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It may not snow in Florida, but the feeling of the holiday season is already in the air. Every year at around this time, some radio stations begin playing Christmas carols around the clock, while on other stations, radio DJs snark about how Thanksgiving and the winter holidays are peak season for family conflict. It is true that holiday-related stress is a real phenomenon, as anyone who works in the mental health field can attest. If you have shared custody of children with your ex-spouse or former partner, though, there are things you can do to reduce the stress of co-parenting during the holidays. Specifically, Florida’s parenting plans, in their current version, contain clauses specifically designed to avoid conflict about holiday plans before they start.

How do Florida Parenting Plans Address Holiday Timesharing?

People whose parents divorced in the 1980s and 1990s probably remember that life settled into a rhythm, usually including living with Mom during the week and with Dad on the weekends, but that sparks always flew at Thanksgiving and Christmas, when extended family members visited, or when one parent wanted to take the children to visit out-of-town relatives during a holiday.  This is one of the major issues that Florida’s new parenting plans address. The parenting plan template has questions to address every school vacation, including winter break, Thanksgiving, and spring break. Parents can choose, as soon as they divorce, where the children will spend each holiday each year. For example, they can specify that, in odd-numbered years, the children will spend Thanksgiving break with Mom until Friday afternoon and then spend the rest of it with Dad, but in even-numbered years, they will be with Dad until Friday afternoon and then go to Mom’s house. Parenting plans even allow parents to allot certain times for children to stay with grandparents, and they can choose to grant certain holiday days to the grandparents.

In some ways, Thanksgiving is the simplest holiday to plan because it is always on a Thursday.  What about Christmas, which is always on the same date, but on different days of the week?  What about Hanukkah, which sometimes coincides with winter break and sometimes does not?  What about Islamic holidays, which, because the Islamic lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, vary not only by day of the week, but by month?  (For example, this year, both Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha were during summer vacation. In 2000, Eid al-Fitr was between Christmas and New Year’s.) Florida’s parenting plans were made to be customized.  You can specify that each parent gets the children for four nights of Hanukkah, and that if it falls during a school week, each parent gets one non-school night of the holiday. Continue reading

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There is never a good time to divorce, when everything will be simple, but some issues, such as those related to division of property, seem even more complicated when the parties are elderly.  Perhaps Florida’s most notable case is that of Burt and Lovey Handelsman, who started divorce proceedings after 67 years of marriage and after amassing a fortune through ownership of commercial real estate properties throughout South Florida. Although it does not involve the same huge sums of money as the Handelsman case, Zelman v. Zelman might be an even messier case, because one of the parties is suffering from dementia.

Details of the Zelman Case

In 2014, Martin Zelman was in his 80s and suffering from dementia and short-term memory loss.  His son Robert Zelman petitioned the court to appoint him or one of his sisters (Martin’s daughters) as their father’s guardian. The petition also mentioned Lois Zelman, Martin’s wife to whom he had been married since 1993, among Martin’s “next of kin,” but it did not recommend her as a guardian and implied that she was an unsuitable choice to act as such. The court appointed Robert as Martin’s temporary guardian, in charge of his health and financial affairs.  As soon as the court appointed Robert as Martin’s guardian, Robert, acting on Martin’s behalf, filed a motion with the court to have Lois removed from the marital home, claiming that she had been abusing and neglecting Martin in his vulnerable state of health. In response, Lois provided the court with evidence that she and Martin were happily married and that she had remained true to her vow to care for him in sickness and in health. The court ruled that Lois must leave the couple’s apartment, and she complied, moving into another apartment in the same building.

Lois argued that Martin was not sufficiently incapacitated as to require a guardian; she proposed instead that the court appoint a power of attorney and health surrogate for him and that he receive in-home health assistance around the clock. Many other petitions followed, filed by Lois and by Robert, disagreeing over details of the extent of Martin’s incapacity and over whom, if anyone, the court should appoint as his guardian. An attorney representing Lois alleged that Martin’s children were trying to force Martin to divorce Lois. The court ruled that, even if the court dissolved the marriage, such a dissolution would not count as a divorce, and that Lois would be entitled to the same assets from Martin’s estate, upon his death, as if they had still been married. Continue reading

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News stories about the complicated divorce proceedings of high-powered couples are nothing out of the ordinary in Florida. In many cases, the main complicating factor is the couple’s wealth.  It is not simple to divide a couple’s assets when they own many millions of dollars of property together. In the divorce of Alan Grayson (D-FL), a former member of the United States House of Representatives, from his ex-wife Lolita, division of property ended up being the least of the complicating factors in the case. In 2015, their marriage ended by annulment, not by divorce.

The Marriage(s) of Alan and Lolita Grayson

Alan Grayson and Lolita Carson married in 1986; it was a second marriage for both. The couple went on to have five children together. In 1990, Lolita Grayson applied for United States citizenship, and Alan Grayson saw her citizenship application before she submitted it. On the application, she listed her marital status as “separated.” More than 20 years later, during the couple’s divorce proceedings, it was revealed that Lolita was still legally married to her first husband at the time that she married Alan Grayson. In 2015, a judge annulled their marriage, declaring it void because of bigamy. In other words, the court declared that the couple had never been legally married because Lolita was legally married to someone else when she and Alan Grayson married each other.

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A lot of people think of divorce as a legal matter but marriage annulment as a religious matter.  For example, some Christian denominations will annul a marriage if the couple never consummated their marriage sexually, but except where abuse is concerned, family courts in the United States rarely concern themselves with people’s sexual behavior. Perhaps the most famous historical incident involving marriage annulment was the one involving King Henry VIII of England. The refusal on the part of the Catholic Church to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was a major precipitating event in the Protestant Reformation in England.

What is Annulment of Marriage?

The secular and religious definitions of marriage annulment are similar in their essence.  According to Florida law, an annulment is when a court declares a couple unmarried on the grounds that their marriage is not valid. It is different from a dissolution of marriage (divorce).  In a divorce, the marriage was real, but a judge legally ends the marriage at the request of one or both parties. The law considers the marriage to have begun on the day of the couple’s wedding and to have ended on the day the court issued the divorce decree. Courts make decisions about spousal support based on these dates. For example, courts rarely award permanent alimony in cases in which the couple was married for less than 17 years.

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Whenever possible, Florida courts give custody of children to the children’s legal mother and legal father. Custody is defined as physical residence with a parent or other legal guardian and decision-making power related to the children’s education, medical care, and other important life events. Usually, the legal mother and legal father are the child’s biological mother and her husband. If the mother is not married, a man can become the legal father by filing a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity with the court. In the case of adoption, the court transfers parental rights from the biological parents to the adoptive parents.

Once you are the legal parent of a child, it is difficult to lose your parental rights. The courts acknowledge that parents are only human, and that it is almost always in a child’s best interest to stay with his or her own parents. For example, having a criminal record or a diagnosis of a mental illness or addiction does not, by itself, mean that the court will reduce or take away your right to spend time with your children or make decisions about them. Involuntary termination of parental rights only happens when it is impossible for the parent to provide adequate care for the child or when the parent has seriously endangered the child. Continue reading

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According to Florida law, if a woman is married at the time that she gives birth, her husband automatically becomes the legal father, even if neither spouse claims that the husband is or could be the biological father of the child. (This most often happens when the mother is separated from her husband, but they have not yet finalized their divorce.) If the woman is unmarried, then it is fairly simple for the child’s biological father to establish legal paternity; the courts usually do not even require a DNA test. If the biological father wants to establish paternity, but the mother is married to someone else, however, then he faces an uphill battle. Miranda Wilkerson is a child in whose custody case the mother’s husband’s status as legal father was a determining factor, but her case is also complicated for several other reasons.

Details of the Miranda Wilkerson Case

Trista Crews and Donald Coleman met and began their relationship in 1997, when she was 14 and he was 38. They married when Trista was 16, with Trista’s mother Rita Manning giving consent for her underage daughter to marry. Nonetheless, Coleman eventually had to register as a sex offender because of the age difference in his relationship with Trista. They would go on to have three children together before separating in 2007.

Trista was separated from Donald Coleman at the time of Miranda’s birth, and he filed for divorce at around that time because he doubted that he was Miranda’s biological father. About a month later, Trista died in a car accident, and her mother Rita Manning assumed responsibility for Miranda’s care. After a long custody battle between Manning and Coleman, a judge finally awarded custody of Miranda to Coleman, who was then living in Georgia. Miranda was then three years old, and she had lived with her grandmother almost since birth. Miranda’s biological father has since tried to get custody of her, but currently available news reports offer few details about that aspect of the case. Continue reading

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Making decisions about major medical treatments such as surgery for a child can be stressful for any family, even one where the parents consider themselves happily married and generally able to make decisions together without major conflict. When parents divorce, all of the conflicts about parenting that they had when they were married become amplified. In the worst cases, the courts have to get involved to resolve their disputes. The current system of parenting plans in Florida is designed to prevent these major conflicts. The parenting plan form seeks to anticipate every possible scenario in which conflict might arise and decide beforehand which parent will have the final say in each type of parenting decision. The Angeli v. Kluka case shows why this system is important because, when it comes to consenting to non-emergency surgery for a child, one parent’s consent is all you need.

Details of the Angeli v. Kluka Case

When Alexander Girgis was 3 years old, he underwent adenoid removal surgery. (Adenoid removal surgery is a non-emergency surgery; it is quite common for children who suffer from recurrent ear infections or sinus infections when other treatments fail to resolve the problem.)  Dr. Evelyn Kluka is the surgeon who performed the surgery, and Alexander recovered without any complications. At the time of the surgery, Alexander’s parents were in the process of getting a divorce. Alexander’s mother was the legal guardian who consented to the surgery, since medical treatments on minor children require a parent’s consent. Continue reading

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It is a great relief to many that the stigma surrounding seeking treatment for mental illnesses has lessened as much as it has in recent years. In many circumstances, mental health treatment has become routine even for patients who do not exhibit particularly alarming symptoms. In fact, recent statistics show that nearly 20% of American adults have been diagnosed with a mental illness at some time in their lives. If that is surprising, it is because the same privacy laws that protect nearly all health information also apply to mental health.

Unfortunately, though, things can get ugly in a divorce, especially when parents disagree about child custody arrangements. One parent sometimes argues that the other parent is unfit to spend a majority of the time with the children because of a pre-existing diagnosis of a mental health condition. If your former spouse does bring up your mental health history during divorce proceedings, will it affect the outcome of the case? Usually, it does not.

When Your Mental Health History Does Not Affect Parenting Plan Decisions

Under Florida’s current system of parenting plans, no two custody agreements are alike. The parenting-plan form is a multi-page questionnaire as long and complex as the longest tax forms.  Each decision regarding the children is a separate question; it is not simply a matter of one parent getting all or most of the custody of the children. The parents’ private health information usually does not factor into which decisions the judge approves in the parenting plan. The main goal is to cause as little disruption in the children’s lives as possible. Consider that, if a parent were undergoing treatment for a physical illness while the parents were married, most of the time it would not be a factor in the parenting agreement. The same usually applies to mental illnesses.  Furthermore, the parent’s psychiatrist cannot be asked to reveal the parent’s private health situation in court, except in the case of a true emergency, such as a suicide attempt or involuntary hospitalization. Continue reading

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The statistic that half of Americans could not come up with $400 in an emergency without borrowing is certainly alarming, but it is hardly surprising. Debt and financial hardship are huge problems in the United States. For many Americans, every paycheck means picking and choosing which bills to pay on time this pay period. It is easier to get relief from some debts than others. Many people see bankruptcy as their only option to start their financial situations over with a clean slate, but bankruptcy does not erase all your financial obligations. One financial obligation you are still responsible for, even if you file for bankruptcy, is child support.

What You do and do Not Owe After Filing for Bankruptcy in Florida

Bankruptcy can free you from many of your debts. Debts that are “discharged” during bankruptcy are no longer your responsibility to pay. It does not, however, free you of all your financial obligations. With car loans and home mortgage loans, the car or house is collateral, meaning the lender can repossess it if you do not pay. If you declare bankruptcy, the lender can no longer pursue you for payments, but they can take back your car or house that is securing the loan.

Some debts, however, are non-dischargeable, which means that you still owe them even if you declare bankruptcy. Many non-dischargeable debts are obligations imposed on the debtor by a ruling in court. The following debts are non-dischargeable according to Florida bankruptcy laws: Continue reading

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Child support is supposed to cover a child’s basic needs, such as food and shelter. What about educational expenses, though? Education is hardly a luxury; school attendance has been mandatory for American children for well over a century. Providing for a child’s education is an important aspect of parenting. Thus, Florida parenting plans include provisions about which parent is responsible for making various decisions related to the children’s education. What happens when parents divorce while their children are enrolled in private school?

The Children’s Best Interest

Every question related to a parenting plan is, at its core, about the best interest of the children.  Education is one aspect of child-rearing about which parents are likely to have strong opinions.  Some parents feel that sending children to a private school, even if it requires great financial sacrifice on the parents’ part, is the only way to ensure that the children study in a safe environment where teachers are genuinely invested in the children’s success. Others feel that private school tuition is an unnecessary expense and that parents could help their children more simply by saving money to help them with college tuition and other expenses related to early adulthood. The education issue is a perfect example of why parenting plans are individualized and not one size fits all. Continue reading