Category: Mediation

What You Should Know about Child Custody in North Carolina

North Carolina courts recognize two forms of child custody: “physical custody” and “legal custody.” Physical custody refers to the right of a parent (or guardian) to have actual physical custody of the child. Legal custody refers generally to the right of a parent (or guardian) to make important decisions on behalf of a child, such as those pertaining to the child’s health, education, discipline, and religious or spiritual training.

Child custody can be agreed to between the parties, or ordered by a court. When a child’s parents do not live together, it is recommended that they have a valid written agreement or court order setting forth the terms of their child custody arrangement.

Possible options for child custody arrangements between parents include the following:

  • the parents share both legal and physical custody of the child;
  • one parent has sole legal custody and both parents share physical custody on an equal or nearly equal basis;
  • the parents share joint legal custody, but one parent has primary physical custody and the other parent has secondary physical custody;
  • one parent has both sole legal and physical custody of the child while the other parent has visitation privileges (which may include supervised visitation); or
  • one parent has both sole legal and physical custody, and the other parent does not have any visitation privileges with the child. It should be noted, however, that only in rare or highly unusual circumstances, such as where there is child abuse or child endangerment, would a judge deny a parent visitation with his or her child.

When parents cannot agree on child custody, either party can initiate legal action requesting that child custody be established (or modified) by a court with jurisdiction. Policies in North Carolina encourage parties to settle child custody disputes outside of court so the parties usually must participate in mediation before the court will schedule a hearing on the issue of child custody.

In Buncombe County, where there is a dedicated Family Court, the local form 1 entitled “Notice of Judicial Assignment” must be submitted to a Family Court case manager at the time that that a complaint or motion involving contested child custody is filed with the court, together with local form 12 that includes an “Order to Attend Parent Education/Mediation Orientation & Mediation” and “Referral for Custody Mediation.” The Family Court case manager will complete the required local forms by indicating the judge assigned to the case, setting dates for each party to attend a mandatory Parent Education class and Mediation Orientation, and scheduling a status conference or hearing on any preliminary matters. A copy of the completed local forms along with all other documents filed with the court must be delivered to Family Court and properly served on the opposing party. Buncombe County’s local rules and forms can be found on the web at http://www.nccourts.org.   Select “Buncombe County” from the drop-down menu and then click on the link for “Local Rules.”

Mediation of a contested child custody matter is a mandatory program under North Carolina state law. The requirement to attend mediation may be waived by a judge in certain circumstances, such as if a party lives a long distance from where the custody action has been filed.

When the parties attend custody mediation through the court’s mediation program, a mediator, who is a neutral third party with experience in conflict resolution, will work with the parties to attempt to help them reach an agreement regarding child custody and parenting issues. If the parties are able to resolve their custody dispute at mediation, the parties will enter into a written agreement known as a “Parenting Agreement” that details the terms of their settlement. The Parenting Agreement may then be submitted to the judge for approval, incorporated into a court order, and enforced in the same manner as a court order.

The custody mediator available through the court system is limited to working with the parties to resolve disagreements regarding child custody and/or visitation matters. There is no charge to either party for participating in the mandatory custody mediation program. Typically the parties do not have their lawyers present when they participate in the custody mediation program. However, it is strongly recommended that both parties consult with an attorney prior to the custody mediation to ensure that they understand their rights, options, and responsibilities.

The parties can agree to use the services of a private mediator if they are willing to pay for the mediator’s services. The advantage of using a private mediator is that the mediator is not limited to working with the parties to resolve child custody. The private mediator can work with the parties to resolve other issues that may be in dispute, such as child support, post-separation support, alimony, and equitable distribution of marital property and debts. When the parties agree to use a private mediator to mediate disputes that include these important family financial matters, it is customary for each party to have their attorney present to offer guidance, explore options, and advise of the pros and cons of settlement possibilities.

If the parties are unable to resolve their custody dispute through mediation, then a hearing or trial can be scheduled so that a judge can make a decision. When adjudicating child custody matters, judges are guided by the legal standard of what is in “the best interests of the child.” This standard, however, can be very subjective as judges have broad discretion in determining what constitutes the best interests of the child. This also underscores the importance of being represented by a reputable family law attorney who can present crucial evidence to the court on your behalf.

The family law attorneys at Siemens Family Law Group understand that child custody disputes can be a difficult and emotional process for families. If you are pursuing or defending a claim for child custody or visitation, we can explain your options and make recommendations based on your unique circumstances. Our dedicated and experienced attorneys are skilled negotiators and seasoned litigators. We focus our practice exclusively on family law matters, including child custody, child support, spousal support, and division of marital property and debts so you can be confident we are knowledgeable and prepared to address other claims at issue in your case. Whether you need assistance in negotiating and preparing a written separation or custody agreement, or are involved in a contentious divorce or custody battle, you can count on the attorneys at Siemens Family Law Group to provide you with exceptional legal services.

This article is intended for information purposes only and is not to be considered or substituted as legal advice. This article is based on North Carolina laws in effect at the time of posting.

Mediation Center Brings Access to Justice for All

Mediation is a great tool for resolving disputes.  Many of our cases resolve in mediation, where complex issues can be resolved creatively in a calm environment.  The Buncombe County Mediation Center provides that tool for dispute resolution to the community at greatly reduced rates.  We support the Buncombe County Mediation Center, which helps bring access to justice for all.

Merits of Mediation in Dispute Resolution

This post is about the merits of mediation, and the role I can play as your lawyer when you are thinking about using a mediator to resolve issues with your partner, spouse or former spouse. While I mediate disputes when asked, there are many good mediators in town, and I’m as happy being a lawyer as I am a mediator. Mediators mediate. Lawyers advocate and advise. No lawyer/mediator can be both in one case; there are rules of professional conduct that now prohibit this practice. Understanding the difference between the role of a mediator and the role of a lawyer will serve you well.

Mediation is, in my estimation, the most cost effective means for resolving disputes of all kinds, and family law disputes in particular. When I say cost effective, I am talking not only about money, but also emotional expense. When families change in configuration (separation), when new households are established, and when children are forced to navigate new environments, airing grievances in a public record (a court file) and in a public place (the Buncombe County Courthouse) can be destructive. Sometimes there is no alternative, and there are members of the Siemens Family Law Group that are highly skilled litigators when the only alternative is court.

Back to money. If you would prefer to spend your money on yourself or your kids, rather than a legal battle, here is my advice:

1. Find a family law lawyer for initial consultation. Ideally you will find a specialist like me, or an associate working under that specialist. You should expect to pay for that consultation (I charge $300, my associates charge less). What you should expect to get at that consultation are answers to all your questions. Prepare as many questions in advance as you can. What you should also expect to get is an education regarding family law in North Carolina, how that law might be applied to the facts of your case, how you might settle your case in mediation, and how the Buncombe County Family Court might view your case if you can’t. At a good law firm, you should get good counsel. This counsel might go beyond the law. If you meet with me, I’ll give you my honest perspective as a lawyer with 20 years of experience in Buncombe County; as a single parent of a now 7-year-old; and as man in mid-career who enjoys the ability to provide clear, seasoned, sound advice.

2. Go to mediation. Sarah Olson is a seasoned lawyer and mediator with a background in psychology, accounting and parenting. She has an informative website at www.mediationasheville.com. Other good mediators include Gary Cash, Rebecca Knight, Sarah Corley, Michael Drye, Barbara Davis, Rhonda Moorefield and Patrick McCroskey. We can help you get in touch with any one of these individuals. The mediator you choose should have a working understanding of family law in North Carolina, the Buncombe County Family Court in particular, an ability to assess financial matters, and if children are involved, some life experience or training related to child development. Ideally, the mediator you choose will facilitate a conversation that results in a meeting of the minds, otherwise known as an agreement. At the conclusion of mediation, the mediator must ensure that any agreement that is reached is summarized in written form. The written summary of the mediator is a road map for settlement, but not the actual legal settlement document.

3. So, after mediation, go back to the lawyer you consulted initially with the agreement your mediator has reduced into writing. The lawyer you consulted should be able to pick up on your last conversation with him or her, take the mediator’s road map (the mediator’s memorandum), and get you to the destination (a binding legal document). We call that binding legal document a contract of separation and property settlement agreement. The legal document may have custody provisions in it. The legal document may, or may not, provide that it is to become a court order upon divorce. Your lawyer should be prepared to talk with you in detail about these procedural nuances.

If you follow these steps, you will come through the process of separation and divorce in the best way possible. You will expend less emotional energy. Your children will avoid unnecessary wounds. And, you will save money. I’d like to talk with you in more detail about this approach in an initial consultation. If you don’t talk to me, talk to one of my associates, or try to find someone equally qualified.

When Simplicity is the Solution for Family Law

During weekend reading, I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal that confirms principles and practices that set Siemens Family Law Group apart from the rest.

The article is titled “n” and in it, the authors, Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn, suggest that lawyers and technologists are the “taproots of complexity”.  I think that is a fair charge.  The authors go on to say that “complexity is a coward’s way out”.  I think there is truth in that too.

Family Law is complex, and it’s a good family law lawyer’s job to distill and clarify that law so that his or her client really understands how the law will meet the particular facts of their case.  Complexity really doesn’t serve the client.  At its worst, complexity can be used as artifice that serves the lawyer to the disadvantage of a client.  I see that sometimes, and I don’t like it.

In previous posts, I have mentioned the word empathy and the concept of empathic listening (the groundwork for effective communication).  Siegel and Etzkorn mention that word too.  They define empathizing as the perception of others needs and expectations.  That definition seems right to me.  They go on to say that empathy is “the only way to shorten the distance between an organization providing services and the individual receiving them.”

We want to shorten the distance between complex law and our clients.  Not with gimmicks and forms.  But with effective communication with each of our clients, so that they understand the process, the law and how the law applies to their unique set of facts.

Incidentally, I find that the same kind of communication works in mediation and the courtroom.

I’ll be sharing this article with my team, and we will be talking about how to keep the in play at Siemens Family Law Group.

Some Do’s and Don’ts of Divorce

 Like it or not, people going through a divorce may find themselves in situations that quickly become very contentious, even when both parties agree that it is in their best interest to part ways. Below is a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” from www.Findlaw.com, that might help to prevent this difficult situation from becoming unbearable.

THE DOs

DO be reasonable and cooperate as much as possible with your soon-to-be-ex. Reasonable compromise yields quicker and easier results in divorce cases.

DO support your children through the process. It is even tougher on them than it is on you. Don’t make them pick sides.

DO let your spouse know when and where you will spend time with your kids while you work out permanent custody arrangements. Your spouse might think you’ve made a run for the border – and if your soon-to-be-ex has to ask the police to track you down, that won’t look good during custody or visitation hearings.

DO fully disclose all your assets and property. A court can throw out a divorce decree based on financial deception, putting you back in court years after you thought everything was final.

Do ask your attorney if anything doesn’t make sense. Your attorney works for you, and should help you understand every part of the divorce process.

THE DON’Ts

DON’T make big plans to take a job in another state or move out of the country until your divorce is final. Your new life could interfere with getting your divorce finalized.

DON’T violate any temporary custody or visitation arrangements. It could make it tougher for you to get the custody or visitation rights you prefer.

DON’T “give away” property to friends or relatives and arrange to get it back later. Hiding property can mean your spouse can take you back to court to settle those assets.

DON’T go it alone. Divorce is complicated, and an attorney can make sure that your interests are protected.

AND A FEW WE’VE ADDED:

DO come to your meetings with your attorney prepared with updates and requested information.

DO engage the services of a therapist to help you through the emotional aspects of divorce.

DO engage the services of a therapist to help your young children understand family changes that result from divorce, and

DON’T discuss your case and/or your attorney’s advice with friends and family.  Bear in mind your disclosures may create witnesses if settlement efforts break down.

 

Why Mediation Works

“Reactive devaluation”.  That is the take away term from a mediation training I attended in May of 2012.  The term describes a phenomenon I”ve identified as a mediator, divorce lawyer and one time Husband, but it took the training to give that phenomenon a name.

In the context of divorce mediation, parties generally harbor negative feelings about their spouse or former spouse.  Those negative feelings compromise the ability of one party to hear the other, no matter how valid or important the message.  Polarized parties react by devaluing the message because they don’t like the messenger.

For a while, I thought mediation worked because parties in mediation recognize they can control the outcome and avoid the uncertainty of discretion exercised by a judge.  I still think that’s true in part.  Good lawyers in mediation certainly understand controlling risk.

But, as I continue to mediate for parties in the context of divorce, it is increasingly clear to me that it is my ability to serve as a substitute messenger, and a filter, that brings people to agreement.  As a mediator, I find it rewarding to carry and deliver important messages that might otherwise be reactively devalued and not received.

There is a connection between this concept of “reactive devaluation” and Stephen Covey’s 6th habit of empathic listening, the habit of seeking first to understand before being understood.  Negative feelings and emotions can interfere with the implementation of that habit.

At the recent recommendation of a great judge, I’ve read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  This book was foundational for Covey, and it ties nicely into the concept of reactive devaluation.  Frankl (and Covey) emphasize that we have the freedom to choose, at all moments of life, how we will react, even in the worst of circumstances.

Mediation is a great tool when you are the messenger getting shot, the one doing the shooting, or both. You have the freedom to choose how you will react to the difficult circumstances of divorce.  We can help you hear important messages.  We can help you deliver them.