NEW CASE LIMITS JUDGE’S ABILITY TO MAKE DECISIONS FOR PARENTS

It came on like a silent earthquake. You didn’t see it coming. You never felt it when it hit. But now the foundation of the place where you live has shifted. The cracks in the walls are becoming visible. And nothing will ever be the same.

That is the effect of the 2018 Arizona appellate court case of NICAISE v. SUNDARAM,

Before Nicaise, the Family Court was the final arbiter of disputes over matters like education, medical, religious, or other decisions that parents make. If the parties couldn’t agree on an important parenting issue, one of them could take the matter to court and, after a trial or a hearing, the judge would make the decision for them.

But not anymore.

The Court in Nicaise ruled that a judge “may not substitute its judgment for that of a parent and make parenting decisions for them when they are unable to agree.” So now, when parents disagree, a judge can no longer decide which school a child will attend, or what doctor can treat her, or whether she will participate in therapy, etc. Those are parental decisions, and the Court no longer has the authority to intervene and “break the tie.”

For a number of years, the trend in divorce, legal separation, paternity, and other Family Law cases has been for the courts to award the parents joint legal decision-making authority (formerly called “joint custody”). But the Nicaise case is likely to slow down that trend, or even stop it in its tracks, in cases where people have trouble co-parenting.

Previously, the courts would sometimes enter a joint legal decision-making order, but give one of the parents the “Final-Say” in the event of a disagreement. It required the parents to at least discuss the issue, and each parent had input. But that has changed, too. The Court, in Nicaise, determined that “an award of joint legal decision-making that gives final authority to one parent is, in reality, an award of sole legal decision-making.” So now, if parents cannot seem to agree, then instead of awarding them joint custody with one parent having “final say,” it is likely that the judge will simply award one parent sole legal decision-making authority. This might make the other parent feel as though his or her parental rights have been stripped away. And it could set the stage for less co-parenting, and more fighting, in the future.

The effect of the Nicaise ruling is that if a mother and father are unable to make decisions together, the Court will have to appoint one parent to make all the decisions; or it might split up the decision-making authority so that, for instance, one parent is in charge of making educational decisions while the other has the authority to make medical decisions.

The Nicaise case represents yet another major shift in how Family Law cases are decided in Arizona. It may take years for the repercussions of that ruling to become clear. But this we do know: There is no longer a reason for a judge to order that the parents have joint legal decision-making authority with one parent having the final say. And when parents appear to be unable to make decisions together, it is likely that a judge will grant one parent or the other sole legal decision-making authority. This could derail the decades-old trend of Arizona courts giving divorced/separated parents joint decision-making responsibility, and expecting them to be able to co-parent.

How will the Nicaise ruling play out in the future? – It may result in pitched court battles between parents, with each of them seeking “sole custody,” and it could turn divorce and custody litigation into a high-conflict, winner-take-all contest. This makes it even more important for moms and dads to try to work together and co-parent effectively. And, where they are unable to do so, it will be worthwhile to consider peaceful options, such as mediation and settlement negotiation. Because if those efforts fail, and litigation becomes the only alternative, it is likely that one parent is going to win, and one parent is going to lose. And sometimes that is not the best outcome for the children.

 

 

At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., both Gary Frank and attorney Hanna Juncaj are strong litigators and compassionate counselors. Gary Frank is a Family Law Attorney with over 30 years of experience as a litigator and mediator. He has also acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court, and served on the Governor’s Child Abuse Prevention Task Force.  Hanna Juncaj is a highly-skilled attorney with a passion for Family Law and children’s issues. She has extensive courtroom experience, and is also a certified mediator. In addition, Hanna is an active member of her County Bar Association.  We handle Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called “Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), division of property, spousal and child support, modification and enforcement actions, grandparent and non-parent rights, and all other matters pertaining to families and children. If you are in need of a consultation, call us today at 602-383-3610; or you can contact us by email through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com.   We look forward to hearing from you.

 

 

 

Family Law Attorney Speaks Out for Children

As a Family Law Attorney and a children’s advocate for 37 years, it angers me that our own government has taken more than three thousand children from their parents at the border. Some have been shipped to locations across the country, while their parents are deported. Separating immigrant children from their parents is cruel and inhumane. It’s a matter of basic human rights. Just imagine the horror of it happening to you and your kids. Today, little 3 and 4 year old boys and girls are being forced to appear in court and represent themselves in deportation proceedings. That makes a mockery of U.S. Immigration Law and our Constitution. Thousands of young children have been traumatized, and many will never find their way back to their mothers and fathers. This is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. It is not American vs. Immigrant. The only question is whether we, as a society, will countenance child abuse.

Working Dad’s Journal – Thoughts on Father’s Day

May 31, 1985

To My Little Girl (6 months old):

Since you were born, I have undergone a gradual transformation. What has changed is my entire definition of self – the way I view myself.  The change is imperceptible to others.  I look, dress, and act the same as I always have, but I feel different.

I had a beautiful childhood.  I felt safe in the knowledge that my parents loved me.  This was, for me, a protective shield.  My memories of those days are vivid and happy.  I can still remember jumping in bed with my dad on Sunday mornings and the way he would turn and smile and wrap me up in his massive arms.  I remember him lifting me gently and carrying me off to bed at night, and clinging to him, my head on his shoulder, pretending to be asleep.  I remember our baseball games in the backyard and how proud I was that my dad was the one teaching us how to hit, field, and throw.  I remember our man-to-man talks and how important I felt as my dad listened intently to my thoughts.  In my eyes, my dad was of heroic proportions, fearless and strong, yet kind and wise.  Today I not only remember those times with my dad, I feel them.

 Now I walk into your room.  It is dark and you are crying.  You reach for me and I lift you out of your crib and hold you in my arms.  You cling to me.  Although you are still whimpering, you smile.  I talk to you softly and turn to gaze into the mirror on your closet door.  Through the dim light, I look at myself and see my dad.

ARIZONA CUSTODY LAW UPDATE – IS ASSUMPTION OF EQUAL PARENTING TIME AND DECISION-MAKING AUTHORITY UNFAIR TO CHILDREN?

  In 2012 I wrote an article on our law firm’s blog entitled “Say Goodbye to Custody,”, in which I discussed the brand new, and highly debated, revisions to the Arizona Family Law statutes. These laws, which guide the Court in making custody decisions involving children, have given rise to an assumption of equal parenting time and decision-making authority that has become the starting point for the Court’s analysis in every contested custody case. In my opinion, this approach hurts children more than helps them, and is unfair to both mothers and fathers. In this article, I’ll explain why.

Among the changes to the law were the following:

  • The word “custody” was replaced with the terms “Legal Decision-Making” and “Parenting Time.” (A.R.S. §25-403)
  • A provision was added providing that the court shall adopt a parenting plan “that provides for both parents to share legal decision-making regarding their child and that maximizes their respective parenting time.” (A.R.S. §25-403.02)
  • And in determining custody, whereas the Court was previously required to consider which parent had historically been the primary caregiver for the children, that was removed from the list of factors in the statute and replaced with a requirement for judges to consider: “The past, present, and potential future relationship between the parent and the child.” (A.R.S. §25-403 [1], Emphasis added.)

At the time, there was much discussion as to what these changes would mean. Some experts believed that the revisions were mostly “semantics” and that not much would change. Others argued that the revisions would lead to a “sea-change” in how the courts determine custody (now called Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time) in the future.

Now, more than five years later, the answer is in. Has there been a big change? Yes. The change has been enormous. It is a seismic shift in the way judges determine parenting time and legal decision-making authority. And, in my opinion, the change is not necessarily a healthy one.

The law still provides that the “best interests of the child” standard should be applied when making “custody” and parenting time decisions, but today, many judges interpret the statutory changes as requiring them to start with the assumption that both parents should be given equal decision-making authority, and equal parenting time. And, in many cases, that trumps the best interests of the child. It wasn’t that way before the law was changed. But, increasingly, it is the reality today.

Why do I think this is not a healthy approach? Well, I’ll get to that in a minute; but before I do, I need to explain a few things: The latest studies show that children do better, and are happier, when both of their parents are loving, active and involved. When a divorce or breakup occurs, the courts should work to make sure that loving, active and involved parents share in decision-making, and that the children get to spend plenty of time with both of them. In fact, Arizona law provides that:

It … is the declared public policy of this state and the general purpose of this title that absent evidence to the contrary, it is in a child’s best interest: (1) To have substantial, frequent, meaningful and continuing parenting time with both parents; (and) (2) To have both parents participate in decision-making about the child.” (A.R.S. §25-103) 

So that’s the policy. And it’s true that equal decision-making and equal parenting time are good for children when both parents are loving and capable caregivers. But here’s the catch: Not all parents are equal. Some parents have never been meaningfully involved in their children’s lives, and never will be. And I’m not necessarily talking about “bad” parents. There are parents who love their children but are just too busy, or maybe not interested enough, to be involved. If a parent isn’t available to spend time with the children; and rarely or never attends doctors’ appointments, or school functions, or extracurricular activities; and if that parent doesn’t know the children’s friends; and isn’t tapped into their children’s likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses; their abilities, or disabilities; their medical conditions; etc., then how can that parent be trusted with making critically important decisions for those children? – But all too often today, these types of parents are awarded 50/50 parenting time and equal decision-making authority. And why? – Because of an unwritten assumption that a parent is entitled to it under Arizona law.

This is where I think the new law, as currently interpreted, goes off the rails and can hurt children. It places “Parents’ Rights” ahead of “Children’s Rights.” It assumes that in every case the Court should start its analysis with the proposition that both parents will receive equal parenting time and decision-making authority. And, by doing this, the best interest of the child has been made secondary to the best interest of the adults. Proponents of the law will not agree with my opinion. They will point out that there is no legal presumption mandating equal decision-making and parenting time — but that argument rings hollow. Because while it is true that overcoming a legal presumption requires a higher level of proof than a mere assumption, there is often little difference between the two in actual practice.  Try explaining the difference to a mother or father who has always been the sole caregiver, but whose children will now spend half their lives with a parent who never changed a diaper, never got up with a baby at night, never took care of a sick toddler, or attended a parent-teacher conference, or a school play, or a Little League game.

Those favoring an assumption of equal parenting-time and decision-making will argue that the Court is still required to consider all relevant factors, and that while “equal” may be the starting point in the analysis, a judge can give a parent less time, or no decision-making authority at all, where it is deemed to be in the best interest of the child. And that is true. But I would remind them that Arizona law was also changed in a way that makes such an outcome less likely.

Arizona Revised Statutes, Section 403 contains a list of factors that the Court shall consider in determining Legal Decision-Making and Parenting-Time. Before the law was changed, that statute contained a factor which required a judge to consider whether a parent had historically provided primary care for the child. But that factor was removed from the statute and replaced with this: “The court shall consider all factors that are relevant to the child’s physical and emotional well-being, including . . . (1) The past, present and potential future relationship between the parent and the child.”

So now, in making the all-important decision on where the child lives and who will make major decisions, the judge is required to consider a parent’s unproven “potential.” Instead of giving primary consideration to which parent actually took care of the child throughout his or her life, the Court must give equal weight to the other parent’s “potential.”

But here’s the problem — How many people do you know who never lived up to their potential? How many athletes were top draft picks but never became stars? How many employees were promoted but never became effective managers or supervisors? — How many moms or dads were excited when their baby was born but never became active and involved parents? In my opinion, it is a huge mistake to emphasize “potential” over actual experience, or even to give it equal weight. Because past history is the best predictor of future behavior. Thus, by putting too much stock in “potential,” the danger of a bad outcome is evident. And in the end, when a father or mother is awarded equal parenting-time and decision-making authority and never lives up to his or her potential, it is the children who suffer.

Of course, there will be parents who were stay-at-home moms or dads during the marriage, but will have to work full time after the divorce – and the fact that both parents will now be working should be taken into consideration by the Court in formulating a parenting plan. In that sense, the other parent’s potential to become a competent caregiver would come into play. However, it should be just one of many factors the judge considers in determining what is in the best interest of the child.

Fathers’ rights advocates maintain that an assumption of equal parenting time and decision-making is necessary because mothers were previously favored in custody disputes. Hey, I’m a father, and nothing is more important to me than my children. And, yes, it is true that there was a time when mothers typically received custody of children. But that was during an era when women were faced with societal and social barriers that made it difficult for them to obtain a college education or executive-level employment, or even a decent-paying job, and which practically forced them to be “housewives” and stay-at-home caregivers of children. Today, many of those barriers have been knocked-down, and glass-ceilings are being shattered. Recent studies show that over sixty-percent of all college students today are women. This means that in the future more mothers will be the family breadwinners; and more fathers will become stay-at-home parents. Therefore, for a judge to make a blanket assumption of equal parenting time and decision-making authority is unfair to both Mothers and Fathers.

In Arizona and other states across the country, the growing trend in custody cases is to award the parents equal decision-making authority and parenting time. That’s not a bad thing, so long as the parents are equally involved in raising their children. The experts agree that it is best for children to have both parents actively involved in their lives, and that effective co-parenting helps to ensure that children will grow up to be healthy and productive adults. But to make custody decisions based on a simple assumption that both parents are equally capable – when they may not be – is a colossal mistake. One that can harm the children in the long-run.

The care of children is too important to make broad assumptions, let alone instituting legal presumptions, regarding decision-making and parenting time. In the real world, parents are not always equal caregivers. Sometimes the mother is the more responsible parent; sometimes it is the father who is the nurturer and is in a better position to provide for the children’s needs; and in many cases both parents are loving, capable caregivers who are willing to co-parent their children (that is, obviously, the best scenario).

Rather than making assumptions, the Court should start with a blank slate when crafting a parenting plan. The judge should carefully examine the capabilities of each parent, the factors contained in Arizona’s custody statute (A.R.S. §25-403), and all other relevant factors. The judge should take a close look at who has been the child’s primary caregiver, and also consider the potential future relationship between the parents and the child. But the needs of the child should always come first. By taking this approach the Court can ensure that the best interest of the child is protected.

 

At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., both Gary Frank and attorney Hanna Juncaj are strong litigators and compassionate counselors. Gary Frank is a Family Law Attorney with over 30 years of experience as a litigator and mediator, which includes having acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court; and serving on the Governor’s Child Abuse Prevention Task Force. Hanna Juncaj is a highly-skilled attorney with a passion for Family Law and children’s issues. She has extensive courtroom experience, and is also a certified mediator. In addition, Hanna is an active member of her County Bar Association. We handle Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called “Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), division of property, spousal maintenance and child support, modification and enforcement actions, grandparent and non-parent rights, and all other matters pertaining to families and children. To learn more about our firm, check us out on Facebook, Linkedin-Gary Frank, and Linkedin-Hanna Juncaj. If you are in need of a consultation, please do not hesitate to call our office at 602-383-3610; or you can contact us by email through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com.   We look forward to hearing from you.

 

WORKING DAD’S JOURNAL – Letter to my six-month old daughter, 1985

  This morning your mother had a meeting, so I brought you to my office. I packed your diaper bag, dressed you, filled the car with the necessary items and off we went. You looked puzzled but I smiled and assured you that this would be fun. We would get along just fine without Mom’s help.

We arrived at the office and I had Anne, my legal secretary and a great fan of yours, hold you while I ran back down to the car. This was going to be a breeze. I swung the diaper bag around my back, hoisted the electric swing over my shoulder, propped the folded-up extra-large playpen under my arm and trudged up the stairs to my office, greeting fellow workers along the way. Once in the office, I set up the swing, unfolded the playpen, arranged all your toys inside, and placed the diaper bag in a convenient location. We were now ready to have fun.

You still looked bewildered as I lowered you into your playpen, but soon you were playing with your toys and I was at my desk, preparing for the day’s work. Then I realized that I had forgotten your jar of, baby food. “No problem,” I thought and, again placing Anne in charge of you, I jogged across the street to Safeway to purchase some strained squash. I returned to find your grandma in my office, smothering you with kisses.

“I’ll take her,” she offered.

“No thanks,” I replied. “I have plenty of experience taking care of my baby.”

“That’s true,” she said, “But not at the office. You won’t get any work done.”

“Sure I will,” I protested.

Grandma left. It was time for your morning nap, but although you were tired, you wouldn’t sleep. Instead, you were becoming fussy. I closed the door to my office, lifted you into my arms, and danced you around the room, singing softly. Thirty-five minutes later you were still fussy, and I was still dancing. “I’ll try feeding you,” I said. I placed you in your swing, tied a bib around your neck and opened the recently-purchased jar of strained squash. I fed you, careful not to spill food on your new pink jumpsuit. However, you were more interested in playing than eating, and it was only a matter of minutes before strained squash was all over both of us. When you had finished eating, I took you out of the swing, placed you on a pad on the floor, and grabbed a clean diaper and a change of clothes from the diaper bag. You were uncooperative. As I struggled to remove your diaper, you arched your back and flung your body to the side, like a wrestler determined not to get pinned. I held you down gently with one hand and, with the free hand, fumbled with your clothing. After some time, I finally succeeded in putting on your diaper and clothes. I breathed a sigh of relief — then noticed that your clothes were on backwards. Drenched in sweat and strained squash, I set about to remedy the problem.

In the end, you were even more exhausted from the ordeal than I was, and after what seemed an eternity you were finally asleep in my arms. I carefully placed you in your playpen and covered you with a blanket. I walked to the window and looked out. There was your mother coming up the sidewalk. I quickly sat down at my desk and began arranging papers, trying to look busy. The door opened and in she came, surprised to see my office the picture of serenity and you sleeping peacefully in your playpen.

“Gee, I’m impressed,” she said. “It looks like you have everything under control.”

“No problem,” I replied.

 

 

Gary J. Frank is an Arizona attorney and former Judge Pro Tem with over thirty years of experience in dealing with divorce, custody, parenting-time, and support issues in Family Court.  To schedule a legal consultation with Mr. Frank, you may contact us by email at gary@garyfranklaw.com, or through our web site at www.garyfranklaw.com.

 The issues in this blog are provided for general informational purposes only and should not be relied on as legal advice in your particular case, nor should it be construed as forming an attorney-client relationship.  Every Family Court case is unique.  If you have a matter that appears similar to any of the scenarios that you read in this blog, you should be aware that: (1) even a slight difference in a factual situation can lead to a vastly different result; and (2) the laws are constantly changing and new laws are continually being enacted.  Legal advice cannot be given without a full consideration of all relevant information relating to your individual situation.  Therefore, if you have an important legal issue, you should obtain a consultation with a qualified attorney.  

PARENTAL ALIENATION – IS IT REAL? DOES IT REALLY MATTER?

There has long been a debate among experts over whether Parental Alienation is really a “syndrome.” To which I respond: Does it matter? In our Family Law practice, we see Parental Alienation all the time. It occurs frequently in divorce and custody (now called Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time) cases. Whenever a parent talks badly about the other parent to the children, or in front of the children, that’s an act of parental alienation. Why? Because children look up to their parents. They respect them They believe them. And if a parent is trashing the other parent within hearing distance of the children – or, worse yet, to the children – then there is a pretty good chance that it will affect how the children view the parent who is being “trashed.” Some parents do this incessantly. Others do it sporadically. Some do it intentionally. Others do it without thinking of the consequences. But either way, it can impact how the children view their other parent, and can alienate the children from that parent. More importantly, it can negatively affect the children, and even cause long-lasting emotional harm. So, does it matter whether Parental Alienation is a psychological condition? A “syndrome”? That’s missing the point. It’s a bad thing. It breaks down the relationship between a child and a parent whom he or she loves (or should be allowed to love). And, in the long run, it hurts the child.

 

At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., both Gary Frank and attorney Hanna Juncaj are strong litigators and compassionate counselors. Gary Frank is a Family Law Attorney with over 30 years of experience as a litigator and mediator, which includes having acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court; and serving on the Governor’s Child Abuse Prevention Task Force. Hanna Juncaj is a highly-skilled attorney with a passion for Family Law and children’s issues. She has extensive courtroom experience, and is also a certified mediator. In addition, Hanna is an active member of her County Bar Association. We handle Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called “Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), division of property, spousal and child support, modification and enforcement actions, grandparent and non-parent rights, and all other matters pertaining to families and children. If you are in need of a consultation, please do not hesitate to call our office at 602-383-3610; or you can contact us by email through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com.   We look forward to hearing from you.

The information contained in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be, nor should it be construed, as legal advice in your particular case. You should consult with an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation. Further, reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship. We invite you to contact us if you are in need of legal advice or guidance. To schedule a personal consultation, you can call us at 602-383-3610 or reach us through our website at garyfranklaw.com. We’d be happy to talk to you.

GRANDPARENTS’ RIGHTS IN ARIZONA

“Do grandparents have visitation or legal decision-making rights rights in Arizona?” It’s a question that we hear often. And the answer is: “Yes.” There has never been a time when grandparents were more important to the well-being of children than today. Grandparents have always been intimately involved in the lives of their grandchildren, and today they are raising grandchildren in greater numbers than ever before. There are many reasons for grandparents having to step into the shoes of a parent. The list includes teen pregnancy, substance abuse, incarceration, financial difficulties, mental illness, and other problems. Even under the best of circumstances where the parents are capable caregivers, the presence of grandparents in the children’s lives brings an added sense of love and stability.

But these are complicated times, and our law firm receives calls just about every day from loving grandparents who are being excluded from their grandchildren’s lives and want to learn about grandparent rights. It could be because a parent is angry and seeks to punish the grandparent. It could be because a parent who is on drugs or was missing now returns and insists on taking the children back. Maybe it’s because a parent has remarried and the new husband or wife feels threatened that the children have a relationship with the former spouse’s parents. Or it might be that one of the parents has died, and the surviving parent wishes to move on and put the deceased parent and his family in the past. There are a myriad of reasons why loving grandparents may be cut out of the picture and left in the cold. It’s truly heartbreaking for the grandparents. But, in the long run, it is the children who suffer the most.

In Arizona, grandparents (and other third-parties with a close relationship to the children, such as step-parents and others) have legal rights. Arizona Revised Statutes, Section 25-409 is the Grandparent Visitation, Grandparent Custody (now referred to as “legal decision-making authority), and Third Party Visitation / Custody statute.  The statute lists the circumstances which would enable a grandparent or other non-parent to file a petition for visitation or custody; as well as the factors that the Court must consider in determining whether to grant the petition.

This is not an easy process. In making its decision, the Court must weigh the constitutional right of parents to raise their children as they see fit – against the benefit to the child of maintaining an ongoing relationship with a grandparent or other non-parent that the child loves, and with whom he or she has a close bond. The Court is required to give “special weight” to the parent’s decision. But if the judge feels that it would be in the child’s best interests to maintain a relationship with the grandparents (or other non-parents), and the child’s interests would be substantially harmed if that relationship were severed, then the Court has the authority to order visitation to take place. And if it is determined that all of the factors listed in A.R.S. §25-409(A) are present and it would be “significantly detrimental” to the child to remain or be placed in the care of either legal parent, then the Court can order that the grandparents (or other non-parent) shall have legal decision-making authority (custody) of the child. A strong, experienced attorney can be a tremendous help to someone who is trying to obtain grandparent visitation or custody.

If you are a grandparent or a non-parent who has been (or might be) unfairly cut out of your grandchild’s life and you would like to learn more about how to assert your legal rights, please do not hesitate to give us a call. We’d be happy to talk to you.

 

Our attorneys, Gary Frank and Hanna Juncaj, represent many grandparents and other non-parents in Arizona courtrooms. They are strong litigators and compassionate counselors.  If you are in need of a consultation regarding how to assert your grandparents’ or non-parents’ rights, please call us today at 602-383-3610; or contact us by email through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com.

 

 

COHABITATION: IS LIVING TOGETHER OUTSIDE OF MARRIAGE PUTTING YOU IN ECONOMIC DANGER?

I have no moral objection to people living together outside of marriage. Heck, I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s. We practically invented the concept of “Cohabitation.”  As someone who has practiced Family Law for decades, I can tell you that a piece of paper does not ensure a lifelong commitment. And countless couples have a loving, lifelong bond even though they have chosen never to marry. The problem is that, after all these years, our lawmakers still haven’t gotten the message. And they fail to recognize that people who choose to share their life without a marriage license should still be able to share their property, and divide it fairly in the event of a breakup. This makes for some pretty unfair, and even economically dangerous, scenarios.
Most people think of marriage as having a moral or religious significance. But what many people don’t realize is that whether we like it or not, marriage also has a legalsignificance. And what you don’t know can hurt you. The fact is that the law provides certain protections for a married spouse that do not exist outside of marriage. And the results can be disastrous following the breakup of an unmarried couple.
Over the years, I have seen instances in which a couple breaks up after years of cohabitation, and one of them walks away with essentially all of the money and property while the other partner comes away with nothing. It’s heartbreaking. A legal marriage would have provided the protection that the vulnerable partner needed. But Arizona provides no protection for a cohabiting couple. Some states (like Texas) recognize “common law marriage.” Arizona does not. Other states (like California) provide some protection in the form of “palimony” (similar to alimony).  Arizona has rejected that theory. The problem is that couples who choose to live together outside of marriage are taking a legal risk when it comes to division of property and financial support.
Here are some of the pitfalls of being an unmarried, cohabiting couple:
COMMUNITY vs. SEPARATE PROPERTY
In Arizona, division of property following a marital breakup is governed by the old Spanish concept of “Community Property” Law. Under this legal concept, there are two kinds of property: Separate Property and Community Property. Following a legal separation or divorce, the husband and wife will each receive his and her separate property, and the community property will be shared equally. But if the parties are not married, there is no “community property.” That means nothing is shared, and the “richer” party – the one who actually purchased the house, the car, the furniture, etc. – may walk away with everything. Here’s why:
Separate Property:  Under Arizona law, separate property is anything a spouse owns before the marriage, and any property that he/she receives during the marriage by specific gift or inheritance. So, for instance, the husband’s old baseball card collection from childhood, or the family heirloom that Wife received as a gift from her grandmother – those things are separate property and will be awarded to the owner in the property division upon dissolution of marriage. If one of the spouses receives an inheritance of money from a grandparent during the marriage, the inheritance is considered separate property so long as it is kept separately or placed in an account in that spouse’s name alone. But if the money is comingled to the point where it can no longer be traced, such as being placed in a joint bank account that is used for salary deposits and payment of bills, it may lose its character as separate property and become “transmuted” (changed) to community property. Separate property also includes any increase that is tied to sale or appreciation of separate property. For example, if a spouse uses her separate funds to buy stock in a company, and the stock increases in value, the increase is considered separate property.

When a marriage is dissolved, the separate property will be identified and awarded to the spouse that it belongs to. All other property belonging to the parties is considered to be community property, and will be divided substantially equally.

However, if the parties are living together but aren’t married, then everything either party earns, buys, or acquires is considered to be the separate property of that person (unless the title is taken in joint tenancy or the acquisition is based on a partnership). There is no community property to be divided.

Community Property: Community property under Arizona law is defined as all property (other than separate property) acquired by either spouse during the marriage.  Under community property theory, each party owns the property equally. This means that whatever a spouse earns from his/her employment is community property, and anything that is purchased with monies earned by either spouse is community property. So, if a spouse cashes a paycheck and uses the money to buy a car, that car is community property and belongs to both spouses equally. If she or he opens a brokerage account using community funds and invests in stocks, bonds, or mutual funds, then that account, and all future growth, is considered to be community property and belongs to both spouses equally. Furniture purchased with community funds is community property. Money contributed to a pension, retirement account, or 401k by one spouse during a marriage is community property and belongs to both spouses 50/50. And if one spouse starts a business during the marriage, that business is also considered to be community property, even if only one spouse runs it.
Over the course of a lengthy marriage, couples can accumulate a large amount of community property. And if the marriage falls apart and the couple divorces, the community property will be divided between the parties essentially equally. This can provide financial security for the spouse who didn’t have the high paying job, or who stayed home and cared for the children while the other spouse acted as the breadwinner.
But here is the potential problem with cohabitation:  If a couple couple lives together but never marries, there will be no “community property” to divide if they later separate — and the law in Arizona does not provide any protection for the “poorer” partner. This can result in a terrible inequity. Imagine a couple who has lived together without marrying for twenty-five years. During that time, one of the partners purchased a business that became a successful and lucrative enterprise. With his earnings, he purchases a massive house in a gated community (which he puts in his own name) and furnishes it beautifully, and he buys expensive automobiles (also in his name alone). He puts money in investment accounts, and retirement accounts (all in his name). He buys life insurance policies, and paintings by famous artists. Finally, he opens a joint account which he places in both partners’ names, but he only deposits a little money each month to cover household expenses.
If the parties were married and filed for divorce under that scenario, then by law everything would be considered community property and would be divided equally. On the other hand, if the parties were not married it becomes an entirely different story. All of the property – the cash in banks, the house, the furniture, the cars, the business, the stocks and investment accounts, the life insurances policies, the valuable works of art – they’re all the separate property of only the one partner. The other partner gets nothing but half of the joint bank account, and there isn’t much money there, since only enough was deposited each month to pay for household expenses. So after all those years of living together as partners in a committed relationship, one party walks away with everything and will live the rest of his or her life in comfort. The other party gets nothing and will suffer financial deprivation.
Spousal Maintenance:
In many committed relationships – whether marital or cohabiting – one of the partners will take on the role of the breadwinner, while the other remains in the home and cares for the children. This allows the partner who is not the caregiver to focus on his/her career; to advance through the ranks of the business world, and increase his/her income and earning power over the years. This type of arrangement can work well, so long as the parents’ relationship lasts.  But what happens if, after 15 or 20 years the relationship deteriorates and parties separate? The working partner might now be earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, with the prospect of further advancement and an even higher income in the future. On the other hand, what becomes of the partner who gave up her/his career for the benefit of the family? That person might now be his/her 50’s, no longer a young up-and-comer. Because she or he jumped off the fast track to care for the kids, the prospect of a lucrative career is now gone, and she/he may be forced to take a job with an entry-level salary. How is that fair?
Arizona law provides protection for a married person under these circumstances. The married spouse who sacrificed for the family will be entitled to financial assistance from the other spouse in the form of Spousal Maintenance. The party with the greater wealth will be ordered to financially support the other party for a sufficient period of time to allow that party to complete an education or begin a career and get on her/his feet. (In rare circumstances, the court can require spousal maintenance be paid for the rest of the former spouse’s life.) In order to determine the amount that the person will receive, and how long the support will continue be paid, the judge will consider a number of factors listed in the statute. The amount of monthly spousal support will be dependent upon the lifestyle the family enjoyed during the marriage, the parties’ comparative incomes, the needs of the party seeking spousal maintenance, and a number of other factors.
But the obligation to pay spousal support only applies when the parties were married. Where parties were unmarried and living together, the richer party has no legal obligation whatsoever to help the poorer party financially after the relationship ends. This lack of legal protection can especially hurt a party who gave up her/his career to stay home and care for the children.
INHERITANCE & SOCIAL SECURITY
If a married person dies without a Will in Arizona, the surviving spouse will receive the entire estate of the deceased spouse.
On the other hand, if a person who is unmarried and cohabiting dies without a Will in Arizona, the scenario is much different. In that case, the deceased person’s property will be distributed by Arizona’s law of intestate succession – and none of it will go to the surviving partner. If the deceased person has children, then the entire estate will go to the children. If there are no children, then all of the dead person’s property will go to his/her parents; and if the parents are no longer alive, then the property will go to deceased person’s siblings. Unless the surviving partner’s name is on the house, or the car, or the bank accounts, the life insurance policy etc., then she/he will receive nothing at all.
There is a similar scenario for Social Security. If a married person dies, his/her spouse will likely receive a Social Security death benefit. But if the two parties are not married, then the surviving partner will receive nothing (although the children could receive a death benefit).
This may all seem unfair – and I agree that it is. But the bottom line is this: Under the current law there are important protections afforded to married couples that are not provided for unmarried couples who are cohabiting. Our lawmakers have turned a blind eye to the reality of relationships today and, at least in Arizona, it is unlikely that they will act to close the gap any time soon.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF
Obviously, marrying your partner is one way to protect yourself but, for many different reasons, not everyone wants to take that route in life. The good news is that there are other ways to provide protection. These include setting up joint bank accounts and having both partners deposit their paychecks; opening joint investment accounts; putting together your own IRA or retirement account and having the “richer” partner put an equal amount in yours as he/she puts in his/hers; putting your name on the house title, and the car title, in joint tenancy, so that you are half-owner; etc.
You can also protect yourself by entering into a written Domestic Partnership, or other partnership, agreement that spells out the rights of both parties and describes how property will be divided in the event that the relationship ends and the parties separate.

If you are living with a partner in a committed relationship outside of marriage, you owe it to yourself to consider whether you might be economically harmed if the relationship ends today, or even more importantly, twenty years from now.  It could mean the difference between living a comfortable lifestyle after a separation – or having to struggle financially and worry how you’re going to be able to make ends meet.

 

 

At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., both Gary Frank and attorney Hanna Juncaj are strong litigators and compassionate counselors. Gary Frank is a Family Law Attorney with over 30 years of experience as a litigator and mediator, which includes having acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court; and serving on the Governor’s Child Abuse Prevention Task Force. Hanna Juncaj is a highly-skilled attorney and mediator with a passion for Family Law and children’s issues. We handle Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called “Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), division of property, spousal and child support, modification and enforcement actions, grandparent and non-parent rights, and all other matters pertaining to families and children. If you are in need of a consultation, please do not hesitate to call our office at 602-383-3610; or you can contact us by email through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com.   We look forward to hearing from you.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AFFECTS CUSTODY UNDER ARIZONA LAW

Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).[1]This equates to more than 10 million victims per year, both women and men.  Domestic violence harms individuals of all ages in physical, emotional, and even economic ways, but what many people don’t know is that it also affects custody of children.

Victims of domestic violence are protected by Arizona’s laws, which provide that all of the following constitutes domestic violence:

·       Sexually assaulting or causing serious physical injury to a family or household member
·     Attempting to sexually assault or cause serious physical injury to a family or household member
·      Making family or household members afraid that they are about to suffer immediate physical injury
·      Engaging in a pattern of abusive behaviors that are serious enough to permit a court to issue a protective order for the victimized parent or child

Acts that qualify as domestic violence can include threats, harassment, intimidation, stalking, unlawful imprisonment, trespassing, damage to property, kidnapping, photographing and secretly watching victims without their consent, physical assault, and many other things.  In our modern society, abuse can also be inflicted through electronic means, including the telephone and Internet.  Those protected under the law include current and former spouses, people who live together or used to live together, people who have a child together, relationships in which one of the partners is pregnant with the other partner’s child, people related by blood or marriage, children, and those who are or were in a romantic or sexual relationship.

Arizona has enacted statutes creating “domestic violence presumptions” in child custody cases, essentially stating that an abuser’s actions and future potential actions would be harmful to the child.  In other words, if the court finds that a parent committed acts of domestic violence against the other parent, then it is akin to abusing the child, and the judge must presume that giving custody to the abuser is not in the child’s best interests.  However, the presumption is “rebuttable,” and the court may decide that the perpetrator has overcome the presumption by evaluating the following factors:

·      Whether the perpetrator proved that being awarded sole or joint custody is in the child’s best interests
·      Whether the perpetrator successfully completed a batterer’s prevention program
·    If applicable, whether the perpetrator successfully completed alcohol or drug abuse counseling ordered by the court
·     Whether the perpetrator successfully completed parenting classes ordered by the court
·    Whether the perpetrator has committed additional acts of domestic violence against anyone else,

In determining which parent should have custody of the child, Arizona judges must consider the best interests of the child, which necessarily involves the contemplation of domestic violence.  Specifically, two of the factors that Arizona judges consider are (1) whether there has been domestic violence or child abuse and (2) whether either parent was convicted of falsely reporting child abuse or neglect. 

The bottom line is this:  In Arizona, a parent who is guilty of domestic abuse is less likely to get custody.  In fact, if there is evidence of domestic violence, parents cannot share joint legal custody.  In very serious cases where there is a pattern of child abuse, a petition can be filed asking the court to terminate a parent’s rights.  Termination means that a parent loses all rights to both the physical and legal custody of a child.

The best interests of the child—and the protection of the child—is the Arizona Court’s main priority. Although Arizona has created a presumption that it is harmful to the child, and not in his/her best interest for the perpetrator of domestic violence to have sole or joint legal decision-making authority, some cases still slip through the cracks.  Therefore, if you are a victim of domestic violence, it is important to seek legal advice to better protect yourself and your family.

Jacinda Chen & Gary Frank
      At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., both Gary Frank and attorney Hanna Juncaj are strong litigators and compassionate counselors. Gary Frank is a Family Law Attorney with over 30 years of experience as a litigator and mediator, which includes having acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court; and serving on the Governor’s Child Abuse Prevention Task Force. Hanna Juncaj is a highly-skilled attorney with a passion for Family Law and children’s issues. We handle Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called “Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), division of property, spousal and child support, modification and enforcement actions, grandparent and non-parent rights, and all other matters pertaining to families and children. If you are in need of a consultation, please do not hesitate to call our office at 602-383-3610; or you can contact us by email at gary.frank@azbar.org, or through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com.   We look forward to hearing from you.   


[1]“Statistics.” National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2017. <http://ncadv.org/learn-more/statistics>

ARIZONA’S ABORTION CONTROVERSY, CIRCA 1962

With a new administration taking over, a renewed battle over abortion rights is likely to be waged in the U.S. Supreme Court over the next few years.  But in 1962, eleven years before the court decided the landmark Rowe v. Wade case, Arizona was at the center of a national firestorm regarding the issue of abortion.  The controversy raged around Sherri Finkbine, a local television host on the kiddie program, “Romper Room.”  I was a young boy at the time and, like many other children, I had grown up in Phoenix watching the show.  I still remember Miss Sherri, with her magic mirror, her pretty smile, and her soothing voice.

The problem began when Sherri’s husband came back from a trip to Europe.  Sherri was pregnant with her fifth child; and when her husband returned he brought with him a bottle of pills to treat her morning sickness.  Neither Sherri, nor her husband, were aware that the medication contained Thalidomide, a popular drug in Europe and other countries, but one which was not widely used in the United States.  During the early stages of her pregnancy, Sherri took thirty-six of the pills.

That’s when the nightmare began.  News reports began filtering into the United States that Thalidomide had been found to cause gruesome birth defects in fetuses.  The media reported that Thalidomide babies were being born without arms or legs.  Sherri and her husband checked the medication that she had been taking and were horrified to discover that it, indeed, contained the dreaded Thalidomide.  In an instant, their once-happy lives were turned upside-down. 
Sherri’s physician discussed the almost certainty of incapacitating birth defects that the child would be likely to suffer for a lifetime, and he strongly recommended that she obtain a therapeutic abortion.  Abortions were illegal in the United States.  The alternative, one which many women chose at the time, was to undergo a secret “back-alley” abortion.  These were often performed by unethical and incompetent doctors out to make a buck, and they were highly dangerous.  Some were performed by people who were not physicians, and who had no medical training at all.  As a result, it was common for women to contract infections and became seriously ill, or die, following abortions.  That was the landscape in 1962.

Therapeutic abortions were considered to be a narrow exception, and could be performed in hospitals by doctors under very limited circumstances.  Based on her doctor’s recommendation, Sherri prepared herself for a therapeutic abortion.  She was concerned that other women who were taking — or might take — Thalidomide should be warned, so before undergoing the procedure she contacted a friend who worked at a local newspaper and related her story.  Sherri was promised anonymity.  But when the newspaper article hit the streets, her identity was disclosed.  The hospital at which the abortion was planned became skittish and backed off.  Fearing bad publicity and possible prosecution, it canceled the procedure.  Sherri’s physician asked for a court order to proceed with the abortion, and that’s when all hell broke loose.

Overnight, Sherri Finkbine, her husband, and her four children became public figures.  She was fired from her job at the television station.  Her children were tormented and bullied mercilessly at school.  Letters and hate mail came pouring in from all over the country, including more than a few death threats.  Ultimately, the FBI was brought in to protect the family.

Now desperate and terrified, Sherri attempted to travel to Japan to obtain the abortion, but was denied a visa by the Japanese Consul.  In the end, she flew to Sweden, where a legal abortion was performed in the twelfth week of her pregnancy.  The Obstetrician who performed the procedure later told Sherri and her husband that the fetus had no legs, and only one arm, and was too badly deformed to be identified as a boy or a girl.

More than fifty years later, the controversy over abortion is still raging.  Our nation has become bitterly polarized over the issue.  Are you Pro Life?  Or Pro Choice?  Should women have the right to make decisions concerning their own body?  Or do the rights of the unborn child trump the rights of the mother?  Should abortion be legal in cases of rape, incest, severe birth defects, or where the mother’s life is at risk?  Or are we willing to return to the days of illegal and dangerous back-alley abortions? These are matters of utmost importance.  But instead of engaging in a healthy dialogue, battle lines have been drawn.  Foxholes have been dug.  And rather than welcoming a productive discussion, people on both sides angrily ridicule and demonize each other.  Each side views the other as stupid or evil.  Maybe it’s human nature.  We like to look for simple answers.  And by delegitimizing those with whom we disagree, we are able to avoid the process of having to carefully examine and think through the issues.  But that’s too bad.  Because if we truly attempted to see the matter through our neighbor’s eyes then – even though we may still disagree — we just might be forced to conclude that there can be more than one legitimate point of view, and maybe then we could reach a reasonable consensus. 

Regardless of the many differing opinions on the subject, I think most would agree that no woman should ever have to suffer the agony, or be faced with the impossible choices, that Sherri Finkbine had to endure in 1962.


Gary Frank


At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., both Gary Frank and attorney Hanna Juncaj are strong litigators and compassionate counselors. Gary Frank is a Family Law Attorney with over 30 years of experience as a litigator and mediator, which includes having acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court; and serving on the Governor’s Child Abuse Prevention Task Force. Hanna Juncaj is a highly-skilled attorney with a passion for Family Law and children’s issues. We handle Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called “Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), division of property, spousal and child support, modification and enforcement actions, grandparent and non-parent rights, and all other matters pertaining to families and children. If you are in need of a consultation, please do not hesitate to call our office at 602-383-3610; or you can contact us by email at gary.frank@azbar.org, or through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com.   We look forward to hearing from you.