There has been a lot of talk about the lack of preparedness for last week’s snow storm that left many people stranded in traffic for hours trying to get home.  While many have argued, perhaps rightly, that the storm turned out being much worse the forecast, at the end of the day, as with many other things in life, people focus on the end results.  In fact, my bet is that most of the people who were complaining when schools called an early dismissal the night before, when the forecast was for much less snow than actually fell, were the same people complaining about the ultimate outcome.

Divorce is very much the same way.  While you may not know exactly when the process may start, few people are really, deep down, surprised that it is actually happening because the warning signs are there, whether it is adultery, lack of intimacy, constant fighting, lack of communication, bad communication, lack of agreement regarding parenting, etc.  This reminds me of a story that a client told me many many years ago.  He and his wife were in marriage counseling for years and he ultimately decided to tell his wife that he intended on pursuing a divorce during a counseling session.  The wife responded with epic histrionics suggesting that she was shocked.  The therapist ultimately told her that she could express any number of emotions but surprise wasn’t one of them.

The point again is that divorce is seldom a surprise.  Moreover, you don’t really know how bad the storm is going to be until it happens.  Most people want an “amicable” divorce but seldom agree on what that actually means at the beginning.  Very often, emotion takes over and derails what should be an “easy”, legally speaking, divorce.  On the other hand, some matters that appear like they can be very complex resolve easily because one or both of the parties are sufficiently motivated to get a deal done.

And because the ultimate divorce is seldom a surprise, if you think that divorce is possibility, you can do two things.  One is to put your head in the sand and then be overwhelmed by the storm when it comes.  The other is to prepare for the storm, just in case.  What are the things you can do to prepare?  Here are some things you can do:

  1. Familiarize yourself with your finances – income, assets, liabilities, budget.  Perhaps prepare a balance sheet of your assets and liabilities and start putting together a budget of your historical spending.
  2. Familiarize yourself with your spouse’s income?  How are they paid?  Do they receive a base and a bonus? Is the bonus guaranteed?  Is there a target bonus? Is there deferred compensation – stock options, restricted stock, RSUs, REUs, and/or any of the other of the alphabet soup of other earned income?  Finding out if there what is vested or not, if there is a vesting scheduling, when are these things usually paid, where have they been historically deposited, do they automatically convert to cash or stock when they vest, etc.
  3. Familiarize yourself with your spouse’s benefits and perquisites, including health insurance, other insurances, retirement plans, and the like?  Is there are vehicle that the employer or your spouse’s business (if they are a business owner)?  And if they are a business owner, is there a business credit card?  What things does the business pay for?  If there is a business, is their cash?
  4. While you are doing all of the above, start assembling historical financial documents.  Five years of tax, income, bank, brokerage, retirement and credit card information is a good start but if there are other seemingly important documents in the house, on computer hard drives or online, secure copies of those, as well.  And after you go about doing that, don’t leave the documents lying around the house or in the trunk of your car where your spouse can take them.  Make copies and secure them off site.
  5. If you have assets that are premarital, received via a third party gift and/or inherited, it is your burden to prove to a court that those assets are exempt.  If you can prove exemption, then they are not divided in equitable distribution typically.  It should be of no surprise that when a divorce occurs, these documents disappear, as well.  Accordingly, if divorce is a possibility, secure these documents as well.
  6. If there are valuable items that may “disappear”, you may want to secure them – eg. putting jewelry in a safe deposit box.  You would not believe how many times a wife’s engagement ring (which is legally exempt in most cases), disappears on the occurrence of a divorce.
  7. If custody and/or parenting time could be an issue, familiarize yourself with your children’s teachers, doctors, friends, etc. both at present and in the past.  Think about who may be witnesses regarding your involvement with the children.
  8. Research potential therapists for both yourself and your children.  Even if they are not needed at the moment, once the storm comes, they may be a resource that you want to avail yourself of.
  9. Identify a solid support system.  I am not suggesting that you tell the world that your marriage may be coming to an end.  Rather, identify for yourself the people that you believe you can rely on when the storm comes.
  10. Have a consultation with a divorce lawyer – even if you are not ready to proceed.  For one, you will get some education about your rights and responsibilities.  Fear of the unknown often paralyzes people.  Moreover, based upon your specific facts and circumstances, the above list to help you get prepared in case of the storm may expand.

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Eric S. Solotoff, Partner, Fox Rothschild LLPEric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Morristown, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973) 994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

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Going through a divorce is one of life’s greatest disruptions. Whether you are resistant to the divorce and it feels like a tragedy or you are initiating the divorce and it feels like an escape, there is no doubt that divorce creates a massive change in your family life, finances and day-to-day routine.  At its core, divorce is the process of going from “we” to “me” which can be daunting, exhilarating or something in between. Many clients going through a divorce ask: when can I start dating and how will it affect my divorce?  The answer is never black and white, as dating during a divorce can have its pros and cons.

people holding sign pros

  1. Dating is a much needed distraction during divorce

For all parties involved, the process of getting divorced is difficult. Divorce can turn your life upside down, add new stressors to an already hectic life and create a financial burden that wasn’t there before. Your spouse, the court (and yes, sometimes the lawyers) can at times be frustrating. It is perfectly normal to want to forget about your divorce and take a break from it, even if it’s just for an evening. Dating can be a much needed “vacation” from the reality of divorce.

Many divorcing couples do not go from marital bliss to divorce court overnight, and it may have been a while since you’ve had a positive romantic experience. Dressing up for a night on the town with an uncomplicated new partner is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. Spending time with a new, exciting person can be a wonderful distraction from the messy, tortured history of your marriage.  This breath of fresh air can give you the reprieve from the drama that you need to forge ahead in your divorce.

  1. Taking control of your dating life is empowering and can boost self esteem

Divorce can make a person feel unappreciated, undesired and out of control. Whether you did not want the divorce, or you don’t like a decision a judge has made, it can be unnerving to feel like you have a diminished say in what happens in your life. Dating can put you back in the driver’s seat of one area of your life, and provide some semblance of control. The positive benefits of a “clean slate” cannot be understated.  Stepping out with a new partner who finds you desirable and engaging, unburdened by the complications of parenting and finances that can come with a marriage, can work wonders for your mental health and sense of self-worth.  After long periods of battling with your spouse, it can be exceptionally refreshing to spend time with someone who is nice to you! Getting back in the game and feeling pursued and appreciated might be the ego boost you need to power through an unpleasant divorce.

  1. Embracing positivity can set the scene for a rational and amicable divorce

When you are in a bad place mentally, it is difficult not to make emotionally-charged decisions. Strategizing in a divorce based on emotions will position you and your spouse further away from resolution and, in the end, cost you more time and money.  While it may feel good to exact revenge or act out of spite, in the long term, it will likely only make your divorce that much more protracted and painful.

When you are in a good place mentally, you can more easily make decisions based on reason and practicality. You will feel less incentivized to hurt your spouse or be vindictive. In many cases, your approach to the divorce will shape your spouse’s attitudes, after all, no one wants to play the villain, but people are all too happy to take the gloves off when their spouse is already playing dirty. Dating may make you happier, which in turn, will enable you to approach your divorce with a level head and amicable attitude to create a more pleasant experience for all those involved.

holding sign cons

  1. Dating may fan the flames of acrimony between you and your spouse

While dating may make you happier, it might spur feelings of anger, jealousy or resentment in your spouse which will promote an ill-will in your divorce proceedings.  In this regard, you know your spouse best, and can gauge how they will react to you reentering the dating world. If you believe that dating again will cause your spouse to fly off the handle, be warned that it will likely lead to your spouse taking less reasonable positions and being more litigious in your divorce. In this sense, dating can backfire – as you are trying to move on with your life, your spouse may dig his or her heels in further, dragging out the divorce even longer as a result.

  1. Your kids might freak out

If you have children, you should give serious consideration to their thoughts and feelings before you start dating.  Without a doubt, your children’s lives will change drastically as a result of a divorce and they will likely mourn the loss of your family unit.  Do your children hold out hope that you and your spouse will reconcile? Have they (or are they old enough to) express their emotions about the divorce? Do they have the assistance of a family therapist or mental health professional to guide them through this process? All of these things must be considered before you throw another curveball into the family dynamic.

With regards to the legal implications of dating, how involved your new partner becomes with your children may have an effect on a custody battle between you and your spouse.  If custody experts are involved in your case, they will interview collateral contacts (including your new partner) as part of the evaluation and his or her past can affect the outcome of your case! A new partner with a criminal record, substance abuse or certain mental health issues can be a red flag for a custody evaluator (especially if they are around your children a lot) and may impact the custodial issues in your divorce.

  1. (Serious) dating might affect your spousal support

Most people who start dating after a divorce are in no rush for a big commitment, but some find it easier to cope with a divorce by jumping right back into a serious relationship.  You may lose your alimony if you are cohabiting with a partner in a marital-type relationship. Accordingly, you need to remain cognizant of how living with your new partner may affect the amount of alimony you receive in divorce or whether your ex-spouse can make an application to terminate alimony based on your cohabitation after divorce. It is important to note that this is a one-sided consequence. If you are paying alimony, feel free to date to your heart’s content – it won’t affect your obligation to pay your ex-spouse alimony.

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Katherine A. Nunziata, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPKatherine A. Nunziata is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in the Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Katherine at (973-548-3324) or at knunziata@foxrothschild.com.

Technology is making it easier and easier to satisfy our curiosity about just what the heck the people in our lives are up to.  Are you curious about your husband’s whereabouts?  You could plant a GPS device on his car.  Do you want to know what your wife is saying to the kids?  There are many ways to go about recording those conversations.  Are you dying to know what your spouse is doing on that laptop, tablet, or smartphone of his/hers?  You could install spyware or other programs (I’ve even heard of some of them referred to as “spouseware”) to secretly find out.  Learning about your spouse’s or ex’s comings and goings, who they are living with, or what they are talking to the kids about can all be valuable information when there are custody issues, questions about whether your ex is cohabiting with someone else for purposes of termination or suspension of alimony, and many other legal issues.  It’s certainly tempting…

BUT DON’T DO IT.  At least not without talking to an attorney.  Because even though technology gives you the ability to do this, it doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t make it legal.

I am seeing these issues come up more and more in my practice, and while much is unclear about where the boundaries can and should be drawn because of the fact sensitive nature of the use of technology in family law cases, a few things appear clear to me.  Using technology to track your spouse or significant other leaves you open to a claim of stalking under the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.  When you use technology to record parties to a conversation without their consent, you may also be subject to criminal and civil liability under Federal and State wiretapping laws – in New Jersey, this is known as the New Jersey Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:156A.  This is not to mention other civil claims such as invasion of privacy.

This is why it is critical that, before you take any step to use technology to surveil your spouse, you speak with an attorney to ensure that you are not doing anything that may subject you to civil or criminal liability, or to discuss alternative options that will allow you to surveil your spouse or family member without taking this risk.  When you are dealing with a criminal charge of stalking, the “But the private investigator I consulted with said it was okay” defense is no defense at all.  While private investigators know all about technology that can be used to surveil your spouse or other family member, they are not always thinking about or even aware of the legal ramifications of their advice.

And, importantly, once the proverbial cat is out of the bag and your spouse or other family member learns that they were being spied on, you cannot try to cover your tracks by destroying the evidence – this is known as “spoliation” of evidence and if you do it, you will likely be subject to sanctions and/or adverse inferences drawn by the Court.  In other words, the Court will punish you for destroying evidence, and may assume that you did engage in the illegal use of technology by virtue of the fact that you felt the need to destroy the evidence of your conduct.  Just ask the Plaintiff in the recent case out of New York State, Crocker C. v. Anne R., in which the Plaintiff installed spyware on his wife’s electronic devices to monitor all of her communications and listen in on her conversations with third parties including privileged communications with her attorneys and her psychiatrist.  When the Defendant discovered this, the Plaintiff immediately “wiped” all trace of the spyware from these devices so that it was not possible to determine the extent to which he intercepted her communications.  He was sanctioned and found in contempt.

And if you find yourself on the receiving end of being spied on by your spouse or family member, it is critical to obtain the immediate services of a forensic expert who can examine any device being used to record or surveil you and can take steps to preserve any such device for evidence purposes.

Remember:  In many ways, the legal uses of technology – especially in the context of family law issues – is a bit like the Wild West.  We are still trying to figure out the rules and the exceptions to those rules when it comes to the legal issues that arise in family law disputes, and it is always best to consult with an attorney before taking action.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica C. Diamond is an associate in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

Last year I blogged on tri-parenting, or the concept whereby three parents agree to raise a child or children together as a family, with regard to the published New Jersey trial court decision of D.G. and S.H. v. K.S. My previous blog post can be found here.

In that matter, D.G. and his husband, S.H., along with their friend K.S. embarked on a journey of conceiving and raising a child together. The parties agreed to use D.G.’s sperm and K.S.’s egg, as they had known each other longer, and they would give the child S.H.’s surname. All three parties parented the child and were effectively able to do so for most of the child’s early life, until K.S. announced that she had fallen in love with A.A., who she intended to marry, and that she wanted to relocate with the child to California where A.A. resided. When the parties’ could not agree on a “tri-parenting plan”, D.G. and S.H. filed a Complaint seeking legal and physical custody of the child, parenting time, and that S.H. (who did not have any biological ties to the child), was the child’s legal and psychological parent.

After 19 days of trial, the Court found that S.H. was in fact the child’s psychological parent (although K.S. also stipulated to this on the eve of trial), and concluded that D.G., S.H. and K.S. should have equal legal and residential custody of the child, and the court established a 50/50 parenting time schedule. However, the court denied S.H.’s request for legal parentage as a matter of law on the basis that the court does not have jurisdiction to create a new recognition of legal parentage other than what already exists—genetic contribution, adoption, or gestational primacy. Further, although the best interest of the child standard is used for various family law determinations, it is not a factor in defining parenthood under the Parentage Act. (N.J.S.A. 9:17:38 through 9:17-59).

I concluded my prior post by stating that

With the evolution of today’s family, “tri-parenting” and other, similar custody and parenting time situations will emerge, creating a new, unique set of issues for families who are dissolving/separating. As the role of “parent” expands, it will be interesting to see how the courts will progress to handle these delicate issues.

19754957 - one caucasian family father mother daughter man dispute reproach in silhouette studio isolated on white background

On March 8, 2017, The New York Supreme Court of Suffolk County also granted tri-legal custody and visitation, in the matter Dawn M. v. Michael M.

In that matter, Dawn and Michael, a married couple, began a polyamorous relationship with Dawn’s friend, Audria. All three parties considered themselves a family and decided to have a child together. Since Dawn was unable to have a child, the parties decided that Michael and Audria would try to conceive. The credible evidence presented to the Court established that all three parties agreed, prior to a child being conceived, that they would raise the child together as tri-parents.

Audria became pregnant and gave birth to a boy, J.M.; however shortly thereafter the relationship between the parties became strained and Dawn and Audria moved out together with J.M. Michael commenced a divorce action against Dawn, and asserted he no longer considered Dawn to be J.M.’s parent.

The court found credible the testimony of Audria and Dawn that J.M. was raised with two mothers and that he continues to the present day to call both “mommy.” The court further found that in all respects, during the first eighteen months of J.M.’s life when Dawn, Michael and Audria all lived together, and thereafter after their separation, Dawn acted as a joint mother with Audria and that they all taught the child that he has two mothers. The Court also conducted an in camera interview with J.M., which left no doubt in the Court’s mind that he considered both Dawn and Audria to be equal “mommies” and that he would be devastated if he were not able to see Dawn.

Although not a biological parent or an adoptive parent, Dawn argued that she has been allowed to act as J.M.’s mother by both Audria and Michael, that she has always lived with J.M., J.M. has known her as his mom since his birth and that the best interest of J.M. dictates that she be given shared legal custody and visitation with him. Audria, J.M.’s biological mother, strongly agrees. Dawn further argued, along with the child’s attorney, that Michael should be estopped from opposing this application because he has created and fostered this situation by voluntarily agreeing, before the child was conceived, to raise him with three parents, and that Michael has acted consistent with this agreement by allowing the child to understand that he has two mothers.

The Court found that the best interests of J.M. would be served by granted Dawn shared legal custody, stating that “J.M. needs a continuing relationship with the [Dawn] as his mother and that relationship cannot be left to depend on the consent or whim of either his biological mother or father. Anything less will promote great hardship and suffering for J.M.”, and established a tri-custodial arrangement, as Michael and Audria already shared joint legal custody.”

The Court concluded that Dawn, Michael and Audria

created this unconventional family dynamic by agreeing to have a child together and by raising J.M. with two mothers. The Court therefore finds that J.M.’s best interests cry out for an assurance that he will be allowed a continued relationship with [Dawn]. No one told these three people to create this unique relationship. Nor did anyone tell [Michael] to conceive a child with his wife’s best friend or to raise that child knowing two women as his mother. [Michael]’s assertion that [Dawn] should not have legal visitation with J.M. is unconscionable given J.M.’s bond with [Dawn] and [Michael]’s role in creating this bond. A person simply is responsible for the natural and foreseeable consequences of his or her actions especially when the best interest of a child is involved. Reason and justice dictate that [Michael] should be estopped from arguing that this woman, whom he has fostered and orchestrated to be his child’s mother, be denied legal visitation and custody…To order anything other than joint custody could potentially facilitate [Dawn]’s removal from J.M.’s life and that would have a devastating consequence to this child.”

Although the issue of legal parentage was not discussed in the New York Court opinion, it appears that the New York Court is as progressive as the New Jersey Court in moving  towards alternative custody arrangements in light of the evolution of today’s families.

In the case of M.C. v. P.C. (unreported, non-precedential), Judge Jones explores the issues surrounding mid-week overnight parenting time during the school year and its effect on the best interests of the children. In many cases, both parents live close by and are routinely exercising parenting time on weekdays in addition to weekends. While frequent and continuing contact with both parents is almost always positive for the child, it does not come without issue in the post-divorce context. We frequently see cases where one parent refuses to complete homework or take the child to soccer practice during their weekday parenting time.

The facts of this case are simple. The parents have two children, ages 8 and 10. As part of their divorce agreement, one parent was the primary residential custodial parent with the other parent having reasonable and liberal parenting time, to include every Thursday evening overnight into Friday mornings.

The primary parent, who works in the children’s school (but is not their teacher) filed an application to modify midweek overnight parenting time asserting that the children often come to school unprepared on Friday mornings and without their homework completed. It was alleged that the primary parent then has to rush around on Friday mornings assisting the children with completing their assignments before school formally begins. The noncustodial parent obviously denies same, however the Court noted that neither party produced any corroborating evidence so the Court was forced to rely upon the parties own testimonial positions.

In its analysis, the Court took “judicial notice” (meaning something is so well known it cannot be reasonably doubted) that education is one of the most important aspects of a young child’s life. The Court noted that children “need to learn from both parents, as early as possible, that tending to homework, test preparation and general scholastic readiness must take an appropriately high priority in a child’s schedule”.

That said, even in the cases where the parents are entirely cooperative, when the children go back and forth between households, this creates another layer of difficulty in trying to implement these fundamental educational values and maintain consistency. The Court opined while it is conceivable that back and forth parenting time could cause a child to incur a significant distribution and a loss of appropriate focus on meeting scholastic responsibilities, it is not per se harmful or contrary to a child’s best interests. As with many issues that arise in a family law matter, it is fact-sensitive and case specific given that each family and child is unique.

The Court goes on to remind that:
“Shared parenting” means more than simply counting the hours and minutes a child stays under a parent’s roof but also involves each parent meeting his or her responsibilities during such a time rather than unilaterally passing it off onto the other parent. Put another way, a parent cannot insist on simply taking the children for parenting time while siphoning out the parenting obligations which naturally continue to exist during such times. If a parent wants midweek overnight parenting time during a school year, that comes with all of the scholastic responsibility and other midweek obligations, in one integrated package.

The Court noted that although the primary parent’s testimony was persuasive there were evidentiary obstacles insofar as how prevalent the deficiencies that were complained of really were. Was this a situation where the child only missed 1 out of 10 assignments or a situation where the child’s backpack was not even opened with nothing done at all? The Court noted that evidence could have been presented by school records, testimony from teachers, lower test scores or any other evidence of the children’s lack of readiness on Fridays, as compared with other days when the children are in the care of the primary parent.

In sum, the Court found that there was insufficient evidence to make a specific finding that the homework issue was so prevalent as to require an immediate elimination of midweek overnight parenting time but established a helpful protocol for the parties moving forward as to how to deal with the issue of homework.

What can be taken away from this is case is how important it is to be fully prepared when presenting your application to the Court. Had the primary parent produced more corroborating evidence as to the magnitude of the missed assignments (assuming it was substantial), the outcome may have been different. It is always important to seek the advice of experienced counsel when presenting any application (especially an application to modify an existing arrangement/order) to the Court.

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Lauren K. Beaver is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Law Blog and an attorney in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Lauren practices out of the firm’s Princeton, New Jersey office representing clients on issues relating to divorce, support, equitable distribution, custody, and parenting time. Lauren also offers mediation services to those looking to procure a more amicable divorce. Lauren can be reached at (609) 844-3027 or lbeaver@foxrothschild.com.

Mark Ashton, a partner in our Exton (Chester County), Pennsylvania office and former editor of our Pennsylvania Family Law Blog wrote an interesting post entitled “Listening to Your Kids During Traumatic Times” .

In this post, Mark, from a child’s perspective, lists 15 things that parents going through this process should consider, as follows:

  1. As your kid, I want to love both of you fairly and equally and not have you think that my love for you diminishes my love for the person you once promised to love “forever.”

  2. Moving from one house to another sucks and it’s made even worse when you get all stressed about my leaving. I will be back, just like the court order says.

  3. You are not responsible for everything that happens to me and I realize that when parents disagree, it gets disagreeable. But please don’t make it worse by making yourself crazy. If you feel trapped, try being in my place with two powerful adults wrangling over me.

  4. Please don’t share with me what you and my other parent are fighting about. And, oh yes, I did tell you each something different about what sport I want to play because I didn’t have the courage to stand up to either of you and feel your disappointment.

  5. Let me figure out whether I like the other parent’s new significant other. I am stressed with conflicting loyalty issues already.

  6. It really, really hurts when you don’t show up for something we have scheduled.

  7. Yes, gifts and trips are great but I can tell when the motivation is “Love me more.”

  8. When I’m with you, I do miss my other parent and that does not diminish my love for you.

  9. I am not staying with you to provide information about what the other parent is doing.

  10. Understand that when you share your animosity for the other parent or the frustration you have with them, I have just about no ability to help you with that. I am just the child which usually means all I can really do is channel your stress together with mine.

  11. You may have “moved on” emotionally and found the man or woman of your dreams. Please don’t ask me to share your dream until I am ready. I also know when your “friend” is a lot more than a friend.

  12. If I score a goal or play Dorothy in the “Wiz” I would like you both there sharing my joy. If I hug the other one first afterward, it is not a judgment.

  13. I don’t need to know your side of what happened. I don’t have the coping abilities of an adult and I have never been an adult. If money (or its absence) means you can’t say yes to me, that is something you can tell me without feeling that you failed me.

  14. If there is bad news, please don’t ask me to be the courier.

  15. Over time, I may judge the other parent harshly either with justification or without. I may be asking you to listen. I do want you to listen but I’m not ready to sign up permanently for the “Hate the Other Parent” team.

I recommend that everyone take a minute to read the entirety of this very thoughtful piece.

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Eric SolotoffEric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

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In the recently published 67-page trial court decision of D.G. and S.H. v. K.S., the trial court dealt with the novel issue of custody and parenting time in a “tri-parenting” relationship. In that matter, D.G. and his husband, S.H., along with their friend K.S. embarked on a journey of conceiving and raising a child together. The parties agreed to use D.G.’s sperm and K.S.’s egg, as they had known each other longer, and they would give the child S.H.’s surname. During K.S.’s pregnancy, the parties had two baby showers, one at D.G. and S.H.’s Manhattan apartment, and one at K.S.’s home in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. All three parties attended parenting classes and began preparing both of their homes for the child’s arrival, purchasing everything in duplicate.

After the child, O.S.H., was born in 2009, D.G. and S.H. moved into K.S’s home in Point Pleasant and all three parties co-parented the child. D.G. operated a business at the Jersey Shore and, shortly after giving birth, K.S. returned to her job at her family’s restaurant. S.H., a high-school teacher, undertook the significant portion of the parenting responsibilities as he was on summer recess.

At the end of the summer, D.G. and S.H. rented a home in Point Pleasant to be near K.S. Thereafter, parenting time fluctuated, but was successful. In the summers, D.G. and S.H. undertook the significant portion of parenting time responsibilities due to K.S’s job responsibilities, and in the winters, K.S. undertook the significant portion of parenting time responsibilities, including taking the child to Costa Rica, where she owned a home, for varying amounts of time. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy destroyed D.G. and S.H.’s rental home, so they began enjoying weekend parenting time in New York City.

The parties were able to effectively and efficiently co-parent with one another for most of the child’s early life; however, things broke down when K.S. announced that she had fallen in love with her neighbor in Costa Rica, A.A., who she intended to marry, and that she wanted to relocate with the child to California where A.A. resided. A.A. could not relocate to New Jersey due to parenting obligations to children he had from a prior marriage.

D.G. and S.H. requested that K.S. prepare parenting time proposal for them so they could determine if the relocation would work together with their idea of “tri-parenting”. K.S. prepared a parenting time proposal and after considerable discussion, D.G. and S.H. rejected it. D.G. and S.H. then filed a Complaint seeking to establish 1.) legal and physical custody of O.S.H.; 2.) parenting time; and 3.) that S.H. was the child’s psychological and legal parent. K.S. filed a counterclaim and answer seeking 1.) to establish a legal custodial relationship between the parties, with physical custody vested in K.S.; 2.) to establish a parenting time arrangement; 3.) child support and medical coverage; and 4.) permission to relocate with the child to California.

A plenary hearing was scheduled and took place over 19 days.paper dolls

Psychological Parentage of S.H.

S.H. sought an order declaring him to be the psychological parent of the O.S.H., which was supported by D.G. K.S. stipulated that S.H. was the child’s psychological parent on the eve of trial and the court found that the undisputed facts of this matter supported such a conclusion.

In order for a person to be considered a child’s psychological parent, there must be a finding of “exceptional circumstances” (See V.C. v. M.J.B., 163 N.J. 200, 219 cert. denied. 531 U.S. 926, (2000)). To find that “exceptional circumstances” exists, the Court must find the existence of four elements:

(1) that the biological or adoptive parent consent to, and fostered, the petitioner’s formation and establishment of a parent-like relationship with the child; the legal parent must have fostered the formation of the parental relationship between the third party and the child;

(2) that the petitioner and the child lived together in the same household’

(3) that the petitioner assumed the obligations of parenthood by taking significant responsibility for the child’s care, education and development, including contributing toward the child’s support without expectation of financial compensation [a petitioner’s contribution to a child’s support need not be monetary]; and

(4) that the petitioner has been in a parental role for a length of time sufficient to have established with the child a bonded, dependent relationship parental in nature. (See V.C. v. M.J.B. at 223).

The court detailed at great length, all of the actions undertaken by S.H. and concluded that he is appropriately the child’s psychological parent. Among some of the court’s considerations were the fact that D.G. and K.S. consented to and fostered a parent-like relationship between S.H. and the child,  the idea that all three of the parties would be the child’s parents was formed before the child was even conceived or born, the parties chose to give the child S.H.’s surname, and since the child was born, and over the course of the past six years, S.H. contributed towards the child’s support, both monetarily and otherwise, and established a bond with the child.

Residential and Legal Custody

Once the court has established the existence of a psychological parent, the best interest of the child must be considered when determining custody. The court found that since there was never a written agreement or prior court order regarding custody, the court must determine the custodial relationship that serves the best interests of the child, and evaluate the factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c). Both Plaintiffs and Defendant hired custody experts, who evaluated each of the parties and the child. The court conducted a detailed, lengthy analysis of the factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c), and upon doing so, ultimately concluded that D.G., S.H. and K.S. should have equal legal and residential custody of the child, and the court established a 50/50 parenting time schedule. Although rare, joint residential custody is a suitable alternative to sole custody in family law actions, when “joint custody is likely to foster the best interests of the child in the proper case.” See Beck v. Beck, 86 N.J. 480, 488 (1981). The analysis of the factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c) is quite expansive and delves deep into the loving and caring relationship the parties share with the child.

Relocation and Removal Application by Defendant

The Court reviewed K.S.’s application to relocate with the child to California under the O’Connor standard for relocation, which applies in this situation as the Court determined that all of the parties shall share joint legal and residential custody. “If, the parents truly share both legal and physical custody, an application by one parent to relocate and remove the residence of the child to an out-of-state location must be analyzed as an application for a change of custody, where the partying seeking the change in the joint custodial relationship must demonstrate that the best interests of the child would be better served by residential custody being primarily vested with the relocating parent. O’Connor v. O’Connor, 349 N.J. Super. 381, 385 (App. Div. 2002).

The court opined that K.S.’s reasons for the move to California are at best tentative and speculative, including a major change in her living situation with A.A. (originally K.S. was going to live with A.A. and now is not), her employment and educational plans (K.S. intends to find part-time work and go to school part-time), her availability to care for the child and her lack of family support to help with the child’s care, among other things. Additionally, the child would be uprooted from her long and stable living arrangement with the parties and the distance between California and New Jersey would diminish the child’s ability to maintain her bond with D.G. and S.H., exclude them from her daily life activities and abrogate frequent parenting time. Thus, the court denied K.S.’s application to relocate with the child to California.

Legal Parentage

S.H. also sought to be established as the legal parent of O.S.H., not just the psychological parent. However, this was denied as a matter of law on the basis that the court does not have jurisdiction to create a new recognition of legal parentage other than what already exists—genetic contribution, adoption, or gestational primacy. Further, although the best interest of the child standard is used for various family law determinations, it is not a factor in defining parenthood under the Parentage Act. (N.J.S.A. 9:17:38 through 9:17-59).

While the court was sympathetic to S.H.’s request to establish legal parentage, same is not supported by statute or case law. Since such a determination would likely have far-reaching implications, the court determined that this issue is best addressed by other branches of government, specifically the Legislature.

In a world where the nuclear family has evolved into many different shapes and sizes, the law (and the courts) quite simply cannot keep up. With the evolution of today’s family, “tri-parenting” and other, similar custody and parenting time situations will emerge, creating a new, unique set of issues for families who are dissolving/separating. As the role of “parent” expands, it will be interesting to see how the courts will progress to handle these delicate issues.

As a lover of all things Coldplay, I was sad to hear that lead singer Chris Martin and his wife of more than 10 years, Gwyneth Paltrow, were divorcing. Gwyneth Paltrow announced the separation on her website Goop.com and used the term “conscious uncoupling” to describe their approach to divorce.  Although the term had been originally coined by marriage and family therapist, Katherine Woodward Thomas, as with anything else endorsed by celebrities, the phrase went viral after her post.  It was of particular interest to me personally given my chosen profession as a divorce lawyer.

As professionals, especially ones whose practice is client-centric, we are always striving for better ways to do our jobs.  In my case, that means getting clients their desired result in the most effective and streamlined way possible. After practicing for several years, experience has shown me time and time again, that people going through divorce are most satisfied with the process when they feel they have control over it (i.e., are “conscious[ly] uncoupling”) and can proceed with a form of alternative dispute resolution (such as mediation) rather than traditional, costly, protracted litigation.

Even as American culture has become more progressive and accepting, divorce is still considered taboo and is almost always surrounded by extreme negativity and hostility.  Even if the couple themselves wants to proceed amicably, they are unfortunately often allowing others in their life (parents, siblings, friends, new boyfriend or girlfriend) to control the dialogue and encourage them to dig in their heels.

Once people “dig in”, it is often impossible to “dig out”.  Protracted litigation only intensifies negativity and hostility. The idea that divorce has to be a negative experience then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which divorcing parties behavior, is influenced by their expectation that divorce must be awful.  I believe if you change the conversation surrounding divorce and allow yourself to “consciously uncouple” you will have much more satisfying experience surrounding your divorce.

I recently completed a 40-hour divorce mediation training program. This program has only solidified my beliefs that in many cases, a mediated divorce, is a better divorce. That is not to say that litigation is never necessary. There are some circumstances that cannot be mediated and some people that simply cannot effectively participate in mediation. That said though, divorce is multi-dimensional: it is legal, it is financial, and it is emotional. The great thing about mediation is that it can effectively address each of those dimensions.

(1) LEGALLY

Whether you litigate or mediate, you achieve the same end result: a legal divorce.  A mediated divorce however is often faster, less adversarial and provides more flexible and creative resolutions, narrowly tailored to your specific family dynamic.  It also allows for a more confidential process than airing out your dirty laundry in a series of public court filings and appearances.

(2) FINANCIALLY

I will never say “always” or “never” because I’ve come to learn that nothing is absolute.  A mediated divorce however, can certainly be more cost effective. Spending less to uncouple leaves more to be divided between the parties and therefore places both parties in a better position to maintain financial independence and stability post-divorce.

(3) EMOTIONALLY

Although emotions can run high during mediation, there is a much more focused approach on compromise and collaboration rather than “winning” as is seen in litigation. When people feel their spouse is negotiating in good faith and trying to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem (i.e., zealously litigating over the smallest of disputes), they walk away feeling better about uncoupling, which leads to healthier relationships with themselves, their ex-spouse, and future romantic partners.

The takeaway from all of this is that choosing to uncouple, does not always have to be adversarial, financially draining and emotionally damaging. Take control of your divorce and find avenues in which to minimize the long-term effects.  Before deciding to wage war against your spouse, consult with an experienced and trained family law mediator to see how mediation can work for you.

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Lauren K. Beaver is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Law Blog and an attorney in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Lauren practices out of the firm’s Princeton, New Jersey office representing clients on issues relating to divorce, support, equitable distribution, custody, and parenting time.  Lauren also offers mediation services to those looking to procure a more amicable divorce. Lauren can be reached at (609) 844-3027 or lbeaver@foxrothschild.com.

The question of a parent’s mental health often arises in the midst of a custody dispute, with a family court judge faced with the difficult questions of whether there actually exists a mental health issue and, if so, how does it impact upon the child’s best interests under New Jersey’s custody statute.  While the “fitness of the parents” is a specifically enunciated factor under the statute, a parent’s mental state also interweaves its way through many of the other statutory factors.

therapist photo

What happens, then, when the parent whose mental status is in question is undergoing or has undergone some form of therapeutic/psychiatric treatment?  Is what transpired during the sessions relevant to the custody analysis?  Is the family court judge entitled to review and use such information?  Can the information be mandatorily disclosed to the other party and/or expert tasked with making a recommendation as to custody and parenting time?  Until now, the New Jersey Rules of Evidence provided that most communications between a party/patient and the mental health care provider are subject to an evidentiary privilege and, thus, the person holding the privilege can refuse disclosure.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey in Kinsella v. Kinsella, 150 N.J. 276 (1997), noted exceptions to the psychologist-patient privilege where the subject party effected a limited waiver of the privilege by placing his or her emotional and mental state in issue, and where a so-called “piercing” of the privilege is required in the best interests of the child.  The Court was careful in distinguishing between a “typical divorce custody proceeding” and one where a “parent’s capacity to care adequately for the child” is in question because of a mental stability issue (perhaps, for instance, the party was recently hospitalized due to a nervous breakdown).

There are many different types of mental-health care providers beyond a psychologist or psychiatrist, however, where the privilege of communications with a patient/litigant may come into play in a family court matter.  Inconsistency as to the application of such privileges, however, led to a recent amendment to the New Jersey Rules of Evidence that will take effect next year.

Specifically, on September 15, 2015, the Supreme Court of New Jersey adopted what is being referred to as a unified “Mental Health Service Provider-Patient Privilege” under New Jersey Rule of Evidence 534.  The Notice to the Bar describes the new rule as modifying or replacing “the different and occasionally inconsistent privileges that currently exist for communications between patients and various mental health service providers.”  The rule is not exclusive to family court proceedings.

Generally, as even defined in the rule itself, a privilege means, in this context, that the patient (or the patient’s guardian/conservator, personal representative of a deceased patient, or if authorized by the patient, a member(s) of the patient’s family) has a privilege to “refuse to disclose in a proceeding, and to prevent any other person from disclosing confidential communications,” which are defined within the rule.  The mental-health service provider “shall” also claim the privilege unless otherwise instructed by the above-referenced people who may otherwise claim the privilege.

To that end, the rule specifically applies to “confidential communications between a mental health service provider and a patient during the course of treatment of, or related to, the patient’s mental or emotional health condition.”  Communications made between the below-listed service providers and victims of violent crimes are excluded from coverage under the rule and, instead, are examined under the “Victim Counselor Privilege” provided in New Jersey Rule of Evidence 517.

The rule defines a “mental-health service provider” as a “person authorized or reasonably believed by the patient to be authorized to engage in the diagnosis or treatment of a mental or emotional condition.  The rule, however, then interestingly covers many different categories of service providers that may or may not be typically thought of as being designated as providing treatment in the area of mental health:

1.  psychologists

2.  physicians, including psychiatrists

3.  marriage and family therapists

4.  social workers, including social work interns and certified school social workers

5.  alcohol and drug counselors

6.  nurses

7.  professional counselors, associate counselors or rehabilitation counselors

8.  psychoanalysts

9.  midwives

10.  physician assistants; and

11.  pharmacists

Looking beyond the broad list of mental-health service providers, what, then, constitutes a “confidential communication” under the rule?  The rule defines the term as “such information transmitted between a mental-health service provider and patient in the course of treatment of, or related to, that individual’s condition of mental or emotional health, including information obtained by an examination of the patient, that is transmitted in confidence, and is not intended to be disclosed to third persons.”

“Third persons”, however, contains its own exceptions.  Specifically, the communication, in order to be confidential, is not intended to be disclosed to third persons other than (1) those present to further the interest of the patient in the diagnosis or treatment; (2) those reasonably necessary for the transmission of the information, including the entity through which the mental-health service provider practices; and (3) persons who are participating in the diagnosis or treatment of the patient under the direction of a mental-health service provider, including authorized member’s of the patient’s family, the patient’s guardian, the patient’s conservator; and/or the patient’s personal representative.

The rule then provides eleven (11) different types of communication for which the privilege does not apply including, but not limited to, a communication that is relevant to an issue in a proceeding in which the patient seeks to establish his competence, or in a criminal matter where the defendant’s competence to stand trial is put at issue; upon an issue as to the validity of a will of the patient; or, as may be more likely applicable to the realm of family law:

“Made in the course of any investigation or examination, whether ordered by the court or compelled pursuant to Court Rule, of the physical, mental, or emotional condition of the patient, whether a party or a witness, with respect to the particular purpose for which the examination is ordered, unless the court order otherwise, and provided that a copy of the order is served upon the patient prior to the communication, indicating among other things that such communications may not be privileged in subsequent commitment proceedings.”

Finally, the rule provides that courts are not prevented from compelling disclosure of a confidential communication where (1) as oftentimes occurs in matrimonial matters, the patient “has expressly or implicitly waived the privilege or authorized disclosure; or (2) exercise of the privilege would violate a constitutional right.

There are a lot of moving parts to the new rule, but ultimately it is designed to provide consistency and ease of application to judges and practitioners when such privilege-related issues arise.  It will be interesting to see how its broadly defined terms apply in divorce matters and related custody disputes, especially when in many, if not most cases, family law practitioners will argue that the subject custody dispute is not merely “run of the mill”, so to speak, but merits disclosure of what may otherwise be shielded by this patient-based privilege.  In other words, the rule will undoubtedly become a major part of custody-based litigation.

 

*Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net (attributed to Ambrose)

Oftentimes clients say that they are waiting until after high school or college graduation to get a divorce so that the child or children do not have to experience a divorce.  A lofty goal in most cases in which at least one party is dreadfully unhappy. Yet as they say, the road to you know where is paved with good intentions and this may be another example.

Copyright: goodluz / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: goodluz / 123RF Stock Photo

Recently, I read a column in which the writer said that she was glad her parents split when she was a young teenager, and I was reminded of several studies that have come out over the years in which children who were interviewed said that they wish their parents had divorced before they actually did.

The fact of the matter is that kids are smarter and far more intuitive than we give them credit for.  They know far more than we want them to- don’t think for an instant that they don’t know that mom and dad are having marital problems.  And it scares them. Moreover, particularly pre-teens and teens feel as if they are caught in the middle.  When mom and dad are actively fighting on a regular basis, collateral damage can occur in the way of stress, poor schoolwork, and attention seeking behaviors.  We are finding out that kids would sometimes rather have a plan going forward rather than uncertainty, and ideally, have two happy households to go to rather than one miserable one.

Parents who are contemplating a divorce need to take the path which is best for them, which in turn may be best for the kids.  This answer is not the same for every person.  Waiting may be the best option, and it may not. Talking to a mental health professional who has experience with children of divorce can be instrumental in timing the decision.