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In 2014, a judge in Talbot County, Maryland, gave custody of a 14 year old girl to Mrs. Hostetter, writing in his memorandum opinion that as “an adolescent female, this may be the most important time in her life to have a solid relationship with her mother.”

What’s wrong with this decision? It ignores father’s rights.

Father’s Rights Matter

While the judge may have been correct about the importance of the mother-daughter relationship, he was wrong about the law.

In an unreported opinion in March of 2105, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed the decision as contrary to state law and cases.

In 1974, Maryland abandoned by statute the maternal preference doctrine, under which father’s rights were ignored and children were presumed to belong with their mother.

And in 1998, the Maryland Court of Appeals, held that the state’s Equal Rights Amendment prohibits custody determinations based on gender.

The Maryland legislature is currently considering a bill that would create a rebuttable presumption in favor of joint physical custody.  Sponsors of the bill say such a presumption is necessary to prevent a latent preference by judges to award custody to mothers rather than fathers.

This would be an important recognition of father’s rights.

If you have been “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” on television, you will be interested to know that Kris Jenner filed divorce papers against Bruce Jenner yesterday in Los Angeles Superior Court, citing irreconcilable differences.

The couple have been married for 23 years.  It is the third marriage for Bruce and the second for Kris.  They had no prenuptial agreement.

The split appears to be amicable and the parties have agreed on joint physical and legal custody of their only child who is still a minor, Kylie Jenner.  Neither is asking for alimony.

When separated spouses in Maryland and the District of Columbia require the aid of the court to resolve issues of support or custody they know where to file their case – in the local Circuit Court in Maryland and in Superior Court in the District of Columbia. And if they have been separated for less than the period required for an absolute divorce, they can include a request for limited divorce (legal separation in DC) in the support and/or custody suit.

Not so in Virginia. The circuit courts are the trial courts of general jurisdiction, and are the trial courts preferred by lawyers, including family lawyers. But the court with jurisdiction of minors, including custody and support of minors, and support of spouses, is the Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court (“JDR”). The Circuit Court only has concurrent jurisdiction over these matters if there is a divorce case pending. And, unlike in Maryland and DC, when the spouses have been separated for less than the required period (one year in general, six months with a written separation agreement and no minor children), a complaint for limited divorce is often not an option because in Virginia there aren’t any no fault grounds for limited divorce (called divorce from bed & board or, in Latin, a mensa et thoro ).
In this situation, the spouse needing custody or support relief faces a choice. He or she can:

1. File a petition requesting custody and/or support relief in JDR;

2. Assert fault grounds and file a complaint for divorce from bed and board and for the custody and/or support relief in Circuit Court; or

3. Wait the one year period and then file a complaint in Circuit Court for final divorce (called divorce a vincula matrimonii) on separation grounds and for the custody and/or support relief.
Each of these choices has advantages and disadvantages which I will address in my next post.

Police have ordered DNA tests to determine whether Ariel Castro is the father of Amanda Berry’s 6 year old daughter.  He is accused of kidnapping and raping Berry and two other women and holding them captive in his Cleveland home for years.

Many will find it hard to believe that a person convicted of such awful crimes would be able to assert any parental rights such as custody and visitation.

But Maryland, DC and Virginia are among the majority of jurisdictions that do not have laws terminating parental rights upon conviction of rape of the birth mother. So is Ohio.  If Castro sues for custody and visitation, the judge will have to decide based on what’s in the best interest of the child.

In 1978, Robert Swain divorced Nancy Swain because of her adultery.  She did not deny it.  In fact, she was living in an apartment with another man she intended to marry.

What Robert objected to was the order giving Nancy custody of their minor daughter.  His position was that exposure to an adulterous relationship inevitably causes detriment to the morals and welfare of a child of impressionable years.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals disagreed.  It said there are no presumptions that adultery makes you an unfit parent.  Adultery is relevant only as if it actually affects the child’s welfare.  There is no presumption of harm.  Adultery will not tip the balance against a parent in a custody case.

Swain v.  Swain, 43 Md. App. 622; 406 A.2d 680 (1979)

Someone asked today for the Maryland case that prevents a parent from relocating to another state with the minor children before a custody order is entered.

Surprise!  In Maryland, there is no case and no law against it.  Some lawyers and some judges will disapprove of this tactic, especially in the middle of a school year, but it is not illegal.

Until there is a custody order, both parties have joint legal and physical custody of their children under the common law.  That means either parent can take them anywhere.

It is then up to the parent left behind to go to court and try to get an order for their return.

Sometimes celebrities can teach us what not to do.  TMZ reports that an Atlanta family court judge has awarded Tawanna Iverson custody of her five children with NBA basketball star Allen Iverson.

The judge found that Allen “does not know how to manage the children; has little interest in learning to manage the children and has actually, at times, been a hindrance to their spiritual and emotional growth and development.  For example, he has refused to attend to an obvious and serious alcohol problem, which has caused him to do inappropriate things in the presence of the children while impaired.  He has left the children alone without supervision. He has left his young daughters in a hotel room with men who are unknown to the mother.”

The judge gave Allen visitation on the conditions that he:

  • not drink alcohol for 18 months
  • after that, not drink alcohol within 24 hours of visitation
  • engage in mental health therapy
  • attend AA meetings for a year

Guest Post By John Ellsworth, Esq

You can continue to claim your child as a dependent on your tax return if the divorce decree names you as the custodial parent. This is a very important rule for you to memorize.

If the decree is silent on that point, you would still be considered the custodial parent — and thus eligible for the exemption — if your child lived with you for a longer period of time during the year than with your ex. So if the child lives more than half the year with you, and your decree doesn’t mention who gets the exemption, then you get it.

Please keep in mind that it’s possible for the noncustodial parent to claim the exemption if the custodial parent signs a waiver pledging that he or she won’t claim it.

Father’s Rights Under “Duress”

Danny Carr, Counselor and Attorney at Law, punched the button on his phone this morning to listen to messages left last night on his voice-mail.

“I need to hire you for a custody case.  This is Ken Woodard. Call me at 301-555-5555.”

Carr hit redial, and when someone answered, he said,  “Mr. Woodard, this is Danny Carr, returning your call.”

“I was forced to give up custody and visitation by my wife’s attorney by duress,” said Woodard.

“Did he hold a gun to your head? “

“No, but he told me I would lose if I didn’t agree.”

“That’s not duress.”

“OK, well then I found out I still have to pay child support.”

“Right.  Parents are obligated to support their children.”

“But if I don’t have custody or visitation, haven’t my parental rights been terminated?”

“No.  You are still the children’s father.”

“My wife accused me of neglecting and abusing the kids.  Can I file a petition to terminate my parental rights on the basis of her saying I’m an unfit parent?”

“No.  You can’t file a complaint against yourself to terminate your own parental rights.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“I have to go now, Mr. Woodard.  Good luck with your case.”

Two Mothers and Father’s Rights

In 2011, a young girl in California had two mothers.  One went to prison.  The other was hospitalized.  The girl’s father tried to assert his father’s rights to gain custody of the child.  The state appellate court ruled that he could not be the legal guardian of the girl because California law allows a child to have only two parents.  Custody was given to the state.

Sen. Mark Leno, (D) San Francisco, has introduced a bill to amend the law in California so that a child can have more than two parents if it is in the best interests of the child.  Leno said, “There are more than Ozzie and Harriet families today.”

Delaware, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia all permit a child to have more than two parents.

Under the proposal, families with three or more parents would share custody, financial responsibility and visitation for the child, based on a judge’s determination of each parent’s resources and time with the child.

Benjamin Lopez, legislative analyst for the Traditional Values Coalition, said Leno’s bill is just  a new attempt to “revamp, redefine and muddy the waters” of family structure in the drive to legalize gay marriage.