Articles Posted in Issues Affecting Families

A recent study by a professor based at Harvard University has found that a husband’s employment in an opposite-sex marriage is a major factor in divorce. In marriages before the mid 1970s, the most prominent factor in the risk for divorce was a husband’s share of housework. After the 1970s, however, there has been a shift from the share of housework to employment status. It is worth noting that the study did not cover same sex marriage, nor did it address men who choose to stay at home with the children.

Employment Status as a Divorce Risk Factor

Using data from the 1968 to 2013 waves of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, Harvard sociology Professor Alexandra Killewald set out to examine and predict divorce risks in opposite-sex marriages. In doing her study, Professor Killewald sought “how the roles and responsibilities in marriage changed over time and influenced the chance of divorce”. Her study found differences in marriages prior to 1975 and in marriages after 1975.

Professor Killewald looked at the various aspects of a couple’s working life, such as employment status, willingness to do housework, and differences in finances. She also used a large set of census data to predict wives’ economic dependence on their marriages and how much they would lose if they go through with divorce.

Professor Killewald examined 46 years of data on more than 6,300 married opposite-sex couples in the United States. She found that couples married before 1975 were likelier to get a divorce if husbands and wives shared housework equally, because husbands saw equal domestic work as a threat to their traditional breadwinning role in the household. After 1975, the sociology professor found that housework hasn’t been much of a factor in divorce, instead, the husband’s job has.

Professor Killewald found that since the mid 1970s, husbands who have full-time employment have a 2.5 percent chance of getting a divorce. This percentage is lower than the 3.3 percent rate for husbands without full-time employment. In other words, husbands without full-time employment are one-third more likely to split up with their wives than those with full-time jobs.

Economic Independence of Women: Not a Risk for Divorce

The Harvard professor also found no strong evidence that the economic independence of women can increase divorce rates in opposite-sex couples.

“That’s surprising,” said New York University sociology professor Paula England, but she also stated that she found Killewald’s methodology very sound and its conclusions convincing.

England added, “I’m sure that financial strain hurts people’s well-being, but it doesn’t seem to be causing marriage breakup.”

Professor Killewald’s study on the factors affecting divorce in opposite-sex couples was published in the American Sociological Review.

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Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, same sex marriage is now recognized in all of the U.S. states. This means that same-sex couples now have the right to all the benefits that opposite-sex couples have always received.

So what does that mean for all same-sex couples out there? It means that you should apply right away for the benefits that are now within your reach. Here are some of the most important financial items you should know about in light of the changes following Obergefell v. Hodges.

Social Security Just Got Bigger

Social Security’s spousal benefit gives all married partners flexibility in planning for retirement. For example, higher-earning spouses can enable their lower-earning spouses to collect benefits.

If a primary wage-earner becomes disabled, Social Security provides assistance through spousal disability benefit.

You may also be allowed to receive survivor benefits if your spouse passes away. You may receive it at age 60, or at age 50 if you are disabled, or at any age if you are looking after your deceased spouse’s child.

Speaking of children, kids of same-sex couples have been profoundly affected by the ruling, which overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. Now, children of same-sex couples also have access to programs that are designed to keep them away from poverty through economic support if parents are no longer able to provide for them.

Update Your Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plan Beneficiaries

As an employee, you should update the beneficiaries of the retirement plan sponsored by your private employer. Retirement plans should provide all couples mandated spousal benefits and consents. This means that all same-sex spouses are now eligible to receive retirement and medical assistance.

Keep the Whole Family Healthy with Improved Health Insurance

While you are updating your retirement plan, you should also review your health insurance plans. Now that sex-sex marriage is legal in all states, no health insurance company can deny coverage to same-sex spouses.

Get to Know Your Taxes Better

Same-sex couples are now required to file federal income tax returns under the status “married”, whether or not these are filed jointly or separately. Under the “married” status, you can transfer properties to your spouse without paying for estate taxes, saving you thousands of dollars.

Same-sex spouses are also now able to give gifts to one another, without needing to pay for state gift taxes.

Get Your Legal Documents Up-to-Date

Lastly, you should update all your legal documents such as wills, trusts, and other estate planning documents to ensure that your spouse is duly recognized by the law and can claim the benefits that go along with it.

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When it comes to divorce, issues with child custody are front and center. Lawyers know what to do, divorcing couples know what to expect, and judges will have seen many custody battles in court.

But what about pets?

In the case of Rudy, a German short-haired pointer whose owners are divorced, the agreement was to go back and forth between their two homes every two weeks. But that agreement was informal, and as it turns out, when the former couple raised the subject with their lawyers in Massachusetts, they were told they had to come up with a deal on their own.

In other words, courts don’t really have much to say when it comes to pet custody. And this can be a problem, as approximately 37 to 47 percent of all households in the U.S. have a dog, and 30 to 37 percent keep a cat. In addition, for every 1 out of every 5 American couples who get married in a given year, 2 will divorce.

One can only guess how many pets are caught in the middle of these separations, and at a time when married couples are delaying having children, pets can easily be the immediate casualties of a divorce. This begs the question: who gets custody of pets, particularly cats and dogs?

Law: Pets Are Property

As far as the law is concerned, pets are property of their owners, which may seem absurd given how raising a dog or cat can easily set you back thousands of dollars in veterinarian bills, pet food, grooming services, and so on. But because of the emotional attachment owners place on their animals, it’s common for many soon-to-be ex couples to use their pets against each other. In a divorce where emotions run high and spouses often want to spite each other by using what the other loves most against them, pets become an easy weapon of choice.

Precedent for Pet Custody Rulings

In one case, a New York judge agreed to a hearing to resolve the argument of two divorcing women over their dog in 2013.

In his ruling, Judge Matthew Cooper wrote, “Although Joey the miniature dachshund is not a human being and cannot be treated as such, he is decidedly more than a piece of property.” The ruling was one of the rare times a court expounded on the reasons for treating pets as more than property, making it a significant decision, even if it was made by a lower court judge.

Still, judges like Cooper have refused to arrange joint-custody setups for pets and divorced couples, also turning down requests to hear custody battles over pets in the same way for human children.

Fortunately for Rudy, it didn’t have to come down to that. Despite the dissolution of their marriage, Christine Trinchero and her ex-husband treat their dog as a “shared responsibility,” agreeing to set limits and rules on when to the short-haired pointer switches, texting or calling each other when it’s time to do so.

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The Texas Supreme Court released a strongly-worded opinion on Tarrant County District Clerk Thomas Wilder’s practice of procuring court costs from six indigent litigants, who filed divorces in the county. In its 8-0 ruling on Campbell v. Wilder, the high court issued a stern warning to judges looking to collect any amount of money from indigent parties, calling it an “an abuse of discretion for any judge, including a family law judge, to order costs in spite of an uncontested affidavit of indigence.”

A Brighter Future for Indigent Litigants in Texas

Lee Difilippo, the petitioners’ lawyer in the trial court, praised the opinion and hopes it guarantees the rights of indigent litigants are protected from here on out. Beaming with pride over her clients and the long journey they embarked on to affirm their constitutional rights, Difilippo notes how their efforts will have a huge impact on the future of all indigent litigants within the State of Texas, especially since many county clerks across other counties observe the same policies as Wilder’s.

“It’ll hopefully just stop these practices,” she added.

Difilippo is also the founder of Difilippo Holistic Law Center in Austin, a non-profit law firm that helps litigants who are unable to afford their own lawyers and access to courts.

What Happened?

The opinion, released on April 1, explains the circumstances of the petitioners, who filed divorces in Tarrant County. District courts that received their cases released final divorce decrees requiring each party to bear their own costs, or that each spouse would have to cover their respective court costs. Wilder then sent collection notices to the indigent litigants, asking for an average amount of $300.

The petitioners responded by filing a lawsuit against Wilder, leading to a district court issuing a temporary injunction to prohibit the district clerk’s policy of demanding court costs from indigent parties. Wilder, however, appealed, pointing out that the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction as the litigants had to return to the original courts of their divorce cases to change the judgments in their respective cases. In light of Wilder’s appeal, the judgment was vacated by the court of appeals, who dismissed the case for a lack of proper jurisdiction.

Fortunately, the high court reversed the court of appeals’ ruling and sent in back to the trial court.

Ball in Wilder’s Court

According to Difilippo, she could request a hearing the moment the case makes its way back to the trial court in order to obtain a permanent injunction and stop Wilder’s policy. Before that, however, Difilippo’s priority is getting Wilder’s side to see his reaction. The lawyer notes that his best course of action would be to settle and return the money to her clients.

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The California Supreme Court recently made an unprecedented unanimous decision in Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., effectively protecting the rights of ordinary consumers to sue a corporation—in this case, the grower Herb Thyme—for knowingly misleading the public.

In the case of Herb Thyme, the company was found to have mislabeled commonly purchased herbs as “organic,” and raking in the additional premiums commanded by genuine organic produce.

OFPA Claims Rejected

The California Supreme Court’s ruling also means that it rejects the California Court of Appeals’s conclusion that the existing Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) of the Federal government effectively nulifies the plaintiff’s claims. The high court explained that the Quesada lawsuit actually supports the OFPA’s mission of improving consumer confidence in organic labels.

In its decision, the Court wrote, “Permitting state consumer fraud actions would advance, not impair, [OFPA’s] goals. Substitution fraud, intentionally marketing products as organic that have been grown conventionally, undermines the assurances the USDA Organic label is intended to provide. Conversely, the prosecution of such fraud, whether by public prosecutors where resources and state laws permit, or through civil suits by individuals or groups of consumers, can only serve to deter mislabeling and enhance consumer confidence.”

Why Is This Considered a Milestone Case?

One of the basic tenets of consumer rights in the United States is the idea of getting what you pay for. This ruling is important because it affirms the function of government: to protect the rights of ordinary Americans. When you choose to pay a higher price for a food item labeled as “organic,” you should get a product that’s actually just that. Not only is this a consumer rights issue, it’s also a public health concern. For example, if a food is marked gluten-free but is actually not, someone with Celiac disease who buys that product could suffer from severe health problems as a result.

Protecting the Organic Produce Industry

But that’s just scratching the surface of the issue. The bigger picture is that consumer fraud suits actually benefit the organic industry itself, protecting and preserving its integrity. Organic food isn’t easy to produce, which explains why it commands a premium price over ordinary produce. If growers can get away with intentionally mislabeling their produce as organic and get the premiums without being held liable, they’ll drive the honest organic growers out of business due to the unfair playing field. Ensuring these types of lawsuits are heard in court doesn’t just protect the consumers, it protects everyone in the organic food industry by implementing rules that guarantee fairness.

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Blended families have to deal with a number of unique concerns when it comes to estate planning. To make things more complicated, one blended family’s set of challenges is often different from the other. For instance, the Brady Bunch has each spouse with children from a previous marriage. Sometimes, only one spouse has kids. In some cases, the union of spouses may have resulted in children a generation younger than the offspring from previous relationships, which may or may not have ended due to death or divorce.

So clearly, blended families should appraise their situation when approaching estate planning. Below are a few pointers on 3 major factors you need to consider.

Prenuptial Agreements

It’s a good idea for spouses to consider a prenuptial agreement before getting married. Although sometimes a source of tension, a prenup offers one of the best ways for partners to protect their children, outlining property rights and financial responsibilities between both sides of the family.

A prenuptial agreement also defines the extent of the new spouse’s rights should the relationship end in death or divorce.

Beneficiaries

Prospective spouses and their families should also check beneficiary designation forms to see if a former spouse(s) still has beneficiary status, making them eligible for life insurance and retirement premiums.

It’s also important to check if any minor children have beneficiary status. When a parent passes away without any prior estate planning, the legal guardian usually becomes custodian of the minor’s estate. This situation may raise objections from divorced parents, who may not be keen on an ex-partner having custody over the minor child’s inheritance.

Instead, what you can do is leave a minor child’s inherence in trust to a person of your suggestion to ensure no ex-partner will control the inheritance.

Joint Property

Property shared by joint tenants with right of survivorship automatically comes under the sole ownership of the co-tenant upon the death of the other. That being said, it’s critical that spouses in a blended family take care when titling property, particularly when it comes to the addition of a new spouse to the title of an existing separate property. Otherwise, blended families may fail to give the proper inheritance to their children.

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