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When a couple divorces in Florida while their children are minors, the goal of the family court system is to help them continue to have healthy relationships with their children, even after the parents are no longer married to each other. Unfortunately, child custody is often one of the most contentious issues in a divorce, and one of the most difficult to resolve without resorting to litigation. A judge ruling in favor of one party or the other is a last resort in family law cases, though, especially when it comes to deciding which parent spends how much time with the children.  Florida courts strongly prefer that parents come to an agreement about their parenting plan before they go before the judge; this way, the judge is simply approving an agreement that is satisfactory to both parties. Parenting coordination is a type of alternative dispute resolution, similar to mediation, that can help parents agree on the details of their parenting plan.

Parenting Coordinator Requirements

The parenting coordinator is not a judge, and he or she is not simply any unbiased third party.  The educational requirements for parenting coordinators in Florida are quite strict. To be a parenting coordinator, you must have a medical degree and be certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, or else you must hold a master’s degree either in family mediation or in a mental health field. You must have three years of professional experience working as a psychiatrist or mental health professional. You must complete a family mediation training program, in addition to a parenting coordinator training program; the latter program includes 24 hours of classroom instruction. Having previously been found guilty of child abuse or domestic violence disqualifies you as a parenting coordinator. Additionally, parenting coordinators must keep what is said at parenting coordination meetings confidential, and they must avoid conflicts of interest with any parties involved. Continue reading

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The principle of separation of church and state affects many aspects of United States law, including family law. For example, a marriage ceremony in a church, temple, or mosque is not enough to render a couple legally married under United States law; they must also obtain a marriage license and marriage certificate from the court in the state in which they reside.  (Some states will issue marriage licenses to out-of-state couples, but others have a residency requirement.)  Likewise, when it comes to divorce, civil proceedings and religious proceedings are independent of each other. In Judaism, a marriage is officially considered dissolved when the husband issues the wife a document called a Get, which proclaims that the parties are free to remarry.

How Does a Get Work in Theory and in Practice?

A Get is a short document, consisting of only 12 lines, always written in the presence of a rabbi and signed by witnesses.  It declares that the marriage has been dissolved, and that the former spouses may enter into new marriages. Unlike a civil divorce decree, it does not contain any details about division of property or child custody.

According to Jewish law, a woman cannot enter a new valid marriage until her previous marriage has been dissolved by the issuance of a Get. If she has children with her new husband, they are not automatically acknowledged as members of the Jewish community and would need to go through a conversion process in order to marry within the faith. Continue reading

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Child support obligations, on the one hand, and the failure to fulfill them, on the other, are among the biggest sources of conflict and resentment among divorced couples. Florida has laws to protect the rights of the parent ordered to pay child support and the one who receives child support payments on behalf of the children. The laws surrounding the enforcement of child support orders and the measures that Florida family courts can take to collect late child support payments are popularly known as the Deadbeat Dad Law, although this is something of a misnomer. First, not all parents who are required to pay child support are men. Second, not everyone who falls behind on child support payments does so as a means of intentionally evading parental responsibility. Except in the direst financial circumstances, Florida courts hold parents to the responsibility to provide financial support for their biological and adopted children. Thus, it is much easier to fall behind on child support obligations than it is for a court to absolve you of responsibility for them.

The Lengths to Which Courts can Go to Collect Child Support Payments

The court system can go to great lengths to collect overdue child support payments. These are some of the ways that courts can take money from you and apply it to child support if you do not pay:

  • Garnishing wages
  • Seeking bank accounts
  • Selling assets from your estate (even death cannot get you out of the obligation to pay child support)
  • Additionally, the court can impose the following non-financial punishments for failure to pay child support:
  • Contempt of court
  • Suspension of driver’s license
  • Suspension of passport

Continue reading

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Litigation, in which parties argue their cases before a judge, is only a small part of what happens in Florida’s family law courts. Courts deal with agreements as much as, or more than, they do with disagreements. One might not think of the words “agreement” and “divorce” as belonging together in the same sentence, but many aspects of divorce in Florida today resemble contractual agreements more than they resemble a situation in which one party wins and the other loses. For example, a parenting plan is a detailed custody agreement in which parents agree on parenting decisions, large and small, from which parent has the final say about non-emergency medical treatment for the children to decisions about drop-off and pick-up from one parent to another.  Another detailed document used in Florida family law courts is the financial affidavit, which is used to determine division of property, rather than details of child custody. Here are some frequently asked questions about the family law financial affidavit in Florida.

Q: What is a Financial Affidavit, and How is it Used?

A: A financial affidavit looks a lot like an itemized tax return. It is a document on which couples in the process of divorce list their income sources and expenses, and where they classify their assets and liabilities as marital or non-marital property. The purpose of the document is to determine equitable distribution of property, including spousal support payments, if any.  Couples with and without children must file a financial affidavit. Continue reading

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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