The Uncontested Divorce – Part 3 (Child Support)

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A divorce case involving minor children is less likely to be uncontested that a case involving no minor children.  As mentioned in an earlier post, as it pertains to the issue of child support, a case cannot be uncontested unless (1) there are no minor children; or (2) the parties are in agreement that no child support shall be paid.

In Minnesota, child support is based upon statutory guidelines.  The parties can agree (or the court can decide) to adopt the guideline amount, or to deviate upwards or downwards.  One might say that the issue of child support could be uncontested by simply adopting the statutory guideline amount of support.  The problem with that hypothesis is that the calculation of guideline support requires the input of the parents’ respective incomes.  If one of the parties is unemployed, it may be necessary to impute a reasonable level of income.  (But maybe not.)  If someone is self-employed, there is no simple answer to “What is your gross monthly income?”  Someone may have bonus income, or work on commission.

Even if the parties agree on an amount of support, there are complicating factors, such as how support gets modified if circumstances change, whether the paying parent needs also to contribute to other expenses of the children (and which expenses, and how much), and what happens when the oldest child turns eighteen.

The point is, unless both parties have sufficient income, and neither party needs to receive child support, the case cannot be considered truly uncontested.

There is also an additional concern if the parties do agree that no child support shall be paid.  That is the parents’ ability to be flexible and fair regarding how the children’s expenses get paid on a day-to-day, week-to-week, or monthly basis.  This will not necessarily prevent the parties from proceeding with their divorce case on an uncontested basis.  But later on, after the case is done, if they do not operate with principles of flexibility and fairness, it is only a matter of time before they have a contested dispute on their hands.

The Uncontested Divorce – Part 2 (Children)

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Children

As mentioned in Part One, if the parties in a marriage dissolution are not childless (or child-free, as some people say), then either one of the parents has to have literally no demands to make pertaining to the parenting plan; or both parents need to be extremely flexible and to respect the other parent’s time and relationship with the child(ren).

I am unable to recall an actual case that provides an anecdotal example of the uncontested divorce in which on parent has literally no demands.  The more common scenario is the situation where both parents have flexibility and mutual respect.  In these cases, oftentimes the children are teenagers, or at least age nine or ten.  By the time the children are this age, the divorcing parents may have well-established ground rules for parenting, and common expectations of the children’s habits and behaviors.  If the parents communicate well through their breakup, and they both have the aforementioned spirit of flexibility and respect, they may be able to proceed with the co-parenting aspects of a divorce in a truly uncontested manner.

This is not to say that all is lost if the parties hit a snag.  Most couples with children do, even in the most amicable divorces.  But we are talking here about cases that begin, and end, as uncontested cases – cases that do not require mediation, evaluation or negotiation.  If the children are young, or if the parties have complicated schedules that require a lot of planning and coordination, it may simply not be possible to consider the case as an uncontested case from start to finish.

Many couples with children end up with a co-parenting agreement.  Many of those couples begin with the belief that their case will be uncontested.  But the reality is that only in rare instances are parents able to complete their marriage dissolution without some negotiation, and/or the involvement of a neutral professional, to arrive at a workable arrangement.

The Uncontested Divorce – Part 1

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When someone calls a lawyer to proceed with an uncontested divorce, unfortunately they are often not correct in identifying the case as uncontested.  As in, an uncontested case, from start to finish.  Commonly, the person’s description is based upon the couple having not yet discussed the terms of the divorce, and the person’s assumption (and hope) that the terms of the divorce will come together smoothly.

The most common mischaracterization of an uncontested divorce comes from someone having no intention of “fighting” with the other parent about the children, and that same person expecting that the other parent will refrain from “fighting” as well.  But most mischaracterized “uncontested” divorces involve that same general situation regarding one or more issues: the belief that by going into the action without a hot issue, ready for a fight, that the case will be uncontested.

This is not to say that a non-uncontested case cannot become an uncontested case during the course of the action.  That is what happens when even complex or high-conflict cases settle out of court.

Here is an outline of the requirements of a true, uncontested divorce:

Children

*There are no minor children; or

*If there is a minor child, one of the parents has literally no demands to make pertaining to the parenting plan; or

*Both parents are willing to be extremely flexible and neither parent desires to have precedence over the other parent’s time and relationship with the child(ren).

Child Support

*There are no minor children; or

*The parties are in agreement that no child support shall be paid.

Spousal Maintenance

*The parties are in agreement that no spousal maintenance shall be paid.

Real Estate

*There is no real estate, or the marital homestead will be sold, and the net proceeds equally divided.

Personal Property

*Each party is keeping the stuff currently in their possession, and no items need to change hands.

Bank Accounts

*Bank accounts are already separated and bank account funds are already divided.

Retirement Accounts

*There are no retirement accounts, or each party is keeping any retirement assets in his or her name.

Motor Vehicles

*Each party gets one car, and the parties agree that this is a wash.

Debts

*There are no debts in both parties’ names, and each party will pay the debts in his or her name individually.

Attorney’s Fees

*Each party pays his or her own attorney’s fees.

 

 

In the Matter of Oberg v. Bradley

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(Filed August 3, 2015) (Court of Appeals)

Respondent Mother obtained an Order for Protection against Appellant Father from the district court on behalf of the parties’ minor son after the district court admitted the son’s out-of-court statements. Appellant sought review for violating his right to due process because he did not have adequate notice that Respondent would offer the out-of-court statements.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that the standard of proof for an order for protection is a preponderance of evidence. The Court of Appeals observed that the domestic abuse statute does not specify a standard of proof, but the preponderance-of-evidence standard is implied, since that standard is specifically required to modify or vacate an order for protection. The Court of Appeals rejected Appellant’s claim that the out-of-court statements should not have been admitted and that, absent the statements, the evidence was insufficient for issuance of the order.

In the Matter of Dakota County and Floding v. Gillespie

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(Filed July 22, 2015) (Supreme Court)

Appellant Mother, who was receiving child support from Respondent Father, began receiving Social Security dependent benefits upon Respondent’s retirement. The child support magistrate granted Respondent’s motion for modification, offsetting his obligation by the dependent benefits received. The district court clarified the magistrate order to expressly provide for benefits already received by Appellant to be applied to Respondent’s prospective child support obligation. The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that the application of past benefits to Respondent’s prospective obligation did not constitute a retroactive modification of child support, which is not authorized by the support statute, other than while a modification motion is pending.

The Supreme Court reversed, ruling that the subtraction of the dependent benefits is an integral part of the child support calculation, which means a dollar-for-dollar offset of the benefits is not necessarily accurate. Moreover, the statutes do not provide a provision for accommodating the commencement of Social Security benefits, so the offset must necessarily occur in conjunction with a modification under the applicable statutory provision.

There was a dissenting opinion emphasizing that the receipt of benefits (not a modification motion) is the essential triggering event for the subtraction of benefits that, under the statute, must occur. Therefore, the dissent would have affirmed the Court of Appeals ruling.

Possible Changes to Child Support Guidelines

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There are two bills that have been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature.  One would establish a permanent advisory committee on child support guidelines.

The other one is a bigger substantive change.  Child support would be calculated based on the income shares of the parents, like it is now.  But the parenting expense adjustment would be much more variable than the current statute.

Currently, there are only three parenting expense adjustments: one for cases in which parents share custody equally (or nearly equally); one for cases in which one of the parents has little or no parenting time with the child(red); and one for all other cases.

The new statute would create a graduated parenting expense adjustment based upon the specific parenting schedule.  The adjustment would be based on the number of overnights each parent is the on-duty parent over the course of the year.

I am concerned that the new statute will create a bigger issue for parents to dispute.  Many times separated parents argue over custodial time, not because of what is good for the children, but because of the impact is has on the amount of child support.  Under the current structure, this issue (to fight about) is only regarding whether the threshold for “nearly equal” parenting time has been met.  Under the new statute, that issue could be a bone of contention in many more instances, because any change to the number of overnights results in a change in the amount of child support.

The bill was to be heard in legislative committees this past week.  Watch this space.

New Legislation Has Revised Typical Expectation of Parental Income

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The Minnesota legislature recently amended the statute that courts use when imputing income to parents.

Minn. Stat. Section 518A.32, sub. 2(3) now provides for considering “the amount of income a parent could earn working 30 hours per week at 100 percent of the current federal or state minimum wage, whichever is higher.”  Previously the statute had a provision for the amount of income a parent could earn working 40 hours per week at 150 percent of current minimum wage.

The previous statute’s calculation of monthly income was $2,080.  The amended statute provides for one-half that amount, suggesting that in today’s economy, one can be expected to earn $1,040 gross per month.

 

Early Neutral Evaluation – Is Joint Physical Custody More or Less Likely?

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A colleague of mine recently expressed her belief that custody neutrals conducting Early Neutral Evaluations are almost uniformly recommending joint physical custody.

Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE) is the process in which a team of two neutrals (one man, one woman – to avoid gender inequality) works with a divorcing or separating set of parents to devise a co-parenting arrangement.  Each parent presents his or her view of the facts and circumstances of the children, and what each parent believes is in the child(ren)’s best interests.  Then the neutrals weigh in on what they believe is a suitable custody arrangement, based upon their respective experiences and opinions about the facts and circumstances presented by the parents.

My colleague’s observation suggests that the ENE process leans heavily in the direction of joint physical custody.  My own anecdotal experience suggests otherwise.  I have seen ENE recommendations go in all different directions.

Joint physical custody is most likely to occur when both parents are “fit” parents (for instance, largely free of criminal, chemically dependent and abusive tendencies) and when the parents live in relatively close geographic proximity.  However, if any of the children are under the age of four, some custody professionals hesitate to recommend joint physical custody.

I have been involved as an attorney for moms, dads, and plenty of each who desired to receive a recommendation of sole physical custody in their favor.  The parameters mentioned above regarding joint physical custody certainly do come into play; but every case is unique, so it is difficult to know which factors will be given the most weight.

It is my belief that my colleague’s perception that many ENE’s result in joint physical custody is more likely a sign that many cases in general are resulting in joint physical custody.  Years ago, joint physical custody was unlikely unless couples agreed to that designation, or at minimum, demonstrated an ability to cooperate with each other.  These days, when each parent seeks sole custody, the resolution may be to grant each party joint physical custody, even if the parents do not get along well.  A parenting neutral may be appointed to assist the parties in resolving parenting disputes that arise after the court case is done.

 

New Child Custody Factors Signals New Perspective

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When the statutory factors to be considered in child custody cases were revised by the Minnesota Legislature earlier this year, the substance of the changes did not appear to be significant.  It is interesting to consider, though, how the revised factors have changed the philosophy underlying custody determinations.  I heard a local custody professional discuss how it is not the child’s job to “accommodate” his or her parent’s divorce; it is the parents’ job to accommodate the child’s best interests.

That is to say, in the past, the parents were the focus, since the case regarded what rights each parent had to custody and parenting time.  Nowadays, the focus is on the child, and how to serve the child’s best interests, notwithstanding what will serve the parent’s interests.  This approach contemplates that a parent’s interest will be (or should be) served indirectly by serving the child’s interests.

 

Where the Children Should Go to School – Part 2

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Hard to believe it’s been seven years since I blogged about this last.  Not much has changed on the subject in seven years, but there are trends that have become more common in practice over time.

As mentioned previously, the decision about where children will attend school tends to lean in favor of where the children previously attended.   The most common exceptions are (a) if the parents agree about the child attending a different school; or (b) neither parent resides in the school district of the previous school anymore.

One of the current trends coming from custody professionals is to avoid imposing a change of school on the children by encouraging both separated parents to reside within the child’s school district.  That way, if one parent has the need to relocate, the other parent can provide residency for the child to remain a student at their current school.

The other trend is for the parenting plan to contain a provision that a parent who relocates outside of the school district to be responsible for transporting the child to and from school on their custodial days.  In some cases, this may impact how many school-night overnights the relocating parent will have.  Even if the parent is ready and willing to provide the transportation to and from school, the time a child spends in the car, particularly early in the morning, can put a chilling effect on the relocating parent’s parenting time.  The farther away from the school the parent resides, the bigger this issue becomes.

Finally, any effort that one parent makes to avoid naming the other parent as a contact on school forms is heavily frowned upon.  Even a parent who has relatively infrequent parenting time is entitled to be informed and updated about the child’s school and how the child is progressing in their education.  On occasion, a custodial parent will list their current spouse (the child’s step-parent) as the “other” parent on the registration documents.  Both courts and custody professionals will nearly always insist that the child’s natural parents be the contacts listed in the student’s school file.