Ready to Say ‘I Do’ to a Blended Family? Speak With a Family Law Attorney First

By Abby Gregory Blended families have been the focus of two of the most popular sitcoms of all time. From 1969-74, “The Brady Bunch” shared the ups and downs of Mike and Carol Brady and their six kids. Since 2009, “Modern Family” has offered an updated take on the topic through the lens of patriarch Jay Pritchett’s family. While stepfamilies were more unusual in the Brady Bunch era, more people can relate to the circumstances of the Pritchett’s today. The Pritchett family includes Jay’s two adult children from a first marriage and young son from a later marriage. In addition, his gay son Mitchell and Mitchell’s husband Cameron have an adopted daughter. Are you ready to embark on a modern family journey of your own? Unlike the happy outcomes that typically come at the end of a 30-minute sitcom, real-life blended families can face a number of issues when parents aren’t on the same page about stepchildren or should disagreements snowball to the point that the marriage ends in divorce. Taking time to set expectations, learn about legal obligations and plan for the future can help reduce unnecessary stress and financial disputes down the road. Consider the following steps before you walk down the aisle: Have a frank conversation with your future spouse about expectations for any children involved. It isn’t unusual for spouses to enter a marriage with differing views on how they will financially support their children and for how long. This can be especially complicated if one of the parties wants to support their children to a degree beyond what the typical American family does. Some scenarios to discuss include: How long will you financially support children post-minority (after age 18)? Will you pay for private schooling, tutors, coaches, college, grad school, etc.? What extracurricular activities do you (or don’t you) want children to take part in? Will you pay for adult children’s weddings, first homes, cars, vacations, etc.? It’s important to have this discussion up front, because, if community property is used to pay for some of these things, they could be subject to a reimbursement claim in the event of a divorce. Understand your legal rights and obligations regarding children and stepchildren. Parties who decide to get divorced and have been financially supporting stepchildren during the marriage are typically under no obligation to continue supporting those stepchildren following divorce. That isn’t to say that the party who receives spousal support and/or child support for shared children can’t use that money to support children from a previous relationship. Texas family courts are very limited in terms of what they can do regarding stepchildren. Another issue that can arise with blended families is when one of the stepchildren is “bad news.” For example, the child may do drugs or bring drug paraphernalia into the home, use bad language, be disrespectful, suffer from mental illness or be a bad influence on other children in the home. Parties can ask the court to prohibit the parent from allowing that stepchild to be in the presence of other children in the family. Consider spelling out your wishes for stepchildren in a premarital (or post-marital) agreement. Parties who want to ensure stepchildren are provided for beyond age 18 or in the event of a divorce or death can do so by agreeing to and signing a premarital or post-marital agreement. These agreements may require a spouse to pay for certain expenses, such as private school, college, extracurricular activities, health insurance, medical bills or even a financial settlement for the stepchild upon the stepparent’s death. Premarital and post-marital agreements can also...

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5 Things You May Find Surprising About Cohabitation Agreements

Millennials are waiting longer than their parents did to get married and baby boomers are taking a second (or third or fourth) chance at love. Whether you’re putting marriage off or you simply don’t want to get married, getting a cohabitation agreement can be a smart financial move. Along with establishing how finances will be handled during the relationship, cohabitation agreements are especially beneficial when one or both of the parties enters the relationship with sizable assets. In Texas, these contractual agreements can be used to: No. 1: Disprove common law marriage. In Texas, a couple that cohabitates faces the risk that their relationship will constitute common law marriage, unless they mutually sign a written agreement stating that they are not married. According to Texas law, the following three requirements must be met in order to constitute common law marriage: There is an agreement between the two parties that they are married; The couple lives together as husband and wife; and The couple has presented themselves to other people as husband and wife. Since Texas is a community property state, any property, earnings and debt acquired during the relationship may be subject to division by a court of competent jurisdiction if the court decides a common law marriage exists. By mutually signing a cohabitation agreement, you can avoid the entanglements of common law marriage. No. 2: Clarify financial obligations during the relationship. While this is one of the key reasons to get a cohabitation agreement, there are many financial concerns people don’t think about before moving in together. First, it’s important to spell out who will cover what expenses and for how long, such as: Household expenses (rent/mortgage, association dues, utilities, repairs, etc.) Car payments and repairs Insurance (home, auto and health) Pet food, care and vet bills Club memberships and dues In relationships where a monied party will cover the majority of the expenses, the cohabitation agreement can also include provisions for the non-monied spouse, including: A “signing bonus” at the outset of the agreement Monthly spending budget for miscellaneous expenses Shopping budget Guaranteed date nights Requirements pertaining to wills, trusts, life insurance, etc. No. 3: Define who gets custody of the pets. Though you may consider your fur baby to be a member of your family, the state of Texas views pets as property. However, judges will consider legal agreements that explicitly spell out who will take custody of – or own – the pet should the relationship dissolve. If you want to ensure you maintain custody of your pets, be sure to include those wishes in your cohabitation agreement. No. 4: Set the rules for disengagement should the relationship end. Cohabitation agreements can help eliminate confusion and minimize stress related to a messy breakup, because both parties will know where they stand financially and otherwise. The rules for disengagement may include: How assets or property acquired during the relationship will be split. Who will be responsible for debts, such as credit cards and other monies owed. How joint financial accounts will be handled, closed, money distributed, etc. Who will have to move out of any shared residence and when. What financial support (if any) the monied party will provide to the non-monied party, as well as under what circumstances the support would be paid (i.e., if the monied party instigates the breakup). No. 5: Provide peace of mind. There are a number of ways a cohabitation agreement can provide peace of mind to the parties involved. For example, if you are the non-monied party, your cohab could establish what money and/or assets you will receive in...

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Like, Share, Delete? How to Safely Navigate Social Media During Divorce

For better or worse, social media evidence plays a role in the majority of the cases our divorce lawyers handle every day. If you’re planning to divorce, it’s essential to understand how social media could affect the outcome of your divorce and follow best practices for managing social accounts. Deleting social media accounts and posts is a big no-no One of the first pieces of advice we give clients is DO NOT delete any of their social media accounts, posts, messages, conversations or comments. It’s true, anything you say and do on social media could be held against you. However, deleting accounts or posts that don’t represent you in a positive light is not a good idea, because a judge could find that you destroyed evidence, which is illegal. Just because you delete something, doesn’t mean the opposing party or his or her counsel didn’t find that evidence earlier and preserve a screen grab. Claiming that such evidence doesn’t exist, then having it revealed by your spouse’s attorney could harm your case. Judges don’t look favorably upon people who lie. Live your life like you’re being watched … Because the world IS watching. During a divorce, it’s best to assume that everything you post, message, share and like on social media will be scrutinized by your spouse’s attorney and your judge. While it’s typically best to avoid engaging with social media during a divorce, if you must post, post with care. Only share photos, videos or comments that are positive, such as a family outing or your child performing in a school play. At the same time, don’t think that you can just fake “nice” on social media either. Remember, smartphones are everywhere and someone could capture your bad behavior at anytime – even as you walk away from your child’s baseball game, five minutes after you posted that you were there. Learn how to prevent the cloud from scuttling your divorce in this helpful post. Don’t underestimate the power of social media as evidence Judges in the family courts take social media evidence very seriously and some are even intrigued by it. Video evidence can be especially compelling, because, depending on the content, it is typically more difficult to dispute than a photograph. Social media evidence can make or break your case; so don’t take it lightly. Talk with children about their social media habits While you may not want to stop your kids from using Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook completely, do have a conversation with them regarding what they should and shouldn’t post, like, message and share. It’s also helpful to explain to children that what they post may have consequences. Learn more about the pitfalls of technology during divorce and child custody disputes in this past post. For safety purposes, disable GPS or location access in social media apps Many social media apps allow you to tag your location or even assign a location to your post automatically. If you’re afraid your spouse could harm you or your children, it’s vital to take precautions to keep your location private. Check the settings for all social media apps on all of your digital devices – phones, tablets, laptops – and turn off each app’s access to your location. If you don’t know how, visit the store or service provider where you purchased the device and ask for help. Turn to your divorce attorney for additional guidance Social media apps and capabilities change practically every day, which means how social media factors into divorce cases continues to evolve. Since reputable divorce lawyers monitor social media’s influence on divorce...

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Don’t Worry, Be Happy: How to Set the Stage for an Amicable Divorce

By Christine Powers Leatherberry Getting a divorce is never easy, but opting to settle marital and child custody disputes amicably typically helps couples save time, money and unnecessary emotional duress. If pursuing an amicable divorce is preferable to you, consider talking through the following strategies with your divorce attorney. No. 1: Set a positive tone early on. When setting the stage for an amicable divorce, it’s typically best to personally tell your spouse you want a divorce, so they aren’t surprised. During that conversation, it can also be helpful to explain that you want to settle the divorce amicably, keep legal fees low and treat him or her fairly. Hearing these sentiments can help put the opposing party’s mind at ease. No. 2: Follow through on promises to be amicable and fair. Actions speak louder than words. For example, making sure your spouse has enough money in the bank to hire a divorce attorney and pay for expenses speaks volumes. Draining financial accounts and closing out credit cards, so the other party has no money for legal costs and basic needs, will almost guarantee a contentious divorce. No. 3: Be transparent about your plans. If you are considered the monied spouse in the marriage, being transparent regarding how you plan to provide for the non-monied spouse following divorce can go a long way toward easing the blow of divorce. For example, someone who has been a homemaker for 30 years and has a minimal grasp of finances may be understandably frightened when their spouse files for divorce. In this scenario, the right thing to do may be to pay spousal maintenance or alimony for a period of time, even if the spouse wouldn’t necessarily qualify for that support under the law. Doing so can help set the stage for an amicable divorce and an amicable relationship going forward. No. 4: Try to resolve differences directly with your spouse. In most cases, couples who get along and make agreements are more likely to avoid going to court. That doesn’t mean you don’t need a divorce attorney to ensure the legal aspects of your case are handled properly, but hashing out issues one-on-one, without lawyers involved, can help keep legal fees and emotions in check. It can also keep the divorce process moving along in an expeditious manner. No. 5: Proactively communicate about children’s needs and be willing to trade time with each other. Child custody and possession schedules can become a bone of contention when parents don’t strive to co-parent amicably during (and after) a divorce. Shared calendars like Our Family Wizard or even a basic Google calendar can help keep everyone on the same page. Diligently sharing information about doctor visits and school activities, as well as making sure the child’s homework folder goes back and forth between homes, can help reduce the likelihood of conflict. We also encourage clients to be sensitive to the other parent’s desire to spend time with children during special events and holidays. For example, you could invite the other parent to go trick-or-treating with you as a family for Halloween or offer to share a couple of hours on Christmas morning. Extending the olive branch can buy considerable goodwill going forward. No. 6: Utilize outside experts to resolve conflicts. No matter how well you and your spouse get along, divorce can still be emotionally trying for both the adults and children. It’s also unlikely that the two of you will agree on how to resolve every issue. Instead of going to court, a family counselor or clergy member can be a great resource...

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8 Key Considerations for Wealthy Couples During a Gray Divorce

By Douglas A. Harrison With four decades of experience practicing family law in Texas, Connatser Family Law attorney Doug Harrison has helped hundreds of affluent clients navigate the complexities of divorce involving sizeable estates, family business concerns, trusts, retirement accounts, insurance and more. We asked Doug to shed some light on the unique challenges older, wealthy couples face during a gray divorce. According to data analyzed by Pew Research, since 1990, the divorce rate has roughly doubled for adults ages 50 and above and tripled for those ages 65 and older. Clearly, gray divorce is on the rise, but why is this happening? Two big contributing factors are that the baby boomer population is getting older, and they are living longer. Boomers are retiring in droves and their kids have left the nest, which means boomer couples are suddenly spending a lot more time alone together. Consequently, some couples realize all of that togetherness isn’t as great as they hoped. The disdain for extended one-on-one time – by either party or both – is exacerbated when one of the partners transitions from eight to ten hours a day in the office to 24/7 at home. Following retirement, some couples also realize they have very different interests. Perhaps the wife is a real go-getter who loves to socialize and participate in cultural and civic endeavors, while the husband prefers to stay home and tinker around the house or play golf. In addition, many gray divorces we see today are second or third marriages, which have a significantly higher failure rate. While gray divorce can be complicated regardless of how much wealth is involved – learn about gray divorce and social security benefits here – affluent couples often face unique challenges, especially when divorcing later in life. No. 1: Tax issues. Most successful people in business try to take maximum advantage of the tax code. Consequently, couples getting divorced, when significant money, business concerns, and a long-term marriage are involved, have probably dealt with some tax issues along the way. It also isn’t unusual for a couple to think everything is fine from a tax perspective, and then receive a notification from the IRS that they are being audited for a return from a few years back. As a result, the parties may find out there are significant taxes owed that need to be dealt with during the divorce and beyond. Caution is encouraged with respect to these types of issues. No. 2: Estate plan changes. Many affluent couples establish elaborate estate plans, trust agreements, and family limited partnerships to ensure family members are provided for over the long term and taxes are minimized. When a couple contemplates a gray divorce, confusion and disagreements can arise pertaining to how these components will serve family members post-divorce. For example, when the couple created their estate plan, their goals were likely based on providing for the parties as a couple – not as individuals. Concurrently, wealthy couples often set up and contribute assets to family limited partnerships, under which both spouses, and possibly their children, own a percentage interest in that partnership. This ownership structure can result in a lower valuation of an individual’s interest in the partnership for estate tax purposes because of lack of control of the entity. This same issue would likely arise in a valuation for divorce purposes as well. Should the couple decide to divorce, the parties often have different interests and goals. Essentially, they are now paddling the boat in different directions, as self-preservation kicks in! How the family limited partnership is valued and dispersed requires careful...

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The Good, Bad and Ugly Sides of Nesting During Divorce

By Christine Powers Leatherberry Divorce can be very stressful for children, especially early on as they adjust to the reality of their parents’ breakup. To ease the blow, some parents consider nesting, where the children remain in the marital residence after the divorce is filed, and the parents rotate in and out on a set schedule. The good side of nesting? It helps maintain normalcy for the children Nesting really helps smooth the transition to a post-divorce family by maintaining normalcy and the status quo for children. Their home environment doesn’t change, they get to sleep in the same bed and take a bath in the same bathtub. Plus, all of their toys are within reach. One such Connaster Family Law client, Frank Jones,* experienced the ups and downs of nesting firsthand. “The big pro to nesting in our case was my son was able to stay in his own room, and we could go play ball in the backyard like we always had. He didn’t have to pack a backpack and shuffle back and forth between two households. Essentially, he could continue on with his life in the same place he had always called home,” Frank says. Not sure how to tell your children you’re getting divorced? Get some excellent insight here: Break the News with Care: How to Tell Kids You’re Getting Divorced Also good: Nesting can simplify finances and help parents save money Along with easing the blow for children, nesting does offer other benefits. It gives the parties more time to decide who will live in the marital residence long-term, if either party wants to. In addition, if the parties live with parents or another family member when it isn’t their turn to live in the marital residence, they may be able to save money. Nesting can simplify finances, too, because the parties likely will continue to pay the same bills – mortgage, utilities, etc. – as they did in the past. So, nesting can work well for some families during the early stages of divorce, but it isn’t a workable solution for most people in the long-term. Frank and his ex-wife nested for nearly a year and a half, and by the end, they were both ready to move on. The bad and ugly side of nesting? Painful memories, house cleaning disputes, life in limbo and privacy concerns Most family law clients who have agreed to a nesting arrangement do so for the sake of their children, but they find it can be personally challenging and stressful over the long-term. Memories … From the outset, living in the marital residence was never comfortable for Frank, because his ex had an affair in the home. As he explains, “During my time in the house, I wanted to create normalcy for my son and do what I had to do to get custody. Unfortunately, many painful memories lingered there due to the affair. I wanted to distance myself, but every time I walked through the door I kept reliving those memories.” Life in limbo … Many parents also feel unsettled because their possessions move between two places and they never know in what state they will find the house when it’s their turn to move back in. According to Frank, “If you leave anything behind at the house, you may not have access to it until you return. I eventually moved all of my personal items to my parents’ home and packed a backpack with essentials when it was my time to stay at the house. With nesting, if almost feels like you’re in limbo and...

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