer understanding of your entitlement under the law.

Understand Your Monthly Expenses. Be able to articulate how much you realistically spend on a monthly basis both on basic needs and discretionary items. This fluency with regard to your expenses will enable you to better understand your needs on both a temporary and permanent basis.

Obtain Financial Records. Before you even utter the word “divorce” to your spouse, look for bank statements, canceled checks, tax returns, life insurance policies, credit card statements, closing records/binders, loan documents, etc.; make copies of those records; and keep them in a safe place.

Open Your Own Bank Account. It is important to have funds in your own name in case of an emergency and in the event that your spouse attempts to reduce your access to money and credit cards after your announcement. This will also enable you to hire an attorney when you are ready.

Build Your Credit. If you don’t have credit cards in your name, apply for them so that you can build up good credit. Use the cards and pay the entire balance each month. By doing this, not only will you establish your own credit, but it will enable you to document your expenses.

Promoting Peace This Holiday Season

Stacy D. Phillips

Even in the best of times, family dynamics can be fraught. At holiday time, emotions are heightened for myriad reasons, and when separation, divorce, or custody issues are thrown into the mix, this time of year can be challenging. This may be your first holiday sharing your children’s vacation time. Perhaps your communication with the other parent isn’t at its finest, or financial concerns are part of your new normal. All of these—on top of visiting relatives, travel arrangements and hectic schedules—can be anxiety-provoking.

We hope that the following suggestions will help you through the season and bring better communication in the New Year.

  1. Avoid engaging in the “divorce war games” with one another. In the end, it’s the children who suffer, becoming collateral damage.
  2. Forgo the “one-upsmanship.” Be mindful not to try to out-do the other parent with gifts or vacation plans. Your children are likely to feel torn, no matter their age.
  3. Don’t go it alone. Give yourself the gift of some “centering.” Whether in the form of therapy, yoga, or a daily walk with a close friend, both you and your family will benefit.
  4. Be flexible. Easily said, more difficult to do—especially if custody arrangements are relatively new. Try to take the pressure off of transition times. Your children will notice.
  5. Show your children what the holidays really mean: They are all about giving. Ask your children to join you in a kind act for those less fortunate. It will divert your focus away from your own hurt or pain.
  6. Make plans for 2017. Discuss what good will come after the holidays and let your children help schedule activities to look forward to.
  7. Promote peace. No matter what your religious or spiritual beliefs may be, harmony is the ultimate goal, and it starts with you.

All of us at Blank Rome wish you a peaceful holiday season filled with opportunities to create new memories.

Not So Fast—New PA Law May Not Shorten Your Wait to No-Fault Divorce

Mary Vidas and Michelle Piscopo 

Pennsylvania is set to shorten the time parties need to be living separate and apart from two years to one year, but will that really enable you to get a divorce faster?

Pennsylvania is a “no-fault” state for establishing the grounds for divorce. There are two no-fault grounds— mutual consent by both parties 90 days after the filing and service of a divorce complaint, OR living separate and apart for a period of two years. The grounds for divorce must be established before the court can determine the equitable division of the marital estate and enter a divorce decree. This week, the Pennsylvania legislature approved a bill to shorten the time period for living separate and apart from two years to one year and the bill is on Governor Wolf’s desk waiting to be signed into law. Once the bill is signed, it will go into effect 60 days later.

This new law has been greatly supported by the Family Law Section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and the PA Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Often times, the party who will not consent to a divorce will do so in order to collect support for a longer period of time or simply out of spite (we know…hard to believe). The benefits of a shorter waiting period have been discussed and debated for years and most practitioners agree that the shorter waiting period will lessen the emotional turmoil that comes with a divorce and lower legal costs.

All in all, a shorter waiting period sounds like a good thing. However, this new law will only apply to divorce actions filed or to parties who separate AFTER the law goes into effect. While that hardly seems fair, it seems that the only option to avoid the longer waiting period would be to withdraw the divorce action, reconcile and then separate again. Not a very likely solution for most couples.

While there may not be anything you can do if you are already involved in divorce litigation to speed up the process, if you have been contemplating a divorce but haven’t actually separated from your spouse or filed for a divorce—wait! If you suspect that your spouse will not be so willing to consent to a divorce, the best thing you can do to avoid having to wait two years instead of just one year is to put the brakes on separating from your spouse. If you wait to separate until the new law goes into effect, you can potentially shorten your waiting time by a year. While not ideal, the benefits of waiting may outweigh staying in the relationship for a few more months. However, we would never encourage anyone involved in an abusive relationship to delay leaving.

For more information on how this new law may impact you, please contact the Philadelphia attorneys in our Matrimonial Practice Group.

Social Media Restrictions in Custody Cases—What Can or Should a Court Do?

Mary Vidas and Michelle Piscopo

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. The world of social media is ever-evolving. And in the world of divorce and custody litigation, the use of social media is also evolving. We can’t always control what our clients decide to post on their social media accounts—but we can certainly try! We routinely advise clients not to post anything derogatory or defamatory about their ex-spouse. However, what can be done when one parent insists on posting pictures of minor children on his or her social media account that is available for public view? Parents with shared legal custody often do not agree that their minor children should be regularly featured on such accounts. While one might think you would need both parents’ consent to post pictures of a minor child on public social media accounts, that is not always the case. Courts may be reluctant to infringe on a parent’s right to free speech by placing restrictions on his or her ability to feature their children. At the same time, courts may recognize the potential danger of exposing children to child predators when pictures of minor children are posted on public social media accounts.

If you are a parent who does not want images of your children on publicly viewed social media accounts and the court will not impose a restriction on the other parent, you should regularly monitor your co-parent’s account and read the comments. If you see anything alarming and concerning, immediately contact the other parent and request that they remove the post. Take a screen shot of the post and the concerning comments. If the other parent refuses to remove the post, contact your attorney. While the court may not initially be inclined to issue a restriction, if you can show that the postings are receiving disturbing comments, the court may then be inclined to act.

If you are parent who wants to be able to post photos on publicly viewed sites—use caution! Monitor your own account and be proactive in removing photos that garner concerning comments and blocking users who make such comments. You may need to convince a court that you are using photos of your children on public social media in a responsible way. Also, stop and really assess whether it is necessary to have your children featured on a publicly available account and if it is going to be worth the ongoing animosity between yourself and the other parent. If the reason for wanting a public account is so you can share pictures with family and friends, then it may not be worth the battle. Opt for a private account and invite your family and friends to follow you. Children always benefit when parents are able to compromise.

And, as a final note, parents also need to use good judgment when sending sexually explicit private photos over social media. Children should never be included in any such photos. (Yes, Anthony Weiner, we are talking to you!) If your spouse or co-parent comes into possession of “sexts” that show your children, not only could it affect your custody rights, but you could also become the subject of a social services investigation. Adults are free to do as they please, but when it affects children, courts will always act swiftly and harshly to protect them.

Zika Panic—Ethical and Legal Considerations for Clients Considering Gestational Carrier Agreements

Mary Vidas and Michelle Piscopo

One of the hottest topics in the Assisted Reproductive Technology (“ART”) community today is the Zika virus and its impact on gestational carrier agreements from both the standpoint of Intended Parents and Gestational Carriers. As has been widely publicized, the Zika virus has been directly linked to severe birth defects. While most gestational carrier agreements contain a provision regarding the right to terminate a pregnancy under certain circumstances, there is a debate on whether the agreements should contain more specific agreements to address the Zika virus.

Even if you determine that your agreement does not need to have a specific provision to terminate a pregnancy if the Gestational Carrier tests positive for Zika (because it is covered in a more general provision), there are other issues to consider. For example:

  • Travel Restrictions: The Intended Parents may want a provision that restricts the Gestational Carrier from traveling to areas where Zika cases have been confirmed. If you are going to include a travel restriction, the agreement should perhaps specify not only known areas but also a specific radius from known areas. Parties should look to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) and treating physicians for advice.
  • Removal from Zika Area: If the Gestational Carrier resides in a place where Zika cases have been confirmed or become confirmed during the pregnancy, the Intended Parents may want to require the Gestational Carrier to relocate. The agreement would then require additional provisions regarding the costs and additional payments to cover the relocation.
  • Testing Frequency: Given the potentially devastating effects on pregnancy, the parties may want to include a provision requiring the Gestational Carrier to be tested periodically after the Gestational Carrier may have been exposed to the Zika virus. The agreement could also potentially include specific provisions regarding the Gestational Carrier’s responsibility to report potential exposure. The parties may also want to include a provision requiring consultation with an infectious disease specialist.

Clearly, all of the foregoing examples carry with them the problem of not only the enforceability and damages related to Zika provisions in agreements, but ethical and moral issues.

Information regarding the Zika virus and its effects continues to develop. Parties should pay close attention to information and recommendations from the CDC and their treating physicians. Most importantly, Intended Parents and Gestational Carriers should share information, communicate, and agree on all relevant terms regarding this serious issue when negotiating an agreement.

Please contact a member of Blank Rome’s full service Matrimonial and Family Law practice group for further information regarding this topic and other family law issues.

The Many (and Expanding) Ways of Becoming A Legal Parent: Chapter Three

Caroline Krauss-Browne and Margaret Canby

Krauss-brownecanbyIn our last chapter, we discussed how a man, who has no biological or adoptive ties to the child, can be judicially declared the father in a child support proceeding; and, conversely, a man who is or may be a child’s actual biological father will usually not be permitted to compel a paternity test or otherwise assert paternity and intercede into an existing functioning parent-child relationship when a child is born into a marriage and the husband has been held out to the community and to the child as the child’s father and has formed a parental attachment with the child. Historically, the protection of children and their de facto parents for support purposes (even when no statute directed or even authorized the court to so act) has been founded upon the principles of equity.

If the Court’s equitable powers are used to protect a child’s best interests in the situations described above, then logic would dictate that these same equitable powers should be used to protect the children in all circumstances. Due to the biological impossibility of two women or two men having a child together and the high cost of adoption, there is a whole class of children who have de facto parent-child relationships which have been established with the consent and encouragement of the biological mother or adoptive father and which are deserving of legal protection. But they are not protected.

Why? Putting aside the question of overt prejudice, it is in part because the factual and legal inquiry has been centered on creating a litmus test based upon the mechanics of conception, which is a framework modeled on the heterosexual paradigm. Who is there; what is happening at that time; what documents are signed; what formalities are followed? Of course, for non-biological fathers adjudged through equitable estoppel to be parents, the question of who is present and what actually occurred at conception is overlooked by definition. He is not the biological father so he isn’t there at conception, obviously. So why does the law persist in focusing on that with regard to solemnizing the children brought into same-sex relationships when the “mechanics of conception” are so clearly very different for them? It is hard not to conclude that it is because of lingering assumptions and prejudices against the parents based upon their sexual orientation. We submit that such a focus is, sorry for the pun, “ill conceived” and dis-serves the many New York children of same-sex relationships.

New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, favors a “bright-line” rule, which (when interpreting the Domestic Relations Law section which authorizes a “parent” to initiate proceedings for custody and access) narrowly defines the word “parent” as those with a biological connection to a child or the means and ability to formally adopt the child. In other words, the courthouse doors are closed to everyone else, no matter the circumstances, even the circumstance when the mother actively created the parent-child relationship and led the child, the other parent and the entire community to believe they were a family. Equity provides no protection to these important relationships.

These children, who had no role in how they were brought into the world and who love and depend upon both of their mothers or both of their fathers for their physical and emotional development and well-being, just as the children of heterosexual relationships love and depend upon their parents, have been unfairly denied the protection of New York’s courts.

New York is in the minority, lagging behind Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. These other States allow individuals who can prove that they have an established parent-child relationship which was fostered and encouraged by the biological or adoptive parent to then also prove that it would be in the child’s best interest to share custody of and access to the child.

Since the enactment of the Marriage Equality Act in New York, children of same-sex married couples should have the benefit of the presumption of legitimacy if born during the marriage (but not before). Prior to New York legalizing same-sex marriage, New York recognized same-sex unions performed in other states and provided children of those unions with the protection of the laws of the state in which the union was formed. Children who were born before same-sex marriage became the law of the land and children with de facto parents who choose not to marry (for whatever reason) are out of luck.

However, there is the possibility of an imminent change in the law. On June 2, 2016, the Court of Appeals heard argument on companion cases. The first, Estrellita A. v. Jennifer L.D., involves a biological mother who sought and received child support from her former lesbian partner, who had acted in the role as the child’s second mother. The non-biological, non-adoptive mother was judicially declared in a “paternity” proceeding brought by the biological mother to be a “parent” responsible for the payment of child support. When she then sought custody of and access to the child, the biological mother, invoking New York’s “bright-line” rule, argued that she was not a parent because of the lack of biological or adoptive ties to the child. The lower courts both held that the biological mother could not argue to one judge that there was a parental relationship and argue the opposite to another. This is the doctrine of judicial estoppel. In less legalistic terminology, the biological mother can’t be a hypocrite. At stake is the ability of this judicially-declared “parent” who pays child support to exercise custodial rights.

The authors are pro bono co-counsel with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. and Le-Gal (The LGBT Bar Association of New York) representing Brooke Barone, the non-biological, non-adoptive mother in Matter of Brooke S. B. v. Elizabeth A. C.C. The attorney for the child is the appellant. At stake is the ability of a little boy to maintain a relationship with a woman he identifies as his mother. Ms. Barone and the boy’s biological mother, Elizabeth Cleland, met in 2006, made a home together and became engaged in hopes that they would marry as soon as it became legal for them to do so. Though not legally allowed to marry, the couple wanted to start their family immediately. They agreed that Ms. Cleland would carry the child, and she became pregnant in 2008 using an anonymous donor.

When their son was born, Ms. Barone was in the delivery room and even cut the newborn’s umbilical cord. The child was given Ms. Barone’s surname. Birth announcements were placed in the local newspaper listing both parties as the parents of the child. And, the women were held out as the parents of the child at his baptism. From the start, Ms. Barone fed their son, changed him, rocked him, bathed him, and took care of all the responsibilities a mother has to a baby. Ms. Barone was at every pre-natal and post-natal medical appointment and made medical decisions for the child. The child was enrolled in day care, school and child safety programs by Ms. Cleland, who listed Ms. Barone as the child’s parent. To his doctor, his day care, the pastor who baptized him and the entire community, Ms. Barone is one of his mothers. When the couple’s relationship ended in 2010, Ms. Barone continued to parent their son, sharing parenting time and alternating holidays (including Mother’s Day) with Ms. Cleland and provided for him financially for the following three years. In 2013, Ms. Cleland abruptly cut off contact between Ms. Barone and their son and Ms. Barone filed a petition for custody and visitation. The Family Court determined that its hands were tied based on controlling Court of Appeals “bright-line” rule and dismissed Ms. Barone’s petition. The appellate court affirmed the lower court decision. After the attorney for the child asked the Court of Appeals to hear the case, New York’s high court accepted review.

Counsel for the child and the non-biological mother were joined by many “friends of the court” in hoping to persuade the Court of Appeals to change how it defines who is a parent and allow equitable estoppel to be applied in cases in which a parental relationship has been encouraged and fostered by the biological mother, such that, years later, she cannot change her mind, deny parentage on a whim and inflict needless pain and suffering on the child, his de facto mother and extended family. The “bright-line” is a boundary line which unfairly discriminates against children of gay and lesbian families. It is time that the Courts of this State protect the children of these relationships and their de facto parents. We proudly and hopefully look forward to being able to say that we participated in bringing about this important change in the law and the extension of civil rights to the parents and children of same-sex relationships.

Blank Rome Encourages New York Court of Appeals to Safeguard Legal Bond Between Child and Non-Biological Mother

Caroline Krauss-Browne and Margaret Canby

Krauss-brownecanby

Today, Blank Rome LLP and co-counsel argued before the New York State Court of Appeals on behalf of a non-biological lesbian mother, Brooke Barone, who is seeking shared parenting time and financial responsibility for a child she and her former same-sex partner, Elizabeth Cleland, planned for and raised together. The couple planned to marry but separated before the marriage equality law passed.

Partners Margaret Canby and Caroline Krauss-Browne lead the Blank Rome team representing Ms. Barone.

“Today, we aim to correct a terrible injustice. Our client, Brooke, must be equally recognized under law as a legal guardian to her son in the same manner as his biological mother,” said Ms. Canby. “This appeal was brought by the attorney appointed for the child based on his steadfast belief that the child longs for a reunion with his mother, Brooke. He argues, and we join him, that the failure to reunite this child with Brooke, based upon a 1991 judicial ruling – not a statute – that defines parenthood in an overly restrictive, outmoded, and discriminatory fashion, is against the child’s best interest and will do him substantial harm.”

Together with Lambda Legal and the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York, Blank Rome represents Ms. Barone in her effort to continue to parent the six-year-old son she and Ms. Cleland planned to have together. The couple met in 2006, made a home together and became engaged in hopes that they would marry as soon as it became legal for them to do so in their home state of New York. Though not legally allowed to marry, the couple wanted to start their family immediately. They agreed that Ms. Cleland would carry the child, and she became pregnant in 2008 using an anonymous donor.

When their son was born, Ms. Barone was in the delivery room and even cut the newborn’s umbilical cord. They used Ms. Barone’s last name on birth certificate. Birth announcements were placed in the local newspaper listing both parties as the parents of the child. And, the women were held out as the parents of the child at his baptism. From the start, Ms. Barone fed their son, changed him, rocked him, bathed him, and took care of all the responsibilities a mother has to a baby. To his doctor, his day care, the pastor who baptized him, Ms. Barone is one of his mothers. When the couple’s relationship ended in 2010, Ms. Barone continued to parent their son and provided for him financially for the following three years.

In 2013, Ms. Cleland abruptly cut off contact between Ms. Barone and their son, requiring Ms. Barone to file for custody and visitation. The family court determined its hands were tied based on the high court’s decisions in 1991 in Alison D. and in a subsequent parenting case in 2010, Debra H. v. Janice R. The court dismissed Ms. Barone’s petition. The appellate court affirmed the lower court decision. After the attorney for the child asked the Court of Appeals to hear the case, New York’s high court accepted review.

Today, Blank Rome joined in arguing that the prevailing New York legal precedents do not account for the myriad ways that people make families, including same-sex couples, and that to consider non-biological parents “legal strangers” to the children they have cared for since birth is not in the best interest of these children. New York’s passage of the Marriage Equality Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges call for greater respect for the families formed by same-sex couples and their recognition as full-fledged parents of their children.

Many prominent legal and child welfare experts have filed friend-of-the-court briefs on the side of Ms. Barone and her son, including the New York State Bar Association, the New York City Bar Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and 45 family law academics on the faculty of every law school in New York State.

In addition to Ms. Canby and Ms. Krauss-Browne of Blank Rome, who represent Ms. Barone on a pro bono basis, the legal team includes Susan Sommer of Lambda Legal and Brett Figlewski of the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York. The child is represented by R. Thomas Rankin of Goodell & Rankin and Eric I. Wrubel, Linda Genero Sklaren and Alex R. Goldberg of Warshaw Burstein, LLP, who, along with Ms. Barone, also seek reversal of the decisions of the lower courts.

The case is Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth C.C.

New York Court of Appeals to Safeguard