Sunday, April 6, 2014

General Alimony Begins With a Divorce Judgment.

In September, 2011 the Massachusetts enacted into Law the Alimony Reform Act of 2011. This law changed completely the law of alimony in the state. It created presumptive maximum lengths of time for alimony to be received, guidelines to determine the amount of alimony, four categories of alimony and other changes. Attorneys generally advise that there are many areas of this new law that are difficult to interpret without appellate court decisions. We now have the benefit of the first case to interpret the new law.

In the case of Holmes v. Holmes, SJC-11538 (April 2, 2014) the court addressed the question of when does general alimony start for purposes of the presumptive maximum length of time. The question may be restated as does temporary alimony count towards the maximum length of time for receiving general alimony. The court's answer was that temporary alimony does not count towards general alimony.

In the Holmes case, the wife had received temporary alimony for over two years during the pendency of the divorce. Since the couple had been married for under twenty years, the court set a termination date for alimony payments. This date did not take into account the money paid as temporary alimony during the divorce. The court did state that if the recipient of alimony had delayed the divorce then the court should consider a portion of the pre-judgment period towards the presumptive maximum limit. However, the two years of temporary alimony in the Holmes case did not seem so long that the Judge should consider a different outcome.

The Alimony Reform Act of 2011 changed alimony from a law that favored women to a law that favored men. The recent decision of the Supreme Judicial Court is a small step swinging the law back towards women. Alimony in Massachusetts remains a complicated subject. Anybody getting divorced in Massachusetts with questions about alimony should consult an experienced divorce attorney to understand their rights.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

If I was married in Massachusetts can I get divorced in Massachusetts?

Same gender couples who were lawfully married in Massachusetts and have since moved to other states may find that they can't get divorced in the state where they reside. Their state of residence may define marriage as consisting of one man and one woman. As a result, this definition of marriage means that the state of residence may not recognize the same gender marriage. If the marriage is not recognized, then the couple can't get divorced. It is only natural to ask if the couple can return to Massachusetts for one day, appear in court, and get divorced. Unfortunately, this can't happen.

Massachusetts has a residency requirement before a person or couple can file for divorce. The person who files for divorce must reside in Massachusetts for one year prior to the filing. For many couples this means that they have the right to get married as a same gender couple but not the right to get divorced.

If a same gender couple finds themselves in a state that won't grant them a divorce, they have four options:
  1. Stay married.
  2. One party moves to Massachusetts for one year and then files for divorce.
  3. Both parties move to Massachusetts. If both parties are bona fide Massachusetts residents they can file a divorce before the one year has passed.
  4. Contact the ACLU or other organization and ask for assistance to file a court action to declare the law of your state in violation of the United States Constitution and unenforceable. The result of this would be to change the law of your state causing the state to recognize lawful same gender marriages from other states. A number of lawsuits of this nature have been filed around the country and have resulted in changing the law of some states.
An experienced Massachusetts divorce attorney can explain the residency requirements of Massachusetts. If you find that you live in a state that doesn't recognize same gender marriages and you can't get divorce you may want to contact the ACLU to find an attorney who can discuss litigation as a method to obtain the right to get divorced.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

In Massachusetts, search warrants are required to obtain Cell Phone Location Data.

If you watch police shows on tv you have seen episodes where the police go to their computer and pull up a suspect's cell phone's number and then access cell tower information and show the physical location of the suspect. This scenario is somewhat different from real life in that law enforcement needs a court order to obtain this information. However, under theFederal Stored Communications Act (SCA) 28 U.S.C. § 2701, it is very easy for law enforcement to obtain this information. If the police show a reasonable suspicion, then under the SCA, they can obtain a court order to obtain access to cell phone location information (CSLI). As of February 18, 2014, in Massachusetts, police need more than reasonable suspicion. They need probable cause. This is the same standard that police need to obtain a search warrant to search a person's home.

In the case of Commonwealthv. Augustine, 467 Mass. 230 (2014), police, investigating a murder, sought and obtained an order for production of CSLI under the Federal SCA to "possibly include or exclude" the defendant "as a suspect.” The Court ruled that police must obtain a search warrant based on probable cause to obtain CSLI.

CSLI data is collected and maintained by cell phone companies in their ordinary course of conducting business. As a third party, the police may request the company to produce the information and, if they comply, would not violate any defendant's rights. However, companies don't have to produce this information as the SCA provides that companies can require court orders before producing this information. When police seek a court order, then the government is compelling the company to provide this information. Under these circumstances, the government is intruding into the private lives and expectations of people and need a warrant based on probable cause.

The Massachusetts court recognized that cell phones have become "an indispensable part of modern [American] life. It is also clear that cell phones act as GPS devices and track the movements of the user of the phone as they travel. The court wrote that “there is no question that it tracks the location of a cellular telephone user.” Americans should not have to worry about the government, as Big Brother, tracking their every movement. As such, at least in Massachusetts, police need a search warrant if they want to use cell phone data to track the movements of a suspect.

Any person who is arrested for a crime and it appears that the police used CSLI to gather evidence should hire an experienced criminaldefense lawyer to defend them.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Use of text messages as evidence in Massachusetts

File:Texting.jpg     A few years ago I had a conversation with a prosecutor about proving a case with text messages. I represented a victim of a crime in which the perpetrator had confirmed that he had punched my client in a text message. The prosecutor told me that it was extremely difficult to use a text message as evidence. He said that he would have to subpoena the company that provides the cell phone service to obtain the text message. Then the cell phone company would have to send a witness who can testify that the records show that the text message came from the perpetrator's phone. Then, after that, they still have to prove that the perpetrator actually sent the message and not someone else who used the phone.

     A recent case from the Massachusetts Appeals Court establishes that in many cases, it is much easier to introduce text messages than this prosecutor thought. In the case of Commonwealth v. Toney, Mass.App.Ct. (No. 13-P-275, Feb. 5, 2014) the Court held that a text message may be introduced based on the testimony of the recipient of the message and does not require a subpoena to the cell phone company. However, this opinion is an unpublished opinion of the Court and can't be used as precedent. Nevertheless, the logic used by the Court should guide judges and lawyers in the future.

     The introduction of a text message as evidence can be broken down into two elements: foundation and contents. The Toney case only dealt with the foundation element as the prosecutor never tried to introduce the text message itself. The victim in this case testified that "since we were friends, her phone number was in my phone," and that "I know that when I got a text message with the name 'Chantelle Toney,' . . . it was from Chantelle Toney." The court held that this testimony was sufficient to allow the jury to determine if the text message was sent by Chantelle Toney.

     This case treats text messages the same way that telephone calls are treated. A telephone call can be introduced into evidence if the person testifies to the circumstances of the telephone and the totality of the circumstances show the identity of the caller. Essentially, this is what the Court did in the Toney case. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the Judge held that the witness could identify the person that she believed sent the text.

     While the Toney case did not seek to introduce the contents of the text message, this is usually very easy to do. I usually take the cellphone, display the text message, place it on a copy machine, and copy the text. I then make sure the actual cell phone is available in Court and offer the copied text as evidence.

     Introduction of evidence can be a complicated concept. This is particularly true for new technology like text messages. An experienced trial attorney should be prepared to apply the rules of evidence to this new technology.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Judges have to be careful about social media.

I have written about the dangers of social media and people who are in court in my blog.  Just as people who litigate in court must be careful about the use of social media, so do judges and lawyers.  The American Bar Association cautioned judges about this problem and now a Judge in Florida has been disqualified from a divorce case because of social media.

In the Florida case, a judge presiding over a divorce sent a "friend request" to the wife in the divorce before rendering a judgment.  This put the wife in a very difficult position.  If she rejected the request would the Judge retaliate in the Judgment?  If she accepted the request would that consitute improper ex-parte communications with the judge?  Could the husband attack the judgment because of the new relationship?

Judges are suppose to be impartial so that they can make a decision free of improper influences.  Connecting with someone in a non-professional manner on social media should be grounds for removing the judge from a case.  Judges should not friend lawyers or litigants unless they have a prior relationship with that person such that there is already a conflict of interest preventing the judge from hearing the case.  Lawyers must avoid the appearance of impropriety and should not ask Judges to friend them.  If a lawyer does have a social media relationship with a judge, they should reveal this to the other side as soon as possible.

To the extent possible, it is not a bad idea for a litigant to look at the social media identities of the opposing lawyer and the judge assigned to the case.  If some contact is found that raises questions, an experienced lawyer should be consulted to ask about any possible concerns as a result.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Arrests made for violating restraining orders by social media contacts

Recently there have been several cases in which people have been arrested for violating restraining orders by contacting the protected person by social media. I have written about this topic in the past on my blog. These cases are the first cases I have found in which someone was arrested for using social media and violating restraining orders.

In December, 2013, a man in Beverly, Massachusetts was arrested because he sent his girlfriend an invitation to join his circle on Google Plus. He claimed that he didn't send the invitation and that he has no idea how it was sent. With Google Plus, people create circles as a way of expanding their social network. When a person is added to a circle, Google may send an invitation to that person. This is the equivalent of “liking” a person on Facebook.

Thaddeus Matthews, a radio show host in Memphis, was arrested after he “liked” a video posted on Facebook by a woman who had a restraining order against him. When a person “likes” a posting on Facebook, the “like” is posted on the Facebook wall of all “friends” and the person who posted the original posting. Although a person may claim to not understand the workings of Facebook, a court is likely to not believe this. The result for Thaddeus Matthews is that he is likely to be convicted of a crime.

Restraining orders require the restrained person to have nothing to do with the protected person. In almost all cases, this means that the restrained person can't follow or spy on the protected person. This prohibition should include cyber stalking. Thaddeus Matthews should not have been looking at postings by his former girlfriend once the restraining order issued. As I recommended in my previous blog post on this topic, once a restraining order issues, the restrained person should “unfriend” the protected person.

Restraining orders can  be difficult to understand and obey.  A person served with a restraining order should consult an experienced attorney who understands domestic abuse orders.  If that person uses social media, they should ask the lawyer about how to use social media and not violate the restraining order.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Should a Stay-At-Home parent have a post-nuptial agreement?

A person who chooses to stay at home to raise children usually makes this decision after consultation with their spouse. The decision is made in furtherance of the partnership called a marriage. The stay-at-home parent assumes that the marriage will last until one of the parties dies and that they won't suffer financially as a result of leaving the work force. Unfortunately, many marriages are terminated by divorce and the stay-at-home parent finds themselves unable to maintain their standard of living after divorce.

When a stay-at-home parent returns to the work force after years of child raising they frequently find that they are considered unqualified for their former occupation. They may need to return to school to refresh their skills. When they do find work, they frequently start with entry positions instead of a job comparable to their peers who never left their occupations.

Prior to 2011, divorce judges frequently compensated such stay-at-home parents with alimony awards designed to maintain their standard of living. However, in 2012 Massachusetts enacted an alimony reform law that can result in loss of security for the stay-at-home parent. The alimony reform law contains, among other provisions,1) a limitation preventing the award of alimony if child support is paid and the combined income of the parties is less than $250,000.00; 2) time limits for the period of alimony when alimony is granted; and 3) a termination of alimony at retirement age. Given the changes due to the alimony reform law, it is wise to plan for the potential of a divorce.

An agreement between the spouses can provide security for the stay-at-home spouse despite the changes caused by the alimony reform law. If the parties create such an agreement before marriage, it is called a pre-nuptial agreement. Many couples don't anticipate such situation before marriage. There is an alternative: a post-nuptial agreement. A post-nuptial agreement is an agreement between the spouses that is like a pre-nuptial except that it is executed after marriage. Massachusetts has joined the growing number of states that allow post-nuptial agreements in some circumstances. An agreement between the spouses which results in one spouse leaving the work force to raise children should be valid as a post-nuptial agreement in Massachusetts.

A person who is contemplating leaving work to raise children should consult an experienced lawyer about a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement to compensate them for the anticipation of not working as a result of their decision.

Source: Dostay-at-home moms need a 'postnup'?” by Jeff Landers published at