Can False Abuse Allegations Affect Custody?

You bet.  There are plenty of cases where one parent decides to allege that the other abuses their children, whether it is verbal, emotional, physical, or even sexual.  Many times these allegations are untrue, unfounded, and designed to simply force a party to give in.  Of course, if you believe something IS going on, you need to protect your child by conferring with the proper authorities.  But this blog is really about those situations where there is no basis – a parent is just trying to get their way.

In those instances, we sometimes see that even after professionals are brought in and determine that no abuse occurred, the accusing parent will continue to make the allegations, and report to other experts, trying to find someone, anyone, to agree with them.  Eventually the Court can tire of these games, and in some cases, we see that the Court will give custody to the parent being falsely accused, based on the idea that these continued allegations destroy the parent-child relationship, or at least poison it, and that the child’s best interest would be served by living with the non-accusing parent.  For a case on point, check out In the Interest of A.D., No. 14-12-00914-CV, or click In the Interest of A.D. 2014-14-12-00914-cv (false allegations of abuse).

What Constitutes Telephone Harassment?

We often get told that someone is being harassed by telephone, but what does that really mean?

There is a great case, Perone v. Texas, which talks all about it in a criminal case context.  An ex-husband was convicted of harassment via telephone and then challenged the conviction based on, among other things, most of the communications were text messages and face time, not the traditional telephone calls.

Main points to see:

  1. The person commits the misdemeanor offense of harassment if, with intent to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another, (1) he causes the telephone of another to ring repeatedly or makes repeated telephone communications anonymously or in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend another; or (2) he sends repeated electronic communications in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend another. (Texas Penal Code 42.07(a).
  2. Text messages fit this definition;
  3. FaceTime fits this definition;
  4. While some messages did relate to parenting logistics, others referred to the ex-husband’s dating and sexual activity and/or criticize his ex-wife;
  5. Intent can be determined by a jury (or Judge in the family law context as the trier of fact);
  6. Intent can be inferred by looking at the acts, words, or conduct of the accused, including the circumstances surrounding the acts;
  7. At least four phone calls in a little over a month were sufficient in a case that the calls were ‘repeated.’ (Blount v. State, 961 S.W.2d 282, 284 (Tex.App.-Houston[1st Dist.] 1997, pet. ref’d).

How does this relate to you?

Be ready to show that the intent fits the required intent (to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another), and how that actually occurred.  Be ready to show that the calls were repeated.  And be ready to show how it affected you!

 

Who Claims the Children as Dependents for Tax Purposes?

About this time of year, separated parents sometimes ask us who can claim the children on their taxes.  Many parents simply agree that the parent that would get the most benefit can claim the children.  Other parents have provisions in their orders directing the parties to claim or not to claim the children on their taxes.  But what about when there is no agreement?

The position the IRS takes is that the person having the children more than half the year can claim the children.  IRS Publication 504.

This means that the custodial parent, or the parent the children live with primarily, can claim the exemption.

So what happens if your orders say that one parent gets to claim the children and the other parent files first, claiming the children?  Realistically, the parent that should have been able to claim the children is going to have a hard time.  They will need to work with the IRS, the other party, and possibly an attorney well-versed in tax law to correct the issue.  The parent could also file an enforcement action or sue for the lost benefit.  The easiest way to avoid the issue?  Speak with the other parent, or make sure you file first.

What is a social study?

When parents can’t agree on who the kids will live with the Court will normally order a social study be conducted. This allows for a non-party, a trained professional, to look at the situation, the concerns of each party, and make a recommendation to the Court.  That recommendation is the social study.

This expert will interview each party as well as watch the interactions between the parties and the kids. They will normally also interview other children or adults that are living in the residences of the parties (should there be any) and do a home visit of each parties home to make sure it is appropriate / safe for the children.

Once the expert is done, they draft the social study. In some jurisdictions, only the attorneys and the judge will see the result.  This is because there have been times when parties have not liked the results of the social study and either share them with the children or even take out their frustrations on the children.

If you are going through a social study, be honest, participate fully, and make sure you comply fully with any requests. Talk with your attorney if you have questions.

A quick overview of the process in Dallas County can be found here.

Attorney’s Fees and Bankruptcy

What happens if one spouse, Husband, is ordered to pay the attorney’s fees of the other spouse, Wife, the Wife pays the attorney’s fees, requests reimbursement, then Husband files for bankruptcy?  Is the Wife out of luck?

This situation came up in In re: Jeffrey Todd Van Dermark, a 2008 case from the Bankruptcy Court in the Northern District of Texas.  Quick answer – the Husband had to pay the fees in full.  But read on, there’s more to it.

Quick Facts:

  • Husband and Wife divorced in Georgia, in 2006.
  • Wife had a contract with her attorneys and was required to pay them upon receipt of the invoice.
  • In the Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce, Husband was ordered to pay $25,000.00 in attorney’s fees to Wife’s attorney.
  • Wife ended up paying the firm the $25,000.00, and turned to Husband to be repaid.
  • Husband filed for bankruptcy the next day, and tried to discharge the $25,000.00 debt.

Question for the Court

The question the Court was asked to answer was this – “Was the $25,000.00 a domestic support obligation under the bankruptcy code since Wife paid it and now demanded it from Husband, so protected as a priority claim?  Or was it not a domestic support obligation because the Husband was supposed to make the payment to Wife’s attorneys?”

The reason it matters is that if it was found to be a domestic support obligation, Husband would have to pay that $25,000.00 first (that claim has priority) and in full.  If not, the $25,000.00 claim would be reduced or fully discharged and Wife would be left out in the cold, having shelled out $25,000.00.

The argument provided by counsel was whether or not this claim was owed to Wife’s attorneys or to Wife under the domestic support obligation statute in the Bankruptcy code, and focused on Section 101(14A)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code, which states for a claim to be a domestic support obligation, it must be:

“a debt that accrues before, on, or after the date of the order for relief in a case under this title, including interest that accrues on that debt, as provided under applicable non bankruptcy law notwithstanding any other provision of this title  that is -

(A) owed to or recoverable by -

(i) a spouse, former spouse, or child of the debtor or such child’s parent, legal guardian or responsible relative; or…”

The Court looked first to the bankruptcy code’s definition of ‘claim,’ and found that it is a ‘right to payment, whether or not such right is reduced to judgment, liquidated, unliquidated, fixed, contingent  matured, unmatured, disputed, undisputed, legal, equitable, secured or unsecured,” and that the definition was intentionally broad.  11 U.S.C. 101(5)(A); See In re Egleston, 448 F.3d 803, 812 (5th Cir. 2006).

The Court also turned to Georgia’s statutory definitions, since the Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce was out of Georgia, and found that it supported this claim as being owed to Wife, not just her attorney, per the language of the Decree of Divorce and under Georgia law.

Since that was the only argument asserted, and the Court found that the claim was, in fact, owed to and recoverable by Wife, the claim was a domestic support obligation.

Further Thoughts

One thing not argued, and which would have been interesting, is whether the Court believed it to fit the second requirement of a domestic support obligation, that the debt is

“(B) in the nature of alimony, maintenance, or support… of such spouse, former spouse, or child of the debtor or such child’s parent, without regard to whether such debt is expressly so designated;…”

- 11 U.S.C. 101(14A)(B)

I think the claim would have been denied that special status at that point.  The claim just does not fit the second part of the definition for a domestic support obligation.  Unfortunately, we will not know until a similar fact set occurs, the argument made, and an opinion issued.

Related Article:

Child Support and Bankruptcy

Pro Se Divorce Forms – Approved, but with Caution

The Texas Supreme Court recently approved a set of pro se divorce forms, with some pretty extensive disclaimers.  Specifically among those disclaimers is that these are only to be used for limited property, no children, no contest divorces.  Note that you should always sit down with someone that knows the process (a lawyer) and discuss your options.  Even the form’s disclaimer says that you should hire a lawyer.   In my experience, NOT hiring a lawyer tends to end up much more expensive when you have to get the order modified or corrected in the future.

Contracts with Lawyers (2 of 3)

Post two of three deals with flat fee contracts.  These are the simplest contracts.  You pay the lawyer a set amount for a legal matter and that is it – no variance for how successful or not the case turns out.

Flat fee contracts are typically used for situations where the legal work/time/fees needed is easily determined.  Common cases would be a no-contest divorce or a criminal matter.

The problem with flat fee contracts is that most are nonrefundable, and the contract spells out the terms of the representation.  If your case evolves outside of the contract, you lose that money and the representation.  For example, you pay a flat fee for a no-contest divorce, then it becomes contested.  At that point, your lawyer is free to step out because the contract states his representation is only for a no-contest divorce, which no longer applies.  Should a situation like that arise, most lawyers are happy to renegotiate the contract, but do not expect another flat fee!

As always, read the contract closely.  Each contract can vary so pay close attention to the terms.  If you have a question, ask!  Your lawyer would rather have you understand the contract and the process up front so that both of you know what to expect.

Retainer Contracts: Contracts with Lawyers (1 of 3)

Contingency Fee Contracts: Contracts with Lawyers (3 of 3)

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