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Social Security Disability Held Not To Discharge Child Support Duties

Just because a parent qualifies for Social Security disability benefits does not necessarily mean he or she is unable to pay child support, a New Jersey trial judge says. A declaration of disability by the Social Security Administration “cannot automatically be interpreted by the family court as a finding … that the party cannot work at all,” wrote Ocean County Family Part Judge Louis Jones in Gilligan v. Gilligan, FM-15-807-02. The ruling, approved Tuesday for publication, places the burden on parents claiming disability to prove that they are unable to pay anything and makes it clear that it is not enough just to brandish a disability award letter.

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Should the divorced parents pay for their children’s college tuition?

What if both parents believe that their children should be responsibility for their own college tuition; what if these parents live in NJ and are in a process of divorce? I find it noteworthy that when parents who believe that their kids should pay for their own college education get divorced, the NJ courts can make them pay for college. NJ holds a minority view in this regard compared with most states. I have had mediating parents tell me that working to provide for their own college education was an important part of their own personal development and family values that they wish to convey to their own children. If you hold a similar view, you need to take certain steps while in divorce mediation. You need to come up with a very detailed agreement stating the following: all the reasons why you choose to shift the burden of college tuition onto your children, provisions concerning changes in your circumstances, living standards, as well as regularly scheduled mutual updates on each other’s financial circumstances. What is the likelihood that either parent, or the child, will file an action to compel a payment of college expenses in the future? If they do, might the court compel divorcing parties to pay for college when they would not have done so had they remained an intact family? No one is immune from such an outcome; however, in my experience parties, who mediate their agreements, honor them in the future. They can revisit the issue and change the terms of their agreement but they will try to stay out of court as much as possible. I often suggest to parents that they raise their children in a culture where from a young age they understand that they will be paying for their own college. It seems less likely that those children would suddenly institute suit against one or more parents for college costs if that was never their expectation while growing up. Who knows what the law pertaining to college will evolve into at any given time in the future. There seems to always be some kind of bills pending that might change the parents’ obligations. But to be able to mediate this issue and not to spend vast amount of money on court proceeding is still the best option that the parents have today.

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Should I keep my marriage for the children’s sake?

As a former therapist I have worked with many children, whose parents went through divorce, I have also worked with children who resided with step-parents, single parents, or same sex parents. Even though unconditional love for children, acceptance, and consistency are the major factors that contribute to their successful upbringing and development, the intact families are the families where the children thrive best-providing that the parents are happily married. “Happily” is the key word. If parents have a high-discord marriage and are trying to save it only for the sake of the children, this proves to do just the opposite. It is extremely detrimental to the children’s upbringing. Through the years I was able to observe in my practice that the children often are better off when their high-discord parents divorce rather than stay together. Once their divorce is finalized, many parents are able to address parenting issues from a different angle. They are not as stressed and more able to focus on the parenting rather than on their own disagreements. I have also noticed that the way people divorce plays a tremendous role. Many of my former clients, who mediated their divorce, have learned during the mediation how to negotiate their issues should they come up in the future. These skills prove priceless as parents apply them any time they have conflicts between themselves or with their own children-unlike couples who litigate their divorces. Those frequently continue fighting even after their divorce is finalized, as they are trapped in their own issues. E. Mavis Heatherington, Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia who published the results of a 20-year study of divorced families, once said: “The only childhood stress greater than two married parents fighting all the time, is two divorced parents fighting all the time.”

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Shared Custody

As a family mediator I help divorcing parents to create child/parent visitation schedules that would work for them as well as for their children. The trend that my colleagues and I are noticing is as follows: while in the past it was the most common for the kids to stay with their mothers with occasional visits from the fathers, now more and more parents realize that kids need both of them and both parents need their children. It is very difficult to present the actual custody data because states do not keep records of custody outcomes. Also sometimes parents come up with one custody plan in mediation and then implement something different in reality. However, shared custody is definitely the preferred choice for many divorcing parents nowadays. The definition of “shared parenting” is fluid. An arrangement might not be strictly 50/50 – one week at mom’s place and the other at dad’s. Parents sometimes come up with very creative, unorthodox solutions for their shared custody plans. The main purpose of these plans is giving the opportunity to the children to spend a lot of times with both parents. The rise of joint custody is attributed to a variety of factors, including changing gender roles, women taking on careers and men becoming more involved in their children’s upbringing. There are few points that parents need to take into account when they want to implement shared custody arrangements. Ideally, they should live in close proximity to each other, and each parent must be extra-organized. Parents should also realize that it will take time for them and for their children to adjust to their new and hectic schedules. Once these barriers are overcome, the benefits will over shine the challenges. Research shows that children in shared custody arrangements showed fewer behavioral problems and had better relationships with both parents which is crucial to children’s development. There is only one caveat – parents should get along. High-conflict environment, especially when it places children in the center of parental arguments, is detrimental for children. It completely nullifies the benefits that the dual residence arrangement can provide.

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Mediation: a shift in paradigm

A simple fact about divorce is that, in the absence of a custody dispute, there is only one issue that needs to be resolved, and that is finances. All of the impossible disputes in the relationship become miraculously moot. The complicating fact of divorce is that without the practical realm in which emotional conflicts are ordinarily expressed, the unresolved feelings compress into the single question of money. And so, money becomes everything. The insight of mediation is that neither party's satisfaction bears a definite relation to the settlement's dollar amount, and therefore the mediator should not focus on a monetary figure -- as litigators do -- but on how money figures. For example, one of my couples while in mediation went through a mental shift: instead of thinking that her husband is plundering her savings, she choose to imagine that she will give him a supplement for a certain length of time for his expenses so that he could continue the lifestyle they had developed together. The turning point however occurred when they both realized how tragic divorce was for both of them and that they both were overwhelmed by the enormity of what happened. Therefore coming to terms with something they thought was unfair and move on, was powerful and liberating for both. The number on the mediation agreement was one neither of them would have chosen, but one both of them could live with, precisely because they did choose it. They both agree that had a judge given them that same number, they each would have felt cheated and would have blamed their attorneys. For them as for many other divorcing couples, mediation became not only a better alternative to litigation, but also an experience that changed their perspective on what have happened to them and allowed them to get on with their lives.

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