Articles Posted in Visitation Issues

Generally, children will not be called to testify as to matters in a family law case. Many parents have difficulty understanding why their child will not be called on to express their wishes, concerns, or input regarding the situation that greatly affects their lives. Florida Family Law Rule 12.407 precludes testimony from a child as a witness in custody related cases without a prior order made by the Court. To obtain an order allowing for the testimony of a child to be considered the parent requesting the testimony must file a Motion for Child Testimony with the court. The court will give consideration to the motion at a hearing in which the judge will determine the appropriateness of the child’s testimony in this case by weighing a variety of considerations. The judge will focus on the child’s maturity, ability to convey their desires, the age of the child, and the ability to make a decision without the child testimony.

While these considerations may seem like common sense, many people have difficulty understanding why children are not always allowed to be present at hearings that are determinative of their future. Parents in the midst of litigation tend to get caught up in the idea of winning the litigation and furthering those interests. It may be a misguided notion that presenting the child’s testimony for consideration by the judge would be in the best interest of the party or the child. Children at times often express their desires to assist their parents in the litigation process and then the idea of the child testifying reaches the attorney for consideration. It is very important that an attorney fully evaluates the facts surrounding their client’s case and educate their client regarding this request. There are various ways in which a child’s desires can be heard or taken into consideration by the court.

Parents who desire to have their child testify in their family law case will need to file the appropriate motion and having a hearing on the matter. If a parent believes that their child may not have the appropriate maturity to take on such a task, or if they desire to have their children’s wishes expressed in a less direct manner, the more appropriate motion may be a motion for the court to appoint a guardian ad litem. A guardian ad litem is a court appointed party who is utilized as the voice of the child to the court. The guardian ad litem acts as a messenger to the court of the child’s wishes, school progress, concerns of guardians or teachers, etc. The guardian ad litem is a respected avenue used by parties to have the child’s wishes expressed to the court, while allowing the child to remain shielded from the ups and down of continuous litigation.

Written by: Lenorae Atter, Attorney at Law

Do rapists have rights to a child conceived during the rape? That is a question being asked in a Massachusetts court. The question arose after the now, 24 –year-old male, who was 17 at the time, raped a 14-year-old girl that subsequently had a child. Jamie Melendez was sentenced to 16 years of probation after admitting his guilt to the rape.

The question on everyone’s mind is, “How does he stand a chance?” Well, the judge that oversaw the criminal case basically sent a portion of the case to the family law court system to have child support ordered. By establishing a child support obligation, the judge basically gave this rapist parental rights to the child that was conceived out of force. When biological parents are unmarried, a man’s rights to the child are typically established through a paternity action. When the State takes the reigns on establishing child support, it is generally done solely for the purposes of child support, which was the case here. Now, however, the family law case opened the door for this guy to seek visitation rights, since he is claiming that if he has to pay support who should be able to have a relationship with the child.

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As a Jacksonville, Florida family law attorney, divorce, visitation and custody issues are part of my daily practice. Visitation and custody are usually emotional and working with a client on their parental demeanor is vital in moving forward and eventually going to court. When dealing with custody and visitation of a child it is important that the court sees that you are willing to cooperate with one another in an effort to look out for the best interest of the child(ren).
As of October, 2008, the Parenting Plan Statute went into effect with the purpose of countering bad behavior. The time-sharing and parenting statute requires all parents to file and have the court approve a parenting plan that lays out exactly how all issues of time sharing with the minor children are going to be handled. Instead of limiting yourself to only two options, winning it all or losing, there is another, more productive way to approach the custody issue. The approach may require more maturity than some parties can muster, but, for those able to shift gears, think rationally and be patient, the following approach can be rewarding for them and their children. These steps can lead to a better solution for all, especially the children.
Think about, discuss and decide what your ultimate goals are for the kids. What outcomes would you like to see? Many people would want some of the following (or similar) goals:

1. Family Relationships
a. The kids having a great relationship with both parents
b. The kids having a great relationship with their extended families
c. Financial security for the children
d. Having a safe, secure home for the children
e. Having good schools for the kids
f. Providing for a college education for the children
g. Providing sports opportunities for the children
h. The opportunity for the kids to learn music, art or other interests

Each parent can decide what he or she thinks would be important goals for their children. Broader, underlying goals are more helpful and meaningful. If both parents think of goals in broad terms, they often can agree on them.

2. Look at the big picture.

a. Financial abilities of the parents
b. Parental/family member time available
c. What homes and schools are available and affordable
d. What the parents’ neighborhoods are like
e. The existing relationships between parents and children and the roles each parent plays with the children
f. What community resources are available
g. What special needs, if any, a child has
h. What interests the child has

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Written by: Lenorae Atter, Attorney at Law

952313_gavel.jpgIn Florida, when the court enters an order regarding a divorce, child support, paternity, or other matter, then the court is telling the parties what they must do. If one of the parties is not doing what was previously ordered by the court, then the other party may file a Motion for Contempt, which means that she/he is asking the court to hold the offending party in contempt of court. Contempt of court basically means that a party has willfully and voluntarily not complied with the court’s orders. So, a motion for contempt is a way for the court to enforce the prior orders by punishing the offending party if she/he is held in contempt.

How does this work? If Mary and Frank have a paternity case and the judge entered an order that Frank will pay Mary $500 per month in child support, then Frank must pay $500 per month in child support. If Frank has a job and an ability to pay $500 per month and he chooses not to pay, then Mary may file a Motion for Contempt action against Frank. Mary would state in the motion what the prior order required and what Frank has not done. If Mary paid an attorney to file the action, then she may ask that Frank also pay for her lawyer fees since his actions are the only reason she had to hire a lawyer. Mary may also state that since Frank is voluntarily not paying child support that he should be put in jail.

Written by: Lenorae Atter, Attorney at Law

1282783_silhouettes_8.jpgIssues involving children typically arise in Florida divorce and paternity actions. As a Jacksonville family and divorce lawyer, I often meet with clients that want to have sole custody of the child. However, sole custody is not what they imagine it to be. The confusion in the terminology typically leads itself down an unwanted path. The questions that need to be answered are whether both parents are fit to have shared parental responsibilities in making decisions regarding the child(ren) and what type of time-sharing or visitation they would most like to have with the child. Understanding the terms can be helpful when going through a divorce or paternity case because you better know what to fight for during the case.

Sole custody is actually no longer a term used in Florida family law cases. The implications of, “sole custody,” are that one parent wants the other parent to have absolutely nothing to do with the child. Typically, this is not the case. However, if you ask the court for, “sole custody,” then the judge is typically going to ask what it is about the other parent that makes him or her unfit as a parent. For example, if Mary and Frank are divorcing and Mary has a significant drug and alcohol addiction, then Frank may tell an attorney he wants sole custody. What Frank really means is that he wants to be the majority time-sharing parent, in accordance with Florida statutes. Also, Frank is saying that Mary is not capable of making decisions regarding the child’s welfare, including decisions related to education, medical attention and the like. Therefore, Frank actually wants to be the majority time-sharing parent and have sole parental responsibility for the child.

Written by: Lenorae Atter, Attorney at Law

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First, the Florida legislature changed child custody to “primary timesharing parent” in October, 2008. However, since most of us are familiar with child custody and custody issues, this article will still address the issue as the historic term, “custody.”
As a Jacksonville Florida family law and divorce attorney, dealing with paternity cases and divorces with children, custody issues often arise and the Social Evaluation is an important factor in helping the parents better understand the issues facing the children, and the evaluation assists the judge in having a better understanding and comprehension of what is in the best interest of the children. In Jacksonville and throughout Florida, the social investigation is a component of the case that may be used in its entirety by the judge or may give the judge a basis for a particular ruling. In addition, the evaluation can provide the parties with a stepping-stone or format by which to reach an agreement regarding visitation issues.

The social investigation is conducted by a professional, usually someone with a psychology and law background, and the investigator actually interviews the parents, speaks with witnesses, talks to the kids, look at school records, etc. Once the reviews and statements are completed, the evaluator writes a comprehensive report to demonstrate the findings for each parent, child, and the overall assessment of a parenting plan and recommendations for the court regarding any other matters that should be addressed (i.e. whether counseling is recommended, communication issues, etc.).

So how do you present well in the social investigation? Basically, parties are often concerned that they need to present themselves in a certain light to impress the investigator. However, most of the individuals handing these matters can tell when a party is putting on a show. The idea is not to be fake or phony, but to present your concerns for the children, explain your relationship with the children, and truly identify your wants and needs and the children’s wants and needs before the interview. Being genuine with the investigator is beneficial because it allows the investigator to truly determine any family issues that may need to be addressed, the impact the divorce/separation is actually having on the children and the like. The reason for the investigation is not to berate the parents, but to simply identify what may be in the best interest of the children in the present and in the future.

Extend a mental olive branch to the other party. During your interview with the evaluator, do not destroy the other parent with disparaging remarks. Describe the parts of parenting that the other parent does well and be honest in your comments about the children’s relationship with their other parent. Then share the things that do concern you about the other party, or about the separation of the children. You do not have to make it sound like everyone is great, you’re getting divorced there were issues in the home, so being real about the situation can be helpful in reaching the right conclusion for your case.

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Written by: Lenorae Atter, Attorney at Law

1082945_playground.jpgFlorida divorce and paternity cases often revolve around the parent-child relationship and all factors related thereto, including parental responsibility. When someone comes into our Jacksonville office regarding a divorce or paternity case, often the question is whether she or he can have sole custody. As a divorce and family attorney, I have to educate clients on multiple things, including custody and what it actually means. Custody and having sole parental responsibility are two very different things because one deals with the big decisions regarding your child and the other deals with where the child will actually, physically reside.

Child custody and visitation was changed by the Florida legislature in recent years. The change was done for a number of reasons, the main reason being the contentious actions of parents for, “custody.” So, the legislature made a decision to change the concept to what is now known as, “time-sharing.” No, this is not your condo at Disney, but actually the terminology used because after your case, you are actually sharing time with your child and your child is sharing time with his/her other parent. Time-sharing is basically the same idea, but instead of having the archaic, “custody,” you may request majority time-sharing, meaning that you spend the majority of the time with the child. In some jurisdictions, Jacksonville not being one of them, the courts have presumed this to mean that parents should start out with equal time-sharing. However, often that concept is being overruled by the appellate courts.
When looking at which parent will have majority time-sharing, the court looks to certain factors like:

a. Which parent is more likely to help facilitate a health relationship between the child and other parent;

b. Which parent is more likely to provide a stable environment for the child;

c. What is the historical relationship of the parent and child; etc.

Once the majority time-sharing parent is decided, the court or the parents, if they negotiated an agreement, enter a time-sharing plan. The time-sharing plan defines the times the parents will each have the child, including holidays, the actual visitation schedule and the like.

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1340700_playground_climbing_area.jpgChild support in Florida cases is based on the income of the parties and the total income of a shared household. The pro rata share of each party’s income is a determining factor in the overall calculation of child support. As a Jacksonville lawyer handling child support cases, I try to educate my clients on what child support is meant to provide, including a roof over the child’s head, electricity and water for the child, gas in the car to transport the child, etc. A factor in the determination of child support is time-sharing or visitation exercised by the parties. In Florida, there is an automatic calculation of time-sharing at 20% of the time and anything over that amount may be a factor in reducing the amount of child support. In addition, the Florida child support guidelines provide credits for multiple items, including but not limited, daycare expenses and health insurance. In determining the income of the parties, the Florida Statute allows for the income of the parties to be determined based on taxable and nontaxable income, so if a party is in the military that party’s BAH and BAS pay will be considered income.

Florida family law cases are often required to go to mediation to determine child support, time-sharing (e.g. visitation or custody pre 2008), and the like. A mediated agreement is an agreement between the parties regarding all aspects of the case and it is reduced to writing and entered as an order with the court. However, if the parties do not have a time-sharing plan that is ultimately formalized into writing and entered by the court, then child support may be impacted. For example, if the case ONLY involves child support, such as cases brought by the Florida State Department of Revenue, then child support will be calculated without a time-sharing plan.

Sometimes, parents decide that they do no need to go to court to establish a time-sharing plan because they already have a verbal agreement and there are no visitation issues associated with their case. As such, the parties may allow the court to determine child support without actually entering a true time-sharing plan with the court. However, in 2011 the 1st District Court of Appeals in Florida made it clear that child support calculations may only defer from the usual 20% time-sharing credit IF the time-sharing plan is reduced to writing and entered as a time-sharing plan with the court. In the case before the appellate court, the parties had agreed to a verbal time-sharing plan where the nonresidential parent had the child 40% of the time. The appeals court found that unless the time-sharing plan was reduced to writing and approved by the court, then the 40% time-sharing that had been established by the parties could not reduce child support. Therefore, the paying party was required to pay more than would have been necessary had the time-sharing plan been entered with the court. DOR o/b/o Sherman v. Daly, 74 So.3d 165 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011).

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In a Florida family law case involving children, such as divorce, paternity, or change of custody, emotions can run rather high. Unfortunately, stress often surrounds these experiences and the consequences of the stress, if not handled properly, can lead to horrible actions by one parent. A parent who feels their world is caving in may turn to extreme acts, like abducting their child. Florida law has accepted, like most states, the the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) which rules that initial child custody determinations should be made by the child’s home state. A child’s home state is the state in which a child has lived with a parent or guardian for at least six (6) months. It also determines that if a parent, in fact takes a child, the child should be returned to the home state unless an emergency lead to the fleeing (e.g. physical abuse of the parent and/or child by the other parent).

The UCCJEA allows for protection of the parents and the child by providing for legal action to be taken if a parent were to abduct the child. In the United States, there are numbers cases of parent abduction each year and having a protection like the UCCJEA is vital to recovering the children. What it allows is for the nonoffending party to file a petition with the court for an emergency child pick-up. The petition must state the actions of the other parent and give a place where the parent and child are most likely located. Once an order is entered in the home state of the child, like Florida, then the order must be adopted by the state where the child is physically located. Once the order is adopted, it is enforceable against the parent with the child and the parent is required to return the child to the home state. If the offending parent refuses or fails to do so, then the parent may be charged with kidnapping, not to mention the impact that parent’s actions will have on any custody dispute pending in the court.

In Florida, there are many individuals that moved from other countries and as a family law attorney, I often have clients concerned that the other parent will return to his/her country with the child. If a child is taken, without consent of both parents, to a different country, then the Hague Convention on International Kidnapping and Child Custody will have to be employed. The countries that have adopted this action often work diligently at having the child returned to the United States. However, not all countries have adopted the Hague Convention, which can lead to additional jurisdictional issues. A passport for a child requires both parents to consent by signing the application; if this is a concern of yours then you should deny the child getting a passport.

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In the state of Florida, if a parent has been convicted of misdemeanor, first degree or felony domestic abuse charges, the judge may rule that it is not in the child’s best interest to award custody or time-sharing rights to that parent. The same is true if the parent is in prison for a crime that would warrant terminating parental rights. If a parent is denied parental responsibility by the courts, he or she has the right to ask a judge to consider evidence that might prove that it would not harm the child to allow the parent custody or visitation rights. The court’s job is to look at the fitness of the parents and what is in the best interest of the child. As a Jacksonville divorce and family law attorney I often have parents ask whether they will be granted time-sharing (visitation) or if they have a chance of getting majority time-sharing (custody). When evaluating this question, it is important to look at the historical nature of the family unit, the likelihood of the parent facilitating a good relationship with the child and the other parent, and multiple other factors. When there are reports, accusations or evidence of abuse in the family, then the question of custody is harder to answer because those factors will be considered by the court due to the interest in not putting the children in harm’s way.

If the parent has not been convicted of a domestic violence or child abuse offense, the judge will generally consider evidence of abuse, even if the accusing party has never filed an injunction for protection from domestic violence against them. The judge will use the evidence to determine what type of parental rights the alleged abuser is entitled to. The accused or convicted, may present evidence and testimony to dispute such accusations or to show the judge how things have changed since the incident occurred. If certain activities have been completed, including counseling, then the court may take that into consideration in determining whether there is still a propensity to commit violent acts.

If an abusive parent is awarded visitation rights, the other party may request that the visits be limited or supervised. It will be up to the judge to decide whether or not the abuser represents a risk to the child or the other parent that warrants supervised or restricted visitation. A neutral third party, like the Family Nurturing Center in Jacksonville, Florida, typically does supervised visitation. The center actually observes the visitations and records them for additional protection of the children. If supervised visitation or time-sharing is ordered and over time there are no issues, then the parent observing such time-sharing may ask the court to modify the time-sharing plan to stop the supervision, but the court will again evaluate the case based on the best interest of the child.