Courthouse Divorce File: What's Private?

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” 
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Gabriel García Márquez: a Life

The public thirsts for gossip, apparent in websites like TMZ and Perz Hilton. Celebrity splits are big news such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon. While most of us do not enjoy celebrity status, the small town rumor mill can be just as virulent as celebrity gossip. Divorce litigants should beware the rules regarding public access to their divorce file. Anyone can head down to the local courthouse and view all the happenings in the neighbor's divorce or co-worker's custody battle.  

The prominent case on this issue is the Petition of Keene Sentinel issued by the New Hampshire Supreme Court on August 27, 1992. During the 1990 political campaign for New Hampshire’s Second congressional seat, The Keene Sentinel sought to gain access to one of the incumbent’s, Charles Douglas III’s divorce records. The clerk granted the Keene Sentinel only some of the divorce records, citing privacy concerns. The Keene Sentinel brought suit and Charles Douglas III sought to intervene, asking the Superior Court to dismiss the suit. The Superior Court ultimately denied the Keene Sentinel’s request.

The Keene Sentinel appealed, arguing that “disclosure should have been permitted pursuant to RSA chapter 91-A, the Right to Know Law.” The Supreme Court held that a party in a divorce proceeding cannot have the records sealed simply for the sake of general privacy concerns.  The Court held that “[b]efore a document is ordered sealed, the trial judge must determine that no reasonable alternative to nondisclosure exists.” If a trial judge does make such a determination, it must use the least restrictive means available to secure the parties’ privacy rights.

This generally requires that the orders, pleadings and other materials in the file are open to the public for viewing. An exception is a financial affidavit. A party is required by the court to complete and submit a sworn financial affidavit, detailing all income, property and debts. This document usually contains very personal information such as social security numbers, bank information and paystubs. Family Division Rule 2.16 and RSA 458:15-b requires financial affidavits to be confidential for non-parties. In practice, this means that the court file contains an envelope which the clerk will remove if you are not a party to the case. Financial affidavits filed in divorce, legal separation, annulment, or parenting petition cases shall be confidential to non-parties. Access to such financial affidavits shall be pursuant to Family Division Rule 1.30. However, a person not otherwise entitled to access may file a motion under Family Division Rule 1.30 to gain access to the financial affidavit. 

The Associated Press v. NH gives some context to the rule regarding financial affidavit confidentiality. The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its holding in this case on December 30, 2005.   After RSA 458:15-b took effect on August 10, 2004, which, inter alia, made financial affidavits in divorce proceedings only accessible to parties to the proceeding and their attorneys of record, the Associated Press filed suit claiming the law was unconstitutional. The Associated Press argued that the law “violated the public’s right of access to court records” under the State Constitution, and that it was an impermissible restraint on freedom of speech per the State and Federal Constitutions.  The trial court determined that the law was not unconstitutional, and dismissed The Associated Press’ suit. The Associated Press appealed the trial court decision, arguing that the trial court erred in finding that the law was constitutional.

 The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court, and finding RSA 458:15-b constitutional. The Court ruled that although the public has a right to access government documents, including court documents, the right is not unlimited.  It opined that "the right of access may be overcome when a sufficiently compelling interest for nondisclosure is identified,” which included the compelling interest to prevent exposing divorce litigants to identify theft and fraud. The Court’s ruling was narrow, however, and only applied to keeping financial affidavits sealed. 

In general, the Court may upon request consider keeping confidential case-related materials for collateral cases that are already confidential pursuant to New Hampshire law. These include termination of parental rights, adoption, juvenile criminal records and abuse/neglect cases and DCYF records.  

 

Unmarried Parents Get Equal Protection for New Hampshire Appeals

Miller v. Todd, a parenting case between two parties who were never married, raised the issue of whether Supreme Court Rule 3 is unconstitutional because it treats married and unmarried parents differently for the purposes of an appeal. At the time, only parents who were married were entitled to a mandatory appeal from an initial determination of parental rights and responsibilities. A mandatory appeal provides that the case “shall be accepted by the supreme court for review on the merits.” Although an appeal from a final divorce decree or final decree on legal separation is a mandatory appeal, an initial determination of parental rights and responsibilities between unmarried parents was not.

In Miller v. Todd the Supreme Court declined to address the issue by declaring it moot. In other words, because the Supreme Court had accepted the father’s discretionary appeal for review, the issue was purely academic because he had not been harmed by having his appeal declined. The Court noted, however, that “any consideration regarding amending Rule 3 should be accomplished in accordance with the rule-making procedures set forth in Supreme Court Rule 51, thereby providing the public, the bench and the bar an opportunity to offer comments and suggestions.”

On April 4, 2014, the Supreme Court adopted new rules, including an amendment to Supreme Court Rule 3 that now provides a mandatory appeal for “the first final order issued in, or arising out of, a domestic relations matter filed under RSA Title XLIII (RSA chapters 457 to 461-A).” The comments to the new rules identify the change results from the claim raised in Miller v. Todd that “providing for mandatory review of appeals involving married parents but discretionary review of appeals involving non-married parents raises constitutional concerns."

In re Deven O: Father rebutted presumption of abandonment in termination of parental rights

The Supreme Court issued In Re Deven O. on November 7, 2013.

The Facts

Deven was born in June 2006 and lived with his parents until they split up in December 2006. Deven lived with his mother and visited with his father a few days each month until December 2007, when father was arrested and incarcerated for armed robbery. Mother visited father in prison, but Deven visited just once. When father was released to a half-way house in June 2010, father visited with Deven multiple times per week over the next three months. In September 2010, mother told father that she did not want him visiting with Deven until he “straightened out his life.”

In October 2010, mother filed a petition to change Deven’s name. Although she knew father had been released from prison, she listed father’s address as the prison. Father found out about the name change in December 2010 after she posted about it online. Father contacted mother that month to arrange for Christmas gifts. In March 2011, father began to attempt to arrange for parenting time with Deven by calling mother. He also contacted mother’s father for help try to arrange visits. When these efforts failed, he filed a parenting petition in December 2011. Mother countered by filing a petition to terminate father’s parental rights.

Following a trial, the court terminated the father’s parental rights on the grounds of abandonment and failure to support, and made a finding that the termination was in Deven’s best interest. 

The Appeal

The father appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there were grounds to terminate his parental rights. The father also asserted that he had no legal obligation to support the child because he was not listed on the birth certificate and there was no child support order. 

The Holding

The Supreme Court held that the mother failed to sustain her heavy burden and that there was insufficient evidence to support the termination of father’s parental rights. Parental rights are a fundamental liberty interest that cannot be pushed aside because a person has not been a model parent. The Court emphasized that a finding that six months passed without communication between the parent and child is only the first step in the analysis, and the trial court must consider the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the presumption of abandonment has been rebutted. The Supreme Court reminded trial courts to consider whether the parent's conduct "evidences a willingness to take on responsibility and concern for the child's physical and emotional care and well-being." Here, although there was a six month period without contact, the evidence of father’s repeated efforts to make contact with Deven prior to his filing of a parenting petition rebutted the presumption.

The Court also considered the mother’s refusal to allow access to the child. The Court looked to its opinion in In Re Sheena B., where the court determined that there could be no abandonment where the separation between a parent and child was caused solely by the other parent. Thus, the Court held, when considering the father's efforts to see Deven and the mother's refusal to allow the contact, that there was “insufficient evidence to support a finding of a settled purpose to abandon the child.”

The Supreme Court notes that the statute does not define, nor has the Court addressed, what it means to be “financially able” to provide a child with necessary subsistence, education or other care as RSA 170-C:5,II. However, here, the Court did not need to address this issue because it found that the evidence was insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that father was financially able but failed to support Deven.

The Takeaway

Deven O. was third in a string of termination of parental rights cases the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued opinions on in 2013. See In re Sophia-Marie H. & In re Faith T. All were private terminations where a parent or guardian sought termination of the rights of a parent (as opposed to DCYF initiated case). In each case, the Supreme Court emphasized that parental rights are “natural, essential, and inherent” within the meaning of the Constitution of New Hampshire and refused to terminate parental rights. Parental rights cannot be ignored because a person has not been an ideal parent.  These three cases act as a large neon caution sign for trial courts in termination proceedings.

Proving your New Hampshire Petition to Terminate Parental Rights

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has often reiterated that parental rights are “natural, essential, and inherent." Such fundamental liberty interests are not easily swept aside. It is therefore imperative to understand the law and procedures for a termination of parental rights. Check out the latest You Tube video about proving your petition for termination of parental rights.

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Collecting electronic evidence: Is it Legal and/or Admissible?

Before the advent of the internet, finding proof of infidelity often fell to the hands of the private investigator and a telephoto camera lens. Yet, with today’s technology, from spyware to GPS trackers, spouses can play private investigator themselves. Software such as Spector Pro and E-Blaster, that captures chats, instant messages, emails, websites, keystrokes, and screen shots and are either saved to the computer or sent to a remote location, can be easily installed on home computers. GPS trackers, costing between $100 and $400, can provide incriminating information on a spouse’s whereabouts. Evidence obtained through these methods, such as graphic emails confirming an extramarital affair or a log of a spouse’s visits to a new lover’s home, can make or break a fault divorce. Additionally, the evidence may be useful for other matters in a divorce, as Jason Brown of the Minnesota Divorce & Family Law Blog points out. Attorney Brown highlights on his blog that information about who your spouse is exposing your children to can be extremely valuable in assisting the court in determining the best interests of your children. Child support and alimony cases can also benefit from information about your spouse's employment and work patterns.

But is the evidence that you collect admissible in court? And even more importantly, is gathering information in this manner legal?

 

New Hampshire is one of 15 states to pass anti-spyware legislation. RSA 359-H criminalizes knowingly causing a computer program or spyware to be copied onto the computer, on which the person is not an authorized user, and using the program or spyware to collect personal information “through intentionally deceptive means, such as through the use of a keystroke logging function, and transferring that information from the computer to another person.” However, the statute does not provide for a blanket exclusionary rule with regard to whether this intercepted information may be used as evidence at a civil trial. Whether the evidence comes in is left to the discretion of the court.

Other states have upheld a trial court’s ruling to exclude the evidence. In Florida, a wife, using the Spector program, secretly installed the spyware on her husband’s computer and was able to capture entire conversations the husband had had with another woman. The husband discovered the program, and asked the court to prevent the wife from using the evidence. The trial court ruled, and the appellate court agreed, that although the state and federal wiretapping statute did not have an exclusionary rule, the court had the discretion to exclude the evidence because it was obtained illegally.

Whether the evidence will come before the court comes down to the facts surrounding how the evidence was obtained. Was the spyware installed before or after the separation? Was the spyware on a family computer that both spouses used or had access to? Arguably, evidence obtained from spyware installed by an “authorized user” onto a family computer prior to a separation would be admissible. However, installing spyware onto a spouse’s workplace computer would probably produce evidence that would be excluded because it was obtained illegally.

GPS trackers on the other hand are not covered by a specific law such as the wiretapping or spyware statutes. However, some law enforcement agencies have taken the position that placing a GPS tracker on a spouse or ex-spouse’s vehicle is stalking and have brought criminal charges against the tracker installer. The Nashua Police recently charged Kevin Merritt with misdemeanor stalking after he installed a GPS tracker on his estranged wife’s vehicle and used the information to follow her to various locations. Whether the police would prosecute and the court would allow the information to be used as evidence would come down to the specific facts of the case, including how the information gleaned from the tracker is used and who owns the vehicle.

In the end, the muddy waters of electronic information gathering require the advice of an experienced attorney to help navigate the specifics of your situation. Contact Crusco Law Office, PLLC to schedule an appointment to discuss your New Hampshire case.  

           

GAL Investigation: What to Expect

The court has appointed a Guardian ad Litem, now what? While each GAL has their individual approach to an investigation, in general, this You Tube video reviews what you can expect during the investigation. 

 

 

 

When a Parent Moves - Relocation of a Child's Residence

When a parent desires to relocate, whether across the state or across the country, it can raise difficult issues for the children and the parenting schedule. This video highlights the standard for relocation set forth in NH RSA 461-A:12 and the issues encountered in petitioning for or defending against a request to relocate. 

What to Bring to a Pretrial Hearing

Before your final trial, the court will conduct a pretrial hearing. Learn here what will happen at the hearing and what needs to be prepared and filed at the hearing. 

Parents May Agree on Enforceable Orders for Payment of College Expenses


Since 2004, the New Hampshire family courts lacked authority to order a parent to pay for college expenses, with the exception of enforcing orders and agreements made prior to 2004. As it was written then, RSA 461-A:14 (V) provided that “no child support order shall require a parent to contribute to an adult child's college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school.” The New Hampshire Supreme Court later held in Goulart that the family court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to approve an agreement between to parents for the payment of college expenses.

 

Recent changes in the law now allow the family court to approve an agreement that provides for the payment of educational expenses beyond high school by one or both parents. Beginning on October 1, 2013, RSA 461-A:21 provides the family court with jurisdiction to approve and enforce new agreements for payment of college and educational expenses. Specifically:  

Parents may agree to contribute to their child's college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school as part of a stipulated decree, signed by both parents and approved by the court. The agreed-on contribution may be made by one or both parents. The agreement may provide for contributions to an account to save for college, for the use of an asset, or for payment of educational expenses as incurred. Any such agreement shall specify the amount of the contribution, a percentage, or a formula to determine the amount of the contribution.

The new divorce decree court form provides sample language for an agreement in paragraph 4. However, the parenting decree court form has not been updated yet to include similar language, so parties will have to adapt their own if they want to include arrangements for college expenses. Parties must agree on whether the agreement is or is not modifiable based upon a substantial change in circumstances. The court form also requires parties to attend mediation before the court will hear a petition to modify or enforce an agreement on college expenses.  

This change is great news for New Hampshire parents. It allows parents to negotiate agreements based on their mutual shared interest in higher education for their children. Furthermore, parents can rely on their agreement and enforce when necessary. At the same time, parents who cannot agree are on equal footing with married parents and cannot be forced to pay for college for their children. 

Unbundled Legal Services

Unbundled legal services, also known as limited scope representation, allow you to hire a lawyer to do certain parts of your case, instead of the traditional soup to nuts representation. Some clients choose unbundled services because they cannot afford full representation, and some advice is better than no advice. Other clients feel capable of handling certain parts of the case, but need assistance with other portions.

Unbundled services can be customized to fit your needs, and can include

  • Representation at a specific hearing, such as a temporary hearing
  • Draft proposed orders or pleadings
  • Attending mediation
  • Assisting with discovery preparations
  • Consulting during your case to provide assistance and advice  

Payment arrangements for unbundled services can be tailored to the specific service. For example, paying a small retainer for ongoing advice, or paying for an hour at the end of a meeting to prepare documents.

Lawyers providing unbundled services will ask the client to sign a consent form that clearly spells out what services are, and are not, going to be provided, in addition to a fee agreement. 

2013 Child Support Guidelines

 The 2013 Child Support Guidelines have been released. Highlights of the new guidelines:

  • The guidelines are effective April 1, 2013
  • The self-support reserve has increased $31 from $1,070 in 2012 to $1,101 for 2013
  • For a couple with a combined gross income of $6,000, the total combined child support figure for one child increased from $1,147.90 to $1,174.51.

The Division of Child Support has a useful child support calculator that you can find here.

 

Modification of child support in New Hampshire

After a final order of child support is entered, either party may seek a modification at any time based on a substantial change in circumstances that has made the original order unfair and improper. A party may also seek a modification if more than three years has passed since the date of the final order without a need to show a substantial change in circumstances.  

Cases are always fact specific, and your situation may be different then the examples laid out here. Situations vary by income, expenses, new children and stepchildren, distance between the homes, or special needs of a child. The court hearing your case will examine the specific factual circumstances of your family to determine whether there has been a substantial change in circumstances that make the original order improper or unfair. Therefore, it is important to succinctly and accurately make your case for the modification.

Examples of situations that could warrant modification include:

  • Involuntary loss of employment.
  • Reduction or increase in income
  • Change in residential responsibility or parenting time.
  • Child graduating from high school or turning 18, while younger still children still require child support.
  • A parent returning to school. In Re Lynn.

There are several circumstances that the New Hampshire Supreme Court has ruled that modification of child support should be denied. Some of the circumstances include:

  • A parent’s relocation itself, without more evidence, is not a substantial change in circumstances sufficient to modify child support. In Re Adams.
  • The remarriage of either party does not as a matter of law warrant a modification of child support. Peterson v. Buxton.
  • Absent other circumstances, the expected growth of a child and normal cost of living increases are not substantial chances or special circumstances that justify modification. Morrill v. Millard.

 

New Family Division Judge and Marital Master Assignments

The following are the new judge and marital master assignments for family cases in the Circuit and Superior Court for January 2013 through March 2013:

 

1st Circuit


Colebrook

Hon. Paul D. Desjardins
(most of these hearings are held in Lancaster)


Berlin

To Be Determined 


Lancaster

Hon. J. Peter Cyr

2nd Circuit


Lebanon

Hon. Lawrence A. Macleod, Jr.


Littleton

Hon. J. Peter Cyr


Haverhill

Hon. J. Peter Cyr


Plymouth

Hon. Thomas A. Rappa

3rd Circuit


Conway

Hon. Pamela D. Albee


Ossipee

Hon. James R. Patten

4th Circuit


Laconia

Michael H. Garner, Marital Master

5th Circuit


Claremont

Hon. John J. Yazinski


Newport

Hon. Bruce A. Cardello

6th Circuit


Concord          

Nancy J. Geiger, Marital Master 
Henrietta W. Luneau, Marital Master
Michael H. Garner, Marital Master


Franklin

Nancy J. Geiger, Marital Master
Hon. Edward M. Gordon


Hillsborough

Hon. Edward B. Tenney


Hooksett

Hon. Paul S. Moore

7th Circuit


Dover

Robert J. Foley, Marital Master


Rochester

Hon. Susan W. Ashley
Robert J. Foley, Marital Master 


Cheshire Superior

Hon. John Kissinger 

9th Circuit


Manchester

Hon. Susan B. Carbon
Thomas G. Cooper, Marital Master
Hon. Sharon DeVries 
Bruce F. DalPra, Marital Master

Nashua

Hon. Julie A. Introcaso
Hon. Michael J. Ryan


Merrimack

Bruce F. DalPra, Marital Master
Hon. Clifford R. Kinghorn, Jr. 


Goffstown

Hon. Paul S. Moore

10th Circuit


Brentwood

Henrietta W. Luneau, Marital Master
Hon. David G. LeFrancois


Salem

Thomas G. Cooper, Marital Master


Derry

Hon. Lucinda V. Sadler


Portsmouth

Hon. Jennifer A. Lemire

 

In Re Guardianship of Matthew L: A call for non-biological parents to secure parental rights


The Supreme Court issued an opinion In Re Guardianship of Matthew L. on December 21, 2012. 

The Facts

Mary and Joan began a committed relationship in 2004. Two years later, they began to plan for a family. Mary became pregnant in 2006 through artificial insemination, and gave birth to Matthew in April 2007. In June 2007, Mary and Joan petitioned to establish a co-guardianship to secure a legal, familial relationship between Matthew and Joan.

Mary ended her relationship with Joan in March 2008, and petitioned to terminate the co-guardianship a few months later. The motion was denied in October 2009. Mary renewed her request to terminate the co-guardianship in June 2010, and the issue went to trial in December 2011. Following the first day of trial, the Supreme Court issued its opinion In Re Guardianship of Reena D. Reena D. held that a guardianship established by consent requires the guardian to bear the burden of proof by clear and convincing evidence that substitution or supplementation of parental care and supervision is necessary to provide for the essential physical and safety needs of the minor and that terminating the guardianship will adversely affect the minor’s psychological well-being.

The trial resumed in March 2012, and the parties agreed that Reena D. applied. Joan asked for a continuance to prepare additional evidence and hire an expert since it was now her burden of proof. The trial court denied the motion, and following completion of the trial, ruled that Joan had failed to carry her burden that the continuation of the co-guardianship was necessary to provide for Matthew essential physical and safety needs. The court terminated the co-guardianship.

The Appeal

Joan appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that the trial court erred by refusing to grant her motion to continue and that the trial court misinterpreted Reena D. to require her to prove both that the guardianship continued to be necessary to provide for Matthew’s essential physical and safety needs and that terminating the guardianship would adversely affect his psychological well-being.

The Holding

On the first question regarding the continuance, the Supreme Court held that it could not conclude that the trial court’s ruling was an unsustainable exercise of discretion. Where the trial court has broad discretion over its proceedings, and the record showed that the trial court had access to the GAL’s investigation and report which included information from Matthew’s therapist and the parent’s co-parenting counselor, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial court could have reasonably concluded that neither a continuance nor a new trial was required.

On the issue interpreting Reena D., the Supreme Court held that the question had not been preserved before the trial court because the general rule requires a specific and contemporaneous objection before the trial court. The court noted that “this rule, which is based on common sense and judicial economy, recognizes that trial forums should have an opportunity to rule on issues and to correct errors before they are presented to the appellate court. Despite affirming the appeal, the opinion provides a lengthy discussion of the parties’ arguments because they raise public policy concerns that the legislature may wish to address. The resolution before the court is left to another day.

The thrust of Joan’s argument is that by requiring her to prove both parts of a conjunctive test, instead of either part, it creates a dissimilar standard between the test to obtain a guardianship over the objection of a parent and to continue a guardianship previously consented to. For example, to obtain a guardianship when a parent objects requires the petitioner to prove pursuant to RSA 463:8, III(B) that the guardianship is necessary to either provide for the physical and safety needs of the child or to avoid adverse effects to the child’s psychological well-being. Joan argues that the termination of the guardianship should also be granted only if neither of the situations is true. She argues that “having different standards for the creation and termination of guardianships would foster instability in children’s lives, thereby contravening the entire purpose of guardianships.”

Mary, on the other hand, argues that Joan is “comparing apples to oranges.” She says that it should be easier to terminate a guardianship obtained through consent then to win guardianship over the objection of a parent. Otherwise, it would be contrary to the public policy of encouraging a struggling parent to make a difficult choice and allow for a guardianship if it will be near impossible to terminate that guardianship over the objection of the guardian.

The Takeaway

This is an interesting case in that the major, important question before the court remains unanswered despite a lengthy discussion of the issue by the court. Prior to the holding in Reena D., the trial courts generally applied a standard requiring the parent to prove that neither the physical safety of the child required supplementation of care nor would the child’s psychological well-being be impacted by the termination of the guardianship. It is a significant change to then require it to be proved that both are still true. Where a parent may be able to care for the child’s physical and safety needs without the guardianship in place, it will more often be the case where there will be a significant adverse effect on the child taken away from his caregiver who he has formed an attachment. The amicus brief filed by the National Association of Social Workers aptly points out that “just as courts have recognized that children form attachment bonds with caregivers, and do so without regard to biological or legal relationships, so they have recognized that disrupting a child’s attachment bonds can severely harm him or her.” With the burden shifted by Reena D., the legislature should act to make the test for the termination of a previously consented to guardianship disjunctive.

One cannot help feeling bad for the little boy in this case who has lost the legal relationship to one of his parents at the urging of his other parent. The October 2009 trial court order found that “Mary and Joan referred to each other both as Matthew’s mother; encouraged Matthew to look to both of them as mothers; and held themselves out to others as Matthew’s mothers.” Furthermore, that “[b]oth Mary and Joan are excellent parents.  Both love Matthew tremendously and show their love for him. … [T]he GAL had no concerns with either Mary or Joan as a parent.  The GAL noted that each has different qualities for nurturing Matthew.”

This case is an important example, at the expense of the well-being of this little boy, that a non-biological parent, whether in a same-sex relationship or heterosexual relationship, must secure unbreakable parental rights to protect their relationship with their child. Guardianship, at least under the Reena D. standard, does not adequately secure those rights since the legal relationship and rights that come with a guardianship can be severed. Adoption is the only means that will provide permanent security to the child and the parent. 

In the Matter of Reena D: Guardian bears burden of proof in termination of guardianship established by consent

The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion In the Matter of Reena D. on December 28, 2011. 

The Facts

In 2002, mother and father petitioned the court to grant guardianship of their twenty-two month old daughter Reena to the paternal grandfather and his wife. The purpose of the guardianship was to allow mother and father to travel to India to start a tile business and visit with the mother’s family. The court appointed the grandfather and his wife as Reena’s guardians.

In 2003, the grandfather died and his wife was appointed as sole guardian of Reena. Later that year, the mother and father petitioned to terminate the guardianship, and then entered into a temporary stipulation with the guardian allowing the guardianship to continue while the father obtained an alcohol assessment. A hearing on the motion to terminate would be held two months after the submission of the assessment.

Six months later, the guardian moved to dismiss the motion to terminate, and the court denied the termination of the guardianship without prejudice. In 2007, the parents renewed their motion to terminate the guardianship. A trial was conducted in 2009, where the father submitted the required alcohol assessment on the first day. The trial court placed the burden of proof, by a preponderance of the evidence, on the parents to show “that substitution or supplementation of parental care and supervision [was] no longer necessary to provide for [their daughter’s] essential physical and safety needs” and that terminating the guardianship would not “adversely affect [their daughter’s] psychological well-being.” The court determined that the parents had failed to meet their burden and denied the termination of the guardianship.   

The Appeal

The father appealed the decision denying the termination of the guardianship over his daughter. He argues that the trial court violated his state and federal constitutional rights by requiring him and his wife to bear the burden of proof to terminate the guardianship. He asserts that it is the respondent who should have the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that the guardianship was necessary to provide for Reena’s essential physical and safety needs and to prevent significant psychological harm to her.

The Holding

In a guardianship established by consent, the guardian bears the burden of proof by clear and convincing  “that substitution or supplementation of parental care and supervision” is “necessary to provide for the essential physical and safety needs of the minor” and that terminating the guardianship will “adversely affect the minor’s psychological well-being.” The court determined that a fit parent, that is one who has not been adjudicated unfit, is entitled to the Troxel presumption that a fit parent will act in the best interests of their child. Thus, where a guardianship has been established by consent, a parent remains a fit parent and it is the guardian who must carry the burden of proof articulated in RSA 463:15, V. The court held that the clear and convincing standard applies, which was in keeping with other holdings of the court in disputes between parents and nonparents over custody of a minor such as In the Matter of R.A. & J.M. and In re Guardianship of Nicholas P.

Because the trial court applied the incorrect burden of proof, the Supreme Court vacated the order denying the termination of the guardianship and remanded it for further proceedings.

The Takeaway

When establishing a guardianship, the parent who consents to the guardianship will have an easier path to terminating the guardianship.

An interesting issue will occur for a guardianship established by consent and adjudication. It is often the case where one parent consents to the guardianship, while the other objects and the guardianship is granted over the objection. In a proceeding to terminate the guardianship, the parent who contested the guardianship must carry the burden of proof, where the parent who consented shifts the burden to the guardian. Having different burdens in the same matter will make things interesting.  

New Hampshire same-sex divorce: What you need to know

Please check out my recent You Tube video on the topic of same-sex divorce in New Hampshire. We'll review length of marriage considerations, parenting rights for same-sex couples, and special property distribution issues in divorces for same-sex partners.

The temporary hearing: A critical phase of your case

Continuing the series of You Tube videos, this edition discusses a very important hearing in your case: the temporary hearing. Watch to find out why, and what you need to do to be prepared and help achieve a good result.

Here are the forms you need for a divorce temporary hearing with children:

Thanks to Jeremy Collins at Ellipsis Entertainment, you were great to work with on this series!

Tips for Completing your New Hampshire Family Division Financial Affidavit

This blog has been a great way to reach out to people who need information about divorce, parenting and family law, and it has been a great experience hearing feedback from colleagues and watching the number of readers grow throughout the years. I hadn't considered branching out into You Tube until I read a blog post on Kevin O'Keefe's Real Lawyers Have Blogs called Are Law Firms Underutilizing You Tube? The idea of a audio/visual piece to this blog appealed to me. Much like I like to hear the audio tour in an art museum instead of reading all the tags next to a painting because it is easier to absorb the information, I think that a video can help convey information in a good way.  

So without further ado, the following is my first You Tube video on the topic of completing your financial affidavit.

Click here for the Financial Affidavit form for theNew Hampshire Circuit Court, Family Division.

Thank you to Jeremy Collins at Ellipsis Entertainment for being easy to work with and producing a great product.

Second parent adoption for same-sex spouses: Is it necessary?

Second parent adoption, also referred to as co-parent adoption or stepparent adoption, is the process where two parents, one who is a legal parent and one who is a legal stranger, create a permanent and legal relationship between the child and both parents.  The American Academy of Pediatrics, which supports same-sex second parent adoption, and explains these reasons for insuring both parents have legal rights:

Children deserve to know that their relationships with both of their parents are stable and legally recognized. This applies to all children, whether their parents are of the same or opposite sex.

 

When two adults participate in parenting a child, they and the child deserve the serenity that comes with legal recognition.

 

Denying legal parent status through adoption to co-parents or second parents prevents these children from enjoying the psychologic and legal security that comes from having two willing, capable, and loving parents.

New Hampshire has allowed second parent adoption for same-sex couples who are married since 2007, where previously only opposite sex spouses or single persons could adopt. This change came about with the recognition in New Hampshire of civil unions in January 2008, and eventually same-sex marriage in January 2010. It is important to remember that in New Hampshire the parents must be married. Some hospitals in New Hampshire will list a married same-sex couple as co-parents on the birth certificate of their child.

 

However, even with both parents listed on the birth certificate, it is still important to seek an adoption by the non-bio parent. Marriage entitles a non-biological parent to a presumption of parenthood, but that presumption is rebuttable. In other words, parenthood could be contested, and without solidifying parental rights and responsibilities with an adoption, the non-biological parent is vulnerable. Second, most other states do not recognize same-sex marriage, and legal parenthood gained by marriage for a same-sex partner may not be acknowledged in a different state. Adoption creates a binding court decree that is recognized by all states, whether passing through or moving to.

 

The second parent adoption will protect the child's right to inheritance, health insurance, social security benefits and child support. The adoptive parent will have enforceable rights of custody and visitation, and parental rights and responsibilities in the event the biological parent passes away, regardless of the jurisdiction the family resides in. Additionally, when an emergency medical decision needs to be made for the child, the adoptive parent will have the ability to make the decision.

 

Other Resources:

 

Best Interest Considerations for a Parenting Schedule

New Hampshire’s “best interests” statute lists out several factors that the court should use to determine best interests. Many of the factors are little wordy, and as a whole the statute misses some of the very basic issues that must be considered when creating a parenting plan that is in the child’s best interest.

When I had the chance to reread a wonderful guide from the Massachusetts Association of Family and Conciliation Courts titled Planning for Shared Parenting: A Guide for Parents Living Apart, I loved the way that the factors were presented so simply. If I had the opportunity to rewrite RSA 461-A:6, I would use the AFCC's language:

  • The age, temperament and social adjustment of each child.
  • Any special needs of each child (medical, developmental, educational, emotional or social).
  • The quality of relationships between siblings and any other extended family members.
  • Each child’s daily schedule.
  • Caregiving responsibilities of each parent before the separation.
  • How you would like to share responsibilities both now and in the future.
  • Availability of each parent as a caregiver.
  • Potential flexibility of each parent’s work schedule.
  • Distance between each parent’s home, workplace and children’s schools.
  • The ability of parents to communicate and cooperate with each other.
  • The ability and willingness of each parent to learn basic caregiving skills such as feeding, changing and bathing a young child; preparing a child for daycare or school; taking responsibility for helping with homework; assessing and attending to each child’s special emotional and social needs.

Here are two good examples of why the basics can be so important in the determination of best interests:

1)      Both parents are good caregivers and share responsibilities for the children both before the separation and after. However, the parents live forty-five minutes from each other. Although each parent is able to adequately provide and care for the children, the distance that they live from each other prevents implementing a shared schedule during the school year. It usually is not feasible to have a parent making a forty-five minute commute with the children to school.

2)      Parents are both good parents and caregivers, each dedicated to the children and able to appropriately care for them. One parent works from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm Monday through Friday, with flexibility to work from home if the children are sick or have the day off from school. The other parent works second shift, from 2:00 pm to 10:00 pm with little flexibility to take time off from work or be available for the children during work hours. The children’s best interests require that they be with the parent who is available after school and in the evenings to prepare dinner, help with homework, and oversee baths and bedtime.

Neither of these scenarios endorses the parenting of one parent over the other or concludes that one parent is unfit; rather, it is a finding that one parent’s work schedule makes them more available or that the distance between the two homes is too much to allow for a shared schedule.

Of course, under RSA 461-A:6 courts have the ability to consider any other factor not listed that the court finds relevant, but I think that these factors from the AFCC provide a plainer picture of the considerations that a GAL might use to make recommendations, or the court might use in crafting a parenting plan

Raising Hope Custody Drama: Real or Not Real?

One of my favorite blogs is Law and the Multiverse. The blog’s premise is to take fictional situations from movies, comic books, and televisions shows and discuss the legal ramifications by applying relevant law. Have you ever wondered whether mutants are a protected class? They have the answer. Want to know whether superheroes have a duty to rescue? Check here. Ever thought they just got the law wrong in Snakes on a Plane? You were right.  

I must have had this blog on the brain while watching Fox’s comedy Raising Hope. The show ended its second season with a courtroom custody drama titled “I want my baby back, baby back, baby back.” Jimmy Chance, two year old Hope’s father, is engaged in a custody battle with Hope’s mother Lucy Carlisle, a boyfriend-murdering serial killer who survived execution. The show is very funny, and clearly this episode was going for laughs and not realism. But that didn’t stop me from rolling my eyes or yelling “come on” at some of the absurdly unrealistic depictions of family law. So I thought that I would play Katniss and Peeta’s “real or not real” game Law and the Multiverse style.

Suppressing Evidence

First up, at the start of the trial, the mother’s attorney stands and makes an oral “Motion to Suppress Evidence of My Client as a Serial Killer.” She argues that the mother’s serial killer background should be suppressed because the charges were dismissed as part of a settlement deal from Lucy’s lawsuit against the prison, and therefore technically never happened. Assuming Lucy’s attorney is making the argument based on Rule of Evidence 403, which allows the exclusion of relevant evidence if the probative value is outweighed by the prejudicial nature of the evidence. Of course the fact that Lucy is a serial killer is prejudicial to Lucy, but it is not more prejudicial than probative, and would not be excluded on this basis.

Even if the judge found that it was more prejudicial than probative, in New Hampshire family cases, the judge has the flexibility to disregard the Rules of Evidence. Pursuant to Family Division Rule 2.2, the Rules of Evidence do not apply in divorce and parenting matters. The judge may, in her discretion, apply the New Hampshire Rules of Evidence “to enhance the predictable, orderly, fair, and reliable presentation of evidence.” The evidence of Lucy’s murder spree would absolutely come in as it is critical to the determination of the child’s best interests. The verdict: not real.

Jury Trial

Next, in Raising Hope land, a jury will hear the custody trial and issue a verdict. When the evidence of Lucy’s violent past is suppressed, Jimmy and his parents are not too worried because only locals “who were living under a rock” would not recognize Lucy as the serial killer from her high-profile trial. And then they bring out a jury composed only of miners who were stuck underground during the murders and trial. The Chance’s lawyer quips that he thought it was the gentlemanly thing to do to let his opposing counsel pick the jury (The Chances should probably be looking into malpractice claims). Of course, in reality, juries do not hear family cases. In New Hampshire, a judge (RSA 490-F), marital master, or child support referee (RSA 490-F:15) preside in the family division and issue court orders. The verdict: not real.

Presence of Minors in Courtroom

The jury renders a verdict in favor of the mother, granting custody of Hope to Lucy. While the verdict is being read, Hope sits on her father’s lap. Pursuant to New Hampshire Family Division Rule 2.8 “a child shall not be brought to court as a witness, or to attend a hearing, or be involved in depositions without prior order of the Court allowing that child’s participation. To obtain permission of the Court for the presence of a child in such a proceeding, good cause must be shown.” There are some exceptions for domestic relations cases, such as adoptions (RSA 170-B:19), guardianships of children over the age of 14 (RSA 463:8 and Family Division Rule 5.4), and certain circumstances in abuse and neglect cases (Family Division Rule 4.5). However, these exceptions do not apply in parenting rights and responsibility cases like the Chance custody trial, and Hope would not be permitted in the courtroom. The verdict: not real.

Brawl in the Courtroom

Finally, after the verdict is read, Virginia and Burt, Jimmy’s parents, begin wrestling with the bailiffs and generally causing a ruckus in the courtroom. The Chances seem to remain incarceration-free despite the fracas. This kind of behavior would probably have landed Virginia and Burt in jail for direct criminal contempt. The judge must preserve and protect the dignity and authority of the court, and the Chances conduct violates such dignity and authority. The verdict: not real.

Raising Hope gets an A for laughs, but and F for realism. I’ll still tune in though.

Contempt of Court

Throughout my years practicing law and in my role as a guardian ad litem, I often hear misconceptions about contempt. Usually I hear statements along the lines of “I don’t want a criminal record” or “if I am found in contempt I will be arrested.” This post is intended to dispel some of these misunderstandings and to set the record straight.

Contempt can be civil or criminal, direct or indirect. The difference between civil or criminal lies in the purpose of the punishment. Direct or indirect contempt contrasts between acts committed either in the presence or outside of the presence of the court.

Civil Contempt

A finding of civil contempt results in an order that is remedial, coercive and for the benefit of the other party. The punishment is intended to force the contemnor’s compliance with court orders. Examples of the consequences of a contempt finding include money fines, orders directing compliance with the court orders, or even an indefinite jail sentence until the contempt is cured. It is often said that the contemnor “holds the key to the jail in his pocket” because curing the contempt will set him free. In family matters, motions for contempt are often brought for failure to pay child support, failure to abide by the parenting schedule, or selling or encumbering property in violation of a non-hypothecation order. Jail is a remedy of last resort, and one that usually only follows repeated, intentional refusals to abide by court orders or extreme behavior. The court will usually exhaust other remedies, such as payment of the other parties’ attorney’s fees, before sending a person to jail for civil contempt. A civil finding of contempt does not appear on a person’s criminal record.

Criminal Contempt

In contrast, a person who has been found in criminal contempt does not hold the keys to the jailhouse, and remedying the contempt will not set him free. The punishment is punitive, and intended to protect and preserve the dignity and authority of the court. Indirect criminal contempt proceedings must generally follow to procedural formalities of criminal proceedings. The defendant is entitled to reasonable notice, providing a date and time for the proceeding and warning that the contempt is considered criminal. The prosecutor must prove the elements of contempt beyond a reasonable doubt, and the contemnor is entitled to counsel and holds the right against self-incrimination. If the court intends to impose a sentence of greater than six months, the defendant has the right to a jury trial.

An example of criminal contempt, and the confusion that can result between criminal and civil contempt, is the New Hampshire case of Mortgage Specialists v. Davey. Mortgage Specialists sued the defendants for violation of trade secrets. Following a preliminary injunction, the defendants destroyed documents in violation of the court order. The court found the defendants in contempt, believing that they had thumbed their noses at the trial court’s authority and thwarted the dignity of the process, and issued penalties including attorney’s fees, fines and a penalty of three times the amount of profits unjustly reaped from the violation of trade secrets. The Supreme Court vacated the finding because the defendants were not provided notice that the contempt proceedings would be criminal.

Indirect Contempt

Indirect contempt is conduct that takes place outside of the presence of the court. The court does not have first-hand knowledge. Instead, the acts of contempt must be proved through evidence. An interesting case that distinguishes direct contempt versus indirect contempt is Kristen McGuire v. Suzanne Collins. In McGuire, a litigant in a custody matter arrived at the courthouse smelling of alcohol. The court security officer approached the litigant, and a state trooper performed a preliminary breath test. The results were not provided to the litigant, or her attorney. However, when she appeared before the court for the hearing, the judge informed her that she had blown a .20, well above the legal limit. However, the litigant displayed no disorderly behavior in the courtroom. The judge sentenced to litigant to 30 days in jail for direct, criminal contempt for appearing before the court in an inebriated state. However, the sentence was overturned by the Superior Court following a filing for a writ of habeus corpus because the family division judge had not personally observed the elements of contempt. Instead, the court had to rely on the observations of the court staff and the preliminary breath test conducted by the state trooper to prove the elements of contempt. Therefore, the court did not have direct knowledge and could not conduct summary proceedings resulting in the immediate incarceration.

Direct Contempt

Direct contempt takes place in the presence of the court where the judge personally observes all of the elements of contempt. The following is a perfect example of direct contempt from Maryland in the case of Patrick Smith v. State of Maryland:

THE DEFENDANT: What is the maximum on contempt, sir?

THE COURT: What is the maxim um on contempt? If I am going to give you in excess of six months, I believe I have to give you a jury trial, is that correct . . . ?

[STATE’S ATTORNEY]: Yes.

THE COURT: Mr. Smith, I am not going to give you in excess of six months.

THE DEFENDANT: Let me tell you something.

THE COURT: What?

THE DEFENDANT: You say you won’t give me in excess of six months.

THE COURT: Yes.

THE DEFENDANT: You know what? You have been sitting up there in the trial in every hearing I have had for this far, right? From day one, you have been very prejudiced to the defense. I asked you, right, a while ago, you tried to skip out on even bringing forth an allegation. You say it is only a bald allegation. I am not asking you to believe me. I am asking you to bring forth the witnesses in this case who could testify --

THE COURT: I asked you if you had anything you want to say as to what sentence the Court should impose --

THE DEFENDANT: Yeah. You know what? You can give me six more months, motherfucker, for sucking my dick, you punk ass b itch. You should have a white robe on, motherfucker, instead of a black. Fuck you.

THE COURT: I find you in contempt again.

THE DEFENDANT: Fuck you in contempt again.

THE COURT: I find you three times in contempt --

THE DEFENDANT: Fuck you. And fuck.

THE COURT: On each charge, the Court will impose a sentence of five months to run consecutive to each other and consecutive to any sentence you are now serving or obligated to serve.

THE DEFENDANT: Yeah. You better leave now, you, Ku Klux Klan.

Other examples of direct contempt include assaulting another person in the courtroom or refusing to testify when ordered to do so. When direct contempt occurs, the court may skirt procedural formalities required of indirect contempt in light of the court’s direct knowledge of the contempt. The word “summarily” does not refer to the swiftness of the punishment, but rather the dispensing with the formalities that accompany a conventional trial such as service of process, notice of hearing, and submission of evidence. Instead, the court must give the contemnor oral notice of the contempt observed, an opportunity to speak in his defense, where after the court may issue a finding of guilty and pronounce sentence.  

Understanding Same-Sex Divorce

In November, I authored an article on same-sex marriages in the New Hampshire Bar News geared towards helping practioners understand unique issues in same-sex divorces. I reprint here the full article:

Practicing family law in one of the six states that recognizes same-sex marriage requires an understanding of the unique challenges that same-sex couples face in a divorce. Usually, a divorce provides a mechanism to dissolve the legal relationship, divide property and establish parental rights and responsibilities. Although same-sex couples can dissolve their marriage in New Hampshire, reaching a fair and reasonable property division or establishing parental rights and responsibilities is much more difficult.

Marriage & Divorce

New Hampshire practitioners have limited precedent to guide them on several thorny issues that are distinctive to same-sex couples. Ironically, one of the few cases involving same-sex relationships, which is still good law, is now inconsistent with the state’s recognition of same-sex marriage. In the Matter of Blanchflower held that adultery does not include homosexual relationships. The court based its decision on the definition in New Hampshire of adultery, which excludes all non-coital sex acts, no matter the gender of the persons engaging in the act. Thus, although other fault grounds may be pursued, adultery is off the table for same-sex divorcing couples. The Blanchflower Court noted that it was not the function of the judiciary to extend past legislation to provide for present needs.

A common dispute in same-sex divorce is the calculation of the length of the marriage. In cases where the parties’ cohabitated long term prior to the marriage, one party may attempt to tack on the cohabitation to increase the length of the marriage and impact alimony and property division. This argument stems from the claim that had the parties been able to marry, they would have. Without New Hampshire precedent, the court may look to Massachusetts for guidance, where the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has held that marriage benefits apply prospectively to the legalization of same-sex marriage. In addition to the cohabitation argument, the question also remains whether domestic partnerships, like those in California or New Jersey, might be similar enough to a marriage to tack on and create a long-term marriage.

Alimony

The IRS identifies alimony as payments made between spouses or former spouses pursuant to a divorce or separation agreement. Typically, alimony is deductible to the payor and includable as income to the payee for federal income tax purposes. However, the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal recognition of same-sex marriages, and in turn precludes the IRS from recognizing a same-sex spouse as such. Although the IRS has not provided specific guidance on the issue, it seems clear that alimony payments are not tax deductible to the payor and may incur a gift tax liability. The IRS might alternatively consider the payments compensation for past services, with income tax, self-employment tax and possible withholding obligations. Either treatment will incur tax consequences that could be financially devastating to the family.

Property Division

In "traditional" divorces, opposite-sex couples rarely invokes tax consequences during the division of their marital assets. Such property transfers meet specific IRS exemption rules. Same-sex couples on the other hand can be saddled with a large tax liability as a result of property division.

The Defense of Marriage Act disqualifies same-sex spouses from the tax exemptions for property transfers made pursuant to a divorce decree. Instead, same-sex couples incur a gift tax liability for most transfers made between the spouses or former spouses in excess of $13,000. For example, if one spouse transfers $30,000 to the other spouse for property settlement, $17,000 would be taxable. In addition to gift tax, same-sex couples must be aware of capital gains tax when the home is transferred from joint ownership to one spouse.

A specific part of property division is the ability of a spouse to transfer property to a spouse or former spouse by qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) pursuant to the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), a portion of a retirement plan or tax sheltered annuity. The tax treatment of such transfers depends on the word "spouse." In other words, in order to qualify for the tax-free transfer benefits, the relationship must be recognized by the IRS as a marriage. Under the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, a QDRO is not a vehicle available to same-sex couples to transfer retirement assets tax-free. Instead, same-sex couples must pay taxes and early withdrawal penalties on transfers made to the other spouse, regardless of whether it is deposited into the other spouses’s retirement account.

Parental Rights & Responsibilities

New Hampshire follows the legal principal that a child born into a marriage is presumed to be the legal child of both spouses. This presumption of legitimacy may be attacked however, and if successful could drastically affect the non-biological parent’s right to seek parenting rights and responsibilities, including residential responsibilities. Although the step-parent statute might be a useful tool in this circumstance, the parenting rights accessed through this avenue could look much different than the rights of a legal parent. Co-parent adoption is the safest way to establish protected parenting rights for each spouse.

Address notification requirements and domestic violence restraining orders: How to comply with conflicting orders

 Question:

 Do I still have to notify the other parent about moving pursuant to the relocation statute if there is a domestic violence restraining order and my address is confidential?

 

Answer:

 

The statute states that the notice requirement applies in all parenting rights and responsibilities cases unless specifically addressed otherwise in the parties’ existing order or agreement. If there is a court order stating that you do not have to comply with the relocation law, then no notice is needed. Similarly, if the move results in your moving closer to the other parent and there is no change in school placement, then no notice is needed pursuant to the relcoation statute. You may, however, need to provide notice of your address change pursuant to provisions in the court order requiring parents to keep each other updated on address and contact information.

 

If you are required to provide notice of the address change, then you must comply and provide notice of the move to the other parent. If you are concerned about releasing your address, the best approach would be to provide notice of the move by providing the town or city location only, and not the street address, and file a motion with the court to seek permission not to disclose the full address. Presumably, the other parent has the right to know what schools the children are attending, so the information about the town or city will most likely need to be disclosed.

 

Remember, this is a basic answer to a basic question. Each family matter is unique, and has a specific set of facts which might change the above answer. In order to make sure that you arein compliance with court orders and New Hampshire law, you should seek advice from an attorney who is able to review your situation with you.

New Mandatory Self-Disclosure Rule takes effect December 1st in Family Division

A much needed mandatory self-disclosure rule is coming to New Hampshire on December 1, 2011. The concept of the rule is to streamline the discovery process by exchanging required financial documents early in the litigation process so that each party has the information they need to be prepared for mediation and a temporary hearing. The rule should also reduce common disputes, such as relevancy, that unnecessarily take up court time and increase litigation costs.

 

Family Division Rule 1.25-A applies to all new actions in the family division for:

 

·         divorce

·         legal separation

·         annulment

·         civil union dissolution

 

An abbreviated version of the rules applies that requires disclosure of documents described sections (a) through (e) in the following cases:

 

·         parenting petitions

·         child support petitions

·         petitions to enforce or change court orders in parenting, divorce, legal separation, or civil union dissolution cases

 

Parties must provide the above documents no later than either forty-five (45) days from the date of service/delivery of the petition or ten (10) days prior to the temporary hearing or initial hearing on the petition, whichever is earlier. A First Appearance does not qualify as an initial hearing.

 

The rule obligates each party to provide the following documents to the other party:

 

(a) A current financial affidavit in the format required by family division rule 2.16, including the monthly expense form.

 

(b) The past three (3) years’ personal and business federal and state income tax returns and partnership and corporate returns for any non-public entity in which either party has an interest, together with all tax return schedules, including but not limited to W-2s, 1099s, 1098s, K-1s, Schedule C, Schedule E and any other schedules filed with the IRS.

 

(c) The four (4) most recent pay stubs (or equivalent documentation) from each current employer, and the year-end pay stub (or equivalent documentation) for the calendar year that concluded prior to the filing of the action.

 

(d) For business owners or self-employed parties, all monthly, quarterly and year-to-date financial statements to include profit and loss, balance sheet and income statements for the year in which the action was filed; and all year-end financial statements for the calendar year that concluded prior to the filing of the action.

 

(e) Documentation confirming the cost and status of enrollment of employer provided medical and dental insurance coverage for:

 

i. The party,

ii. The party's spouse, and

iii. The party's dependent child(ren).

 

(f) For the twelve (12) months prior to the filing of the action, any credit, loan and/or mortgage applications, or other sworn statement of assets and/or liabilities, prepared by or on behalf of either party.

 

(g) For the twelve (12) months prior to the filing of the action, documentation related to employee benefits such as but not limited to stock options, retirement, pension, travel, housing, use of company car, mileage reimbursement, profit sharing, bonuses, commissions, membership dues, or any other payments to or on behalf of either party.

 

(h) For the twelve (12) months prior to the filing of the action, statements for all bank accounts held in the name of either party individually or jointly, or any business owned by either party, or in the name of another person for the benefit of either party, or held by either party for the benefit of the parties' minor child(ren).

 

(i) For the twelve (12) months prior to the filing of the action, statements for all financial assets, including but not limited to all investment accounts, retirement accounts, securities, stocks, bonds, notes or obligations, certificates of deposit owned or held by either party or held by either party for the benefit of the parties' minor child(ren), 401K statements, individual retirement account (IRA) statements, and pension-plan statements.

 

(j) For the twelve (12) months prior to the filing of the action, any and all life insurance declaration pages, beneficiary designation forms and the most recent statements of cash, surrender and loan value.

 

(k) For the six (6) months prior to the filing of the action, statements for all credit cards held by either party, whether individually or jointly.

 

(l) Any written prenuptial or written postnuptial agreements signed by the parties.

 

Representation of Accused Parents is Fundamental Right

Republished here, my opinion from the recent Bar News regarding the appointment of counsel for parents in abuse and neglect proceedings:

Few rights can be argued to be more fundamental then the right to raise and care for one’s children. In recognition of that right, New Hampshire has long appointed counsel to represent indigent parents in abuse and neglect proceedings who face the removal of their children from their care by the State. The NH Supreme Court recognized in Shelby R. that "abuse and neglect proceedings can harm, and in some cases irreparably damage, family and marital relationships."

Despite the constitutional protections afforded to parents, recent passage of HB2 [the budget "trailer bill"] and the issuance of Circuit Court Administrative Order 2011-01 deprives indigent parents accused of abuse and neglect of the statutory right to be represented by an attorney at all stages of the proceedings. The Administrative Order prohibits any new appointments of counsel after July 1, 2011, and orders the automatic withdrawal of counsel after the issuance of dispositional orders for attorneys appointed prior to July 1, 2011. However, legislative enactments cannot override a constitutional protection and the Courts have an affirmative duty to invalidate a statute that violates a person’s constitutional rights.

Fundamental fairness requires government conduct to conform to the community’s sense of justice, decency and fair play. Without the protections of counsel, a parent facing allegations under the Child Protection Act stands little chance of defending himself against the state. As the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Gideon v. Wainwright, "even an intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law." Oftentimes the parents involved in abuse and neglect cases are uneducated, unsophisticated, frightened and do not have the wherewithal to understand the process. They have no skills in asking questions, raising objections, or admitting evidence. They lack knowledge of the law and are at an extreme disadvantage when questions of law arise.

On the other hand, the State, in presenting its case, has the ability, funds and know-how to subpoena witnesses, hire expert witnesses, obtain medical or psychological evaluations of the children or the parents, and investigate the claims and allegations involved in a petition. The State employs attorneys to put on the State’s case and act on its behalf. The parent’s fundamental, natural and essential rights require that counsel be appointed to assist a parent in mounting their defense and protecting their rights.

Additionally, abuse and neglect proceedings can have the most serious of consequences to parental rights: the termination of parental rights. As the NH Supreme Court wrote in State v. Robert H., "the loss of one’s children can be viewed as a sanction more severe than imprisonment." The abuse and neglect proceedings become the grounds upon which the state relies on in a termination of parental rights proceeding. The finding of abuse or neglect, the parent’s progress throughout the case, the status of the parent’s compliance with the dispositional orders, and the alleged failure of a parent to correct the conditions that led to the finding of neglect are the framework of the state’s TPR case. Without counsel guiding and protecting the parent in the underlying abuse and neglect proceeding, appointing counsel in the TPR is too little too late to safeguard the parent’s constitutional rights.

In contrast to other state cuts that have drawn the attention of the media and the public, the prohibition on appointed abuse and neglect counsel for indigent parents has captured little notice. Few of us can imagine the state coming into our home and removing our children, and not having the financial ability to protect our rights and family and advocate for the return of our children. The elimination of parent attorneys is shameful act by a legislature willing to sacrifice justice for the bottom line. As this opinion goes to publication, abuse and neglect parent attorneys across the state are mounting a challenge, and the support of the Bar and the public is crucial to its success. In the meantime, parents will have to navigate the abuse and neglect system without advice of counsel and try their best to advocate for themselves and their children.

After TPR & Adoption: Grandparents may petition for visitation rights

Grandparent’s rights vary from state to state. In New Hampshire, grandparent’s visitation rights are specifically designated by statute. However, obtaining visitation is not as easy as filing a petition and being granted time with one’s grandchildren. In order to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Troxel v. Granville, which struck down a breathtakingly broad Washington state statute that allowed any third party to sue for visitation over the objection of the parents and the outcome determined solely by the judge’s estimation of the child’s best interests, New Hampshire restricts the situations in which a grandparent can petition to establish visitation.

In order to pursue grandparent visitation, there must be an absence of a nuclear family, “whether divorce, death, relinquishment or termination of parental rights, or other cause.” Prior to the recent New Hampshire Supreme Court opinion In Re Athena D., it was unsettled whether a new nuclear family, brought about by the termination of parental rights and the adoption of the child, would cut off the rights of natural grandparents to visitation. The take away from Athena D. is that “petitions for grandparent visitation in the case of termination of parental rights are to be treated in the same manner as in the case of the death of a parent, stepparent adoption, or unwed parents.”

The Athena D. holding is especially important for the protection of society’s most vulnerable children. Children who are the subject of cases brought under the Child Protection Act, and subsequently state-action termination proceedings, may have indispensable bonds with their natural grandparents that must be preserved. While the children may need to be protected from the parents, and adopted into a new family, a child’s best interest may demand continued contact with the natural grandparents over the objection of the adoptive parents. This holding allows for that, so long as the grandparents meet the other requirements of a petition for grandparent’s visitation rights as set forth in RSA 461-A:13.

Have you considered collaborative law?

I am pleased to announce that I have been accepted as a member of the Collaborative Law Alliance of New Hampshire. Collaborative practice is an alternative to the traditional, adversarial family law litigation process. Lawyers and clients agree from the beginning to keep the case out of court and settle it through a series of 4-way meetings. Instead of negotiating under the threat of court or on the eve of trial, lawyers and parties are freed from those constraints and are able to focus on alternative and creative solutions to meet each parties needs.

CLANH makes the point that the collaborative process benefits a client by:

  • Avoiding the expensive and lengthy court and litigation process.
  • Retaining a relationship of mutual respect while moving apart with dignity.
  • Reaching a settlement that both parties are comfortable with.

If the process breaks down, and the parties are not able to resolve the case, each lawyer is disqualified from representing their client in court. Each party must find a new attorney to litigate the case. This is an important aspect of the collaborative process because it gives incentive to remain committed to the collaborative process.

Both parties must have collaborative trained lawyers. Talk to your spouse or partner about collaborative practice, and have them research "collaborative law" or "collaborative practice." Download for them the free Collaborative Divorce Knowledge Kit from the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. Ask them to speak to a lawyer trained in collaborative practice (a list of New Hampshire lawyers can be found here).

If you are interested in more information about the collaborative process, please contact my office at 603-627-3668 or through the contact form on this blog.

Coming Changes and Challenges to New Hampshire Parents' Right to Counsel in Abuse and Neglect Proceedings

New Hampshire has long recognized that a parent's right to raise and care for one's child is a fundamental constitutional right. In recognition of that right, there has been a statutory right to counsel for parent's facing termination of parental rights proceedings and in abuse and neglect cases. In addition to the statutory authority, the New Hampshire Supreme Court has held that stepparents who are accused of abuse or neglect, and are household members, have the right to counsel if they cannot afford one.

However, the state's budget, which has passed the house and the senate and Governor Lynch has announced his intention to allow it to become law without his signature, changes the statutory authority and the ability of the state to pay for appointed counsel for parents in abuse and neglect cases. HB2, Section 79 strikes the portion of RSA 169-C:10, II(a) mandating the court appointment of an attorney for accused, indigent parents in abuse and neglect proceedings. On June 23, 2011, Judge Kelly, the administrative judge for the Family Division, issued an administrative order that orders as follows:

  • Until June 30, 2011, attorneys shall continue to be appointed to represent an indigent parent only where mandated by RSA169-C:10, II(a), i.e. in cases where an indigent parent is alleged to have neglected or abused his or her child.
  • Effective July 1, 2011, counsel shall not be appointed for indigent parents in abuse and neglect cases under RSA chapter 169-C.
  • Effective July 1, 2011, all appointments of counsel, including existing appointments, to represent indigent parents in abuse and neglect cases shall terminate upon the issuance of the dispositional order pursuant to RSA 169-C:19.

Though the legislature may believe that they can simply defund and eliminate the statute requiring appointed counsel for indigent parents, I would argue that they are wrong. In addition to the statutory protections that have been afforded to indigent parents in abuse and neglect case, the New Hampshire Constitution protects parents. The Shelby Court held that "due process requires the appointment of counsel to a stepparent accused of abuse or neglect under RSA chapter 169-C." The Court recognized that "abuse and neglect proceedings can harm, and in some cases irreparably damage, family and marital relationships." While the Court has consistently held that a natural parent's role in family life is a fundamental liberty interest under the constitution, due to the statutory protections requiring the appointment of counsel for accused parents, the Court has not yet been called on to recognize the due process right of a parent to counsel in abuse and neglect proceedings. However, given the holding that accused stepparents are entitled counsel, it is difficult to imagine that a parent would not have the same due process right. 

What happens from here? I expect that a constitutional challenge will be brought, in one of a variety of methods, and the Supreme Court will be called upon to recognize a parent's constitutional right to counsel in abuse and neglect proceedings. Until then, parents will have to navigate the abuse and neglect system without advice or counsel and try their best to advocate for themselves and their children.

New Hampshire Supreme Court to release opinion in New Hampshire home-school case tomorrow

Tomorrow, March 16, 2011, the New Hampshire Supreme Court will issue its opinion in the New Hampshre homeschooling case. The case of Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch has grabbed national headlines and sparked much debate about the right to home-school. In this matter, a divorced mother and father could not agree on whether their daughter should be home-schooled by the mother,  and so a trial was held and a judge issued an order requiring the child to attend public school. The mother appealed, arguing, among other issues, that she has a consitutional right to home school her child.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in this matter on January 6, 2011. The justices asked some hard questions and made some interesting points, including:

  • On the issue of a constitutional right to home-school, Justice Lynn asked the mother's attorney: The cases you cite were state v. parent, but in this case the state has been forced to settle a dispute between to parents, is there not a difference?
  • Justice Dalianis questioned whether the Court needed to decide the constitutional issue of home schooling if the court decides that the trial court's order was a modification subject to the Muchmore standard.
  • Justice Duggan asked the mother's attorney how schooling is a religious right. Further, "if there is no constitutional right to home-school, do you lose?"
  • Justice Conboy distinguished residential and decision making responsibility, and questioned whether the modification standard applies when the court has to settle a decision making dispute. She asked, "if the parents have joint decision making and they do not agree, then what happens?"

Check here on March 16th for the opinion. For links to the parents' appellate briefs, click here.

Concord, we have a problem!

Crazy things are going on in Concord that needs your attention. Currently, there are several bills that would dramatically change the practice of family law in New Hampshire, and not for the better. A group of disgruntled litigants are attempting for the third time to remove a distinguished marital master from the bench. Finally, Governor Lynch’s proposed budget eliminates the guardian ad litem fund and appointed counsel for parents in abuse and neglect cases, a proposal that would be disastrous for the overburdened court system and children they protect.  

Pending Legislation

 

The New Hampshire family court system is not perfect and I am sure that there is room for improvement. Unlike other areas of the law, which are black and white, the grey nature of family law requires the vesting of discretion within the court to allow a result based on the unique facts of each case. However, the legislature seems intent on radical change that removes discretion from the courts, and mandates certain outcomes.

  • HB 587 proposes that no fault divorces be granted only to couples who do not have children under the age of 18. Instead, divorcing couples with minor children must prove one of the fault grounds, such as adultery, extreme cruelty, endangerment of health or reason, habitual drunkenness, or abandonment. Though the aim may be to keep families together by requiring a person seeking a divorce to prove fault, the end result would be increased litigation, expense and animosity in cases involving children. Such a result is in no one’s best interests.
  • HB 538 would require the family division to report a vast amount of information to the state registrar about parental rights and responsibilities matters. The bill proposes that the court must report statistics on every temporary or permanent order on parental rights and responsibilities, including tallying whether mothers or fathers were awarded decision making and residential responsibility. The bill also requires the Supreme Court to implement standards of practice and oversight of GALs. This bill creates an extreme amount of work for an all ready underfunded court system, and duplicates oversight and discipline provided by the GAL Board. In today’s tough times, it’s the least important thing on the plate.
  •  HB 563 would discard the current child support calculations and set child support to either the net income multiplied by the applicable percentage or the foster care reimbursement rates, whichever is less. Where to start with what is wrong with this bill? It drastically reduces all child support rates by basing child support on net income instead of gross income and tying child support to the foster care reimbursement rates. For example, the most that any obligor would ever have to pay for a child age 0 to 5 would be $474. That amount does not even cover daycare for one child, let alone diapers, formula, clothing, food and shelter.

If you have comments or concerns about these bills, contact your legislature to make your voice heard. You can find the contact information for your representative or senator on the state website.  

 

Impeachment of Master Cross

 

For three years, family court litigants David Johnson and Michael Puia have waged a public war against Marital Master Philip Cross through the legislature. Despite the legislature's vote against the Bill of Address seeking to remove Master Cross from the bench, Rep Itse has sponsored a house resolution seeking to direct the the house judiciary committee "to investigate whether grounds exist to impeach marital master Phillip Cross and/or any justice of the New Hampshire superior court."

 

Such a maneuver is a dangerous, slippery slope for the legislature. In its 235 year history, the State of New Hampshire has impeached two judges. Impeachment is reserved for the most serious of offenses, defined by the Constitution as "bribery, corruption, malpractice or maladministration."  The nature of the allegations enumerated in the resolution cannot on its face be characterized as one of these four acts.

 

Instead, the allegations evidence unhappy litigants who do not understand the court system. Therein is the slippery slope. If every litigant who received an adverse decision were able to bring their grievance to the legislature and initiate impeachment proceedings, the State of New Hampshire would have no judges left. Master Cross alone heard over 6,000 cases last year. Add in the 90 plus judges and masters across the state, and the legislature would have their hands full.

 

The hearing before the Resolution Committee on this matter will occur at the Legislative Office Building, 30 North State Street, Concord, on Tuesday, the 22nd, @ 3:30pm.

 

State Budget

 

Governor Lynch has proposed a budget that eliminates both the GAL Fund and assigned counsel for parents accused of abuse and neglect. This proposed change would go into effect on July 1, 2011.

 

Currently, the GAL Fund works as follows: The court assigns a Guardian ad Litem to a case to represent the best interests of a child. These cases include divorce, parenting petitions, termination of parental rights, guardianships and other family matters. In the event that one or both of the litigants qualifies under certain income guidelines, the court orders that the qualifying parent’s portion of the payment owed to the GAL will go through the GAL fund. The parties are then required to contact the Office of Cost Containment and set up a payment schedule. Services rendered by GALs through the GAL fund are not free, and the parents must pay back the funds.

In abuse and neglect cases, the Division of Children, Youth and Families files a petition against a parent alleging that a child is abused or neglected. A possible consequence of an abuse or neglect petition can be the filing of a petition to terminate a parent’s parental rights. Parental rights are constitutional rights, similar to a defendant charged in a criminal case. Additionally, assigned counsel is subject to reimbursement from the parents. In other words, a parent does not get a free attorney, and may have to pay back some or all of the funds.

 

The results of the Governor’s proposed cuts would be disastrous. Eliminating the GAL fund would deny access to the court system to low income families. Judges would be unable to make informed decisions regarding custody of children without the services of a guardian ad litem, and children would be put in harm’s way. In abuse and neglect cases, a flood of litigants who are unfamiliar with the court system and the law will wash through and muddy an all ready overburdened court. Then, eventually, when a parent who has not been afforded counsel has their constitutional right to parent terminated will win an appeal on those grounds and children who need permanent homes will continue to live in limbo.

 

I get that the state is looking to eliminate entitlement programs, but these programs are not free and are about access to justice and the protection of constitutional rights. Instead of eliminating the programs, the state should implement a better system to insure that more parents are paying into the system as they have been court ordered to do.

 

Please write to Governor Lynch, and tell him how his proposed budget affects your family.

An eclectic mix of Christmas, court closings and co-parenting

My blog posts are usually topical - focusing on one subject at a time such as relocation or guardian ad litems. Today I am going in a different direction though, as I have a couple of items to post about. My post is inspired by the wonderful blog at the Massachusetts Divorce Law Monitor by Attorney Nancy Van Tine, who always posts an interesting mix of food for thought. So here goes:

  • Remember that the New Hampshire courts are closed on Thursday, December 23rd and Friday, December 24th for a furlough day and for the Christmas holiday.
  • Holidays can be a stressful time when trying to coordinate who will be present during holiday celebrations. I love the post by Deeshaw Philyaw titled If You Invite His Ex-Wife to Thanksgiving Dinner. It is based on the children's book, If You Give a Pig a Party by Laura Numeroff.

Stay safe and warm and have a very, merry Christmas!

UCCJEA Now Effective

The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) went into effect on December 1, 2010 in New Hampshire. Following the lead of 46 other states, the UCCJEA replaces the old UCCJA, which is still the law in Massachusetts and Vermont. The act affects almost every case that involves parental rights and responsibilities, including divorce, parenting petitions, child abuse and neglect, guardianships of minors, termination of parental rights, and domestic violence petitions where minor children are involved.   

 

Important points about the new law:

  • Requires that once the “home state” of the child has been determined, and child custody orders have been issued, that state has “exclusive continuing jurisdiction” for so long as the child or either parent reside there.
  • Eliminates the confusing “best interests” standard included in the UCCJA, which some courts interpreted as a mandate to consider best interests factors over and above jurisdictional matters.
  • Adds enforcement tools including a role for public authorities, such as prosecutors, to enforce custody orders and the ability for the court to issue a emergency relief such as a warrant to take possession of a child should the court be concerned that the parent with control over the child may flee.

The new law brings about a slew of new and revised forms. For petitioners, forms such as a Petition for Divorce, Petition for Guardianship over Minor, or a Domestic Violence Petition have been modified to include required information. For respondents, the court has developed a separate form titled a UCCJEA Affidavit to complete in response to an initial petition.

 

Navigating the requirements of the UCCJEA can be overwhelming for those involved in cases of parenting rights and responsibilities. It is important to retain competent legal counsel to assist you. Contact Crusco Law Office, PLLC for more information.

Appeal in the New Hampshire homeschooling case: Kurowski & Voydatch

Back in September 2009, the so-called New Hampshire homeschooling case (In the Matter of Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch) grabbed national headlines when the court ordered the parties’ child to attend public school instead of continuing with home schooling. Home school supporters decried the decision, arguing that the order trampled the mother’s constitutional rights to raise and educate her child as she saw fit. The problem with that line of thinking is that it fails to acknowledge that the child has two parents, not one. As an equal decision maker, the father has rights too. When the parents could not agree on matters of education and religion, the family court decided.

The case is currently on appeal at the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and headed to oral arguments on January 6, 2011 at 9:00 am. The parties have submitted their briefs, including an Amicus Curiae brief from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).  

The mother, through her attorney John Simmons, filed an appeal and brief with the New Hampshire Supreme Court, asking the court to consider the following questions:

 

  • Whether the trial court erred in modifying a parenting plan, to order a home schooled child to attend public school, by considering the “best interests of the child”, where none of the statutory circumstances permitting modification, as set forth in RSA 461-A:11, were present, and the court made such finding.
  •  Whether the trial court erroneously concluded that it was in the best interests of a home-schooled child to be sent to public school where the court’s decision was based on its own definition of the purpose of education that was unsupported by RSA 461-A:6,I or by any other law.
  •  Whether the trial court’s decision should be reversed because it committed plain error in relying on the opinion testimony of a guardian ad litem who was not qualified as an expert and who’s opinion was not based on a rational perception within the meaning of Rule 701 of the New Hampshire Rules of Evidence.
  • Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school to expose her to diverse points of view was erroneous because it violated the fundamental parental right to control a child’s education guaranteed by the United States Constitution, where the evidence showed that the child was already getting a superior education and the State’s purported goal could be achieved by a less restrictive means.
  •  Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school because she was too rigid in her religious beliefs was erroneous because it interfered with the child’s right to the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
  • Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school should be reversed because it relief on the testimony of a guardian ad litem who was biased against the religion practiced by the child and her mother.

The father, through his attorney Joshua Gordon, submitted a reply brief. HSLDA submitted an amicus curiae brief. Stay tuned for a blog post reviewing the arguments and briefs.

The Berg Case: Parents right to access medical records v. child's right to privacy

A principal obligation of parenthood is to claim certain rights and privileges on behalf of one’s child, as well as make decisions the child is considered incompetent to make on their own. Whether a five-year-old should have an elective tonsillectomy, for example, is more a decision for the child’s parent then for the child herself. Likewise, if a doctor engaged in malpractice while caring for one’s child, the parent would bring the claim on behalf of the injured minor.

However, the water becomes murkier when dealing with children’s medical records and a parent’s access to those records. In the Matter of Berg v. Berg, the father demanded access to his children’s medical records, arguing that his legal rights as a parent overrides the children’s right to privacy. The children’s therapists and the guardian ad litem moved to seal the children’s records, which the trial court denied. The case went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court to answer the following questions: 

1.      Do children have a right to privacy for their medical records and communications?

2.      Does the court have the authority to seal the therapy records of the parties’ minor children when one parent demands access to the records for purposes of litigation?

3.      Should the court have the authority to seal the therapy records of minor children when the parents are in conflict about the release and access to such records.

The Supreme Court overruled the trial court, and answered the three questions in the affirmative. The court found that when parents enter into an acrimonious, contested custody battle, the personal interests of the parents could become adverse to the children’s interests.  The court went on:

Where the privilege is claimed on behalf of the parent rather than that of the child, or where the welfare and interest of the minor will not be protected, a parent should not be permitted to either claim the privilege or, for that matter, to waive it.

The court further justified their holding by noting that, under some circumstances, allowing the parent unfettered access to the child’s therapy records may deny the children the right to effective medical care by destroying the “atmosphere of confidence and trust” that is fundamental for effective therapeutic counseling. 

It is also worth noting that while a parent with potentially conflicting motives cannot assert or waive the privilege on behalf of the child, a neutral GAL may do so. Furthermore, a sufficiently mature child can claim the privilege on their own behalf. In determining whether or not to allow a minor to assert the privilege, at the trial judge’s discretion, the court may consider 1) the child’s age, intelligence and maturity, 2) the intensity with which the child advances his interest, and 3) whether their stated preference is based upon improper influences.

For parents wondering, what does this mean to me, the inquiry the court will make when deciding whether a parent may access their children’s medical records will be whether allowing the parent the right to assert or waive the therapist-client privilege on behalf of their child is in that child’s best interests? If allowing such access would interfere with the child’s ability to succeed in meaningful, productive therapy then it would not be in his best interests and the parent may not waive the privilege on their behalf. If, on the other hand, there is no risk that such disclosure would harm the child, the parents retain the right to waive or claim the privilege.

Crusco Law Office, PPLC Law Clerk Daniel McLaughlin contributed to this post.

Dispelling misconceptions about de facto maternal custody

All too commonly, I have had parents ask me to confirm that a mother has automatic custody of a child when parents separate and that the court will side with the mother in a custody battle. This is a misconception that has persisted far past the abolition of the “tender years doctrine.” With a little historical background it is easy to understand where this notion comes from, because for over a century it was the custom in this country. 

The “tender years” doctrine held that while all other factors remained equal, custody was awarded to the mother. This was largely based on the belief that the mother was "the softest and safest nurse of infancy" and that “to grant custody of a child to a father was to hold nature in contempt, and snatch helpless, puling infancy from the bosom of an affectionate mother, and place it in the coarse hands of the father,” as the Alabama Supreme Court notes in Ex parte Devine, quoting the 1830 case Helms v. Franciscus.   

Needless to say, customs and traditions have changed a bit since 1830. Shifting social mores have cast the tender years doctrine aside in favor of more gender neutral considerations. In the middle of the twentieth century states began repealing the tender years doctrine and since that time the prevailing and well established approach is to take into consideration the overall “best interests of the child.” New Hampshire is no exception; New Hampshire Revised Statutes Annotated 461-A:6 governs the determination of parental rights and responsibilities based on what is in the best interests of each child. RSA 461-A:6. The statute is quite lengthy in setting out factors to be considered by the court, though none of them include gender.

Not only have contemporary notions of gender equality been the basis for removing the antiquated “tender years” doctrine, but so has a better understanding of the rights and freedoms granted to us by our Constitution. Some states have concluded that the tender years doctrine violates the Equal Protection Clause of the state constitution because it discriminates on the basis of sex. Such discrimination would also violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution as well (the federal Equal Protection Clause).

This concept is embodied in the New Hampshire law. RSA 461-A:6, III states that when “determining parental rights and responsibility[ies], the court shall not apply a preference for one parent over the other because of the sex of the child [or] the … parent.” This is an explicit rejection of the tender years doctrine. RSA 461-A:6, III. Therefore, in New Hampshire, there is no presumption that the child will be placed with the mother in a domestic relations proceeding affecting parenting rights and responsibilities. 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Dan McLaughlin contributed to this post.

How to work with a Guardian ad Litem

A Guardian ad Litem investigation is often a stressful and intrusive process. However, it is important to remain cooperative and informative during the case. Here are some tips on how you should conduct yourself during the process.

· Return the GAL Stipulation and Questionnaire Promptly: When the GAL is first appointed, he will send out to you or your attorney a Guardian ad Litem Stipulation and a questionnaire. The GAL Stipulation is an agreement between you and the GAL that sets forth the issues the GAL will investigate, how the GAL will be paid, and other matters such as access to the children’s mental health records. The questionnaire is a form that the GAL uses to gather information and background on your family and identify issues and areas of disagreement. It is very important to complete and return these items to the GAL as soon as possible.

·Set up your initial meeting with the GAL per the GAL’s instructions: When the GAL receives the appointment, she will send you a letter with instructions. Some GALs will ask that you return the stipulation and questionnaire first, and then call to set up an appointment. Others will set up an appointment right away. Read the letter from the GAL and follow instructions for setting up your first appointment. If you do not hear from the GAL after a few weeks, call the GAL to check in and see what your next steps should be.

· Provide complete contact information for references: The GAL will ask you to provide him with references to speak to regarding you and your family. These may be friends and family, or professionals such as teachers who are familiar with either you, your coparent or the children. Provide the GAL with complete contact information for these references, including an address, telephone number and email if appropriate.  

· Provide the GAL with copies of court documents, orders, and pleadings: If you do not have an attorney to manage your case for you, when the GAL is appointed make sure to provide him with copies of the court orders, pleadings or other relevant documents. It is enormously important, as the GAL only receives the GAL appointment and possibly the court order issued with that appointment. Having you provide the pleadings and court orders that necessitated the appointment of the GAL, as well as the orders for the current parenting schedule, will give the GAL important background on your case.

· Cooperate with the GAL investigation: The GAL may ask to schedule a home visit with the children, or that you bring the children to her office. The GAL may also ask for authorizations to speak to medical providers or other professionals that require a release. Respond to the GAL’s requests promptly, and provide her with information that she requests.

·  Be relevant and informative: There are probably a lot of reasons your relationship with the other parent broke down. While the GAL will want a brief overview, unless the issues have significant relevance to the children, try not to spend a lot of time on non-child issues. For example, the breakdown of your marriage may have been caused by an affair your spouse carried on. However, unless your spouse is introducing the children to their new significant other or making concerning choices about priorities between the children and the new relationship, that is an issue best left to the court and your therapist.  

Muchmore & Jaycox: A parenting plan may not be modified solely on "best interests"

The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion on December 4, 2009 in the case of In the Matter of Adam Muchmore and Amy Jaycox, a domestic relations case pertaining to the modification of a parenting plan. In Muchmore & Jaycox, the Court holds that a parenting plan cannot be modified solely based on the best interests of the child, and instead the modification must comport with the statutory scheme laid out in RSA 461-A:11. The decision is disappointing, though not unexpected since the Court simply strictly applied the statute, because it prevents parents from modifying a parenting plan for issues such as a new schedule for the transition into kindergarten. Based on this decision, it will be important for the legislature to take action to allow modifications to a parenting schedule that do not rise to the level of the factors enumerated in the statute.

As background, Adam Muchmore and Amy Jaycox are parents of a minor child born in 2006. They previously resided in Vermont but have each since moved to New Hampshire. A June 2007 Vermont Order granted Amy Lecroix “primary legal and physical parental rights and responsibilities” for the child and allowed the petitioner, Adam Muchmore, regular weekly contact with the child.

In July 2008, Muchmore petitioned the Lebanon Family Division to modify the parenting plan pursuant to RSA 461-A:11, claiming that (1) Jaycox had “repeatedly, intentionally, and without justification” interfered with his parental responsibilities for the child and modification would be in the child’s best interests; (2) that there was clear and convincing evidence that the child’s present environment was harmful to her; and (3) because of the respondent’s conduct, the original allocation of parental rights and responsibilities was not working.

The Lebanon Family Division ruled that Muchmore had failed to meet his burden of proof with regard to each of the reasons for modification he cited, pursuant to 461-A:11; I(b), I(c), and I(d). The court went on to hold, however, that Muchmore’s petition was “sufficient to establish that modifying the parties’ parenting schedule would be in the child’s best interests, and that, pursuant to RSA 461-A:4 (Supp. 2008), proof that modification was in the child’s best interests was all that was required.” Jacox appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that the circumstances under which a parent may seek modification of an existing parenting plans is governed by RSA 461-A:11, and concluded that because Muchmore did not meet his burden under that statute that he is not entitled to a modification. Muchmore argued that even if he failed to meet his burden under 461-A:11, a parent should be allowed to modify a parenting plan when the modification is in the best interests of the child, citing 461-A:4 as support for his assertion. The court held that even though 461-A:4 referenced a “proceeding to establish or modify”, that statute was aimed at the initial construction of a parenting plan while 461-A:11 governed actual modifications. 

The Court recognized in its opinion that this result was somewhat regrettable in that it prevented a court from “reassessing the best interests of a child in circumstances where the parents are not interfering and where the child’s current environment is not detrimental,” those circumstances being the majority of cases in practice. However, the Court continues, “RSA 461-A:11, I, does not grant the court discretion to modify an existing plan under any other circumstances” and that it is not up to the court to solve that problem or “to speculate as to how the legislature might choose to do so.” (Emphasis added). Simply put, the court is saying that if the legislature wanted to include a provision for the best interests of the child in 461-A:11 it could have chosen to do so. The Court, in the end, relies on strict statutory interpretation and deference to the public policy decisions of the legislature to assert that their hands were effectively tied.

However, without a provision to allow for some limited modifications based on best interests, a parenting plan that addresses the needs of a toddler may have to do for a tween. The parenting plan form itself encourages parents to view the plan as a work in progress as the children grow and their needs change from infant to teen, but the statute itself does not allow for the changes except in the case that the parents agree or major issues develop as set forth in 461-A:11. It is certainly understandable that the legislature would not include a best interests standard for change in major categories such a primary residential responsibility, as this would just encourage more litigation and allow parents to petition the court for modification whenever they might have the upper hand. However, for routine and holiday schedule changes or other issues that do not call for a change in residential responsibility, there needs to be a mechanism to allow for modification based on best interests so that the court may tweak a parenting plan as the current needs of the child dictate.  

 Crusco Law Office, PLLC  Law Clerk Daniel McLaughlin contributed to this post.

Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act comes to NH in December 2010

New Hampshire has recently taken steps to protect parents and children from cross border kidnapping by adopting the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). The UCCJEA, drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) in 1997, becomes effective in New Hampshire on December 1, 2010. Vermont and Massachusetts remain the only states that have not adopted the UCCJEA.

Prior to NH’s adoption of the UCCJEA, we were operating under the umbrella of its predecessor, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA) which had been adopted in all 50 states. The UCCJA, which was written in 1968, contained broad and sometimes vague language that allowed for courts in different jurisdictions to interpret the statute differently. These difficulties were further complicated by the passage of the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA) in 1980 that tangled with the UCCJA in determining jurisdiction for initial custody disputes. Complications arose between states in determining a child’s “home state” and enforcing judgments across state lines, with PKPA and UCCJA having differing standards for determining what custody determination were to be given “full faith and credit” between states. The drafting and passage of the UCCJEA cleans up these conflicts and puts these statutes in order.

Exclusive continuing jurisdiction

 

Under the UCCJEA, once the “home state” of the child has been determined (home state is defined as the state where the child has lived with a parent for six consecutive months prior to the commencement of the proceeding), and child custody orders have been issued, that state has “exclusive continuing jurisdiction” that is entitled to full faith and credit across the country. This prevents other jurisdictions from modifying that order in any way, unless and until the original state has relinquished jurisdiction. This is a large step forward from UCCJA, where different interpretations caused conflicting orders and simultaneous proceedings.

 

Best interests, jurisdiction and the substantive merits

 

Additionally, while the UCCJA was designed to promote “best interest of the child” over whom custody was at issue, including the “best interests” was interpreted by some courts as an summons decide the merits of custody dispute while determining jurisdiction, or even that “best interests” should override jurisdiction considerations That was not the drafter’s intention and as such, the UCCJEA eliminates the term “best interests” so that the jurisdictional issues are clearly separated from the merits of the custody dispute.

 

Enforcement

 

The UCCJEA also sets out a unified system of enforcement mechanisms which were lacking under old law. Under UCCJA, enforcement evolved differently among the states, with, for example, one state requiring a Motion to Enforce or a Motion for Full Faith and Credit to initiate enforcement proceedings, while another required a writ of habeas corpus or a Citation for Contempt. These differences in enforcement resulted in increased cost, decreased certainty in outcome, and long and drawn out enforcement proceedings, allowing one parent to hold on to custody far longer than they should otherwise be able to. In addition to unifying the process, the UCCJEA now provides specific remedies for enforcement including:

 

1)      Procedure for registering a custody determination with another state to allow a party to predetermine whether a custody determination will be recognized in another state,

2)      A swift habeas corpus type remedy for immediate review of custody violations or disputes to allow parents to maintain their awarded visitation or parenting time,

3)      Extraordinary remedy – meaning if the enforcing court is concerned that the parent, who has physical custody of the child, will flee or harm the child, a warrant to take physical possession of the child is available, and

4)      There is now a role for public authorities, such as prosecutors, in the enforcement process. 

 

As to the role of public authorities in the enforcement of custody orders, the Prefatory Note to the UCCJEA states:

If the parties know that public authorities and law enforcement officers are available to help in securing compliance with custody determinations, the parties may be deterred from interfering with the exercise of rights established by court order. The involvement of public authorities will also prove more effective in remedying violations of custody determinations. Most parties do not have the resources to enforce a custody determination in another jurisdiction. The availability of the public authorities as an enforcement agency will help ensure that this remedy can be made available regardless of income level. In addition, the public authorities may have resources to draw on that are unavailable to the average litigant.

These changes will be welcome, both among attorneys and parents, as they now bring a level of certainty to parenting rights and responsibility determinations within New Hampshire and throughout the Country.  It is unfortunate, however, that the only two states yet to adopt the UCCJEA happen to be two of the three states with which we share a border, Massachusetts and Vermont. With any luck, they will follow suit shortly.

 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Daniel McLaughlin, contributed to this post.

Vaccinating your children for the H1N1 flu? It is a joint decision to be made with your co-parent.

There is a lot of talk about the H1N1 flu and the vaccines, and rightly so. 46 states are reporting widespread flu activity, and some New Hampshire schools are reporting absence rates of up to 30% . New Hampshire has activated the 2-1-1 state info line to answer questions about the flu and the vaccine. New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services has also published a FAQ about the seasonal flu and H1N1 flu.

Many parents have concerns about the H1N1 vaccine and its safety and efficacy. If you and your co-parent have joint decision making responsibilities, this is an issue that you need to discuss together. Joint decision-making responsibility is defined as equal participation in the major decisions of the children’s life regarding health, safety and welfare, including but not limited to matters pertaining to medical and psychological care, discipline, education, daycare and extracurricular activities.

 

Whether to vaccinate your children is a major decision, and therefore should be agreed upon by both parents. Speak together with your pediatrician, and consider his or her opinion about the matter. Listen to what your co-parent has to say, and talk over the pros and cons of vaccinating your children. Make every attempt to come to a decision together, taking into account the best interests of your children.

 

In the meantime while either discussing the issue with your co-parent or waiting for the vaccine to become available, take the everyday steps recommended by doctors and health care officials to keep your child flu-free:

 

• Wash hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds (long enough to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice) especially after coughing or sneezing. Be sure to set a good example by doing this yourself.

 

• Cough and sneeze into a sleeve or tissue. (If a tissue is used, throw the tissue away immediately). Be sure to set a good example by doing this yourself.

 

• Stay at least six feet away from people who are sick.

 

• Stay home from school if sick, and stay away from sick people until they are better.

 

Keep surfaces like bedside tables, bathroom surfaces, kitchen counters and toys for children clean by wiping them down with a household disinfectant according to directions on the product label.

 

Sources:

 

·         While state awaits more vaccine, 2-1-1 answers H1N1 questions, The Union Leader

 

·         Frequently asked questions from parents about seasonal flu and H1N1 influenza, New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services

 

·         School reports more than 30 percent of students out sick, WMUR

 

·         Officials tout safety, efficacy of H1N1 vaccine, Meg Haskell, The Bangor Daily News

Rights of the non-accused, non-custodial parent in abuse and neglect cases

If you are the non-accused, non-custodial parent of a child who is the subject of an abuse or neglect filing by the Division of Children, Youth and Families, the outcome of the case could have a substantial affect on your parental rights. Although non-accused, if a finding of true is entered, the parents of the child have an obligation to correct the conditions that led to the finding of neglect. If the conditions have not been corrected within twelve months of the finding, your parental rights could be terminated, even if you are the non-accused parent. Accordingly, it is very important to be well versed on your rights and, if possible, hire an attorney to represent you.  

Request for custody

As the parent who does not live with the child and is not alleged to have abused or neglected your child, you have the right to petition the court for a “Bill F” hearing. The hearing is titled after the New Hampshire Supreme Court case, In Re Bill F, in which the court held that parents who have not been charged with abuse or neglect must be afforded, upon demand, a hearing regarding their request for custody. At the Bill F hearing, a parent must show that he or she has the ability to provide care for the child. If shown, the court shall award custody unless the State demonstrates, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he or she has abused or neglected the child or is otherwise unfit to perform his or her parental duties.

 

Right to an attorney

A parent who has been accused of abuse or neglect has the right to have an attorney represent him or her throughout the case, and if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent them. Not so for the non-accused, non-household parent. Although you will have the right to hire an attorney at your own expense, RSA 169-C:10, specifically prohibits the court from appointing an attorney to represent you. The New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed in the case of In Re Father, holding that the statute prohibiting the appointment of an attorney to represent a non-accused, non-custodial parent does not violate the Due Process Clause of the State Constitution.

Holidays are just around the corner, are you prepared?

As the fall air turns crisp and cold and the days grow shorter, we are reminded that the holidays are just around the corner. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas Eve, Christmas are often the most celebrated and traditional family holidays, and now is a good time to make sure that you and your co-parent are on the same page. Discussing the schedule early will help insure that there will be no last minute snags.

If you have a parenting plan that has specific times in place for the holidays, make sure that your plans conform to the parenting time that you are scheduled to spend with your children. If you and your co-parent would like to deviate from the schedule in the parenting plan, put it in writing and if possible, have it approved as a court order. This may seem extreme, but remember that agreements made outside of court, and especially agreements that are not in writing, may not be enforceable and come holiday time you could be left high and dry if the other parent changes their mind.  

If you do not have specific times and instead have language to the affect of “as the parties agree” or have no court orders in place, discuss the schedule now well in advance of the holidays. The sooner you discuss the schedule, the sooner you will know if there are going to be difficulties agreeing on parenting time and whether you may need to seek court orders. Remember, heading down to the courthouse on December 24th at 2:00 pm to attempt to get an ex-parte emergency order is not the ideal way to spend your holidays.

New Hampshire court's decision regarding home schooling grabs national attention

A recent decision in the Laconia Family Division regarding a parent's disagreement over homeschooling their daughter has been grabbing national attention., including a headline on Fox News. Unfortunately, the news articles, bloggers, and advocates for the mother paint this as a constitutional issue, one of the state interfering with parents' constitutional right to raise their child as they see fit. However, this case is not a constitutional matter or a ruling on the merits or value of homeschooling. It is an example of what happens when two parents cannot agree on what is best for their child.

The facts of the case are as follows: Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch divorced in 1999. The parties were awarded joint-decision making responsibility for their daughter, Amanda, meaning that each parent would have equal say in major life decisions such as education and medical care. Although the parents disagreed about whether Amanda should be home schooled, Amanda was home schooled by her mother. The parties continued to disagree on the issue, and because they could not agree, it went to the court. A Guardian ad Litem was appointed to investigate and make recommendations to the Court. After completing her investigation, the Guardian ad Litem recommended that Amanda's best interests were served by her attendance at public school. After a evidentiary hearing, in which both parties testified and submitted evidence, the court agreed with the Guardian ad Litem, and ordered that Amanda be enrolled in public school. The court, in the lengthy decision, states:

The Court is extremely reluctant to impose on parents a decision about a child's education, which commonly emerges after sincere and thorough discussion between parents who are both committed to the child's growth and development. In the absence of effective communication between the parents whose case reflects a history of opposing opinions on a variety of issues, the Court is guided by the premises that education is by its nature an exploration and examination of new things, and by the premise that a child requires academic, social, cultural, and physical interaction with a variety of experiences, people, concepts and surroundings in order to grow to an adult who can make intelligent decisions about how to achieve a productive and satisfying life. 

The parties do not debate the relative academic merits of home schooling and public school: it is clear that the home schooling Ms. Voydatch has provided has more than kept up with the academic requirements of the Meredith public school system. Instead, the debate centers on whether enrollment in public school will provide Amanda with an increased opportunity for group learning, group interaction, social problem solving, and exposure to a variety of points of view. Considering the testimony of both parties and the Guardian ad Litem, and by the standard of a preponderance of the evidence, the Court concludes that it would be in Amanda's best interests to attend public school.

"Parents have the fundamental rights to raise their children to the dictates of their conscience," stated the mother's attorney, John Simmons. And this is true, to a certain extent. As recently discussed on this blog, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that parents have a constitutional right to rear their children as they see fit. The court also affirmed that there is “a presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children.” The key word here is parents. The state may not intrude on two fit parents who jointly decide what is best for their child. That is not the case here.

Here, two fit parents did not agree on what was best for their child. Attorney Simmons argues that the court has taken away Voydatch's right, as the girl's primary-custody parent, to make decisions regarding her future. Attorney Simmons argument falls short however, as being the parent assigned primary residential responsibility has no bearing on whether that parent has the right to make unilateral decisions about the child. New Hampshire, as with most states, breaks "custody' into two categories: 1) residential and 2) decision-making. A parent could have the majority of the parenting time, called residential responsibility, but still be required to share decision-making responsibility. In this case,  Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch had joint-decision making responsibility. They could not agree on whether Amanda should be home schooled, and in the absence of agreement, the court decided the issue. The father's attorney, Elizabeth Donovan, has it right when she explains: "When two parents with joint decision-making responsibility disagree and they cannot come to any common ground, we submit it to the court. The court takes all the testimony and the court renders a decision. Mrs. Voydatch didn't like the decision."

Parents should keep cases like this in mind when they are litigating issues regarding their children. Parents have two choices. Either the parents decide what is best for their children together as a family, or a judge, who the parents will meet just a few times in their life, will make the decisions for the parents and their children.

Grandparents rights in New Hampshire

Most people have heard of visitation in the context of a divorce or parenting matter for a parent. However, many New Hampshire residents are unaware that New Hampshire grandparents have certain rights to visit with their grandchildren, sometimes even over the objection of the parents. Although parents have constitutional rights and responsibilities regarding how they raise their own children, including where they live, what school they go to, and who they allow to see their children, grandparents are not without their own set of rights pursuant to RSA 461-A:13.

When a conflict arises where a parent or parents of a child decide that their parents are no longer allowed to see their grandchildren, grandparents may petition for a court order provided they meet the requirements of the statute. In order to petition for these rights, there must be an absence of a nuclear family, whether by divorce, death, termination of parental rights or other reason. In other words, if a mother and father who are together decide that the grandparent may not see their grandchild, the grandparent will not have standing to seek the visitation under the statute.    

If an absence of the nuclear family exists, the Court will examine the factors enumerated in the statute to determine whether the visitation should be granted. The factors include:

  • whether visitation with the grandparent would be in the best interest of the child,
  • whether it would interfere with any parent-child relationship, or with that parent’s authority over the child,
  • the nature of the relationship between the grandparent and the child, including the frequency of contact between them, whether they have resided together in the past, and whether there would be an emotional blow to the child by visitation or a lack thereof, and
  • the impact of the relationship between the parents and grandparents on the child, including whether any friction resulting from visitation would have a negative impact on the child.

In addition to examining the above factors, the court will often also appoint a Guardian Ad Litem and listen to her recommendations regarding the proposed grandparent visitation carefully.  If the child is emotionally mature, the court may consider the child’s opinion about the matter as well.   

While New Hampshire grandparents may seek visitation under New Hampshire law, not all states protect the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Additionally, the United States Supreme Court, in Troxel v. Granville, overturned a Washington statute allowing grandparents the right to petition the courts for visitation of children over parental objections. The court stated that parents have a constitutional right to rear their children as they see fit. The court also affirmed that there is “a presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children.”

In spite of the Troxel ruling, New Hampshire courts have continued to grant grandparents rights because the statute contains safeguards for a parents rights over their children. Even if grandparents are in some way infringing on parental rights, what is most important is the best interest of the children. Sometimes, those interests are best served by maintaining a healthy grandparent-grandchild relationship, even over the objection of the parents. 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Daniel McLaughlin contributed to this post.

Divorce & Social Media: Think before you type!

I was reading a blog post today by photographer Samantha Warren at Samantha Warren Weddings in which she mused on a tweet by Dita Von Teese that pondered "Did you all know that I only tell you the fun & glamorous things that I do, not the boring & unpleasant things?"  Sam writes in response:

Ms. Teese's tweet summed up one of the significant snags I see with social media, and that is that while you may put your life out there through Facebook, Twitter and blogging, it's life filtered, often for a particular purpose. In musical terms, while social media claims to be a jam session, the control we have over our image through its technology makes it a best of collection.

So true! Most of us using social media from Facebook to Twitter chat and tweet about the happy goings on from our beach vacations to a new job.  However, mix a stressful divorce or parenting rights and responsibilities matter with social media and our emotions can often get the best of us. Instead of the happy face usually broadcast to the world, the anger and hurt rises up and reaches out through our fingertips, sendind out status updates or tweets best kept to ourselves.

Time Magazine's recent article, Facebook and Divorce: Airing the Dirty Laundry, warns domestic relations litigants over the dangers of social media during litigation. Post a picture of your new BMW motorcycle after claiming the poorhouse? Tweeting about your crazy Saturday night party when you were supposed to be caring for the children? Updating your status about your date night with your new girlfriend, before you have separated from your wife? While you are posting about these things, opposing counsel is downloading your personal information from Facebook and Twitter and preparing to use it in court.

The moral of the story? Think before you post. Refrain from commenting about your spouse, his lawyer, the judge, the guardian ad litem. Do not post pictures of any content that can be used against you in court, including partying, gifts to or from new signifcant others or places you should not be. You'll be better off for it, and your lawyer will thank you.

Natural grandparent may petition for grandparent visitation even after relinquishment or termination of parental rights

On June 3, 2009 the New Hampshire Supreme Court released its opinion In the Matter of Kathaleen A. Dufton and Terry L. Shepard. The Court held that even where a natural parent relinquishes rights to his or her child in an adoption proceeding, she retains the right to petition a court for visitation of any grandchildren because she is the “natural” grandparent under the grandparent visitation statute. A grandparent is still subject to the requirements of the grandparent statute, and there must be an absence of a nuclear family and the grandparent must show that the proposed visitation is in the child’s best interests.

In this case, Kathaleen Dufton gave birth to her daughter, Vicki Shepard, when she was sixteen years old. She relinquished her rights to Vicki by giving her up for adoption. Vicki reunited with her biological mother when she was twenty-six year old and the two had a close relationship from that point forward. Kathaleen Dufton shared all the special occasions with her daughter including the birth of her grandchildren, vacations, baptisms and birthdays. When Vicki fell ill with cancer her mother was by her side until the end. After Vicki died, her husband, Terry Shepard, refused to allow Kathaleen to see her grandchildren. Kathaleen sought relief from the court under the grandparent visitation statute.

Parents have a constitutional right to raise their children as they see fit, including who may visit with their children. However, the legislature has crafted a grandparent visitation statute, allowing the family courts jurisdiction to order visitation over a parent’s objection when there is an absence of a nuclear family and if it is in the best interests of the child. Terry sought to have Kathaleen's petition dismissed, asserting that Kathaleen was not a “natural grandparent” of the children because she had relinquished her rights to Vicki, and therefore did not have standing to seek relief as a grandparent. However the court ruled that the plain meaning of the term “natural” was “biological” and therefore “the fact that the grandmother relinquished her parental rights to the children’s mother when the mother was an infant has no bearing, per se, upon her ability to seek visitation with the grandchildren.” Furthermore, the court found that her status as a grandparent was not derivative of her legal status as a parent to her child, and because she is related to her grandchildren, the grandparent visitation statute gives her standing to seek the visitation.
 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Daniel McLaughlin contributed to this post.

Co-parenting tips from a single dad

I seem to be blogging a lot lately about co-parenting issues. In a search today on google for co-parenting communication ideas, I came across a blog titled Dad's House: Dating & Parenting by a Single Dad. David Mott recently posted Co-Parenting - How to Deal with an Ex. As a single dad who has been co-parenting his children with his ex for nine years, David offers tips on co-parenting. They are basic rules of engagement that should be followed in any co-parenting relationship, and are the rules that are offered throughout the blogosphere and by parenting experts across the country. David lists the following rules:

  • Do what’s in the best interest of your kids

  • Don’t talk down to each other

  • Do treat the co-parenting as a business relationship Don’t fight in front of the kids

  • Do use email

  • Don’t badmouth the other parent in front of the kids .

  • Do communicate 

Arguments, fights, blow-ups and disagreements will happen in every relationship, especially parents who have split up. (probably for good reason). However, if both parents can follow the rules of engagement, maintain a business like tone and keep lines of communication open, your kids will be healthier and happier for it. In the end, David reminds, focus on co-parenting and practice the basics.

If you would like more information regarding basic co-parenting concepts and rules, single mommy and daddy blogs abound with similar tips.  Jennifer Wolf gives similar advice in planning coparenting meetings at Tips for Succesful Co-Parenting Meetings. Aside from blogs, check out the Co-Parenting Surivival Guide: Letting Go of Conflict After a Difficult Divorce by Dr. Elizabeth and Dr. Jeffrey Zimmerman, the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension's Co-Parenting After Divorce.

Parenting coordinator for high-conflict parents

During the pendency of a divorce or parenting petition, when communication between parents breaks down, parents often go to their attorneys or the guardian ad litem to resolve conflicts regarding parenting issues. However, when the dust settles, the case is over and the attorneys and GAL are no longer involved, parents are left to resolve conflicts on their own. Often high-conflict parents will end up back in court over issues that they cannot agree upon.

As an alternative to heading back to court, parents should consider hiring a parenting coordinator who can assist them in resolving disputes and implementing their parenting plan. The parenting coordinator can also work with the parents on developing more effective communication skills, collaborative parenting methods and problem solving techniques. The parenting coordinator is not counseling, a guardian ad litem investigation, or a parenting education course.

The Parenting Coordinators Association of New Hampshire lists a few dozen professionals, including attorneys and mental health professionals, who serve as parenting coordinators. PCANH website provides the following information about the parenting coordinator process:

The Parenting Coordinator will typically meet with the parents, individually and/or jointly. The parents’ concerns will be identified, the family situation will be assessed with the aid of court orders and documents, and a course of action will be identified, including the setting of specific goals for resolution of conflicting issues. Emails and phone calls are used to assist the parents' work toward the goals. Additional individual or joint meetings may be scheduled and other people with information may be contacted.

For more information about parenting coordinators, the process and the price, check out the PCANH's list of FAQs.

How do I relocate with my children out of state?

Q: I have primary residential responsibility for my children, and I want to move out of state with them, what do I need to do to move?

A: The relocation statute (NH RSA 461-A:12) requires that the relocating parent shall provide reasonable notice to the other parent of the move. While “reasonable notice” may vary depending on special factors present in your case, in most cases 60 days is presumed reasonable notice. This notice requirement applies in all parenting rights and responsibilities cases unless specifically addressed otherwise in the parties’ existing order or agreement. However, it does not apply when the relocation will move the parent and children closer to the other parent or within the same school district.

 

If the non-relocating parent objects, the court will hold a hearing on the matter at the request of either parent. Often, the court will appoint a guardian ad litem to investigate the issues and make a recommendation to the court regarding the relocation.

 

In order for the relocating parent’s request to be approved, that parent must show that their relocation is for a legitimate purpose and that the proposed relocation is reasonable in light of that purpose. In other words, if the relocating parent is moving to be near her family that lives in Florida, the proposed move should be to Florida and not North Dakota. A legitimate purpose may be for a variety of different reasons, including economic opportunities such as employment or the ability to be self-supportive, to be close to a support network of friends and family, or for an educational opportunity for the parent or children.

 

If the relocating parent proves, by a preponderance of the evidence (more probable than not), that the relocation is for a legitimate purpose, then the burden shifts to the non-relocating parent who must show the court that the proposed relocating is not in the best interests of the children. Even if the relocating parent has a legitimate purpose, and is not moving for nefarious purposes such as interfering in the other parent’s relationship with the children, the court may find that it is not in the children’s best interests and deny to relocation.

 

When considering the relocation, the court may consider several factors enumerated in the NH Supreme Court cases Tomasko and Pfeuffer:

 

·         Each parent’s reasons for seeking or opposing the move;

·         The quality of the relationships between the child and the custodial and noncustodial parents;

·         The impact of the move on the quantity and quality of the child's future contact with the noncustodial parent;

·         The degree to which the custodial parent’s and child’s life may be enhanced economically, emotionally, and educationally by the move;

·         The feasibility of preserving the relationship between the noncustodial parent and child through suitable visitation arrangements;

·         Any negative impact from continued or exacerbated hostility between the custodial and noncustodial parents; and

·         The effect that the move may have on any extended family relations.

 

No single factor is presumed to be dispositive, and the court may consider additional factors as the case demands.

Coparenting your children

One of the most important things that parents in separate households can do for their children is cooperatively co-parent. Successfully co-parenting allows both parents to be involved in a child's day to day life. I recently came across a useful article published by the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension titled "Co-parenting after Divorce."

If you are currently going through a divorce or parenting case, take the opportunity to discuss your parenting rights and responsibilities, and the roles that each of you will play. Work those discussions into your parenting plan. The article provides a detailed chart with questions about household expectations, education and moral upbringing, peers and social considerations and health care decisions that you and the other parent can use to start the discussions.

Additionally, consider the road that you and the other parent do not want to go down. One of the most important aspects of co-parenting is keeping the children out of the middle. The article points out that:

Problems may develop if parents send messages to each other through their children. Problems also arise when a parent talks negatively about the other parent. Children may feel guilty and unsure of their parents’ love when they’re caught in the middle.

If a parent asks about a former spouse, children may report that things are fine, even if they’re not. Or children may say things to make one of the parents feel bad. Again, don’t use your children by putting them in the middle. If you want to know something about your ex-spouse, ask that person yourself. 

Explore these behaviors that you and the other parent agree you will both avoid, and work any agreements into the parenting plan as well.

 Finally, remember that you and the other parent probably will not agree on every issue. 

Accept that you and your ex-spouse may differ on key parenting issues. Try to work on finding common ground, especially on the most important issues. Communicating about a few issues is better than not having communication at all.

In the Matter of Huff: Court may not award an unrelated third party visitation over the objection of a fit parent

On March 5, 2009 the New Hampshire Supreme Court released its opinion on In the Matter of Jamie Huff and Lawrence Huff. This is an important decision, in that it defines parental rights and plainly rules that the family courts do not have jurisdiction to award visitation to an unrelated third party over the objection of a fit parent. It is important to note that although the court may not award an unrelated third party visitation, New Hampshire does have statutory authority for awarding grandparents and step-parents visitation with children.

The facts of the case are as follows: Jamie and Lawrence married and in July of 2006 their son was born. During subsequent divorce proceedings, Lawrence was sentenced to three to six years in State Prison. At the final hearing Lawrence requested one full weekend of parenting time a month with his son  even though the prison visiting hours were only on Saturdays for a few hours. Lawrence planned to have one of two close friends facilitate visitation and have his son spend the rest of the weekend with his two other children. In other words, Lawrence wanted to essentially delegate his remaining parenting time to Kristen or Cheryl. The trial court adopted Lawrence’s proposed parenting plan, over Jamie’s objection.

Jamie appealed the decision to the NH Supreme Court arguing that the award of parenting time to a third party over her objection infringes on her fundamental right to parent her son. The NH Supreme Court first noted that the trial court did not expressly grant visitation to a third party but they granted visitation to an incarcerated father who then delegated his visitation to a third party. The court also examined the effect incarceration has upon parental abilities and whether or not this type of handing over visitation to a third party is equivalent to granting that third party visitation outright.

Ultimately the Court held that the incarcerated parent may not designate a third-party caregiver, over the objection of the other parent, absent a finding that the non-incarcerated parent is unfit. Where both parents are fit, the trial court may only award the incarcerated parent that visitation time which he can actually exercise. In this case, neither Jamie nor Lawrence has been declared unfit. Thus, the trial court’s authority is limited to awarding visitation to the incarcerated father that he can actually use to visit with the child. Time allocated to Lawrence beyond that, which is then delegated to a third party, is equivalent to awarding an unrelated third party visitation rights.

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this post.

Parents may not waive NH statutory provision prohibiting an order requiring payment of adult child's college expenses

On January 30, 2009 the NH Supreme Court released the opinion for In the Matter of Joseph Goulart, Jr. and Marcia Goulart in which the Court held that parents are not free to waive the provisions of the statute that prohibit any child support order requiring a parent to contribute to an adult child’s college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school. The Court urged the legislature to reexamine the statutory language regarding approval or enforcement of a stipulated parenting plan in order to take into consideration a situation where the divorcing parties are fully informed, represented by counsel and mutually agree that one or both will voluntarily contribute to their adult child’s college expenses.

Joseph and Marcia divorced in 2005 while their son was still a minor. Part of their final divorce decree incorporated a Stipulated Parenting Plan, negotiated with counsel, which included a provision stating:

 

The parties are aware of the statutory provisions prohibiting the Court from ordering any parent to contribute to expenses for an adult child. Despite this prohibition the parties agree that Joseph shall be responsible for payment of the son’s college educational expenses.

 

In 2007, Joseph filed a motion to define his obligation regarding college expenses for the same reasons he cited before. There was a hearing and the family division ruled that Joseph was expected to assist with college expenses as agreed to in the Parenting Plan.

 

Joseph appealed that decision to the NH Supreme Court, contending that the family division has no authority to enforce the college education funding obligation because the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enter such an order under NH RSA 461-A:14, V. The statute reads: “No child support order shall require a parent to contribute to an adult child’s college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school.”

 

The Court agreed with Joseph that the statute deprived both the superior court and the family division of subject matter jurisdiction to either approve or enforce a provision in a stipulated parenting plan that requires parents to contribute to their adult child’s college expenses. The family division should have modified the parenting plan by striking the college expense provision.

 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this post.

 

Beating cabin fever during your parenting time

The end of January in New England can bring about a bit of cabin fever. More than ever, if you are a parent who has supervised parenting time or visits in the community, finding fun, indoor activities that do not break the bank can be a difficult task. Even for those parents without visitation restrictions, getting out of the house during the winter on a budget can take some planning. Here are some ideas to help keep the cabin fever at bay.

Local Library: Your local library can be a great resource for fun, free programs. With a library card, you can also often obtain free passes to local museums. And of course, the library has lots and lots of books to read together as a family.

 

·         Manchester Public Library

·         Concord Public Library

·         Nashua Public Library

·         Portsmouth Public Library

·         Keene Public Library

·         Database of New Hampshire’s over 230 libraries

 

Manchester Boston Regional Airport: Kids love airplanes, and luckily you do not have to buy a plane ticket for your children to enjoy them. Manchester Boston Regional Airport has an observation deck that is the perfect place to watch the planes land and take off together. Additionally, on the airport grounds is a free aviation museum in an old 1937 airport terminal.

 

·         Manchester Boston Regional Airport

·         New Hampshire Aviation Museum  

 

Local Museums: Although most museums in the area charge an admission, many often have a free family event/night. For example, although The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire charges a $7 admission, the museum is hosting a Free Family Fun Night on Friday, February 6, 2009 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Check with your local museums about their free or discounted activities.

 

·         Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH

·         Enfield Shaker Museum, Enfield, NH

·         Kaleidoscope Children’s Museum, Concord, NH

·         The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire, Dover, NH

·         Strawberry Banke, Portsmouth, NH

·         Millyard Museum, Manchester, NH

·         Wright Musuem, Wolfeboro, NH

 

Indoor Play Places: There are several indoor play places through the state that don’t cost a thing. The Mall of New Hampshire recently installed a new, enclosed playground in the food court with slides and puzzles. Chuck-E-Cheese’s is admission free, and has great skytubes and play areas for kids to run and jump. And of course, McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants offer play places for kids to let loose.

Obtaining a passport for a minor child after divorce or separation

Although either parent may apply for their minor child’s U.S. passport, U.S. law requires the signature of both parents, or the child’s legal guardians, prior to the issuance of the passport for a child under the age of 16. Both parents must either appear in person to request the passport, or the non-applying parent may sign a form before a notary public granting permission for the issuance of a passport. Alternatively, the parent applying for the passport must document his/her sole authority to obtain a passport for the child. In order to comply with the law, Passport Services will require evidence of one of the following:

  • sole custody
  • a court order allowing the parent to travel with the child
  • a written statement under penalty of perjury that the other parent agrees to issuance or is unavailable
  • a termination of the other parent’s parental rights
  • or compelling humanitarian reasons relating to the welfare of the child

Additionally, the law provides two exceptions to the above requirements: (1) for exigent circumstances, such as those involving the health or welfare of the child, or (2) when the Secretary of State determines that issuance of a passport is warranted by special family circumstances.  

For more information, the U.S. Department of State’s website on children and family is a great resource.

A wicked local parenting resource

Attorney Steven Ballard's Massachusetts Divorce & Family Law Blog gave a recent shout out to Wicked Local Parents, an online parenting resource that also publishes a free monthly parenting magazine called P&K. Wicked Local Parents is filled with great content, with ideas for family fun to a wide array of parenting advice columns. You can also pick up your free copy of P&K in several locations through Massachusetts.

Internet postings: If you do not have anything nice to say ...

An article in the Boston Globe today exemplified why you should always follow the golden rule when posting on the internet: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it all. According to the Boston Globe:

A man accused of making unflattering online comments about his former lover and her attorney on Craigslist has been charged with two counts of criminal libel. The The case began when a woman told Loveland police in December 2007 about postings made about her between November and December 2007. Court records show posts that suggested she traded sexual acts for legal services from her attorney and mentioned a visit from child services because of an injury to her child. [The man], confronted by detectives at his workplace in August, said he was "just venting," according to court records.

 

"Just venting" can get you into a lot of trouble, not only with the police as this man found out, but also with the family court. Blogs, status updates and "rants and raves" on Myspace, Facebook and Craigslist often make their way before the court, to the detriment of the posting party. So, however tempting it is to vent to your online pals, don't.  

Online parenting tools and software to assist families with schedules, communicaton and other issues

Managing a family schedule from two households can be quite a chore. Online parenting software may be the answer for some separated or divorced parents to communicate and co-manage their children’s schedules. The services, which are either internet based or downloadable, offer a wide range of options for parents to choose from. The most complex have photo sharing, family journals, time-tracking, expense logs and more. These are generally fee based services. Others are simply online calendars geared towards family planning and scheduling but may not meet the needs of parents who have a difficult time communicating with each other.

 

Our Family Wizard: This particular service is geared towards separated, divorced and living apart parents. All information saved to the site is backed-up and secure. This is a service that would be useful to parents who find that their challenge is communicating with one another.

 

o   Features:

The parent account allows access to:

Private and Shared Family Calendar

Message Board

Notifications and Reminder

Journal

Information Bank

Important Documents

Expense Log

Family Resource Section

E-Coupons

The child account allows each child their own account with access to:

Shared Family Calendar

Message Board

Create and View Journal Entries

Receive Notifications and Reminders

 

o   Price:

      $55.00 for six months (approx. $9.17/month)

      $99.00 for one year (approx. $8.25/month)

                              $179.00 for two years (approx $7.46/month)

 

ParentingTime.net: This is the home of OPTIMAL which is the Online Parenting Time Information Manager and Access Log. OPTIMAL is a one year subscription based service which is geared for custody arrangements. Its central focus is on the “Tracker” module which records and tracks parenting.

 

o   Features:

Custody calendar

Child Support Tracker

Private Message Center

Graphs & Statistics

Print & Export

Tasks & Notes

Time Tracker

Private Journal

‘At a Glance’ Homepage

Contacts & Address Book

Personal Preferences

Guest User Features

 

o   Price:

$149.95 for a 1-year unlimited access subscription billed yearly

 

JointParents.com: This service is marketed as having been developed by co-parents and is said to be easy to use and readily accessible. There is a Free 30 day Trial Period for interested users.

 

o   Features:

Custody Calendar (Reminders, recurring events, email approvals for custody changes; color coded parenting days)

Daily Routine (Household rules and routines)

Contact Manager (Allow others to access)

Diary (History of occurrences between co-parents and children)

Message Board

Medical Manager

Multiple Families (Manage children with one or multiple families)

Overnight Reporting (Displays # of overnights with child)

Photos

Expense Tracking (Enter and track expenses, view total owed, show paid/not paid, email notification)

o   Price:

30 day free trial available

$9.95/monthly payments

$99.50/annually (2 months free)

 

FamilyCrossings.com: This online service is not solely directed towards separated, divorced and living apart parents, but rather a service that provides each family with its own website. You can visualize family data with maps, time lines and tag clouds. Family Crossings offers both a free and subscription service.

 

o   Features:

Free: This version offers less storage space and has sponsor   advertisements visible. Families can access a number of features that could be helpful in family organizing and information sharing.

News

Photos

Calendar

Address Book

Live IM style chat

Gift Center

Storage – 150MB

Premium: Families have more storage space and no advertisements. There are also six more features than the free version. You can also add storage space if need be.

News

Photos

Calendar

Address Book

Live IM style chat

Gift Center

Family history

Family Database

Wish List

Family Polls

Special Offers

Games

Storage – 250MB

o   Prices:

The premium version is $9.95/month

 

CustodyToolbox.com: This is a downloadable Windows program that is designed for custody situations.

 

o   Features:

Calendar

Child Information

Journal

Parenting-time Report

To-Do List

Address Book

 

o   Price:

15 day free trial available

$49.95 to purchase the software

 

Cozi.com: This is a free online service that helps manage a family’s schedule. This is not geared specifically towards divorced, separated or living apart parents.

 

o   Features:

§  Family Calendar

§  Customizable Lists

§  Reminders & Messages

§  Mobile access

§  Journal

§  Photo collage

§  Outlook sync

 

o   Price:

§  Free

 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this post.

 

What is the difference between a CASA and a GAL?

I had a conversation today in which the person stated that most Guardian ad Litem's are volunteers, and that it is very unusual to have a GAL who is paid for his services. I thought this topic was worth a blog post to clear up this misconception that seems to derive from the common mix up between a CASA and a GAL.

As discussed previously on this blog, a GAL is a professional appointed by the court to perform an independent investigation and to make recommendations to the court regarding the best interests of a child. A GAL may be appointed in all types of family law cases, from divorces to guardianships, and is paid for her services. GALs are not volunteers, although most GALs work for drastically reduced rates and work far more hours on a case than are billed.

On the other hand, a Court Appointed Special Advocate or CASA is a trained volunteer who serves as an advocate for children in abuse or neglect cases. An abuse or neglect case is a type of case brought to the court by the Division of Children, Youth and Families under the Child Protection Act to protect the health, safety and welfare of a child. Although a CASA's role is very similar to that of a GAL, a CASA only works on abuse or neglect cases or derivative termination of parental rights.

Where can I take the child impact seminar?

As discussed in a previous blog post, in New Hampshire every parent is required to take the Child Impact Seminar within 45 days of the date that the Respondent (formerly known as Defendant) is served with the divorce or parenting petition. I have received a few e-mails recently asking where to sign up, so I thought I would post the telephone numbers and websites for each local provider here. There is also additional information about the Child Impact Seminar available on the Family Division website.

BELKNAP COUNTY          Laconia 524-1100 Genesis Behavioral Health

CARROLL COUNTY          Conway 447-2111 Carroll County Mental Health Services

Wolfeboro 447-2111 Carroll County Mental Health Services

CHESHIRE COUNTY         Keene 355-3071 Cheshire Mediation

COOS COUNTY                Groveton 636-2555 Northern Human Services

GRAFTON COUNTY          Lebanon 448-0126 West Central Behavioral Health

Littleton 444-5358 Northern Human Services

Plymouth 536-1118 Genesis Behavioral Health

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY Manchester 628-7787 The Mental Health Center

Nashua 598-7155 x 3900 Community Council of Nashua

MERRIMACK COUNTY      Concord 226-7505- x 3262 Riverbend Parent Child Center

ROCKINGHAM COUNTY    Exeter 431-6703 Seacoast Mental Health Center

Portsmouth 431-6703 Seacoast Mental Health Center

Salem 434-1577 CLM Behavioral Health

STRAFFORD COUNTY      Dover 749-3244 x732 Community Partners

SULLIVAN COUNTY          Claremont 448-0126 West Central Behavioral Health

Newport 448-0126 West Central Behavioral Health

 

 

 

 

Co-parenting tip: Schedule a weekly parenting call

After going through the divorce process, for many couples the last thing that they want to do is have regular contact with their ex-spouse. However, for divorcing couples with children, it is extremely important to maintain communication to effectively co-parent your children. Successfully co-parenting means that both parents will maintain an active, stable role in their children's day to day lives and that the children will be happy and healthier for it.

One technique that parents may try is scheduling a weekly parenting phone call. Instead of several phone calls a week that occur at inconvenient times and break down into arguments, focus communication into one business-like phone call per week. Unless there is an emergency, wait to discuss all issues at the parenting call. The parent with the children should make the phone call to insure that the children are out of ear shot, such as after bedtime.

Plan an agenda for the call, including the following topics:

  • Discuss the upcoming parenting schedule
  • Discuss the children's extracurricular activities and school schedules
  • Discuss academic issues such as homework and report cards
  • Discuss any behavioral issues
  • Discuss any general concerns

 

Georgakilas: Custody schedules and labels

On August 21, 2008, the New Hampshire Supreme Court released an opinion on In the Matter of Mary Beth Georgakilas and George Georgakilas holding that an approximately equal parenting schedule still entitles one parent to a “primary physical custody” designation.  

The facts of the case are as follows: the parties divorced in 2006 and entered into a permanent stipulation and a parenting plan regarding their son. The parties share joint decision making responsibility (formerly referred to as joint legal custody). The parties also agreed that their parenting time was for approximately equal time and George would have liberal and generous parenting time whenever he was not flying as a commercial airline pilot. In addition, the plan stipulated that for school purposes only, the child’s legal residence was his mother’s home.

 

When the divorce was finalized, the certificate of divorce entered by the court stated that Mary Beth and George had joint legal custody but that Mary Beth had physical custody. George moved to modify the certificate to reflect that the parties had joint physical custody. The trial court denied George’s motion because they interpreted the parenting plan to grant primary residential responsibility to Mary Beth. That because the plan did not state that they shared or had joint residential responsibility, the certificate of divorce correctly complied with the parenting plan and would not be revised. George appealed the ruling to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

 

The Supreme Court considered the intent of the parties as expressed in their stipulation when deciding this case. Under the plain meaning of the stipulation the parties were to have “equal or approximately equal” residential responsibility of their son. However, the court stated that as a matter of law “approximately equal” is not enough to confer custodial parent status as defined by the statute.

 

RSA 461-A:20 states that: a “custodial parent” is “a parent with 50% or more of the residential responsibility” and a “non-custodial parent” is “a parent with less than 50% of the residential responsibility”. The court determined that a parent with 49% of the residential responsibility is a non-custodial parent by definition.

 

Therefore, because Mary Beth and George chose to use “approximately equal” to describe their responsibilities and George’s absences from New Hampshire due to his job, the court concluded that the trial court did not err when it declined to change certificate of divorce. Unless the parties had agreed to have 50% of the residential responsibility pursuant to 461-A:20, only one of them could be the primary residentially responsible parent.

 

This case boils down to the labels we place upon parenting schedules, whether they be “custody”, “residential responsibility” or “routine schedules.” Often, for a parent the label is very important and that parent wants “sole physical custody” or “joint residential responsibility.” However, what really matters is the schedule itself. Instead of questioning what kind of label has been placed upon the schedule, a parent should focus on whether the schedule allows them ample parenting time and whether the schedule is the most beneficial for their children.

 

Crusco Law Office law clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this blog post.

Caveat Emptor: Buyer beware of do-it-yourself divorce kits

I read an interesting blog post today from Attorney Shannon Cavers of the Houston Texas Divorce & Family Law Attorney Blog. The blog reviews the buyer beware issues of do-it-yourself divorce kits. Attorney Cavers warns: "If you received a medical diagnosis requiring surgical intervention, you would not opt to operate on yourself. The same holds true in law."

Just this morning in the 311th District Court of Harris County, I personally witnessed a pro se litigant present a final decree of divorce. The source of the litigant’s forms were RapidLaw, an internet site offering divorce, adoption, and bankruptcy services across the U.S. 

The family law judges and court staff in Harris County bend over backwards to assist pro se litigants. However, they may not give legal advice to pro se parties. The forms were not prepared to properly dispense with the parties’ 401-K and retirement benefits. Apparently, the documents were insufficient enough to spur the judge urge the litigant to reconsider presentation of the decree as-is. The Judge asked the pro se party where she received the forms. Her response was Rapid Law. The Judge next asked the party if she paid for the forms, and she answered yes. Finally, the Judge directed the bailiff to photocopy the instructions from RapidLaw – presumably to present the information to the State Bar of Texas.

Whether you are downloading forms from one of the myriad of websites offering divorce documents or buying a kit from Barnes & Noble, the consumer should beware that a generic form usually cannot adequately address your unique situation within the confines of your state's specific rules and laws.

If you cannot afford an attorney, consider the following alternatives: 1) Hire an attorney for unbundled services to review or prepare documents for your case; 2) Utilize the New Hampshire Judicial Branch's self-help center for forms and information; or, 3) Call the New Hampshire Bar Association's law line held on the second Wednesday of each month from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at 800-868-1212.

 

N.H. Supreme Court holds nonbiological parent may seek parental rights and responsibilities

The New Hampshire Supreme Court released the opinion for In the Matter of J.B. and J.G. on August 6, 2008 holding that a man, who is not the biological father of a child, has standing to seek parental rights and responsibilities under the New Hampshire statute.

The facts of the case are as follows: The respondent, J.G., gave birth to a child, A.B., in 2001. The petitioner, J.B., was listed as the father on the birth certificate. In addition both parties executed an Affidavit of Paternity at the time of the child’s birth which stated that J.B. was the father. While the parties had never married and did not live together, J.B. had consistently maintained contact with the A.B. and in 2004 J.G. sought and obtained an order of child support against J.B.

After a disagreement about the A.B.’s schooling, J.B. filed a parenting petition in the family division to establish his parental rights and responsibilities. In response, J.G. alleged that J.B. was not the A.B.’s father. The trial court ordered a paternity test which showed that J.B. was not A.B.’s biological father.

Based on the test results J.G. moved to dismiss J.B.’s petition because he was not the biological father and therefore did not have rights under RSA 461-A and that granting him parental rights would violate her constitutional right as a natural parent. The trial court granted her motion to dismiss and then later reversed which prompted J.G. to file this appeal of that decision.

Therefore, the meat of the opinion is the question of whether J.B. may maintain a parenting petition under the parental rights and responsibilities act, when he is neither a stepparent, biological parent, or grandparent to the child? The court examines 461-A:1, IV which states that parental rights and responsibilities are defined as: “all rights and responsibilities parents have concerning their child”. However, it does not specifically define the term “parent”. The court determined that while the DNA testing proves that J.B. is not the biological father that in itself is not fatal to his request for parental rights under the statute so long as he alleges sufficient facts to establish his status as a parent by other means.

The court holds that J.B. meets the threshold to establish himself as a parent for two reasons.

1)      In order to impose an obligation of child support there needs to be an establishment of paternity. Therefore, when J.G. sought and received a child support order she acknowledged that J.B was A.B.’s parent.

2)      Also, according to RSA 5-C:24 paternity may be established when an affidavit is filed with the clerk of the town where the birth occurred. This has a legal effect of establishing paternity without requiring further action.

Finally, the court holds that there is no unconstitutional intrusion of J.G.’s right to raise and care for A.B. because J.B. is also A.B.’s parent and enjoys rights equal to J.G.’s.

Crusco Law Office law clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this blog post.

New Hampshire's child impact seminar

In 1993 the New Hampshire legislature enacted a law  requiring divorcing couples with minor children or parties in a parenting case to complete a Child Impact Seminar. This seminar, a four hour course, is called “Children First” and addresses the issues of divorce or separation and how they effect the children involved.

As explained on the NH Family Division website, Parents are required to complete the seminar and show the court a certificate of attendance from the program before a divorce decree is issued. The seminar is offered at multiple locations during weekend and evening hours. Parties who do not attend the seminar may be subject to sanctions by the court.

As found on the “Children First” website detailing the course, the seminar discusses several topics, including:

·       Ways to promote self-esteem in your child during this difficult time

·       What you can do to help your children adjust

·       The impact of violence or chronic conflict upon children

·       Behaviors to avoid

·       Helpful communication styles

·       Effective co-parenting skills

·       How to be a role model

·       Alternative dispute resolution

·       Important points to remember

Blog Credit: Marisa Ulloa, Crusco Law Office Law Clerk

What is a First Appearence?

A “First Appearance” occurs in a New Hampshire Family Division court in a divorce involving children or in a parenting petition case. The judge or marital master will talk about the court process, what to expect, and how the parties might settle their issues without litigation. At this time the court may refer individual cases to mediation. Mediation is an alternative process to litigation where a trained neutral third party helps negotiate and resolve disputed issues.

The court will hand out a First Appearance Highlights form that summarizes all of the information given at the First Appearance.

Below are some of the topics covered in a First Appearance:

· Court Process

· Case Management

· Child Impact Program

· Case Manager

· Guardian ad Litem

· Mediation

· Legal Representation

· Parenting Plans

· Child Support

Blog Credit: Marissa L. Ulloa, Crusco Law Office Law Clerk

New Hampshire's Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act

Jurisdiction is the authority of a court to hear particular types of legal matters. If the court does not have jurisdiction, then it may not hear the case. In cases involving interstate custody disputes, New Hampshire has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act under NH RSA 458-A. The Act is designed to avoid competition and conflict between courts of different states. Also, it ensures that litigation over custody takes place in the jurisdiction where the child and family have the closest connection and where significant evidence is most available.

The provisions of 458-A:3 lay out the circumstances in which New Hampshire will assume jurisdiction over child custody determinations:

1.      New Hampshire is the child’s home state (1) or has been for six consecutive months before the custody proceeding starts and a parent or person acting as parent continues to live in New Hampshire.

2.      It is in the best interest of the child that New Hampshire assume jurisdiction if the child and parents or the child and at least one contestant have significant connection with New Hampshire and within the state there is substantial evidence concerning the child's present or future care, protection, training, and personal relationships.

3.      New Hampshire will assume jurisdiction if the child is physically present in this state and has been abandoned or it is necessary in an emergency to protect the child.

4.      If it appears that no other state would have jurisdiction or another state has declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that New Hampshire is more appropriate to determine the custody of the child, and it is in the best interest of the child then New Hampshire will assume jurisdiction.

Therefore, except in emergency/abandonment  situations or when no other state would have jurisdiction, the physical presence of the child, or of the child and one of the contestants, is not alone sufficient for New Hampshire to have jurisdiction. In other words, a parent removing a child from one state and coming to New Hampshire may not be able to immediately seek custody orders from the court.  

Other significant provisions under the Act are:

·    If at the time of filing a petition in New Hampshire there is a proceeding simultaneously pending in another state, New Hampshire will not exercise jurisdiction 458-A:6.

·    New Hampshire courts shall recognize and enforce the decree of a court of another state which had assumed jurisdiction 458-A:13.  

·    If a court in another state has made a custody decree, New Hampshire will not modify it unless: (a) it appears that the state which rendered the decree no longer has jurisdiction or has declined to assume jurisdiction and (b) New Hampshire now has jurisdiction 458-A:14.
 

 


 

[1] "Home state'' means the state where the child resides with his parent/s or a person acting as parent for at least 6 consecutive months at the time the custody proceeding starts. If the child is less than 6 months old at the time of the proceedings then “home state” means the state where the child resided for a majority of the time since birth. 

Crusco Law Office law clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this blog post.

How will the court determine what my parenting rights and responsibilities will be?

The court uses a “best interests of the child” standard as set forth in RSA 461-A, and specifically RSA 461-A:6. The statute does more than just identify a grocery list of twelve factors to guide a court’s evaluation of parenting rights and responsibilities. It sets forth an assessment designed to determine the best interests of the child or children involved in such a proceeding.

It also gives courts the ability to: consider what the child wants; take certain steps to protect victims of sexual abuse or assault from a parent; grant reasonable visitation privileges to stepparents and grandparents; and appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent the child. Additionally, RSA 461-A:6 prevents the court from including the sex of the child or parent or even the parent’s financial means as part of its evaluation.

With that said, the factors are important and cover a spectrum of considerations as follows:

a)      The relationship of the child with each parent and the ability of each parent to provide the child with nurture, love, affection, and guidance.

b)      The ability of each parent to assure that the child receives adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and a safe environment.

c)      The child's developmental needs and the ability of each parent to meet them, both in the present and in the future.

d)     The quality of the child's adjustment to the child's school and community and the potential effect of any change.

e)      The ability and disposition of each parent to foster a positive relationship and frequent and continuing physical, written, and telephonic contact with the other parent, except where contact will result in harm to the child or to a parent.

f)       The support of each parent for the child's contact with the other parent as shown by allowing and promoting such contact.

g)      The support of each parent for the child's relationship with the other parent.

h)      The relationship of the child with any other person who may significantly affect the child.

i)        The ability of the parents to communicate, cooperate with each other, and make joint decisions concerning the children.

j)        Any evidence of abuse, as defined in RSA 173-B:1, I or RSA 169-C:3, II, and the impact of the abuse on the child and on the relationship between the child and the abusing parent.

k)      If a parent is incarcerated, the reason for and the length of the incarceration, and any unique issues that arise as a result of incarceration.

l)        Any other additional factors the court deems relevant.

These factors are a guide for the court, and no single factor is determinative for an award of parenting rights and responsibilities. In the end, it is at the discretion of the court as to how heavily it will weigh each factor and be guided by a guardian ad litem's recommendation.

Blog Credit: Tara Moore, Crusco Law Office Law Clerk

Are uninsured medical expenses and extracurricular activities included in child support guildelines?

Clients often ask about including in their parenting plan a provision requiring both parents to contribute to a child’s extracurricular activity expenses and uninsured medical expenses. These issues were brought before the New Hampshire Supreme Court In the Matter of Cheryl Anne Coderre and Paul A. Coderre on September 30, 2002. The father appealed an by the trial court that ordered him to pay for his children’s uninsured medical expenses and extracurricular activity expenses in addition to the child support ordered under the child support guidelines.

First, the Court determined that uninsured medical expenses are extraordinary expenses that are not included in child support guidelines. The Court looked at the statute regulating child support RSA 458-C and determined that the calculations under the guidelines are presumed to be correct but that the court may adjust the guidelines either upward or downward if it deems this deviation is warranted. More specifically looking at RSA 458-C:5, I(a) which states that the trial court “may deviate from the guideline support amount if it finds that a child will incur ongoing extraordinary medical expenses.” Therefore, the Court upheld the trial court’s order for payment of uninsured health insurance.

Additionally, the Court held that “extracurricular activity expenses are part of basic guidelines support” because they fall into the same category of such basic support as food, shelter and recreation. Because there is no language to the contrary in the guidelines the Court concluded that extracurricular activity expenses are included in the parties’ total support obligation. Therefore, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision on this matter.

In sum, a court has discretion to award uninsured medical expenses that are separate from the child support award determined by the guidelines. On the other hand, extracurricular activity expenses are considered to be included in the child support guidelines and may not be awarded separately.

Blog credit: Marisa L. Ulloa, Crusco Law Office Law Clerk

Authorization for medical treatment for your child

Summer is finally here with vacation plans, summer camps and trips to the grandparents in the works.  I read a great blog today by Attorney Robert L. Mues of the Ohio Family Law Blog reminding parents who will be away from their children to sign a medical authorization for caregivers. Although doctors may provide treatment in a truly life threatening situation, the medical authorization will insure that your child will receive the medical treatment he or she needs in a timely manner without lots of red tape.

Attorney Mues was kind enough to share his emergency medical authorization with readers.

Donovan: Enforcing orders for contribution to a child's college expenses

On this blog, we review new domestic relations cases that are issued by the New Hampshire Supreme Court such as the recent Lemieux and Gendron and Plaistek opinions. However, there are many older opinions which are worth reviewing periodically. Here, we will review the case In the Matter of Tatjana A. Donovan and Robert F. Donovan which was issued on April 1, 2005.

The major crux of the case deals with a section of the stipulation which required both parties to contribute to their children’s educational expenses through college in an amount proportionate to their respective incomes. Robert asked the trial court to strike this portion of the parties divorce decree in light of the passage of House Bill 299, which provided: "No child support order shall require a parent to contribute to an adult child’s college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school." RSA 461-A-14, V. The trial court refused, and Robert appealed the order.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court determined that as general rule statutes apply prospectively rather than retroactively. In other words, orders made prior to February 2, 2004, the day that the new statute became effective, that required a parent to contribute to a child’s college expenses were enforceable. Therefore, although no new orders may require contribution by a parent to a child’s college expenses, orders made prior to February 2, 2004 remain effective.

Blog Credit: Marisa L. Ulloa, Crusco Law Office Law Clerk

Same-sex couple adoption in New Hampshire

Can a same-sex couple adopt a child together in New Hampshire? The question, although simple, does not have a simple answer. Currently, the laws in New Hampshire leave the question open to interpretation.

As I have blogged about previously, New Hampshire is one of four states that recognizes a civil union. New Hampshire's civil union statute confers "all the rights and [is] subject to all the obligations and responsibilities provided for in state law that apply to parties who are joined together" in marriage.  However, the adoption statute allows for a "husband and wife together" or an "unmarried adult" to adopt. The adoption statue, when strictly interpreted, does not reflect the changes in the law regarding civil unions.

At this point, different judges have different interpretations of the adoption and civil union statutes. Until the legislature addresses the issue and revises the adoption statute to reflect the new civil union law or a case goes up to the supreme court, a same-sex couple may encounter a bump in the road towards adoption. For those proactive about such issues, you can contact your local state representative and bring the issue to their attention.

 

Parenting rights and responsibilities

New Hampshire law categorizes parenting rights and responsibilities into two groups: decision making responsibility and residential responsibility. These are the new terms for what used to be called "legal custody" and "physical custody," and have been called such since October 1, 2005 when the new statue went into effect.

Decision making is defined as the "responsibility to make decisions for the child." Basically, they are the major decisions about how the child will be brought up. The decisions include the choices a parent makes about a child's education, medical care, religion. Parents may be awarded joint decision making responsibility, so that the parents should agree on the care and upbringing of their child. Alternatively, one parent may be awarded sole decision making responsibility.

Residential responsibility means "a parent's responsibility to provide a home for the child." The parenting schedule will determine what type of responsibility each parent has, whether sole, primary or shared responsibility. The day to day decision making, including the ability to make emergency medical care decisions, rest with the parent the child is with at that time.

Prior voluntary acknowledgement of paternity precludes future genetic marker testing

The New Hampshire Supreme Court released an opinion today In the Matter of Kevin Gendron and Jody Plaistek that held that a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity executed in Massachusetts must be given full faith and credit and that the trial court erred in ordering genetic marker testing. The voluntary acknowledgement of paternity signed by both parents had all ready established the father as the legal father to the child, and therefore there was no need for further proof of paternity to establish parenting rights and responsibilities.

The court noted that it had made similar rulings in Watts v. Watts, which held that a father was precluded from seeking blood tests to disprove his paternity fifteen years after the children's births. In Watts, the court found that to allow the father to escape liability for support by blood tests would ignore his lengthy, voluntary acknowledgement of paternity. Here, the court noted that although the mother was seeking to disprove paternity, the result should not be any different than that in Watts.

Today's opinion should serve as a warning to anyone who voluntarily signs an acknowledgement of paternity. If there are any doubts or questions regarding paternity, seek legal counsel prior to signing the acknowledgment  because it may preclude the ability to reopen the issue of paternity in the future.

Guardian Ad Litem fees in New Hampshire

When parties disagree about the parenting rights and responsibilities of each parent, often the court appoints a Guardian Ad Litem. This adds an additional time and cost to a divorce or parenting case. As with attorney fees, the cost of GAL can vary depending on the rate that he charges and the time demanded by the complexity of the case. 

A GAL can be paid through "private pay" or through the "court fund."  When a GAL is paid through a"private pay" case, the court's order of appointment apportions the payment of the GAL's retainer. The cost is not always split 50/50, and the division of the fees is reviewable at a final hearing. In New Hampshire, the retainer usually ranges between $1,000 and $1,500. Additionally, the hourly rate varies from $60 to $100 per hour.

When one or both parties cannot afford to pay for the GAL, the court may order the payment of services from the Guardian ad Litem court fund. When a party qualifies to use the court fund, the GAL is paid for her fees through the court's fund. However, a party is required to contact the New Hampshire Office of Cost Containment to determine their ability to repay the fund for their share of the GAL services in their case.

 

College expenses

Besides baseball and daffodils, spring is also the time for college financial aid applications. A recent post from Jennifer Weisberg Millner on the NJ Family Legal Blog regarding the responsibility of parents for their children's college expenses highlighted how different laws are from state to state. Although parents in New Jersey may be ordered to pay for their children's college tuition and expenses, in New Hampshire, no court order shall require a parent to pay for educational expenses beyond high school. However, under the NH Supreme Court's decision in Donovan, a court may enforce orders made prior to February 2, 2004 (the date that the law went into effect) that required a parent to to pay for college.