Can Gun Ownership Affect Child Custody?

13077447_mlRegardless of your stance on gun rights or your comfort level with guns, all parents worry about their children having access to firearms.  If you are going through a separation or divorce, you might be concerned about whether any firearms at your ex’s home are secured away from the children.  Or you might worry that the judge will question your judgment or parenting because you keep firearms in your own home.  If you own guns, you might wonder whether you should get rid of them or whether they might impact your custody case.

First of all, in cases where domestic violence is alleged and a protective order is issued, the Court will often order the defendant to surrender his or her guns to the Sheriff. Even when violence is not an issue, however, the Court may take gun ownership and safety into consideration in determining custody issues. As you have probably heard if you have ever talked to a lawyer about a custody case, the Court’s sole concern in determining child custody is what is in the best interest of the child. The presence of firearms in the child’s environment is therefore certainly within the purview of the Court.

While safe firearm ownership and storage may be of interest to the Court, there is case law that suggests that the Court must make findings that the parent’s gun ownership specifically endangers the child in some way in order for the Court to factor it into a custody determination. If a witness testifies, for example, that Mom routinely leaves her loaded handgun unattended in her purse or under her pillow where her child could find it, the Court may find that she is endangering her child and order her to either secure her weapon or surrender it until her child reaches 18. On the other hand, a mom who owns numerous firearms, but is vigilant about keeping them properly secured and beyond the reach of her children, is unlikely to be negatively affected in a custody case. Since the judge’s chief concern is always the safety and well-being of the children, a parent who shows the Court that she is a safe and responsible firearm owner probably has little cause for concern about being a gun owner who is involved in a custody case.

It is, of course, wise if you are in a custody dispute, to ensure that all of your firearms and permits are properly documented and updated and that you can provide the Court with evidence (such as photos, testimony of friends, or receipts for gun safes) that your firearms are securely stored in your home. If you anticipate that this will be an issue in your case, discuss it with your attorney early so that you can plan to resolve any concerns of the Court and ensure that your gun ownership does not interfere with your custody case.

Our Split Is Amicable…Can My Ex and I Use the Same Lawyer?

Sharing one lawyer?

Some might find this hard to believe, but divorcing couples sometimes ask if they can share one lawyer.  This makes a lot of sense, in theory.  If you and your soon-to-be-ex agree about how you will divide your property and raise your children, then you might be eager to simply get the divorce process behind you and move on with life.  It seems rational and practical, then, to have one lawyer draft a simple agreement that reflects your wishes, sign it together, and get going.

The answer to the question in the title above, however, is NO.  Although such an arrangement might seem like a smart money- and hassle-saving arrangement, there are important reasons why a lawyer cannot represent both a husband and wife in a divorce.  The ethical rules for lawyers prohibit representing both parties in an adversarial, or potentially adversarial, proceeding. Even if you are the rare ex-couple that gets along brilliantly, you are still opposing parties in a legal matter.  No lawyer can adequately represent both sides of a dispute, without favoring one over the other.

Like anyone going through a divorce, you deserve a lawyer who has only your interests in mind as you navigate the divorce process. Even if you and your spouse agree that your case is cut and dry, if you want legal guidance, you’ll each have to seek your own.

Who Gets Custody of the Pets?

Jesse

If you’re like me, you probably think of your pets as family.  The handsome fella pictured above is my dog, Jesse, who has been my sidekick for almost ten years now.  (Of course, I couldn’t resist using his picture for a post about pets.)  He was briefly missing the other day when he took off on an unsanctioned run after a stray cat.  While I looked for him in a panic, I couldn’t stand the thought that he might not come home.  Thankfully, he returned unharmed (and actually seemed pretty proud of himself), but what about divorcing couples who fear that they may never see their pet again because the angry ex won’t share?  What do you do if neither spouse can stand the idea of losing the pet in the divorce?

First of all, although we often feel that our pets are family members whose best interests should be considered, legally animals are considered property in North Carolina.  This means that they are valued and divided up just like household goods in the divorce proceedings, the same as the wedding china or the furniture.  Even more dismaying to animal lovers, the value assigned to the pet is simply how much it would cost to replace, not the value that the owners feel the pet has to them.  For example, say a couple cannot agree on who should keep their beloved dog.  During the equitable distribution process, the court might assign a value of $50 to the dog, give the dog as property to the wife, and give the husband an extra $50 in other property to make it equal.

Obviously, this is not usually the best solution when two people love their pet(s) equally.  Ideally, a divorcing couple should try to work out a solution between themselves.  Unlike the court, they can consider the needs of the pet and where the animal will be happier.  They know whether the pet needs to stay primarily with the kids, or would do better wherever it can have a bigger yard to safely roam.  A couple can even work out a custody agreement to define visitation and support for their pet.  Such an agreement is just made as a private contract between them to address their rights and responsibilities with regard to the pet.

There is one important exception to the “animals as property” general rule in North Carolina.  The General Assembly wisely included a provision in the domestic violence statute (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50B-3(a)(8)) that allows a pet to be included in a domestic violence protective order.  So in domestic violence situations, the court can order that the victim should have custody of the family pet.

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Do I Really Need a Prenup?

Prenup

When most of us think of prenups, we probably think of wealthy tycoons or Hollywood stars who are marrying partners much younger and less financially stable than they are.  In the real world, however, there are several reasons why a prenup (aka “premarital agreement”) might be right for you and your future spouse.

Make Your Own Rules

North Carolina couples who plan to marry have two options: (1) marry without a premarital agreement and accept all of the legal consequences of our state’s family, estate, and trust laws; or (2) enter a premarital agreement before marriage that will enable the couple to choose whether and how certain family, estate, and trust laws will apply to them.  Essentially, if you get married without a premarital agreement, you are allowing the state to write your agreement for you — the legislature’s pronouncements on family law, estate law, and trust law (and their amendment and repeal over time) will guide the court in the event you divorce.  You might think of this akin to dying without a will — someone else will make the rules about what happens to your family and property.

A valid, carefully crafted premarital agreement, on the other hand, allows you and your betrothed to choose the approach that will work best for you if you ever separate.  As a couple, you know your unique circumstances better than anyone else, and you may benefit from rejecting the one-size-fits-all approach of the state statutes.  Instead, you have an opportunity to determine your own path in the event that things go south.

Address “Business” Issues Before Walking Down the Aisle

There’s no point in denying it:  negotiating a premarital agreement is not the most romantic part of wedding planning.  While the most important, inspiring aspects of a wedding are about love and commitment, the unavoidable truth is that marriage is also a business decision.  That’s true whether you enter a premarital agreement or not.  In the event that you and your future spouse divorce, your property will be divided as if you two had a business partnership.  Business people make contracts to govern the division of money and property all the time, so it’s not absurd to think that you should too.

Although it can be difficult to buckle down and discuss finances when you’re in the haze of wedding planning, before the wedding is actually an ideal time to work through these issues.  You’re not clouded by hurt and anger the way many are when they are faced with the business aspects of separating.  You can work together on realistic solutions that will work for both of you if you ever separate.  Plus, even the most open, in sync couples can benefit from going over their finances and getting everything out in the open before committing their lives to each other.  For many, it can be very freeing to feel legally and financially secure before the wedding.  A premarital agreement can ideally help couples minimize financial stress so they can focus on their relationship.

But How Do I Know If I Should Get a Prenup?

With a few exceptions, most couples can benefit from having a premarital agreement.  They’re not just for reality starlets and real estate moguls; anyone who has property or debt, owns a business, has a professional license, has children from another relationship, or has a significantly higher or lower income than their partner should think about getting a prenup.  Retirement savings, valuable collections, and business assets are just a few of the things that can be addressed and protected in a premarital agreement.  Whatever the financial circumstances of you and your future spouse, chances are that you have assets or debts that you would prefer to make your own decisions about together, rather than leaving the decision up to the complex and changing laws of the state.  If you are interested in discussing a premarital agreement, please contact me to schedule an appointment.

The Technology of Cheating

Website for affairs

If you live in North Carolina, you’ve probably known someone who has sued or been sued for the tort of alienation of affection.  Or you’ve at least heard of a jilted spouse who wants to sue the spouse’s lover.  According to Wikipedia (and they’re never wrong, right?), North Carolina is one of only 7 states that still allows lawsuits for alienation of affection.  This law has been around for a long time, has survived numerous attempts at repeal, and is used today far more often than you might expect.  Thus, in North Carolina an outsider who interferes in another’s marriage can be in some really hot water.  For decades, NC juries have awarded large sums to husbands and wives whose marriages were broken up by third parties.

Now, however, one plaintiff is trying to apply this old (many would argue outdated) law to very new technology — the dating-while-married website Ashley Madison, whose motto is “Life is short.  Have an affair.”  One North Carolina man is suing the website for alienation of affection and claiming that the online dating service aided his wife in finding her paramour.  Before any jilted spouses get big ideas about suing any person or business who facilitates or encourages an affair, however, they should know that the suit has little chance of succeeding.  For one thing, the legislature in 2009 passed an amendment that prevents spouses from suing businesses that play a role in extramarital affairs (hotels, restaurants, clubs…).  Plus, the website was merely a facilitator of the cheating, not the actual perpetrator.  If the plaintiff’s wife hadn’t met her boyfriend on Ashley Madison, couldn’t she have met someone on any other dating site?  Or any bar?

While this man’s lawsuit will most likely be dismissed, many North Carolinians successfully sue their cheating spouses’ lovers for alienation of affection.  In order to prove alienation of affection, they must show:

  1. That the couple was happily married and a genuine love and affection existed between them;
  2. That the love and affection was alienated and destroyed; and
  3. That the wrongful and malicious acts of the defendant caused the alienation of affection.

What do you think?  Is this type of lawsuit outdated?  Should we be able to sue those who facilitate or encourage the cheating, in addition to the actual person who does the cheating?

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Social Security Benefits & Divorce

Social Security Benefits & DivorceWith the arrival of a new year, some people in unhappy relationships begin to look toward a new beginning.  If you are considering divorce in 2014, you likely have lots of questions.  When it comes to financial issues, there are many things to consider in a divorce, and one important financial aspect can be easy to overlook — Social Security.

There are limitations on when and how much an ex-spouse may receive benefits after divorce.  According to the SSA, you can receive benefits based on your ex-spouse’s status if:

  • Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer;
  • You are age 62 or older;
  • You are not remarried;
  • Your ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits; AND
  • Your benefit based on your own work record would be lower than your benefit based on your ex-spouse’s record.

As a divorced spouse, you may receive up to 50 percent of your ex-spouse’s full benefit.  You must have been divorced for at least two years in order to begin collecting benefits.  If you remarry, you cannot collect the ex-spouse’s benefits, unless and until your later marriage ends.  Also, if your ex-spouse dies, and you meet all of the criteria above, you may be able to collect “survivor benefits” of up to 100 percent of the ex-spouse’s benefit.

If you are considering divorce and uncertain about your financial options, remember that Social Security benefits may be available to you based on your spouse’s work record.  Spend some time perusing the SSA website and consult an expert if you have further questions about your circumstances.

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Book Review: It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way

Book Cover

Laura Wasser is a divorce lawyer in California whose clients include a bevy of Hollywood celebrities, but don’t hold her association with Kim Kardashian (and now apparently, Khloe) against her.  I was skeptical of the advice of a divorce lawyer with clients who seem to marry and divorce as almost a hobby.  What would this Hollywood lawyer say that would have any relevance to my clients in North Carolina?  The answer is:  plenty.  In It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way:  How to Divorce Without Destroying Your Family or Bankrupting Yourself, Ms. Wasser gives wise, practical advice about how to move through the process of ending your marriage without ruining your life or your children’s lives.

Wasser’s book is not about dishing celebrity dirt — it’s about her advice on moving through each stage of the divorce process.  She pays special attention to keeping the process as cost-effective as possible and helping people reframe the way they see their fading relationships.  She is matter-of-fact, and although I suspect that nobody would agree with everything she says about relationships (I don’t!), her insight is valuable.  She is especially good when talking about co-parenting with an ex (or several exes), since she is open about her own experiences raising kids with two exes.  Among the topics Wasser covers in the book:

  • Knowing when you should divorce
  • Separating
  • Finding a lawyer
  • Custody
  • Spousal support
  • Child support
  • Dividing assets and liabilities
  • Settlement

California law is quite different from North Carolina divorce and family law in some respects.  Wasser nevertheless does a good job of addressing the divorce process and what to expect in a way that does apply to North Carolina families.  I recommend this book to those thinking about divorce or already in the middle of the process.  Not every piece of advice in the book will apply to each person’s situation, and North Carolina law differs in some ways from what she discusses, but overall this is a good primer on how divorcing works, how you can manage it, and how you can thrive when it’s behind you.

*Note: This book is available in my firm’s library for clients to borrow as needed, along with other books on divorce and family law issues.

Ten Tips for Holiday Co-Parenting

Holiday Co-Parenting

For newly-separated or divorced parents, the holidays can be especially tough.  For kids with two households, this time of year means lots of shuffling back and forth, possibly feeling torn between parents, extended families, and old traditions.  Adjusting to life after separation takes its toll on everyone around the holidays:  kids, parents, grandparents, in-laws, and friends.  Here are some ideas to make the holidays easier for you and your kids after separating:

  1. Start your planning for the season by rereading your parenting or custody agreement — what do its provisions on holiday scheduling say?  Who is scheduled to have the children and when this year?  Whether it is very specific or leaves some room for compromise, know what the agreement says, because it is your fallback if you and your ex disagree about the holiday schedule.
  2. Accept that your request to change the arrangements in the custody agreement is just that — a request.  Be prepared for the other parent to say “no” if your plans don’t fit with their scheduled time.  Compromise is great, but each parent is within his or her rights to make plans and stick to them for their scheduled parenting time.  Don’t punish each other for making holiday plans and wanting to keep them.
  3. Schedule a time to discuss each parent’s holiday priorities calmly and without the children around.  Think about what events are most important to you (and the kids) and talk calmly with your ex about how you can coordinate the schedule to make as many of those important events as possible happen this year.  Again, be prepared to give as much consideration as you get.  While you’re talking, go ahead and coordinate on the kids’ Christmas lists too — who will give what to whom?
  4. Compromise is the name of the game in co-parenting generally, and particularly during the holidays.  This time of year is all about family togetherness, and that can get very sticky when children now have two families.  The most constructive solution is to remember to make the children the focus and show them how you and your ex can work together to make sure that everyone still has a good time.
  5. Don’t negotiate the schedule in front of the kids.  Particularly if the separation is new, parents can easily get emotional and territorial about sharing the children this time of year.  It’s hard on kids too, so make it easier by shielding them from the discussion.  Work out the schedule between the two of you (and your significant others, if applicable), and present a united front to the children about the holiday schedule.
  6. You are the parents, you determine the schedule.  Don’t ask your children to choose which house or family they prefer on certain days — that puts them in the middle and tests their loyalty to each side of the family.  You know your kids and which events mean the most to them.  Work together to decide where and when they will spend time with each of you.
  7. Be flexible with the way you think about holidays.  If the kids are going to be travelling with your ex on Thanksgiving Day, plan to fix all of their favorite Thanksgiving recipes from your side of the family and celebrate on Saturday when they are back with you.  Be open to celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and even Christmas day on alternative days rather than the “day of” when the kids are with their other parent on the actual day.  The kids probably don’t care about the actual date, they’re just happy to celebrate again with you.
  8. Make new traditions that the children will remember and look forward to.  Change is inevitable after divorce, and some beloved traditions may no longer work for your family.  Look for ways to incorporate new traditions for everyone to cherish.
  9. Make plans for your time without the kids.  When your children are with your ex on a holiday, you could certainly be forgiven for feeling lonely and bitter.  Don’t sit alone and stew, make plans to spend the holiday with friends and family.  Of course you’ll miss your children, but try to look at the day as an opportunity to reconnect with your other loved ones, free from the distractions of looking after the kids.
  10. Be gentle with yourself and your family — adjustment is hard and takes time.  Again, holidays are about family, and it is just plain old hard sometimes to adjust to sharing your family.  Remember that it’s probably just as hard for your ex.  Give yourself some leeway if you get frustrated or lash out.  Apologize, move on, and stay focused on the children.

New to NC…and Divorcing

North Carolina divorce

It’s a pretty common scenario:  spouses living in another state decide to separate, and one or the other heads to North Carolina to be near family, a new job, the epicenter of college basketball, awesome bbq, beautiful mountains and beaches…there are lots of reasons to move to NC!  Whatever brings the spouse here, they often have some questions about how to proceed with the divorce:  Do we file for divorce in NC or the state where we lived together?  What do I have to do to get divorced in NC?

In North Carolina, by statute you must have lived in the state for at least six months as of the day you file your divorce complaint.  So, if you have recently come here from another state, you cannot file for divorce here under North Carolina law until you have lived here for six months.

You will also need to know that in North Carolina, obtaining a no-fault divorce requires that you and your spouse be separated for one year (actually technically a year and a day).  This means that you must be living under a different roof, with the intent to stay separated forever, for one full year before you may file for divorce.  So if your spouse still lives in the other state, it might be wise to check into the divorce laws there and see how the process compares to North Carolina.  If you have questions about where and how to file for divorce, call a family law attorney to talk about the specifics of your case.

Do I Really Need a Divorce Lawyer?

Divorce Lawyer

Callers to my office ask this question pretty regularly.  People seem confused about when and whether they need a lawyer to help them through their divorce.  This is a fair question, given the proliferation of online sources for legal forms, documents, and information.  There are lots of places to research your questions, but you also risk “information overload.”  What if different websites seem reputable, but give conflicting information?

The first thing to remember if you research divorce law on your own is that divorce and family law issues are governed by state laws.  So while general information might be a good place to start, focus your research on your state’s law.  An article or blog post about divorce procedures in Nevada will not be very helpful in assessing your North Carolina divorce case.

In some cases, the spouses can certainly negotiate a settlement between themselves, without the input of lawyers.  When is this possible?  It truly depends on each individual case, but generally:

  • The shorter the marriage, the easier it may be to handle alone, because alimony is less likely to be an issue.
  • Few assets and no real estate holdings make it easier to split up without lawyers, because there is less physical “stuff” to fight over.
  • When there are no children involved, and thus no custody and child support issues involved, you may be able to handle things yourself.
  • If you and your spouse are friendly and cooperative enough to negotiate fairly between each other, then you may not need to involve lawyers.

If any ONE of the statements above does not apply to your case, however, then you would be wise to at least consult with a lawyer.  The more complicated your situation is, the more likely you are to need legal guidance and representation.  Ask yourself whether hiring a lawyer would add value to your case — would the financial, time, or peace of mind benefits outweigh what you spend on a lawyer?  When you have children, large assets, retirement savings, or own your own business, the answer is likely “yes.”