Articles Posted in Divorce Discovery

It is no secret that going through a divorce is expensive.  Although there is very little that you can do about certain costs of your divorce, such as what you may or may not lose during property division hearings, there is one area of expenses you can control.  That is your legal fees and costs.  All divorce attorneys in Jacksonville will charge something to legally represent you during the process, and the advice and counsel they bring to your case is invaluable.  Still, there are some ways that you can keep the legal costs down, so you do not face unexpected charges in the future.  Your Jacksonville divorce lawyer can explain to you in your initial consultation how to keep your legal costs down but here are some basic tips.

Call and Email Only When You Have To

            Most divorce lawyers in Jacksonville will charge you for every time they devote to answering your phone calls and emails.  However, you likely want them to spend this time preparing for your trial, mediation, or other aspects of your case.  You will have may questions during the divorce process, and you deserve to have them answered.  Instead of incurring fees every time you have a question, prepare a list of questions, and ask them all at once.  Your Jacksonville divorce lawyer will still charge you, but you will likely incur fewer legal fees.

How do you and your spouse share the finances?

Most married couples have their finances mixed together. For instance, it is not unusual for a married couple to share credit cards, savings and checking accounts, real estate, and other property.  When parties go through a dissolution, these finances must be untangled.  The process of distributing assets to each party is known as equitable distribution.  The process of exchanging financial information with the opposing party is known as mandatory disclosure.  The Family Law Rule of Procedure, Rule 12.285 details what information must be disclosed as well as the time periods for disclosure.

What forms do you need to complete?

Few people want to accept responsibility for a lifelong obligation that they were not responsible for.  There is more than one way under Florida law to create a parental relationship with a child.  Not all relationships in today’s society follow the model that involved a two parent family whereby the husband was the bread winner and the wife was a stay at home mother.  Today, the norm has changed, and single parent households are much more commonplace than they were traditionally. 

There are a number of ways that paternity can be established.  When a woman is married and she becomes pregnant, there is a legal presumption that the husband is the father.  This is true even where the husband could not physically have impregnated the wife.  Section 742.10 of the Florida Statutes covers all of the ways that paternity of a child can be established.  In short, paternity can be established when a married woman has a child, by consent, by court order, or by the legal father signing the birth certificate and notarized documents admitting paternity. 

When a woman has a child out of wedlock and applies for governmental assistance, she may find that the agency or agencies she is applying through will require her to participate in a legal proceeding to establish the paternity of the child.  In part, this is because the government wants to make the father responsible for supporting the child.  Both parents are responsible for their child and a father or mother can be required to support their child until they reach majority.  In some rare cases, they may have legal responsibility beyond the age of majority.  The author of this article has handled numerous child support cases over the last 16 years and he has seen some people have their lives wrecked after they were required to pay child support (an Obligor).  When an Obligor discovers that the child they are supporting is not theirs, disestablishing paternity may be an option for them.  Although disestablishing paternity will terminate an ongoing support obligation, it will not extinguish any child support obligation which has accrued.  Even when disestablishing paternity is successful, an otherwise Obligor may still have to pay a large arrearage. 

There may be some negative stereotypes that are associated with Prenuptial Agreements.  Typically, neither party wants to detract from the blissful atmosphere typical prior to a wedding.  However, a Prenuptial Agreement can also help preserve a marriage.  This is because there is certainty as to how things will terminate should the marriage not last.

The thought alone of creating a prenuptial agreement can cast a negative light upon a wedding.  To some, the contemplation of a prenuptial places a negative light upon wedding preparations and the future of the relationship.  Having to plan for divorce is an admission that a relationship is not permanent.  That said, it is far better to deal with the details of how a relationship is going to end (should it end) while a couple is reasonable and loving compared with being negatively affected by the hostilities and uncertainties of divorce.

In Florida, there are several types of alimony that courts may consider.  There are factors that affect the amount of alimony that can be provided for such as, length of a marriage, the equality of earning ability between the spouses, and the assets that a court must divide.  Florida law creates a rebuttable presumption against permanent alimony when a marriage is 7 years or less, which under the Florida Statutes is defined as a short term marriage.  However, there is a rebuttable presumption for permanent alimony awards in marriages that are long term (greater than 17 years).  Moderate term marriages are defined as between 7 and 17 years and no presumption exists.

It is important to know your rights following a divorce.  The final judgment of dissolution and the parenting plan determine the legal playing field for the future.  However, most issues are dynamic.  Children get older and their schools change and sometimes their relationship with parents change.  Incomes change, which can directly impact child support and people sometimes desire to relocate where child custody can be an issue.  There are a myriad of circumstances that should be re-evaluated following divorce. 

In Florida, the standard used to file an action to modify a final judgment is that a substantial change in circumstances occurred that was not anticipated at the time of entry of the final judgment.  It does not always make practical sense to file an action to modify a final judgment just because a party can do so.  The relationship that a party has with a former spouse is important, especially where children are involved.  Every time a party considers filing a supplemental petition (this is the instrument filed requesting modification of a final judgment), one should consider how such will impact their relationship with their former spouse and other legal consequences.  I frequently have parties coming to me that wish to file for a modification.  I typically find that they have only evaluated a part of the effect of seeking a modification.  For this reason, it is imperative that one review the ramifications of an action for modification with an experienced family law attorney.

Although a divorce is designed to deal with all of the legal issues concerning dissolution, the reality is that there are sometimes issues that are left unresolved.  On occasion there are assets that neither party put on their financial affidavits that require addressing post dissolution.  One example of such an issue involved a divorce of a long time married couple in which neither party included the child’s prepaid college fund account on their financial affidavit.  The fund was cashed out by the Father/Former Husband after the divorce without permission from the court or the Mother/Former Wife.  Since the asset was not listed on either party’s financial affidavit, the judge considered the asset marital property and ordered the Former Husband to pay back one half of the funds post dissolution.

For some, child support is an ongoing obligation that holds no light at the end of a long tunnel that can extend over 18 years.  Every situation is different and the answer as to when child support will end depends on your individual situation.  An experienced North Florida Family Law Attorney can review your circumstances and help you obtain the best result for you under the law.  

The answer to when child support ends is far from a black and white question in Florida.  Conceptually, child support is the right of each child.  Therefore, courts are reluctant to enter an order that does not provide for child support.  As a practicing Family Law Attorney, I have encountered many individuals that believe that parents can simply agree that child support will not be provided for in a final judgment of dissolution or paternity.  In Florida, a statutory guideline exists to determine what is presumptively reasonable for a parent to pay for child support.  The court can depart from the statutory amount by up to 5%, but there must be specific findings of fact enumerated in the order to justify any departure beyond the 5%, up or down.  

Under current law, when two or more children are provided for in a support order, that order must include provisions detailing when the support obligation terminates for each child.  There should be a modification of the income deduction order to reflect the changes.  There are circumstances that allow child support to continue past the age of 18.  If a child is still in high school at age 18 with a reasonable chance of graduating before age 19, child support may continue through graduation.  Where a child graduates high school prior to his or her 19th birthday, support ends at age 18.  If a child becoming an adult has a disability that would result in the child continuing to be a dependent, child support could continue indefinitely.  There are other less conventional reasons that child support might end, the death of a child, the emancipation of a child, or a situation where a child is earning enough money that no support is required (this would be a rare occasion, but there are numerous child stars that have earned more than their parents).  Under Florida Law, the only circumstance where one would be obligated to support a healthy adult child beyond the age of 19, would be where an Obligor agrees to such a duty in a contract (i.e. marital settlement agreement). 

Child support is essentially a payment from the higher income parent to the lower income parent.  Child support and timesharing have an interesting relationship.  The law values the child and parent relationship.  A parent’s right to timesharing is not dependent upon being current in child support.  It is a frequent mistake among individuals to assume that timesharing can be denied if an Obligor parent fails to keep up with his or her child support.  Such has no such relationship to Florida law.

Another misconception is that child support must go to the child specifically.  However, it is a general purpose reimbursement which covers the cost of living in a household with children.  The amount of child support paid by each parent is dependent upon the amount the Florida child support guidelines determine.  The number of overnights the child or children spend with each parent is one of the factors used to decide a parent’s child support under Florida’s guidelines.  There is a chart that is published within the Florida Statutes that shows the amount of child support a child is entitled to.

Florida law requires that generally, where there are minor children then child support should be paid.  The principle behind this general rule is that entitlement to support belongs to the children and parents cannot decide not to pay support.  There are situations in which a parent does not have a child support obligation.  In Florida, this must either be because the amount of support owed is very minimal, as determined by the guidelines, or the specific reasons must be enumerated in the child support order.  The law allows up to a 5% deviation from the guidelines without further enumeration.  Florida has a form known as a Child Support Guideline Worksheet which is required to be filed in every divorce and paternity case where child support is determined.  The guidelines account for some of the specific costs of supporting a child, such as health insurance and uncovered medical expenses.  As long as a parent is awarded at least 20 percent of the overnights, overnights are a specific factor used to determine a parent’s support.  Items like rent, electricity, water, and food are essential items that are not specifically accounted for in the guidelines.  Other items that are specifically accounted for under the guidelines are taxes, daycare, and medical costs.

Unwed fathers may believe that it is unlikely or impossible to gain custody of their child when they were never married to the child’s mother.  Fathers with this attitude should think again, as the courts and society have realized that fathers can be every bit as responsible as mothers in rearing a child.  The court system may still have a few vestiges of what was known as “The tender years doctrine”.  Such is the idea that a young child should primarily be cared for by their mother.  However, most judges today that I have encountered no longer display any indication that this philosophy still exists.  The reality is that a caring father can be every bit as nurturing and responsible as a caring mother.

In Florida, paternity is established by filing an action in the Circuit Court.  The action is known as a paternity action.  The petition should be titled a Petition for Paternity and Related Relief or a similar name.  There is no legal presumption for or against a father obtaining what used to be called primary custody.  The court’s have changed from using the term custody to using the term timesharing.  It is supposed to promote the idea of the children being shared between parents.  I personally do not believe that much has changed because of the change in terminology.  That said, the law has changed regarding child support in that the non primary residential parent (the parent that has minority timesharing) can now receive a reduction in child support if he or she has the child for at least 20 percent of the overnights.  The prior rule required the non majority parent to exercise at least 40 percent of the overnights to get a reduction in child support.

In a paternity suit, a father attempting to obtain timesharing must request either shared parental responsibility or sole parental responsibility.  Sole parental responsibility is exactly what it sounds like and so is shared parental responsibility.  Even people with serious criminal histories frequently are awarded shared parental responsibility.  Florida has enumerated the factors that it considers important and that a judge must take into account in deciding custody issues between parents.  They can be found in Chapter 61 of the Florida Statutes.  In short, they equate to the best interests of the child.

Family law clients always ask me, “What is a QDRO?”  (pronounced informally “Quad-Row”) QDRO is an acronym for Qualified Domestic Relations Order, which is a court order that grants a party a right to a portion of the retirement benefits his or her former spouse has earned through participation in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Federal law states that a retirement benefit can only be divided between former spouses if there is a QDRO.  Retirement plans can be a huge asset in a marriage that may be forgotten in a divorce, so its key for clients to educate themselves on division of this marital asset.

QDRO divorceIn a divorce, a family law attorney needs to determine what retirement plan each party owns through mandatory disclosure by the formal, legal plan name.  It is important to know the value of each plan, the valuation date used to value the plan, what ancillary benefits are associated with the plan (for example, market fluctuations, survivor benefits, subsidies/supplements, and interest credits), the correct method of division for the plan, and will the retirement plan accept a QDRO.  Disclosure is important in obtaining this information and the plan’s summary description. It is also important to obtain the plan’s divorce transfer and QDRO guidelines, if available.  Obtaining a statement for the plan as of your desired valuation date will assist you in a smooth QDRO process.  For federal government employees, retirement plans are divided by a COAP, which stands for Court Order Acceptable for Processing.

Your divorce decree will not be enough to divide a retirement benefit in most cases.  A QDRO is a separate document from the divorce decree. It is always better to file a QDRO with the retirement plan as soon as possible.  If the former spouse retires after the divorce is final, and the QDRO has not been filed with the plan, the plan will begin paying out the benefit to the former spouse and only future payments will be affected.

Divorces in Florida typically split the parties’ assets and liabilities down the middle as much as possible.  Determining what is a marital asset or liability or a non-marital asset or liability can be key to whether an asset or liability will be considered in the calculations.  Before filing for divorce, you should consider the following items when thinking about equitable distribution:

  • Previous Inheritance
  • Marital Home
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