Shared Parenting Bill in North Carolina Senate

Children quoteCustody disputes have been highly problematic for clients, attorneys and the courts for a long time.  They are emotionally charged trials with often little evidence that points clearly towards one parent or the other as being  a better option.  So, judges are left to decide a child’s fate based on a noble, but nebulous standard of “the best interests of the child”. And, due to the repetitive nature of these cases, a court frequently has to decide these cases multiple times for just one child. The most common issue in these trials is the schedule of overnights. That is, how many nights will a child spend with each parent, and how will those nights be structured?  While this answer has financial implications due to the child support guidelines, it is largely an emotional issue for clients.  Parents often see the distribution of overnight visits as a proxy for their relative parenting value, a symbolic judgment by the court that one of them is “better” for the kids than the other.  If there has been conflict over parenting during the relationship, then the court’s divvying up of overnights frequently takes on an emotional meaning for parents that goes far beyond the practical impacts. For these emotional reasons, parents litigate custody actions far more than the legal and practical realities would otherwise dictate.  The irony of course being that the court fight itself runs contrary to the best interest of the child. And these often needless lawsuits serve as a severe drain on the court system, preventing the courts from addressing cases where children are in actual need of court protection and intervention. To try to address this dynamic two North Carolina Senators have proposed Senate Bill 711.  This bill’s short title is the Presumption of Shared Parenting Act .  The bill would rewrite the primary child custody statute in North Carolina. The first section of the proposed law sets forth a statement of North Carolina’s public policy regarding parenting of children whose custody is in question.  The first listed policy is  to “Encourage child-centered joint parenting agreement [sic] to reduce litigation over child custody matters.” The remaining policy statements collectively state that North Carolina’s policy is to encourage maximum contact between a child and each parent, that the courts should PRESUME that both parents are fit parents and that the parents’ inability to get along with each other should not be used to overcome this presumption. The statute then creates a legal presumption that “each parent will share as close to an equal amount of time with the child, but not less than thirty-five percent (35%) of the amount of time with the child as research currently suggests.” First, it is important to note that this law would make official North Carolina’s policy of encouraging parents to agree to a co-parenting plan on their own and not bring these issues to the courts.  This is a policy that I would certainly encourage.  When the very government that will be making the decision about your kids is telling you that they don’t want to make decisions about your kids, then maybe we should listen…This policy really is an admonishment to parents to act like adults and handle their co-parenting issues in a reasonable way outside of court. Secondly, the law would create a new legal presumption in custody cases. In reality, this presumption probably just makes explicit the assumption that many judges make at the beginning of a case.  That assumption is that both parents in a case are valuable and capable of parenting their children in an acceptable manner, unless somebody proves otherwise.  But, those judges that do harbor conscious or subconscious biases towards one parent role or the other would have to start from a different starting point if this law is passed. This presumption would probably function much like the current legal presumptions of a 50/50 split of marital property in equitable distribution or the presumption that the child support guidelines will be used in a child support case.  That is, somebody will have to present a fairly compelling reason (some of which are mentioned in the bill) as to why a child would not benefit from roughly equal time with each parent before a judge could legally stray from the presumption. Further, the presumption is given some clear(ish) lines by creating a floor of 35% of the time with each parent.  The bill as currently written is not clear enough on this point, however.  It does not state what “time” means.  Does it mean 35% of the overnights?  Is that 35% of the overnights in a month, a year?  Or, is it 35% of the hours in a day, week, month or year? Regardless of the exact eventual meaning, the number gives a clear indication of what is considered roughly equal time with each parent under this bill.  Anything outside of that range and the court would have some explaining to do, literally.  The trial court would have to include sufficient findings in its custody order to justify altering the 35% floor. The practical effect would, most likely, be that attorneys would have a stronger basis upon which to predict the outcomes of potential custody suits for their clients.  Much like the 50/50 property distribution presumption and child support guidelines in place now, the 35% presumption would narrow the range of predicted outcomes such that the resolution of cases would be easier.   A narrow range of predicted outcomes facilitates settlement (as can a very wide range for risk reasons, but the current situation creates a range of outcomes that is neither predictable enough to force settlement nor risky enough to scare everybody into settlement). The bill is currently sitting on the desk of the rules committee, which, to my understanding, means that it is probably dead for now.  But, given the constant and unsustainable burden on the courts created by custody cases, and family law cases in general, this bill or a future iteration will probably make its way to a vote in the not too distant future.  It will be fascinating to see what policies are delineated in that version. (P.S. If the Legislature really wants to lower the number of cases in family court, an alimony formula or presumption would perhaps go even further than a child custody presumption.) photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/85608594@N00/15300693940″>Carl Jung Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>

New Protections Against False Paternity and Child Support Claims in North Carolina

As of January 1 of this year, men in North Carolina have some new protections from false paternity claims. 

Since the beginning of this year, new laws have been in effect that provide new procedures for men who want to dispute that they are the father of a child. 

The legislature amended or created three laws that give fathers a clear-cut process for asking a court to officially declare that they are not the father of a child.

Specifically the new laws provide a way to ask a court to overturn a paternity order, an affidavit of parentage or a child support order if the father believes he is not the father of the child. 

However, the alleged father has only one year from the time he knew or had reason to know that he was not the father to challenge paternity under these new laws.

The new laws for overturning paternity orders or affidavits of parentage require two showings:  First, a father must prove that the paternity order or affidavit was created by “fraud, duress, mutual mistake, or excusable neglect.”  If a father files a motion alleging sufficient facts, then the court has to order genetic testing of the mother, child and alleged father to determine whether the alleged father is the actual father.

If the alleged father can prove fraud, duress, mutual mistake or excusable neglect AND the genetic tests show that he is not the father, then the court can set aside the paternity order or affidavit. 

Further, a new statute allows men to ask a court to let them out of child support if they can prove by clear and convincing evidence that:

1. He has not acknowledged paternity of the child, or that he acknowledged paternity without knowing that he was not the actual father (“acknowledgement” includes public acknowledgement and supporting the child while married to the mother,  sworn statements and affidavits claiming to be the father, consent orders, voluntary child support agreements, or any other legal agreement to support the child, and admissions of paternity in open court); and

 2. He had not adopted the child; and

 3. He has not legitimated the child; and

4. He is not the child’s legal father under N.C.G.S. 49A-1; and

5. He has not done anything to prevent that actual father from asserting his parental rights to the child; and

6. Genetic testing shows that he is not the actual father.


If the man can show all of the above facts (no juries are used in these cases), then the court is required to cancel the child support obligation.  However, the man generally does not get any money back that has already been paid.  (The man can get any support that he has paid from the filing of this motion until the cancellation of the support obligation if he can prove that the mother conned him into believing he was the father).   The man cannot get any money back if he has been making payments to anyone other than the mother.  The court also has to order that the birth certificate be changed to remove the man’s name.

Men and their attorneys have long cried out for a better way to challenge false paternity claims.  They now have relatively clear processes for defending themselves from these claims. 


 

Work Email and The Attorney-Client Privilege

Email that you receive at your work email address may not be confidential.

Many people do not realize that email in your work email account may well belong to your employer, not you.  That is because your employer owns the system and provides the service to you.  And, you may well have signed something in your employee handbook by which you agreed to this fact.

This matters because under some situations, having an attorney send you emails at your work email address may waive the attorney-client privilege. 

That in turn means that there is some chance that an opposing attorney could force your employer to turn over the emails between you and your attorney that went to your work email account. 

The bottom line:  If you have an attorney, get a personal email account and have all emails from your attorney sent there.  And, as a broader rule, do not use your work email account for any personal business.  

How to Save Cell Phone Text Messages for Later Use

A significant amount of communication between spouses and ex-spouses now occurs by text.  This is convenient for the parties, but can present some problems in terms of preserving these communications as evidence for a court proceeding. The challenge is to figure out how to produce the texts in a document format showing date, time and sender so that it can used as evidence.

While I cannot claim to be an expert on the topic, there are some ways to save cell phone text messages to a printable file.