Articles Posted in Child Custody

Even for happily married and intact families, the holidays can be fraught with conflict and compromise. But for divorced or separated parents and for blended families – the potential for conflict is much greater. Negotiating co-parenting agreements and sharing time with kids is rarely easy, but this is a time of year when it can be most difficult to let go because of the tradition and ritual around the holidays.

But for the sake of the kids you have to share it. And here are tips to
 help your holiday season be filled with merriment – not resentment.

Make a plan

 If you don’t already have a holiday schedule, and do it now, the earlier the better. You don’t want to create anxiety for the kids about what they’re going to be doing at Christmas. Sit down with your ex and a calendar to determine how you will share time. The plan can be fluid and can change, but a basic structure reduces miscommunication and sets expectations. Ideally, a vacation and holiday schedule will be part of a marital settlement agreement in a divorce. Think about the even year – odd year compromise. One parent gets first choice in even years and the other in odd years or simply switch the holiday time on an alternating year basis. For example, in even years one parent may have the children for Christmas Eve and morning, then take them to the other parent at noon. In odd years, the schedule would be reversed. It might also be worthwhile to review the kids Christmas presents together to avoid duplicate gifts and to ensure that similar amounts will be spent. For co-parents who live far away from each other it’s not so easy. If you have to be without your kids for the entire holiday make sure you can call and talk to them.

California custody determinations often turn on the well being of the child, leaving courts to determine whether a particular living situation is suitable for a child’s physical, mental and emotional security and development. Recently, the state’s First District Court of Appeals took on a unique version of this question when it was asked to decide whether living with a grandmother and her boyfriend who are practicing nudists is detrimental to children. At least in this case, the answer was “no.”In re Marriage of Meyer involves spouses Wendy and David, who were married in 2000, and their two daughters. The kids were ages ten and four when David, who had become estranged from his wife, filed a petition seeking sole legal and physical custody, with visiting rights for Wendy, in November 2010. One month later, Wendy took the girls out of school and moved with them from the family’s home in Castro Valley to her mother’s apartment in Fairfield.

At a hearing in March 2011, the couple gave differing versions of two events involving alleged physical abuse. Wendy asserted that David was the aggressor in two physical confrontations, which took place in 2002 and 2008, as well as during a number of other incidents. An Alameda County police officer backed up this version of the events, testifying that he arrested David for the 2008 incident after arriving at the scene and interviewing both spouses as well as their oldest daughter. According to the officer, Wendy had injuries consistent with domestic violence and the daughter essentially corroborated her version of the events.

David, on the other hand, argued that Wendy was the aggressor on both occasions and that he simply tried to defend himself from her attacks. Further, according to David, the living situation in Fairfield was detrimental to the girls because Wendy’s mother and her boyfriend were nudists and lived in “Section 8” public housing in a bad neighborhood. He also argued that the girls had been harmed by being uprooted from their school and social circles and that he did not get to spend as much time with them following the move to Fairfield.

The trial court awarded Wendy full legal and physical custody of the children with David having weekly visits and phone calls. The court said there was no evidence that the girls’ current living arrangement was “anything but wholesome or presented any type of danger.”

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The ultimate goal in resolving child custody and co-parenting issues is to reach a resolution that is in the best interests of the child. In In re Marriage of Erb, California’s Fourth District Court of Appeals explained that sometimes that means limiting the amount of contact former spouses have with each other.

Mother and Father were divorced in February 2004. The parties agreed that they would share legal custody of their then two-year old daughter (Daughter) and that Mother would have primary physical custody over the child, while Father would keep visitation rights.

Four years later, Father asked that the arrangement be changed so that Daughter would spend Wednesday nights with him and that his time with her be increased gradually until both parents shared equal time. A trial court agreed to increase Father’s time with Daughter to a more limited extent. Mother retained primary physical custody.

Following further litigation, however, the trial court agreed to a co-parenting plan submitted by Daughter’s independent counsel in June 2011. The plan provided for equal sharing of time with Daughter by Mother and Father under a “2-2-5-5” arrangement. Mother got two days with Daughter, Father got the next two days, then Mother got five days with Daughter and Father got the next five days.

Based largely on input from Daughter’s attorney – who interviewed Mother, Father, Daughter, her step-parents and a number of other family members – the trial court ruled that it was in Daughter’s best interests to put an end to the contentious litigation between her parents that had then been going on for seven years. “[W]e can’t go on like this,” the court said simply. It noted that the 2-2-5-5 plan would both add stability to Daughter’s everyday life and limit the number of exchanges between Mother and Father in an effort to avoid further disputes.

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“This case presents an issue that would vex Solomon himself.” That’s how the Fourth District Court of Appeals described In re Marriage of Keith, a child custody case that ultimately turned on the parents’ efforts (or lack thereof) to facilitate their daughter’s relationship with each other.Holly and Keith married in 2004, had a child (Daughter) in 2005 and separated a year later. Unbeknownst to Keith, Holly and Daughter then moved to Arizona. Holly also obtained a restraining order against Keith, accusing him of physical abuse. An Orange County court later order quashed the restraining order and required her to return to California.

Back in California, a court granted Holly a new restraining order against Keith as well as sole legal and physical custody of Daughter. Keith completed a court-ordered batterer’s intervention program and was permitted monitored visits with Daughter. After the couple divorced in 2008, Holly sought permission to move back to Arizona with Daughter. Keith opposed the move, claiming that Holly had sought to isolate him from Daughter and destroy their relationship, first by claiming that he had assaulted Holly, then by moving “surreptitiously” from Irvine to La Quinta and finally by seeking to move to Arizona.

In a child custody evaluation completed prior to trial, Dr. W. Russell Johnson recommended that Holly be granted primary physical custody – with Keith being granted “liberal” visitation rights – if she remained in California. If Holly were to move Arizona, however, Johnson concluded that Keith should be granted primary physical custody. In the latter situation, “[Daughter]’s best interests require that she be placed in her father’s physical custody because he is more likely than her mother to support her relationship with her non-residential parent,” Johnson determined. The trial court granted Keith primary physical custody.

The Fourth District affirmed the decision on appeal. The court explained that a trial court considering a custody issue has “the widest discretion to choose a parenting plan that is in the best interest of the child,” but must weigh the health, safety, and welfare of the child, as well as any history of abuse by one parent of the other. Because Holly had obtained a restraining order against Keith, the court said that there was a presumption that granting her primary physical custody was in Daughter’s best interest. Keith rebutted this presumption, however, by showing that he had completed the batterer’s intervention program and had not been accused of physical violence since that time.

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As a new family law attorney my very first litigation matter involved a client whose spouse’s attorney was the (now disgraced) Mary Nolan. It was a horrific experience for me and I ultimately told my client that he needed to retain a different kind of attorney – the quintessential ‘shark’ litigator, if he was going to survive this divorce with Ms. Nolan on the other side. The great benefit that I derived from this experience is that I learned very early how ugly divorce could be, that the traditional process did not work for me or for the clients. I knew there had to be a better way.

A six-count indictment on September 18, 2012 charged Mary Nolan with tax evasion and unlawfully intercepting communications. Recently, Ms. Nolan pled not guilty to charges that she hired a private investigator, who was a central character in Contra Costa County’s “dirty DUI” scandal, to illegally install listening devices inside the car of a client’s ex-husband.

Mr. David Dutcher, from Contra Costa County, challenged a custody ruling he claims was based on a DUI charge that occurred after his ex-wife paid a blonde woman to trick into drunk driving. Mr. Dutcher said he was arrested and pulled over for drunken driving in 2008 shortly after he was propositioned by two young women to come home with them and ‘continue things in the hot tub’.

A judge from the state of Minnesota, Michael Haas, said the following in 2001.

“Your children have come into this world because of the two of you. Perhaps you two made lousy choices as to whom you decided to be the other parent. If so, that is your problem and your fault.

No matter what you think of the other party – or whatever your family thinks of the other party- these children are one-half of each of you. Remember that, because every time you tell your child what an “idiot” his father is, or what a “fool” his mother is, or how bad the absent parent is, or what terrible things that person has done, you are telling the child half of him is bad.

In a recent ruling in the matter of In re T.J., the Second District Court of Appeals tackled an important question that often arises in California child custody cases: which court has jurisdiction to consider a custody matter when the parents live in different states?

RJ and AJ married in Texas in 2001 and had a son, TJ, two years later. The couple split in 2004 and AJ moved to New Jersey with the child. The parents obtained a divorce in Texas in 2007. Through mediation, they reached a custody agreement under which AJ was declared the “Sole Managing Conservator” of T.J., with the right to decide his primary residence while RJ was given detailed visitation rights. RJ talked to TJ over the phone regularly and the child spent long stretches of the summer in Texas with his father.

After living together in New Jersey for several years, AJ and the child moved to California in 2011. The move was in part intended to help AJ cope with depression, her thinking being that the weather and a location change would improve her general mood. A few months after the move, however, AJ checked herself into a clinic with depression and thoughts of suicide. A hospital social worker referred TJ to the L.A. Department of Children and Family Services because AJ was unable to make other arrangements for him while she was being treated. AJ later completed her treatment.

The Department filed a petition in state court pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 300, which gives courts jurisdiction to ajudicate matters concerning a minor child who has suffered or is at substantial risk of suffering “serious physical harm or illness, as a result of the failure or inability of his or her parent or guardian to adequately supervise or protect the child.” RJ then filed a motion seeking custody. The court later ordered that TJ be placed in his mother’s home under Department supervision.

On appeal, the Second District reversed the decision, finding that the lower court lacked jurisdiction to issue it. The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which has been adopted as law in both California and Texas, “is the exclusive method for determining the proper forum in custody cases involving other jurisdictions and governs juvenile dependency proceedings,” the court explained. Because the original decision regarding TJ’s custody was rendered by the Texas court, that court maintained exclusive jurisdiction under the UCCJEA to decide any further custody-related issues.

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Even for happily married and intact families, the holidays can be fraught with conflict and compromise. But for divorced or separated parents and for blended families – the potential for conflict is significantly higher. Negotiating co-parenting agreements and sharing time with kids is rarely easy, but this is a time of year when it can be most difficult to let go because of the tradition and ritual around how the holidays are managed.

But for the sake of the kids you have to share it. And here are tips to
help your holiday season be filled with merriment – not resentment.

Make a plan

The Court of Appeals for California’s Fourth District recently explained in In re C.C. that a parent can be found to have abandoned his or her children for custody purposes, even if the parent continues to pay child support.Charles and Misty were married in Pennsylvania in April 2001, less than a year after the birth of their first child, M.C. The couple later had another child, C.C., before divorcing in 2005. Misty was granted primary custody of the children, while Charles was ordered to pay $500 a month in support and awarded regular visitation.

Misty later married Eric and, in 2007, a Pennsylvania court granted her permission to move with the children to San Diego, where Eric was stationed in a military position. Eric, who had contributed financial support for the children since 2006, later filed a petition in California seeking to free the children from Charles’s custody and control on the ground of abandonment. Eric also requested to adopt the children as a stepparent.

Charles fought the petition in a 2011 hearing, arguing that he had been unable to communicate with the children via weekly video conferencing ordered by the Pennsylvania court because he and Misty could not agree on the specific type of conferencing required. Specifically, he argued that his computer webcam was not compatible with the equipment Misty used and that she would not pay for him to get an upgrade. He also alleged that Misty did not tell him about the move until months after it happened, refused to make the children available by phone and did not provide a mailing address.

M.C., now 10 years old, testified at trial that he loved and wanted to be adopted by his “dad” Eric. M.C. also remembered Charles, but said he had not seen his father since 2005 or 2006. The trial court observed M.C. was “obviously very attached” to Eric, while C.C. referred to Eric as “daddy,” and had no memory of Charles. The court also noted that Charles took no action to try to resolve his alleged inability to communicate with the children from 2007 to 2010, and made only token attempts to contact them during this time. As a result, the court granted Eric’s petitions.

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At my favorite local restaurant last weekend I recognized a former divorce mediation client. She did not recognize me as I was dressed in early 19th century garb for a historical event. As I approached her table to say hello, I saw that she was with her former husband, also my client, and their two children.

Since it was a busy Sunday morning brunch in the restaurant and they were with their two young children, it felt inappropriate to inquire about the nature of their dining together. But I have to assume that it was one of two possibilities: (1) either they had reconciled, or (2) they were enjoying a post-divorce family brunch.

I suspect it was the latter, but either way, both are positive and wonderful outcomes that, in my opinion, would almost never occur had the divorce been a contested/litigated one.