Monday, May 14, 2012

After Amendment One, How Can Families Protect Themselves?

The passage of Amendment One in North Carolina last week was a setback for the protection of same sex and other unmarried families. While same sex marriage was already illegal by statute, Amendment One further prohibits civil unions and domestic partnerships. Amendment One will prohibit same sex marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships in North Carolina, and it will prohibit the recognition of out-of-state marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships. Yet, same sex and other unmarried families can still employ some legal means to protect their families.

With a married couple, any child born to a party of the marriage is presumed to be the child of the spouse. This presumption does not apply to unmarried couples. The part of the couple with a genetic connection to the child is presumed to be the parent. The part of the couple who gave birth to the child is presumed to be the parent also. With modern alternative reproduction technology, the genetic parent and the birth parent are not necessarily the same person. However, the other parent in an unmarried couple has no automatic protection in North Carolina.

Parents can pursue some in-state remedies, although they are limited in their effectiveness. The genetic or birth parent can name the other parent as guardian in a will, but wills can be revoked, and wills only speak at the time of death. The parents can go through a legal proceeding called a “standby guardian,” but that only becomes effective when the genetic or birth parent is incapacitated. The only other protection for unmarried parents in North Carolina is the legal doctrine of in loco parentis or de facto parentage, which means that a person who has acted as a parent has standing to sue the genetic or birth parent for custody. These are often highly-contested cases. None of these options confers the full, permanent rights of parenthood.

For greater protection, parents may choose to look outside of North Carolina. While North Carolina’s case law has prohibited same sex couples from adopting, other states do allow same sex couples to adopt. These adoptions may be done as full, second-parent adoptions or as step-parent adoptions. Also, states that have adopted the Uniform Parentage Law may give couples a parentage order, decreeing both parties to be parents of the child. However, since step-parent adoptions and parentage orders are predicated upon a couple’s relationship, Amendment One may be construed to void them. A full, second-parent adoption may be preferable to a step-parent adoption or a parentage order.

Unmarried partners may also protect their own relationship in several ways. The partners may enter into a living together agreement. Similar to a prenuptual agreement, this agreement spells out in advance how the parties are to maintain their finances, and how they are to divide property if there is a split. Partners may own title to houses, cars, and other property as joint tenants with right of survivorship. They may also name each other as beneficiary in financial instruments such as individual retirement accounts, mutual funds, or life insurance. They may name each other in their wills, powers of attorney, and health care powers of attorney. On the one hand, these protections are limited in comparison to the rights of marriage, but on the other hand, they have enjoyed long usage and their effectiveness is generally certain.

Even employing all of these legal protections is not a complete substitute for marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership. For example, because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, same sex couples cannot avail themselves of the tax benefits of married couples. For the same reason, same sex couples cannot enjoy the spouse’s benefits conferred by government programs. Some protection is better than none at all, however.

This article has only skimmed the surface of a complicated area of law. This is an area of law that changes quite frequently. It is also an area of law that depends a great deal upon individual clients’ individual circumstances. Therefore, this article is not intended to be, and should not be taken as, legal advice, nor does it establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances, please contact the Weidemann Law Firm, P.C., for a confidential appointment.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Billie Jean and Child Support

"She says I am the one, but the kid is not my son."

-- Michael Jackson, "Billie Jean"

Many times, in legal cases that involve children, a party finds it advantageous to dispute paternity.  Sometimes the father wants to sing, like Michael Jackson, "The kid is not my son," especially when there is child support money to be paid.  Other times, the mother wants to dispute fatherhood, such as when the supposed father wants custody or visitation.  Depending upon the case, it may be difficult or impossible to raise the issue of paternity.

In many ways, paternity should be an easier situation than the law makes it.  The law on paternity mostly predates genetic testing, and it has not kept up with changing technology.  Now it is so easy and so inexpensive to determine paternity accurately, the law should take more advantage of DNA testing.  Last year, the General Assembly passed some amendments that made genetic testing easier; these amendments became effective on January 1.

Prior to these amendments, it was not clear how to get DNA testing after the fact, or even if it were possible at all.  Rule 60 of the Rules of Civil Procedure imposes strict requirements for overturning established orders, including paternity orders.  Now, the General Assembly has created three motions:  To set aside paternity, to set aside affidavit of parentage, and for relief from child support order.  The motions are written to work together.

With all of these new motions, the first step is to establish the necessity for the motion.  Parties cannot file these motions at will.  If the motion is not filed in good faith, the moving party could be charged with the other party's attorney fees.  The moving party has to establish that the original order was obtained by fraud, duress, mutual mistake, or some other excusable neglect.  It is uncertain how high the court will set this bar.

After the moving party establishes a basis for one, the court can order DNA testing.  Parties who do not cooperate in the genetic testing can be found in contempt.  If DNA testing proves that the party is not the biological father, the court can (but does not have to) make the mother pay the cost of the test.

The motion or claim for relief from child support only suspends pending child support payments under a few circumstances.  If the recipient of the child support is the mother, then the child support payments are not suspended.  If the recipient is a third party or the State, then the payments are suspended.  For this reason, motions should be filed as soon as possible, to avoid child support arrearages accruing.

The motion or claim for relief from child support order must be "filed within one year of the date the moving party knew or reasonably should have known that he was not the father of the child."  The other two motions do not appear to have time limits on them.  However, it would be best to file all of these motions as soon as possible, to avoid a possible common-law defense of laches.

The General Assembly intentionally limited the effect of the new amendments.  The amendments do not overturn the old legal presumption that a child born to a married woman is the child of the husband.  A party cannot file a motion or claim for relief from child support order if he knew that he was not the father when he acknowledged paternity, adopted or legitimated the child, or prevent the biological father from exercising his rights.  Nevertheless, it seems reasonable that many parties will avail themselves of this new motions.

The bottom line question for many people will be, what happens to the money?  Any child support due and payable as of the date of the motion is still due and payable, even if the moving party turns out not to be the father.  Any child support paid to the State is gone.  Only if the mother used fraud or duress in obtaining the original order can she be required to repay the already-paid child support.

If you are involved in a case where paternity is an issue, give me a call.

You can read SL2011-0328 on the General Assembly's web site.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Happy New Year's Resolutions

Every year, as January 1 approaches, I get excited about the chance to start over, to start the new year with a clean slate, to make some changes.  If you are like me, part of this process involves making a list of new year's resolutions.  I would like to suggest that you add the following to your list of resolutions:
  • A will.  A will disposes of your property if you die.  If you do not have a will, then your property will be distributed according to state law, which may not be in line with your wishes.  A will also names your executor and gives your executor certain powers; this makes probating your estate much easier.  If you have under-aged children, you can nominate a guardian for them.  While every person should have a will, people with children especially should have a will.
  • A living will.  This document states your wishes about being kept alive on life support.  If you do not want to be kept alive on life support indefinitely, then you should have this document.  If you do not, then your doctors will feel obligated to do everything possible to prolong your life.
  • A power of attorney.  A power of attorney gives someone the power to act on your behalf when you cannot do it yourself.  If you were in a catastrophic accident and were facing months in the hospital, who would deposit your checks, pay your bills, and otherwise handle your financial affairs?  If you had a power of attorney, it would be your attorney-in-fact.  Without a power of attorney, someone would have to petition the court to have you declared incompetent and have a guardian appointed for you.  I have been involved in family fights over who gets to be the guardian -- these fights began before I became a practicing attorney, and I suspect that they will continue long after I retire.  A power of attorney would prevent these conflicts in most cases.
  • A healthcare power of attorney.  Like your power of attorney, your healthcare power of attorney gives another person the power to act on your behalf when you cannot.  In the case of the healthcare power of attorney, you are delegating the power to make medical decisions, but only if you are not able to make or communicate those decisions.  Without a clear healthcare power of attorney, hospitals have a difficult time figuring out whom to talk to when they cannot talk to you.  Your "next of kin" (however they decide to define that) may be elderly, or out of state, or estranged.  In non-traditional families, your significant other may be shut out of the hospital entirely. 
The new year is an excellent occasion to get these documents done.  If you already have them, the new year is also a good time to have them reviewed for changes.  Please do not download a program or a kit and try to do it yourself.  The form may not be the correct one for the state you live in, or it may be outdated.  I was involved in a situation some years back in which we had to go through a guardianship proceeding, even though the clients had done a power of attorney on their own, because they used the wrong form and the power of attorney was not valid.  Considering the risks at stake, and considering how reasonably these documents can be done in an attorney's office, there is just no reason not to have an attorney take care of these for you.

I would like to make it even easier for you to make -- and keep -- this new year's resolution.  If you make an appointment for the month of January to see me about your estate plan, I will take one hundred dollars off my normal fee.  Go ahead and make that appointment today!