Who gets the family pet in a divorce?

Posted October 27, 2014 in Estate Planning, Family Law by Lonich and Patton.

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October 27, 2014
Who gets the family pet in a divorce?
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If I had to ask you to put a price on your dog, cat or your pet hermit crab, could you? For some, perhaps they could but the vast majority would likely agree that their pets are priceless. However, disputes regarding who gets the family pet in divorce proceedings has become commonplace in family law.

Earlier this year, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas made a statement that they were ending their two-decade marriage but vowed to remain friends and to move forward lovingly. However, shortly after, reports surfaced that a custody battle was flaring up – not over their 17 year old daughter, but over the couple’s three dogs.

Although these days some people treat their pets better than their own children, in the eyes of the law pets are still only considered the property of their owners, much like their furniture is[1]. Legal experts agree that pet owners invest hundreds sometimes thousands of dollars and hours researching proper training, good food choices, and the perfect toys, groomers and veterinarians for their pets. Those same individuals might also take precautions with their estate by writing a prenuptial agreement. But how often do those pet owners think about legal issues associated with pet ownership?

Family law attorneys agree that the best way to handle a situation with a pet is to put it in a prenup. If you came into your relationship with Maxwell, put it in writing that if you are to leave the relationship Maxwell is coming with you. If you and your significant other purchased a pet together during the relationship, but you both agree that one of you should have the pet in the event of a breakup, a post-nuptial agreement would make sure that in the event of a divorce or separation the pet would go with the spouse more bonded with the animal.

Without something in writing, trouble could land you arguing in court. Last year a New York judge granted a divorcing couple the right to engage in oral arguments over pet custody for the first time in the state’s judicial history. The landmark legal showdown was ultimately averted. The couple settled out of court.

In the event of a heated breakup, pets can be protected.  If a party feels that he/she and the pet is in danger at the hands of the other party, California law provides for the family pet to be included on a protective order. Since 2008, courts have had the ability to make an order that the restrained person stay away from the pet. Family Code Section 6320 provides that upon a showing of good cause, the court may include in a protective order a grant of the exclusive care, possession, or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by the spouse or minor child resident in the residence.

Family Code section 6320 makes strides toward addressing the established connection between animal abuse and family violence commonly referred to as the “Link.”[2] One of the first studies that described this Link found that of a survey of women with pets who had entered a shelter in northern Utah, seventy-one percent reported that their partner had threatened or actually hurt or killed one or more of their pets.[3]Another study of fifty of the largest shelters in the United States found that eighty-five percent of battered women and sixty-three percent of children with pets had experienced incidents of pet abuse.[4] An alarming consequence of these studies is that victims may feel that they cannot leave their abuser because they worry for the safety of their pets.

The Certified Family Law Specialists at Lonich & Patton have decades of experience handling complex family law matters.  If you are interested in learning more about prenuptial or post-nuptial agreements, please contact the Certified Family Law Specialists at Lonich & Patton for further information.  Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.


[1] Kimes v. Grosser (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 1556

[2] Am. Humane Ass’n, Learn About the Link, http://www.americanhumane.org/site/PageServer?pagename=lk_about (last visited Aug. 4, 2007); see also Senate Judiciary Committee, Committee Analysis of SB 353, at 2-5 (Mar. 27, 2007) (explaining the connection between animal abuse and family violence). There are also several studies that report that children who witness abuse, or are abused themselves, tend to, in turn, abuse animals. See Phil Arkow & Tracy Coppola, Expanding Protective Orders to Include Companion Animals 5 (2007), http://www.americanhumane.org/site/DocServer/PetsinPO2007.pdf? docID=5061 (describing the harmful effects upon children of witnessing domestic violence).

[3] Frank R. Ascione, Battered Women’s Reports of Their Partners’ and Their Children’s Cruelty to Animals, 1 J. Emotional Abuse 119, 125 (1998).

[4] Frank R. Ascione et al., The Abuse of Animals and Domestic Violence: A National Survey of Shelters for Women Who are Battered, 5 Soc’y & Animals 205, 211-12 tbl.1 (1997), available at http:// www.syeta.org/sa/sa5.3/Ascione.html.

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Common-Law Marriage in California

Posted September 19, 2014 in Family Law by Lonich and Patton.

A common-law marriage is an informal marriage by agreement, without compliance with the statutory formalities associated with a marriage license. Only a handful of states recognize common-law marriage, and each state has specific requirements. In Texas, for example, the elements of a common law marriage include 1) an agreement presently to be husband and wife, 2) living together as husband and wife, and 3) holding each other out to the public as such. Once a common-law marriage is established, the spouse has the same rights as a married spouse and the marriage can be terminated only by death, divorce, or legal separation.

California abolished common-law marriage in 1895, and a couples’ failure to comply with the statutory marriage requirements will invalidate a marriage. However, non-marital cohabitation is not a barrier to the enforcement of express and implied agreements. California courts recognize Marvin claims, where unmarried individuals can enforce property, support, and other financial agreements arising out of their relationship. Such equitable remedies include: action on an implied contract based on the parties’ conduct (e.g., to share earnings and provide support or for support upon termination of relationship); action for specific performance of personal property with sentimental value (e.g., to return family heirlooms); and action to recover the reasonable value of services rendered, less the reasonable value of support received. Further, if traditional remedies prove inadequate, trial courts may create additional remedies to protect the parties’ reasonable expectations.

In other words, there is no way to form a common-law marriage in California, no matter how long you live with your partner. Under Family Code section 308, California will recognize common-law marriages validly established in other states. This means that a couple who establishes a common-law marriage in Texas will be treated as married if they move to California. Non-marital parents have the same custody and visitation rights as married parents. However, the recognition of a common-law marriage comes with the recognition of a spousal status, and this is significant with regards to tax, property, and inheritance issues.

For example, the Texas couple can use the “married filing joint” status with both the IRS and the California Franchise Tax Board. An employer, even the California government, must provide medical insurance to the spouse. The spouses receive community property rights. Each spouse will be considered a surviving spouse for purposes of the California intestate system and for social security survivorship benefits. Additionally, to end the marriage, the common-law spouse must file for divorce.

Recognizing a common-law marriage in California can quickly become a complicated legal matter and should be discussed with an attorney. If you have any questions about a Marvin claim or common-law marriage, please contact our California Certified Family Law Specialists. Our attorneys have decades of experience handling complex family law and estate planning matters and offer a free consultation.

Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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Estate Planning Lessons from Robin Williams

Posted August 22, 2014 in Estate Planning, In the Community, Probate by Michael Lonich.

As many of us mourn the loss of this great comedic genius, new information is still coming forward about Robin Williams. According to ABC News, with more than half of his movies portraying Williams as the leading man, his movies grossed over $6 billion throughout his career. While he was paid $165,000 per episode for his one season of The Crazy Ones, it is unclear whether he returned to television because of alleged “bills he had to pay” following his two divorces.

Robin Williams is survived by his third wife, Susan Schneider, who was married to him for 3 years, and his three adult children from his prior two marriages whose ages range from 22 to 31. The question for them now is what was the state of his financial affairs when he passed away?

While it appears from public record that Williams left real estate with equity of around $25 million behind, it is unclear what else he left for his heirs. What is clear, however, is that Williams appeared to have several estate planning documents which will be invaluable to his family. These include two different trusts. The first is the “Domus Dulcis Domus Holding Trust” (Latin for “home sweet home”). TMZ also reported that someone had leaked a copy of a different trust, which Williams created in 2009. This would have been while Williams was in the middle of his divorce from his second wife, Marsha Garces.

This trust reportedly named his three children as beneficiaries, splitting their trust funds into three equal distributions for each of them, set to pay out when they reach ages 21, 25, and 30. While the Domus Dulcis Domus Holding Trust appears to have been done to minimize estate taxes, this second trust accomplishes the goals of safeguarding privacy for Williams and his family since trusts avoid probate, keeping his affairs private (as long as they are not leaked to the media).

If you would like to learn more about trusts or avoiding probate in general, call Lonich & Patton to schedule a free half-hour consultation. Our attorneys are passionate about estate planning and have decades of experience handling complex estate planning matters, including wills and living trusts. If you are interested in developing an estate plan or reviewing your current estate plan, contact the experienced estate planning attorneys at Lonich & Patton for further information.

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The Ways to End Your Marriage

Posted August 8, 2014 in Family Law by Lonich and Patton.

In California, a marriage is dissolved by (1) the death of a spouse, (2) a final judgment of divorce, or (3) an annulment. Alternatively, if spouses do not want to completely end their marriage but do want to terminate their marital rights, they can (4) file for legal separation. Here is a look into each one:

(1) Death of a Spouse

When a spouse dies, dissolution occurs automatically, as a matter of law. This can be significant in family law proceedings if the spouse dies after divorce proceedings have begun, but before a final judgment of dissolution. In this scenario, spousal status is not officially terminated and the surviving spouse will still be considered “married” for inheritance purposes. Additionally, any pending dissolution proceeding is rendered moot at the death of a spouse and the court has no power to hear any remaining unresolved issues.

(2) Divorce

Divorce is the proceeding that legally ends the marriage or domestic partnership. Under Family Code section 2310, the grounds for divorce may be either “irreconcilable differences” or “incurable insanity.” Most marriages are dissolved on the ground of “irreconcilable differences.” A dissolution granted on the grounds of “incurable insanity” requires evidence – including competent medical or psychiatric testimony – that your spouse is incurably insane. In fact, this ground is so uncommon that there are no known reported decisions defining “incurable insanity” in the dissolution context. Further, it offers no tactical advantage so even if your spouse is incurably insane, pleading irreconcilable differences is much easier.

The determination of whether “irreconcilable differences” exist is essentially a ministerial function and is rarely a matter of contention. California is a no-fault divorce state, which means that any evidence of specific acts of misconduct (such as cheating, gambling, or heavy drinking) is improper. Courts recognize that ending a marriage is an intensely personal decision and only need to be convinced that the marital differences are substantial. Thus, direct proof of objective reasons supporting the divorce is not required.

(3) Annulment

An annulment declares the marriage was not legally valid – it was never entered into – and like other defenses to contracts, an annulment can occur if one party was not of sound-mind at the time of the marriage or if the marriage was procured by fraud.

A famous example of an annulment due to lack of capacity is Ms. Britney Spears’ 55-hour marriage to her high school friend, Jason Alexander, in Las Vegas. Ms. Spears sought an annulment stating that she “lacked understanding of her actions to the extent that she was incapable of agreeing to the marriage because she and Alexander did not know each other’s likes and dislikes, each other’s desires to have or not have children, and each other’s desires as to State of residency.” In other words, she was drunk and this was a joke that went too far.

Marriages can be annulled for fraud, if the fraud relates to a matter that California deems vital to the marriage relationship and the fraud directly affects the purpose of the party deceived entering the marital contract. Usually, annulments based on fraud involve the sexual and procreative aspects of marriage, such as a secret intention not to live with the other spouse or a concealment of sterility. False representations about earning capacity, wealth, or social status are not the type of fraud that will warrant a nullity. Nor will a failure to fulfill wedding vows or commonly understood spousal obligations, such as being a loving and supporting partner.

(4) Legal Separation

The grounds for legal separation are the same as those for a divorce but it does not end the marriage. Legal separation is an alternative to divorce, where the spouses do not want to completely sever the legal status of the marriage. Otherwise, a legal separation operates similarly to a divorce, separating all finances and property.

Spouses often seek a legal separation for religious or other personal reasons, or to retain eligibility for medical insurance, veteran’s benefits, or social security benefits that would have otherwise been lost by a divorce.

If you have any questions about the proper way to end your marriage, please contact our California Certified Family Law Specialists. Our attorneys have decades of experience handling complex family law proceeds and offer a free consultation.

Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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Tax and Estate Planning for Same-Sex Couples

Posted August 1, 2014 in Estate Planning, In the Community, Probate by Michael Lonich.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban, saying that withholding the fundamental right to marry from same-sex couples is a form of segregation that the Constitution cannot tolerate.

In June 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States in United States v. Windsor, held that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages and that it is up to state Legislatures to define marriage within state boundaries. Since then, numerous law-suits challenging the constitutionality of state DOMAs on equal protection and due process grounds have prevailed in various federal and state courts. Currently, 19 states, including California, plus the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage (recognition states), while 40 states prohibit it (non-recognition states).

The prevailing prediction is that a Supreme Court guarantee of a right to marriage is on its way. American support for same-sex marriage is at a new high of 55 percent, and California support is at 61 percent and increasing, if the trends continue. It is important for all couples to create an estate plan. Additionally, it is important for same-sex couples to be aware of the potentially complicated issues that arise when they move across state lines.

Same-Sex Couples Living in California

Same-sex married couples now living in California enjoy the same benefits and burdens under state and federal law as married opposite-sex couples. Before Windsor and IRS Revenue Ruling 2013-17 (which extended federal tax benefits to married same-sex couples, regardless of their state of residency), many married opposite-sex couples likely took this preferential treatment for granted.

Some of these benefits include:

  • Property transferred between spouses incident to a divorce is not subject to income or gift tax;
  • Spousal support (alimony) payments are tax deductible to the paying spouse;
  • Child support payments are not subject to income tax;
  • Spouses receive a community interest in 401(k) accounts and other retirement plans; and
  • Spouses receive all community property and anywhere from one-third to all of the deceased spouse’s separate property for intestate (when a person dies without a will or other non-probate instrument) inheritance purposes.

All couples should be aware of their legal rights at marriage, divorce, and death. It is important for both same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples to consider pre-marital agreements, estate plans, and any tax consequences that arise from marriage or divorce.

The Marital Status of Migrating Same-Sex Couples

When a same-sex couple moves out of California, their marital status will depend on the other state’s law with regards to various issues including, state tax filing status, intestate succession, guardianship and conservatorship appointments, and adoption and artificial reproductive technologies. In other words, a non-recognition state may not recognize the otherwise valid same-sex marriage.

If and when the Supreme Court guarantees a right to marriage, moving across state lines will no longer be an issue for same-sex couples. However, in the interim, it is important to be aware of the possible legal consequences.

For example, under Florida law, the definition of “heir” does not include same-sex spouses for intestate inheritance purposes. This means that a same-sex couple that was married in California, but permanently living in Florida, will not inherit from each other under the Florida intestate system. Some courts in non-recognition states are willing to recognize same-sex marriage in certain contexts through the doctrine of comity, which is where a court gives deference to another state’s laws. However, most surviving spouses want to avoid litigation because it can be a headache, requiring time, money, and mental energy.

In some cases, it might be worthwhile for same-sex spouses to opt out of the intestate system with non-probate instruments, such as estate plans. A same-sex couple’s estate plan needs to be drafted with precision, specifically naming beneficiaries, rather than using general terms such as “spouse.” This becomes especially important if a same-sex couple moves to a non-recognition state, where the court may not interpret a same-sex spouse to qualify as a spouse or heir. If any other blood related heirs of the deceased spouse were to contest the non-probate instrument, they could end up inheriting property that would have gone to the same-sex spouse in California or another recognition state.

If you are a same-sex couple and are considering marriage, or need to create or update an estate plan, please contact our California Certified Family Law Specialists. Our attorneys have decades of experience handling complex family law and estate planning matters and offer a free consultation.

Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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