Sunday, December 30, 2012

In Massachusetts, how are family pets typically handled during a separation/divorce?

File:Rassehund Briard.jpgPets are personal property and are treated as such by the courts in divorces or actions for separate support. In most cases, animals are property with no value. However, if the parties treat the pets as children, a Judge will usually treat them in the same manner. There is no formula for awarding possession of pets. Usually, a Judge should encourage the parties to work it out themselves. However, unlike children, custody of pets should not be based on a best interest standard. This means that the Judge won't make a decision of what is best for the animal. While we have animal cruelty laws which a Judge should consider, it is unlikely that either spouse would abuse the animal.

If there are children, a Judge would try to award ownership of the animals to the parent who has primary custody of the children. Usually, an argument is made that the children would be emotionally disturbed if they couldn't live with the children.

A Judge may consider other logical arguments as to awarding ownership of an animal. If the pet was a gift to one spouse or was owned by one spouse before marriage, then these factors may be the basis for deciding ownership. As pets are usually viewed as having no value, a Judge would look to some other logical basis for awarding ownership.

Unlike other property, a Judge may consider visitation rights for the parent who is not awarded the pet. Such visitation may satisfy the parties who acknowledge that both spouses care for the animal. An experienced divorce lawyer can assist in negotiations concerning pets and settling divorces.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Can you spy on your spouse with technology?

Since the creation of the institution of marriage, some people have suspected their spouse of cheating. One of the natural instincts following such suspicions is to try to prove the adultery. An age old method of such proof is to hire a private investigator to follow the spouse and obtain proof. This is a costly undertaking. If the investigator fails to find proof, there is still doubt as the spouse may commit adultery on a day when the investigator wasn't following. Today, some people turn to technology to confirm the suspicions.

One of the easiest ways to spy on the spouse is to merely look at the spouse's computer and cellphone. Looking at emails, text messages, or listening to voice mails may give the confirmation desired. Sometimes the spouse looks at the computer or cellphone innocently and learns some information. An example is that the spouse's cellphone may be sitting on a table when it rings and a picture of the paramour appears. Such accidental discoveries are not spying as the term requires intentional conduct. The intentional perusal of the spouses' cellphone without permission is spying and may be illegal. However, some spying may be permitted as the entire family may share one computer or cellphone. Spying is not permitted when a spouse has exclusive use of the electronic device. In fact, such spying may be criminal conduct that can be punished by fine or imprisonment.

It is clearly criminal in Massachusetts to record the voice of any person without that person's permission. G.L. c. 272, § 99. If two people have a conversation, both must consent before the conversation can be recorded. Producing a tape in a divorce trial of a conversation that was secretly recorded may be a greater problem for the spouse who made the recording than the spouse who was recorded.

Installing spyware on a computer to capture keystrokes can also be a criminal act. There are at least three state laws that may apply to such spyware. G.L. c. 266, § 120F prohibits unauthorized access of a computer system. Spyware on a spouse's exclusive computer should be considered a violation of this statute invoking criminal penalties. G.L. c. 272, § 99 prohibits the interception of wire communications as well a oral communications. Although no reported case has attempted to apply this law to computer spyware,  the purposes of the law indicate that it should include such communications. Furthermore, the law prohibits owning a device that is capable of such interception. Computer spyware has no purpose other than to intercept computer communications. As such, possession of such software is probably a crime in Massachusetts. The third criminal law that can apply to computer spyware is the stalking law: G.L. c. 265, § 43. This law punishes a pattern of conduct or series of acts of “spying” on a person combined with a threat of harm. While not every marriage breakup has threats, they frequently do. As a result, an argument can be made that computer spyware combined with a threat of harm meets the definition of stalking. Similarly, using a GPS device to track a spouse may be stalking or even an unathorized use of a computer if the GPS device is found in the spouse's cellphone or auto anti-theft device.

Spying destroys trust and can destroy the marriage even if adultery ne­ver occurred. If the spying fails to prove cheating, the innocent spouse may feel the marriage is over because of the lack of trust. A better way to address suspected adultery is to do so in the context of marriage counseling. Of course, therapy is designed to improve the marriage and not obtain evidence of adultery for a court proceeding.

As a general rule, proof of adultery does not play a significant factor in a divorce proceeding. While Massachusetts Judges will listen to proof of adultery, they seldom use evidence of adultery as a factor in deciding how to terminate a marriage. If a party attempts to prove adultery by evidence obtained by spying on the spouse, most judges will exclude the evidence and not consider the proof. Judges refuse to consider such material as doing so would encourage such illegal acts in the future.

The result of such spying may be forcing a break up of the marriage, criminal charges against the person who obtained the evidence, and failure to use the evidence in court. In addition, obtaining actual proof of infidelity may cause far more emotional distress than mere suspicion.

Understanding federal and state is essential to knowing your rights. If your marriage is having difficulties you should consult an experienced lawyer before you start spying on your spouse. A lawyer can help you understand your rights and options before you make a mistake and commit a criminal act.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Is my divorce (or paternity) judgment final for child custody and child support?

In almost all court judgments, once the judgment is final it can't be changed. This rule does not apply to issues involving child welfare and support. If there is new conduct or events that affect the best interests of a child, the Court has the power to change the judgment. Provisions relating to child custody, visitation and support are almost always modifiable. If there is a material change in circumstances, then the parties may consider seeking a modification.   Assuming that you prove the change in circumstances then the court must determine if the best interests of the child mandates a change in the judgment.  In Massachusetts, a change of circumstances in child support may be the passage of three years since the last judgment of support entered.

While child issues can change, the court won't consider evidence that occurred prior to the entry of the earlier judgment. A modification is not an excuse to try the divorce again. There must be a material change of circumstances since the last judgment.

Until the Court changes the provisions of the earlier judgment, the parties must strictly follow the terms of the judgment. While the judgment may allow for the parties to change the terms of the judgment by agreement, such an agreement is not enforceable by a contempt proceeding unless the new terms were approved by a Judge. Massachusetts Courts have a simplified procedure for court approval of a modification by agreement of the parties. The parties don't have the power to change the amount of child support by agreement without Court approval.

If you are considering seeking a change in the child-related issues from a prior judgment, you should consult an experienced family law attorney who can help you understand if you can and should seek a modification of the judgment.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

How to make a divorce less stressful for children.

Divorce is one of the most stressful events in a person's life. The stress level is comparable to the death of a spouse. It is just as stressful for children of a divorcing couple. Children don't always understand divorce and its causes. They interpret the events through a filter of a lack of understanding. Even if the causes of the divorce are explained to children, they may blame themselves for their parents separation. Here are some suggestions on how to help children through this difficult time:

  1. Therapy—Find a therapist that is experienced with children of divorcing parents. Children can benefit from having a person they can talk with and not worry about using the information against a parent. A professional may help a child understand the events and address any guilt the child may have.
  2. Avoid Divorce Discussions—A divorce can be all consuming to parents. It is natural to want to discuss this with friends and relatives. However, children seem to hear all conversations and telephone calls that occur in the house when they are present. Even when the children are suppose to be asleep, they seem to overhear conversations. Take the conversations out of the house or make sure that the children are out of the house. If you are holding discussions with your spouse, make a date to meet at a coffee shop. This prevents the children from hearing and the public meeting place may cause the spouse to put on “public manners.” When I call clients to discuss divorce issues, I frequently start by asking if it is a good time to talk.
  3. Behave calmly--Children sense when their parents suffer from stress and anger. If you can, remain calm and collected when in the presence of the children. The calmer you are, the more reassuring you are to the children.
  4. Avoid conflict—Fighting with your spouse creates stress for the children. The children won't understand the fight and won't know what to do. They may feel forced to choose between the two parents. Try to be polite when talking to your spouse. Keep your fights to appropriate arenas like email, therapists, and court.
  5. Talk to your children—Tell them that they are not responsible for the divorce. Explain that this is strictly between the adults and the reasons are adult issues that you won't discuss with the children. Explain to them how the custody and visitation will work. Reaffirm that they won't be losing either parent. However, not all issues should be discussed with the children. Avoid talking to the children about the financial issues in the divorce.
  6. Seek consistency and stability—Children thrive when they know what to expect and what is expected of them. To the extent possible, try to avoid disrupting children's lives. Work out a shared parenting agreement that takes into account the child's needs and desires while giving both parents reasonable parenting time. Be flexible to accommodate events that are important to all parties including the children.
  7. Don't put the children in the middle.-- Avoid sending messages or passing items through the children. When you pass messages or support checks through the children, the children become associated with the message. A person who resents weekly child support blames the children for the weekly financial drain. Use email and telephones for messages. Pay support obligations by mail or bank by check so that there is no face to face exchange. If the child delivers an unwelcome message, there is no ability to respond and argue. Email and telephone both allow responses.
  8. Agree on house rules—One of the first things that children learn in a separated house is how to play one parent against the other. They manipulate to change the rules of the house. Things like bedtimes and homework suddenly are more flexible. Children will try to sell their affection for bending of the rules. Don't give in to the temptation. Avoid being the fun parent as your primary focus. Make sure both parents agree on the rules of the house and don't change them without consulting the other parent.

Divorce has a major impact on children's lives. Both parents should cooperate to reduce the stress on the children. The joint goal should be to raise the children to be productive adults who can have significant relationships as an adult. Don't sacrifice the long term goal for short term rewards. An experienced divorce attorney can help guide when raising children in a divorce.