Firm News & Updates

Child-Centered Approach to Decision Making Post Pandemic

We all too often overlook the cost of the pandemic to children. Increased screen time, sleep disturbances, sustained lack of participation with play, sports, or friends. School closures, isolation, and general “family stress” were difficult experiences for many children, further exacerbated in homes where there was parental conflict. In these unprecedented times, families can benefit when parents focus on a child-centered approach to decision-making by keeping kids “in the center, not in the middle” of issues that directly impact them. 

child-centered approach to divorce

Centering Children’s Voices

The pandemic disrupted many aspects of our lives, and the impacts will be felt for years to come. Parents are grappling with immediate issues affecting their children as varied as whether vaccinations are indicated, the best way to reestablish peer connections, and whether to attend school, summer camp, sports, or social engagements in person. Enhancing child-centered decision-making requires the acknowledgment that all too often, decisions are made in the best interests of the child, but without actually consulting the child.  

The United Nations Commission on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) affirmed that:

  • Every child has the right to express their views in matters that pertain to them.
  • Due weight should be given to the child’s voice based on age and maturity.
  • Children are people now, and not people in the making.
  • A child should not be treated less seriously.
  • Infants and children are vulnerable and must be protected.
  • These rights should be promoted to make them meaningful. 

Child-Centered Decision Making Process

What exactly does a child-centered approach to decision-making look like or sound like? The first component is seeking direct input from the child. First consider how the decision will affect each child in the family unit, both individually and collectively. Then ask the child what their views and preferences are. Next, make the decision in the child’s best interest, and report back to them so that they know how their voices impacted the decision. “Voice does not equal choice” but by the act of seeking input, we signal to children that they are not removed from the discourse around issues that impact them. 

When disputes arise between parents, first explore what the child says they need. If you focus on the child, you are more likely to find mutually acceptable solutions. You are more likely to be able to detach from the fear and pain that drives co-parenting conflict and to concentrate on the objectives, goals and needs of the child in a judgment-free way. Making the decision together takes the children out of the dispute. 

Focus on minimizing the traumatic effects of parental conflict on the child. A divorce is considered an “adverse childhood experience” for many children which subjects them to a higher chance of negative health impacts in adulthood. For those parents who are at the center of co-parenting with a challenging ex, it may help to ask yourself some rhetorical questions, such as “is this the best I can do?” or “can I defend my decision in court?” or “what memories do I want my child to have?”  When children are already under a lot of day-to-day anxiety, buffering the impact of high conflict will remove at least one element of the equation. 

When in doubt, rely on the three “Cs” of co-parenting – communicate, compromise, and cooperate. A child-centered parenting plan which involves seeking input from the child will decrease feelings of isolation and marginalization and contribute to a more positive recovery for children suffering the negative impacts of the pandemic. 

Considering a Separation Agreement?

When you and your spouse officially separate, questions immediately arise. Decisions need to be made. From living arrangements to temporary financial support to a custodial schedule for the children and everything in between, prompt agreements can benefit both parties. Separation Agreements can establish the lay of the land and provide order and stabilization during a potentially uncertain or even chaotic time. Learn more about Separation Agreements and how they can protect you. 

do you need a separation agreement?

What the Separation Agreement Covers

Arising most often in a mediation setting, a Separation Agreement can resolve any open issue. It can be entered into before or after a Petition for Legal Separation or Petition for Dissolution (Divorce) is filed. Importantly, this agreement will not bind the Court in making future orders. Although the Court is likely to presume that the agreement terms were fairly developed with the best interests of both parties and the children, this is not a foregone conclusion. A Separation Agreement often includes the term “without prejudice” meaning that the terms do not constrain either party from seeking alternate orders in a litigation setting – if things fall apart. 

The Separation Agreement must be voluntary. Neither party should be coerced to sign. Violations of the Separation Agreement will not be enforced by the Court. If your spouse violates the Separation Agreement, the Court will not force him or her to comply. Any non-compliance issues or breaches will need to be timely resolved with a family law attorney. 

Some of the topics that are often addressed in Separation Agreements are:

  • Child custody (e.g. “parents agree to equally share physical and legal custody”)
  • Visitation arrangements  (e.g. “shared visitation in response to the child’s needs and wishes”)
  • Child support (e.g. “the parties to equally share the expenses of daughter”)
  • Spousal support 
  • Insurance
  • Property division (e.g. “parties agree to establish separate bank accounts with an advance distribution from community property made to each party”)
  • Inheritance
  • Debt payment 

Benefits of a Separation Agreement

Separation Agreements provide a common understanding at the beginning of the separation when tempers may be more contained. Merely the act of writing agreements down conveys a formality and understanding which provides more “teeth” than an oral agreement. Early written agreements could also set the tone and rules of operation for the entire case if skillfully drafted and endorsed by both sides. They could potentially save you a significant amount of time and money in the long run. Measures as simple as dividing bank accounts and opening new, post-separation accounts could save thousands of dollars incurred for a post-separation accounting. Litigation is often a time-consuming, arduous process. Resolving some or all of the issues listed above before trial can be beneficial to both your financial and mental health. 

The flexibility granted by Separation Agreements is another appealing aspect of this process. You can work creatively with your spouse to find solutions that meet both of your unique needs. A Separation Agreement allows you to require conditions that a judge often cannot. As a tool in mediation, parties will be encouraged to form interim or piecemeal agreements throughout the process. Diffusing hostilities and ending unrest on the “smaller” issues allows separating spouses to tackle the more polarizing aspects of the divorce likely to cause the most conflict.  

Privacy is another strong selling point. Court documents become public record. If you wish to keep the terms of your shared agreements private, you may choose to opt for a Separation Agreement.

How an Attorney Can Help

Whether you are drafting a Separation Agreement or reviewing one sent by your spouse, you are well-advised to work with an attorney representing you or working with you as a consultant. An experienced family law attorney will help you draft or scrutinize a Separation Agreement written by your spouse, his or her attorney, or your mediator, and ensure your needs are adequately met. For additional questions regarding whether a Separation Agreement can aid your divorce case, consult with an experienced family law lawyer local to your jurisdiction. 

Our House Grief Support Center’s New Executive Team

I am proud to serve as the newly installed board president and chair of the board of directors of
OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center. Our executive leadership team welcomes Breena Gold as
the incoming CEO.

grief support center executive team

As we reflect upon the overwhelming needs of the Los Angeles community at this time, the
organization’s mission to support bereaved children, teens, and adults in grieving the death of
someone close is more important than ever. As a griever myself, I know our society shies away
from talking about death or acknowledging the emotional pain of grief and loss. Many simply do
not feel equipped to know what to say to someone experiencing the raw anguish of grief.
People end up saying nothing at all to the griever and that’s a lonely place to be. This isolating
feeling sends the message ‘you should be okay by now’ or ‘move on’ – even if unintended.
Having listened to so many OUR HOUSE alumni over the years, I am continually impressed by
how the grief groups at OUR HOUSE have helped so many put words to their emotions by
making the unspeakable pain – speakable.

The programs and services of OUR HOUSE have truly made a life-altering difference for so
many grievers. With resources from our community fueling our excellent staff and the aid of
volunteers and board, the Center’s new executive leadership team will continue to promote grief
awareness and expansion of support services in keeping with our collective belief that no one
should grieve alone.

OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center

While loss is an all-too-common part of the human experience, we do not know how to cope
with grief as a society. OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center aims to change that with direct grief
support and a myriad of educational programs.

OUR HOUSE is a non-profit, non-sectarian grief support agency that operates on a sliding
scale. Over the past three decades, OUR HOUSE has helped tens of thousands of grieving
individuals of all ages from 4 – 104 years old begin their journey to healing after the death of a
loved one. Located in Los Angeles, Woodland Hills, Koreatown, and “online” via Zoom, OUR
HOUSE offers a safe, nurturing environment where bereaved families can find hope through the
peer support of curated grief groups.

In 2020 during the Pandemic, OUR HOUSE provided 23,135 hours of online support for
grievers and educated and trained 7,761 professionals including therapists, clergy, and hospice
workers who interact with bereaved families. The agency also offered a virtual grief camp for
kids, Spanish-speaking support groups, on-site grief response for companies and their
employees and a medical education program for first year med students. Please visit OUR
HOUSE to learn more about the services offered and how you can support our mission.

New CEO Announced: Breena Gold

Our board of directors is thrilled to introduce a leader of Breena’s caliber to guide OUR HOUSE
Grief Support Center. Breena possesses proven executive leadership credentials to grow and
sustain the longevity of OUR HOUSE and turn it into an even greater, more impactful, and
broad reaching organization. As we look to the future, Breena will lead and carry on our legacy
of providing the highest level of program excellence and service to those in our community who
are grieving the death of a loved one.

2021/2022 Board Chair: Robyn Santucci

As a founding member of the Associate Board in 2008, I am deeply honored to continue my
work with this invaluable organization that is near and dear to my heart. I served as chair of the
Associate Board, a group of young professionals which supports the agency through fundraising
and ambassadorship, from 2010-2014. I joined the Board of Directors in January 2015. Over the
years, I have been afforded an insider’s view of the phenomenal work that OUR HOUSE has
done to help so many during a critical time of need.

Yet, the agency faces many challenges in the wake of the pandemic when the community need
for grief support has exponentially increased. As the incoming Board Chair, I look forward to
working closely with my staff partner, CEO Breena Gold, to safely reopen our in-person services
in the coming months. While family law is my specialty, the call of my heart has always been to
help others. I am honored to use my experience to help others as a committed volunteer at
OUR HOUSE.

If you want to get involved, there are three meaningful ways to volunteer: become a volunteer
group leader, volunteer at Camp Erin, or serve on one of our special events committees. We
cannot bring understanding, respect, and hope to the grief process without the partnership of our volunteers!

How to Start the Divorce Process

Where do I even begin? I get this question a lot. The decision to end a marriage is seldom an easy one. Once the choice has been made, you may find yourself wondering what to do next or what to do first. While the specific laws governing a marital dissolution vary from state to state, the initial, customary steps of the process are fairly straightforward. Let’s proceed. 

how to start the divorce process

File a Divorce Petition

The very first step in the divorce process is to file the petition for divorce. This document initiates the divorce case and lets the Court know you request its assistance with a legal matter. The Petition is like a civil complaint and is usually accompanied by a summons. Typically the documentation you will complete includes forms which:

  • Identify the parties involved, the date of the marriage, and the date you separated
  • Describe how you meet the state’s residency requirements
  • (If applicable) request court orders for custody, child support, spousal support, attorney’s fees, and property division, etc.

Your state may require additional documents or information at this time. An experienced divorce attorney in your jurisdiction can help guide you through these steps if you have questions or unique circumstances or can of course complete the forms for you after consultation. The petition in California is a surprisingly simple and straightforward document. Nonetheless, you will want to make sure your initial filing is 100% correct. 

The petitioner will have to complete all of this initial paperwork and pay a filing fee. Check your local court system’s website for filing fee information.

Formally Serve Your Spouse

Once the paperwork has been filed, you are assigned a case number.  The other party will be formally served in person or by substitute service if your state permits. If it is safe to do so, it’s often a good idea to make your spouse aware the divorce forms are en route. No one likes a nasty surprise. 

In California, anyone over the age of 18 who is not a party to the case can serve divorce papers. Other states require a licensed process server to complete this part of the divorce. To avoid legal complications, it is best to use a professional to complete this step. Remember, you are not permitted to serve the forms yourself. 

Response Time

Once properly served, your spouse will have a set amount of time to complete the paperwork that they are required to file and serve. If they do not complete and return their paperwork within the legal time limit, you could apply for a default judgment. This ensures that you will not have to wait indefinitely for your spouse to respond. If you anticipate this happening, you will want to make sure your petition is detailed and complete with the specific relief you seek. 

Settle Out of Court

Many divorces do not go to trial given the expense and uncertainty of a litigated process, so odds are you will be able to negotiate a deal and settle out of court. If you have a valid prenuptial agreement, then most of your work is already done. If you are able to reach a settlement on your own, you can take advantage of the uncontested divorce procedure. If there are sticking points then mediation is an option to fine-tune and come to an acceptable compromise. Should that fail, counsel can often negotiate an out-of-court settlement for you and the stipulated Judgment can be submitted to the Court sans trial. 

Go to Trial

If you cannot settle out of court, your divorce will be set for trial and decided in family court. A judge (and in some states, a jury) will render a decision on all aspects of your divorce from support to property division to attorney’s fees and costs. 

Receive Divorce Decree

Once the waiting period designated by your state is over, the Court can issue a final decree or Judgment. This document makes your divorce official. The process is now complete. Keep paper and digital copies of this document and consider obtaining a certified copy from the Court.

Getting divorced can seem overwhelming, but starting the process should not be. An experienced family law attorney can help guide you through the process. For more information about what to expect when you start the divorce process, see our divorce preparation checklist.

Shared Parenting: What Does It Mean and Is It For You? 

Child custody decisions can be the most emotionally charged of the divorce process. Judges will take the best interests of the child into account when determining the optimal parenting plan for parents and children. In most cases, shared parenting or joint custody is the best option. What exactly is shared parenting? Is it right for your family? 

what is shared parenting

Shared Parenting Defined

The concept of custody is divided into two sets of rights: legal and physical custody. Joint legal custody (or shared legal custody) gives both parents say in decision making responsibility for the child. Contrast this with sole custody, where one parent has full decision-making power over one or more areas of the child’s life (e.g. education, medical decisions, etc.). Physical custody is where the child spends time or lives. Under the majority of shared physical parenting agreements, parenting time is shared more equally, although it does not have to be a 50/50 split. This arrangement varies from family to family, but the goal is for each parent to play an equal role in the child’s life.

What are the Benefits of Shared Parenting?

Having frequent and continuing contact with both parents is considered a right for every child. There are certainly instances where a shared parenting arrangement is not in the best interest of a child. However, generally speaking, the primary benefit of shared parenting is that the child will grow up with the influence of both parents in his or her life, despite the fact that the family is no longer an intact unit. For many children, shared parenting is the next best thing to being raised by parents who are married. For parents, it can reduce the stress of being a solo parent. When parents share custody, time, expenses, and major decisions are shared, which can be beneficial and equitable to everyone. 

What are the Drawbacks of Sharing Custody?

The biggest disadvantage to shared parenting is the stress some children feel moving from one house to another. Some children adjust easily, while some struggle with the ongoing shuffling from one home to another. The adjustment can be destabling particularly if the communication between parents is spotty or conflictual. Some couples may also have very different views on parenting, which will be intensified by being forced to make joint decisions after a divorce. Some parents in a high conflict relationship achieve greater success with parallel parenting which allows both parents to have two separate parenting styles and requires the child to adjust and adapt. The level of conflict between the co-parents will be a good indicator of success within the shared parenting model.

Will it Work for You?

Every person’s needs are different. Every family’s needs are different. Families that live long distances apart or have unconventional work or travel schedules may not adapt well to shared parenting. Children with special may adapt better to the stability of living primarily in one home. In some cases it is best for the child to live with one parent for the majority of the time and spend time with the other at specific times. Ultimately, the court will consider the needs of the child above all other expectations or considerations when making custody decisions.

If you would like to explore shared parenting, an experienced family law attorney can walk you through the options, benefits and limitations. Joint custody has been a positive experience for many divorced couples. It could also be right for your family.

Exploring the Tax Implications of Divorce

Tax season is right around the corner. Millions of Americans are readying their paperwork and steadying their nerves – both of which will be required to submit those tax returns on time. If you are in the process of a divorce or about to start one this year, let’s explore some tax implications that are baked into the process so that you can be better prepared for what to expect next. 

what are the tax implications of divorce?

How Divorce Affects Taxes

The biggest change to your taxes will be your filing status. You may submit a “married” filing tax return until the divorce is final. The calendar year in which your divorce is finalized and Judgment entered by the court terminating your marital status is the operative time period. You are legally married until this date. Until you are restored to the status of a “single” taxpayer, you may file “married” jointly or separately with your former spouse. A joint tax filing carries many implications and requires consent of your former spouse. If you have been legally separated or living separately for a period of time, then you may be able to file as “head of household”. Consult with your tax preparer for the most advantageous filing status for you.

Alimony & Child Support

Alimony (or “spousal support”) is no longer tax deductible by the payor or taxable to the payee for judgments entered after 12/31/18 as a part of the changes to the federal tax code. Prior to this time period and for many years, alimony could be deducted which was often a benefit for both payor and payee. However, depending on your state, you may still owe taxes on alimony on a state tax return (such is the case in California which for now has not conformed to the federal tax code changes). Child support is never taxable to the payee nor deductible to the payor.  

Taxes on Assets and Asset Transfers

In most cases, the IRS does not consider the transfer of assets between divorcing spouses as a taxable event. Consequently, the transfer of cash, real property, retirement accounts and other assets between spouses as a result of a judgment of divorce is tax-free. You may be subject to a capital gains tax on mutual funds, stocks, and bonds when you sell them to divide the assets. When dividing assets, you should keep in mind that depending on the asset type, it may have embedded tax consequences down the road that should be considered when you are dividing the marital estate  — in particular if you are choosing to equalize one asset type against another (e.g. a traditional 401K account which requires payment of taxes at the time of distribution).

Real Estate Sales Taxes

A home is oftentimes the most expensive jointly owned asset in a marriage. In the divorce, you can choose to sell the house and split the proceeds or allow one party to buy out the other’s equity in the property. Selling the home and dividing the net sales proceeds proportionately between spouses is typically the cleaner transaction and allows both spouses to exclude a larger portion of the capital gains taxes which may be due. If you elect to buy-out your spouse’s interest, any taxable capital gain incurred in future years will be your sole responsibility. 

Tax laws can be incredibly complex and their application very fact-specific. To top it off, tax laws change every year depending on new legislation and public policy shifts. You are well advised to consult with a qualified tax professional to guide you through the tax issues that come up around the divorce process  – division of assets, payment of support, and appropriate estate planning for your family.  

Divorce and Children: What to Expect When You Have Kids 

What can you expect when you’re getting divorced with kids in the mix? While the same legal steps are involved with or without minor children, the divorce process is almost always more emotional  — even among couples with “amicable separations.” It helps to be prepared. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you ready and steady yourself for grappling with custody issues during divorce. 

what to expect with children and divorce

Divorce with Kids: The Process

Every state has a different procedure with unique terminology. Yet a generally expected set of steps is followed in most divorce proceedings. More than likely you can expect:

  1. Divorce filing: custody and child support are included in the filing. In California, a request for child support is included in the filing (without asking) in any divorce case involving minor children of the marriage.
  2. Emergency Orders (if applicable): if the children are at risk of physical or emotional harm from the other parent, you can ask the judge to protect them by establishing set boundaries, precautions and restraining orders. 
  3. Mediation: always a good idea but mandatory in many states (like California) before the Court will make custodial orders. Because mediation is mandatory, it is provided free of charge by the county. Many cases settle outside of court even with a pending motion before the court. Sometimes having a neutral third party to assist can defuse a situation where emotions run high and two co-parents cannot reach an agreement on their own. Custody litigation is very polarizing. 
  4. Divorce Settlement Agreement: if you are able to come to an agreement on child custody issues outside of court, you can include it as part of your settlement. The custodial provisions will always be modifiable if circumstances change or warrant a change in the parenting plan.
  5. Appeals to Trial Court decisions: if you or the other party disagrees with the court order, it can be appealed – although quite costly and often challenging to appeal because the original court has wide discretion to establish orders consistent with the children’s best interest. Obtain legal advice from an attorney specializing in family law and/or appellate law. 

Put the Children First

Divorce is a significant change for everyone. Kids react differently to divorce, and it is important to keep them front and center in the decision-making process. The effects of divorce on children vary based on their age and temperament. Even when they are not expressing difficulties outwardly, children are little sponges that can soak up the stress of the divorce. They might be indirectly exposed to discussions about financial issues, cheating, violence, fraud, or other turbulence that they are not prepared to deal with yet. It is a good idea to consult with a counselor specializing in developmental or custodial issues to help with the changes your family is experiencing.

Understand the Judge’s Role

While widely considered in the best interest of children to reach an agreement outside of court, if you find yourself engaged in a litigation tug of war with your co-parent, keep in mind — the judge is there to consider the child’s best interests, and will place those above your or your coparent’s own interest in many circumstances. The parent better able to share the children will be considered the parent better suited for primary custody. Frequent and continuing contact with both parents is the legal standard to be followed as a “base line” but the court can deviate based on the best interest standard. See my blog post about factors considered by courts when deciding custody arrangements for more detailed information. 

Children May Have a Say in Custody Decisions

Realize that depending on the age of the child, the maturity of the child or the jurisdiction of the case, children may be allowed to have input in custody decisions. Know what the laws are in your state and prepare yourself for this possibility. It is the strong preference of most judges not to have children testify in open court; children may be interviewed in chambers or through a custodial evaluator who is appointed by the court as an expert. 

The most important first step to preparing yourself for divorce when conflict over the children is involved is to hire an experienced attorney specializing in family law with whom you feel comfortable.  A good attorney will guide you through the process and take steps to ensure that both you and your children are represented in the journey ahead.

Divorce Preparation Checklist: What Can You Do to Prepare Yourself

You are not alone if you see divorce as a confusing and complicated process. You are being asked to make decisions quickly. So many documents and detailed information to compile in such a seemingly short period of time. All while experiencing the emotional strain of the end of a relationship. And while facing fear of the unknown. As with many challenges in life, it helps to be organized and prepared. As we learned in The Checklist Manifesto, you can use a divorce preparation checklist to ease your woe and defog your brain. Doing so will help you feel more in control of the situation and make the process proceed more smoothly. 

divorce preparation checklist

First Steps

Before you separate, it is advisable to set up secure avenues for receiving communications. If you are sharing a home, consider opening a P.O. Box so that you can privately receive mail from professionals like your attorney or bank and credit card statements for accounts you may open. Open a new email account dedicated to your divorce and “new life” if you and your partner have a shared account. Address all aspects of your technology. Change all the passwords on your personal social media accounts and any other online sites that are yours alone. When you are ready to proceed, contact a divorce attorney for a consultation or to hire the right person to represent you through the proceedings. Many family law attorneys offer unbundled services. Avoid relying entirely on what happened in your friend’s or neighbor’s divorce or material you read online or in a workbook. Divorce is not “one size fits all.” 

Legal Documents

Next you will need to compile any applicable legal documents, such as a will, trust or prenuptial agreement.  Start gathering tax returns and deeds to real estate. Your divorce attorney can help guide you on other key documents you will need immediately which could impact property division and support. 

Financial Information

Make a list of all financial information that pertains to both you as a couple and you solo. List your banks and credit cards, along with the balances for each account. Pull your credit report. Gather the retirement plans and insurance policies. Other financial information you may want to compile includes household bills, mortgage statements, vehicle titles and loans, and debt owed (e.g. taxes, student loans, etc.). Start making a budget of your monthly living expenses.

Children

If you have children, there is no ONE “to do” list.  Some moves you may want to make include – compiling records for child care expenses and other related fees; – notifying the school if your child’s address will change;  -let the school know if transportation needs are to be changed;  -make copies of your child’s school schedule and after school activities to share with your co-parent; -obtain a large calendar to plot out a temporary timeshare schedule.  

Other Assets

Make an inventory of important or valuable personal property. This will include items such as furniture, art, collections and jewelry. Make a list of things you would like to keep. Separate out gifts you received versus items you bought with joint funds. 

This “divorce homework” is tedious and time consuming for every person in your shoes. You are not alone. Sometimes it is helpful just to vent. You may want to consider finding a support group to help you with this transition in your life. I know many people who have found support groups very helpful in normalizing the process and feelings of divorce. 

Your attorney will make sure you have all the information needed for your divorce, but this list will help you get a head start. Also check out my New Client Checklist for additional tips. 

Divorce Preparation Checklist

  • Contact an attorney for a consultation
  • Open a PO Box for personal mail or change delivery to email
  • Change your passwords online and put them in a safe place
  • Open a new email account dedicated to divorce
  • Obtain important legal documents
  • Gather financial information pertaining to assets and income
  • Open your own checking and savings account to deposit post-separation dollars
  • Make a list of all debt
  • Organize home and vehicle information
  • Compile relevant information about children if applicable
  • Gather tax returns, wills, trusts
  • Organize income information like paystubs, W-2, K-1 and 1099 forms
  • Make a list of employer benefits and look into accrued vacation for you and your spouse
  • List retirement and investment accounts and gather current statements
  • Save health and life insurance policies
  • Make a list of unique personal property
  • Find a counselor or support group – get referrals

Factors Considered by Courts When Deciding Custody Arrangements

The often uttered phrase “the Best Interests of the Child”  is the governing standard by which Courts decide a custody arrangement for two disagreeing parents. Neither individual parent’s interest is considered, nor the goal of achieving equity between the parents. A parent’s gender, nor a parent’s immigration status, will be considered preferential. Instead judges use the Best Interest standard when making legal and physical custody determinations —  and visitation or “timeshare” orders. Frequent and continuing contact with both parents where they each share the rights and responsibilities of the child is the overall, long term goal. Although courts have wide discretion within the standard to make choices which foster the child’s health, safety and welfare, or more specifically security and emotional development, several common factors are considered.  

what do judges consider when making custody arrangements

The Child’s Age

Children’s needs change as they grow and develop. So age is often the starting point for the Court.  A young infant who is nursing will have different needs than a teenager who is more independent. Especially when determining a timeshare schedule for the week, younger children are benefited by more frequent exchanges between parents, especially during infancy or toddlerhood. During this developmental phase, “object permanence,” or the concept that “objects” (people) continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, heard, or sensed, is still forming. For this reason, it is critical to see both parents frequently. Older children, such as teens, may benefit from less frequent, more stable schedules such as “week on, week off.”  A schedule such as alternating weeks is still considered “frequent and continuing” contact in this instance. 

Parent/Child Relationships

Divorce can be a time of woeful uncertainty for everyone involved. Providing a sense of normalcy and stability for children is a top concern. The status quo or existing relationship between parent/child can be a top factor to consider. Who is the primary caregiver? Evidence of direct child care responsibilities include planning and providing meals, arranging health care, involvement in school and extracurriculars, etc. is considered by the Court – which is not to say that the “out parent” is not going to be given substantial custodial time. Courts often implement a ramp up period for the non-primary parent by adding on more custodial segments if the child is being benefited. Factors such as race, religious practice, sexual orientation, disparity in income and physical handicap are not considered determinative by the Court. Judges will often favor child custody decisions reached by stipulation between parents and parents are required to attempt mediation before coming to Court. You can help guide the process by learning how to prepare for child custody mediation.

Other Considerations

In certain cases, Courts will deviate from the “frequent and continuing” model where important overriding parenting limitations are present. Substance abuse, past domestic violence, or dangerous mental health issues are all factors that a judge will take into consideration when making custody orders. With these circumstances, the court must be presented with evidence and not merely allegations. Evidence can include police records, text messages, testimonials, photographs, videos, recordings, and records of hospitalization or inpatient services. 

Another new and unique consideration that has arisen is COVID-19. If one parent is behaving in a way that puts children at risk, or if a parent or child has an underlying health condition that requires heightened diligence during this Pandemic, physical custody preferences might be impacted. Again, documented evidence of these concerns must be presented. 

While the Court must consider the best interests of the child when making decisions regarding custody and visitation, the standard and the law continues to evolve to include factors such as a child’s preference, challenges around parental relocation to another town or state, and the role of technology in child custody. You will be well served to seek professional legal advice about how the Court will view the specific issues in your custody dispute and how to present your best case. 

Are Divorce Support Groups for You?

There are times in our lives when we should not go it alone. Divorce is one of those times. As a way to normalize the experience, experts report that divorce support groups offer unparalleled benefits. Feedback from someone who can mirror your experience and offer a “been there, done that” set of reality checks can offer comfort in a difficult time, as well as a stepping stone to personal growth. Sure, you could ask your divorce attorney or therapist for advice. But maybe you need an empathic listener who has been in your exact shoes. Maybe you need a divorce support group.

Do I need a divorce support group?

What are Divorce Support Groups All About?

Anyone acquainted with the emotional roller coaster of divorce is familiar with the 5 phases of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Then, Acceptance. Rinse and repeat. 

A divorce-focused support group offers a community of people with shared experiences to talk to in a group setting about commonly experienced challenges in the divorce process. Some divorce support groups are faith-based. Others are for women only or men only. The services provided by the group vary depending on the mission or purpose of the group. The groups have a moderator, facilitator or therapist who keeps the discussion on track. The goal is to sustain community and provide support. Some perks that divorce support groups also provide are:

  • Lists of helpful resources
  • Professional referrals
  • Divorce education
  • Seminars on various divorce topics
  • Expert speakers brought in be the group facilitator
  • Emotional support and bonding

Advice from a Local Expert

I recently sat down to talk to Dr. Wendy O’Connor, who runs a women’s empowerment group for those facing divorce. Dr. O’Connor explained that groups are wonderful for people who struggle with a variety of issues. Divorce groups are extremely powerful because they let people know that they are not alone and provide healing and growth opportunities unique to group settings. 

Dr. O’Connor cited Dr. Irvin Yalom’s book, Lying on the Couch, to explain the benefits of the “support group model”. There are eleven factors that influence change and healing in support group settings, which are:

  • Installation of Hope
  • Universality
  • Imparting Information
  • Altruism/sense of value in helping each other
  • Corrective Recapitulation
  • Empathy
  • Interpersonal Learning
  • Group Cohesiveness
  • Sense of Accepting/Belonging/Security
  • Catharsis/”Aha moments”
  • Existential Factors/Being part of something larger than just us

These are tangible benefits which cannot be achieved in one-on-one counseling. The essence of the support group dynamic is to receive information, but also feedback and reflection from the group itself. Dr. O’Connor’s support group covers topics such as anger, setting boundaries, reunification, rediscovering your sexuality, and much more. Her women’s empowerment group (the word “divorce” is intentionally omitted, as it does not define who you are) meets weekly. 

How Do I Find a Group?

Everyone’s needs are different, so it is important to find a group that meets your expectations. Some places to look for a divorce support group are:

An experienced divorce attorney can suggest some local resources for group or individual support options which compliment the legal work being done by counsel. Taking the sting out of this painful process is the goal.