May 18, 2012

Frequently Asked Questions: Georgia Divorce

Question: My wife left me and took our children with her. I have not seen them for three years. How can I find her to serve divorce papers and seek custody?

Answer: Some lawyers and most private investigators have access to databases that should be able to show where the other party is living. If you are trying to handle the divorce without the help of an attorney, you will likely need to hire a private investigator to find our where she is. Once you find where she is living, you can then personally serve her with the divorce papers to start the divorce process.

Question: Can I legally ask my husband for a separation but not have to leave my home?

Answer: Georgia does not recognize a “legal separation.” When you file for divorce, you assert in the pleadings that you are living in a “bona fide state of separation.” That simply means that you and your husband have not had marital relations (sex) since a certain date. There is an action for separate maintenance that can be filed in certain circumstances, but you should schedule a consultation with an Atlanta divorce lawyer to determine whether your specific situation would fall into this category.

Question: How do I get a divorce if my spouse won’t sign the papers, attend the classes, or follow through with any of the requirements?

Answer: If your spouse won’t cooperate, you may have to schedule the case for a final contested hearing. Before you attend this hearing, however, it is strongly recommended that you consult with an Atlanta divorce lawyer to make sure that you have prepared all your paperwork correctly for a final divorce. If your spouse does not attend a parenting class, some judges will still grant the divorce but may deny visitation to the offending spouse until he/she attends the class.

January 20, 2012

Custody awarded to father in Georgia divorce case despite evidence of alleged family violence

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently affirmed a divorce action where the husband was awarded primary physical custody of the children despite evidence of alleged family violence. Finklea v. Finklea, S11F1804 (2012). At the final hearing in that divorce case, the parties “each testified extensively about acts of family violence committed by the other spouse, which led to multiple police reports filed against each other.” Id. at 2. In its final judgment, the trial court said it was making its decision “[a]fter hearing testimony of the parties and considering all the evidence tendered at trial.” Id. Neither party asked for written findings of fact supporting the custody award. Id. The trial court ultimately awarded primary physical custody to the husband.

The wife appealed, alleging that “in awarding primary physical custody of the parties’ two children to Husband, the trial court abused its discretion in failing to cosider evidence of alleged family violence perpetrated by Husband against her." Id. at 1. The Supreme Court of Georgia disagreed, holding that, under the circumstances described above, the trial court did consider evidence of family violence presented at the final hearing. Id. at 3. In addition, the Court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s award of primary physical custody to the husband. The trial court exercised its discretion in awarding custody to one parent over the other and “[w]here there is any evidence to support the decision of the trial court, this Court cannot say there was an abuse of discretion.” Id. at 3, quoting Haskell v. Haskell, 286 Ga. 112, 112 (2009).

December 26, 2011

Prenuptial agreement upheld in Georgia divorce case

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently heard an appeal of a divorce case, which highlights the security, or risk (depending on which side you are on), of entering into a prenuptial agreement in Georgia. Sides v. Sides, S11F1140 (2011). In that case, the parties began dating in 1989 and, shortly thereafter, the Wife became pregnant. Id. Due to the great disparity in assets and income between the parties, they negotiated and signed a prenuptial agreement before marrying in 1990. Id. Under the agreement, “Wife would have been entitled to substantially more resources if the parties divorced after their twenty-year anniversary, and substantially less if the parties divorced prior to their twenty year anniversary.” Id. at 2. Nearly twenty years later, the Husband filed a Compliant for Divorce and Motion to Enforce the Prenuptial Agreement, which the trial court granted a mere 62 days prior to the couple’s twenty year anniversary, and the WIfe appealed. Id.

The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the enforcement of the prenuptial agreement. The Court first laid out the factors to be considered by the trial court in deciding the validity of the prenuptial agreement: “(1) [W]as the agreement obtained through fraud, duress or mistake, or through misrepresentation or nondisclosure of material facts? (2) [I]s the agreement unconscionable? (3) Have the facts and circumstances changed since the agreement was executed, so as to make its enforcement unfair and unreasonable?” Id., quoting Scherer v. Scherer, 249 Ga. 635, 641 (3) (1982).

In this case, both attorneys “deposed that they would not have allowed their clients to enter the agreement without full financial disclosures being made,” and Wife was long aware of the “vast disparity” between their incomes. Id. at 3. Thus, the evidence supported that full financial disclosures were made prior to signing and the agreement was not unconscionable. In addition, the increase in Husband’s net worth was anticipated and, therefore, it was not a “change of circumstance that would make the enforcement of the agreement unfair and unreasonable.” Id. at 4. The trial court, thus, did not abuse its discretion in upholding the prenuptial agreement.

November 25, 2011

Parenting plans in Georgia

With the holiday season upon us, many divorced parents in Georgia will look to their parenting plan for guidance on arranging their holiday schedules. Parenting plans are custody agreements that are submitted jointly or individually by each party in an action that involves child custody in Georgia. Except in those cases where emergency relief is necessary due to family violence, parenting plans are required in all actions in Georgia where child custody is at issue.

A parenting plan may be temporary until a final decree is entered, at which time a permanent parenting plan will go into effect. Under Georgia law, when considering either a joint plan or opposing plans of the parties, the court must make its determination based upon the best interest of the child. O.C.G.A. § 19-9-3. The court bases its determination on a number of factors including, but not limited to, the relationship that exists between each parent and the child, and the ability of each parent to provide the child with basic necessities. Id. at a(3).

Parenting plans require that both parties acknowledge and decide on a variety of issues. O.C.G.A. § 19-9-1. Holiday visitation is one such issue, and it can be difficult and emotional for parties to come to an agreement because it requires each party to agree to some holidays away from their children. It may never be easy to split time with your child and the other parent, but a successful parenting plan can alleviate tensions between the parties and allow each parent to enjoy time with their child.

If you need help creating a parenting plan, or seek to modify your existing parenting plan, please contact our Atlanta divorce attorneys to assist you in the process.

By Courtney Carpenter, Associate Attorney, Meriwether & Tharp LLC

November 18, 2011

How long does a divorce take in Georgia?

Georgia divorce lawyers are often asked how long an average divorce takes in this state. This is a difficult question to answer because there is not really an “average” divorce case. The length of time depends greatly on whether the parties are able to settle matters and, if not, what issues they are fighting about. Even cases with similar facts can be very different. For example, consider a case where both parties work, and have 2 children, a marital home, several joint accounts, and some separate property. Some parties with these facts are able to resolve everything fairly quickly and easily. Other parties with these same facts, however, may argue over every custody, child support, alimony and/or equitable division of assets. Even one contested issue can cause a divorce to drag on, especially if it is something about which both parties feel passionate.

The length of a divorce case can also depend on the County in which the divorce is filed because some courts are more back logged than others. Often, there is not much you can do about this issue.

In our experience, the average time range for a divorce in Georgia is 45 days for a completely uncontested divorce to about 3 years for a hotly contested divorce. However, as mentioned above, this time can vary greatly based upon the specific facts of your case.

October 31, 2011

Child's selection in Georgia custody disputes

In Georgia, child custody is determined using the “best interests of the child” standard. OCGA §19-9-3(a)(2). In custody cases where the child is under the age of 11, the court is not required to consider the child’s desires in determining which parent will have custody.

In custody cases where the child is 11, 12 or 13 years of age, “the judge shall consider the desires and educational needs of the child in determining which parent shall have custody.” OCGA §19-9-3(a)(6). The judge still has complete discretion in making the custody determination and, though he must consider the child’s desires, “the child’s desires shall not be controlling.” Id. The determination is still based upon best interests of the child and the child’s desires are a factor to be considered in making this determination.

In custody cases where the child is 14 years of age or older, “the child shall have the right to select the parent with whom he or she desires to live.” OCGA §19-9-3(a)(5). The custody selection made by a child in this age group “shall be presumptive unless the parent so selected is determined not to be in the best interests of the child.” Id. Thus, the court will follow the election of the child, unless that election is not in the child’s best interest.

February 18, 2011

An Atlanta Divorce Attorney's Thoughts on Celebrity Divorce - Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry

Today in An Atlanta Divorce Attorney’s Thoughts on Celebrity Divorce, I’m going to discuss the brewing custody battle between Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry. Berry and Aubry have a daughter, Nahla, together, though they were never married. After they broke up last year, it appeared that they were amicably and informally sharing custody of Nahla, but this arrangement has recently transformed into a bitter custody battle. Aubry filed a petition to establish paternity and to have a formal custody arrangement, signaling that the parties are no longer able to work the arrangement out on their own.

According to People Magazine, Berry has stated that she has “'serious concerns' about Nahla’s well-being while in Aubry’s care,” and Aubry has denied these allegations. In a custody battle such as this, courts almost always appoint a Guardian ad Litem to assist in determining custody and it is likely a Guardian will be appointed in this case if the parties are unable to reach a settlement through mediation or otherwise. A Guardian ad Litem represents the child, and conducts interviews with the parties and other people with direct knowledge of the situation to piece through the various allegations. Upon completion of a thorough evaluation, the Guardian will make a custody recommendation to the court that is guided by the child’s best interest.

Unfortunately, even with a Guardian ad Litem, in a bitter custody battle such as this one, the allegations can get ugly (they already have here) and the child often gets dragged into the middle. Berry and Aubry both say they have Nahla’s best interest at heart but it remains to be seen if they will keep her best interest, rather than their anger toward each other, in the forefront of the custody battle.

November 29, 2010

Equitable Division and Property Owned by Third Party

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently heard a case regarding whether property owned by a third party can be equitably divided in a divorce. In Armour v. Holcombe, the husband’s mother purchased a house during the parties’ marriage and allowed the parties to live there. Armour v. Holcombe, S10AF0946 (2010). A few years later, the husband’s mother deeded the property to the husband as a gift. Id. The husband refinanced the property and both he and his mother made payments on the debt. Id. In March 2005, the husband deeded the property back to his mother as he was facing financial difficulty. Id. Six months later, the wife filed for divorce and added the husband’s mother as a defendant, alleging that the deed “was executed to deprive Wife of her marital interest in the property.” Id. at 2.

Despite the trial court ordering the home sold and proceeds held in escrow pending the outcome of the litigation, the wife decided not to pursue the fraudulent conveyance issue at the divorce trial. Id. Nonetheless, the trial court instructed the jury that the sales proceeds were a marital asset subject to equitable division, and the jury awarded the wife approximately 2/3 of the proceeds. Id.

The husband’s mother appealed, arguing that the trial court erred because “there was no evidence that the property was a marital asset,” and the Georgia Supreme Court agreed. Id. The Court emphasized that the wife did not cite any case law regarding property owned by a third party being subject to equitable division, “nor should authority for such a ruling be expected.” Id. at 5. The Court adamantly held “[i]t would be highly disruptive to the transfer and ownership of property to allow a divorcing spouse to claim that property held by a third party is subject to equitable division in the divorce action based merely upon that spouse’s actions regarding the property during its prior ownership by the other spouse.” Id. at 5.

The Georgia Supreme Court mentioned that the wife may have had recourse with a fraudulent conveyance claim, but the wife “chose to abandon” this avenue. Id. at 7.

November 26, 2010

An Atlanta Divorce Attorney's Thoughts on Celebrity Divorce - Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller

In this installment of An Atlanta Divorce Attorney’s Thoughts on Celebrity Divorce, I’m going to address the divorce of Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller. People magazine recently reported that the parties have each filed for divorce. Sheen is seeking joint legal and physical custody of their twin boys, and Mueller is seeking primary physical custody with visitation rights for Sheen.

Surprisingly, it appears that this divorce might not be as contested as one would imagine, given their history together. Apparently, while separated earlier this year, they entered into an agreement settling matters of child custody, child support and equitable division. It appears that spousal support may still be a contested issue. In addition, it appears that Sheen’s divorce filing differed from the purported agreement on the issue of custody.

If the parties do end up in court with a contested divorce, my guess, based upon their history, is that it won’t be pretty. Both parties have recently been in rehab for substance abuse – a fact the judge would seriously consider in awarding custody. In addition, Sheen was sentenced to domestic violence counseling stemming from their altercation over Christmas last year, and was recently hospitalized after an “incident” at the Plaza Hotel. Each party will likely drag the other through the mud in trying to prove to the judge that he or she should be awarded custody. If this case was in Georgia, the judge would hear all of the evidence and weigh many factors before awarding custody based on the best interests of the children standard.

November 12, 2010

Challenging your Georgia divorce decree? Don’t retain the benefits of that decree.

The Supreme Court of Georgia recently reinstated a bright line rule regarding a party retaining the benefits of a Georgia divorce decree that that same party is challenging. In Thompson v. Thompson, the Husband challenged the Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce, alleging that the trial court erred in its equitable division award by dividing funds and property that were his non-marital assets. Thompson v. Thompson, S10F1231 (2010). The trial court denied the husband’s motions for new trial, clarification, and reconsideration, holding that “he had availed himself of the benefits of the final order” and was, thereby, prohibited from challenging it. Id. The husband subsequently appealed the denial of his motions.

In affirming the trial court’s ruling, Supreme Court of Georgia followed long-standing principles of Georgia law. Specifically, the Court held that “one who has accepted benefits such as spousal support or equitable division of property under a divorce decree is estopped from seeking to set aside that decree without first returning the benefits.” Id. at 3. Thus, if you want to dispute a Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce in Georgia, you must either not accept any support or equitable division from that award, or you must return any portion of the award that you have accepted, before initiating any challenge.

The Court clarified that a party “may collect an award of child support and still repudiate a final judgment, as those benefits belong to the child.” Id. at 3-4.