What are the Differences Between Judges, Family Law Referees and Child Support Magistrates?

gavjuIn Minnesota, family law matters are typically handled either by a family court judge, referee, or child support magistrate.  There are minor variations in the legal authority and responsibilities of each such official, and there is also some variation in the types of cases that they preside over. 

Most family court hearings in Minnesota are presided over by judges. A family court referee may get involved, but only in certain counties that allow referees to preside over proceedings – for instance Hennepin County or Ramsey County. Because of the volume of cases these counties experience, a family court referee may be hired at the discretion of the county itself. The referee is not appointed by the governor.

There is no major difference between a family court referee and a judge, and a family court referee has, more or less, the same kind of legal authority that a judge has.  Yet, when the family court referee signs an order, it must also be approved by a judge.  There is no need to appear at a separate hearing before the judge for approval of the referee’s order.

Child support magistrates, as the term suggests, are only involved in those cases where the issue revolves around child support and enforcement of child support payments. In the State of Minnesota, all counties have child support magistrates.

If you have a question about your rights in a divorce or family law case, call (763) 323-6555. Our attorneys will speak with you free of charge, and provide you with the best information possible.

Contempt in Minnesota: Consequences of Ignoring Court Orders

The court is responsible for controlling the conduct that occurs within its doors, but also has to deal with issues outside of the courtroom when it comes to family matters.

It is typical for a contempt motion to be made in a family law case when one party has violated an order of the court, such as an order to pay child support, spousal maintenance, or a parenting time arrangement.

The contempt rules are rather strict, in an effort to motivate individuals to comply with court orders. A particular action (or inaction) may constitute contempt if the following criteria are met:

  • The court must have jurisdiction over the case in order to file a motion; and
  • It must be properly alleged by the non-offending party that offending party has violated the directive of the judge.

When a contempt motion is filed against a litigant, that person must show up to a hearing and prove that they did comply with the court order, or have an adequate explanation as to why they violated it. An “Order to Show Cause” mandates such an appearance.

If the individual is found in contempt of court, a conditional penalty may be handed down by the judge. Sanctions can include fines, fees, transfer of property, jail time, or any penalty that the court deems appropriate.

Our Minneapolis divorce lawyers routinely represent clients in contempt cases – either pursuing contempt, or defending against a contempt claim. We invite you to contact us at (612) 767-4404 to discuss your situation free of charge.

The Parties, The Lawyers, The Judge And Uncle Sam: The Key Players In Most Divorces

Many divorces involve alimony, child support and the division of assets - all of which involve taxation issues. Litigants tend to overlook the impact that these provisions will have on their taxes. As lawyers, however, we consistently take the tax consequences into account in determining what is fair and equitable under the circumstances.

Alimony payments are considered income for the person to whom the payments are made, and are deductible to the person who’s making the payments. If the parties are in different tax brackets, the government may wind up subsidizing part of the alimony payment.

In contrast to alimony, child support payments are not considered as income to the person receiving the payments, nor are payments deductible to the person making the payment. As a result, child support payments do not have any tax consequences at all. Important, however, if alimony is also an issue, to run the child support numbers and compare available cash - as opposed to gross income – in determining need versus ability to pay.

The sale of the marital homestead does not typically involve a taxable event. Capital gains up to $500,000 from the sale of the homestead will be not subject to taxation, if you have lived there for two of the last five years.

If you choose to transfer title to the residence, allowing your spouse to retain the equity, no taxable event occurs. Many clients will opt to use the home equity as an offset against alimony payments, avoiding tax issues altogether.

However, if you want to adjust the property division in a way that allows both partners to retain equal equity in assets, there may be sizable tax consequence to consider. For example, if one spouse retains the marital homestead and offers the other a retirement account in exchange for his/her share of equity in the house, the resulting settlement may not be fair to the one who takes the retirement account. That’s because if this spouse wants to access his retirement account funds, they cannot do so without incurring a tax liability. As a result, when you factor in the tax liability, the person who received the retirement account could actually end up with a lower settlement.

Simply put, a dollar of equity in a home is worth a dollar on the street. A dollar in a 401(k) plan is worth, perhaps, 70 cents on the street. For that reason, we always consider the net value of a particular asset in creating an equal property settlement.

What Is An FENE…And Why Do They Work?

More and more Minnesota counties are providing divorce litigants with an opportunity to resolve their financial issues through a process known as “Financial Early Neutral Evaluation.” Settlement success rates in the FENE model are astonishing – as high as 75% in some jurisdictions.

An FENE involves a half-day session (or two, or three, or four) with a court-appointed neutral. This neutral typically is an experienced family law attorney, or a CPA familiar with the financial issues involved in a divorce. The parties, and their lawyers, sit down with the evaluator very early in the case – in an effort to catch people before they become too embroiled in conflict, or stuck in their position.

The process begins with the exchange of information, to ensure that there has been a full and fair disclosure of all income, assets and liabilities. A balance sheet is often created, which defines the universe of assets and debts, attributes value, provides a basis for the value, carves out any non-marital claims, and then allocates the relevant item to one of the parties. Once all allocated assets and debts are added up for each litigant, the cumulative value for each should be equal. This is typically the least controversial portion of the FENE, but can take some time.

The more controversial portion of the FENE involves the issue of spousal maintenance. With the assistance of the evaluator, the income and budgets of the parties will be scrutinized. A range of possible outcomes may be discussed, and recommendations may be made by the evaluator concerning the amount, and duration, of alimony in the event that the judge is left to decide the issue. Settlement discussions begin with that opinion as a backdrop.

Why does FENE work so often? A few points:

  • The parties have direct conversation with one another, and the evaluator, in a natural way. A far cry from the robotic “question and answer” method of introducing evidence during a trial.
  • The rules of evidence go out the window at an FENE. Any issue is up for discussion, empowering participants to voice their real-life concerns.
  • Emotions may be taken into account at an FENE. Issues concerning “fairness” and “hurt” may be addressed as part of the process. Frankly, the law of “no-fault divorce” precludes alot of this in the courtroom.
  • The process can be therapeutic. People feel like they can speak their mind, and they are listened to. Sometimes all a party needs is to be heard by someone.
  • Spouses have to look each in the eye as they discuss the issues. Very different from sitting 25 feet apart in the courtroom, facing front.
  • There is a real sense that the parties can “get it done” during the process. Litigants believe that closure has real value, and may be worth a compromise.
  • The process is a respectful one. Most evaluators know how to keep tempers from flaring.
  • The evaluators, not the lawyers, control the agenda. Both parties feel they are on a level playing field.
  • Opinions matter. Litigants afford substantial weight to the perspective of the evaluators. They know the evaluator has no stake in the outcome, and the experience to back up their opinions.
  • The neutrals are forced to “show their work.” What I mean is that the parties are literally walked through each of the elements of the case, together, and hear the same thing at the same time. They see how the opinions of the evaluator are created right before their eyes, giving them more credibility.
  • The surroundings are comfortable. There are no robes, no gavels, no court reporters, and no security. Just people sitting around a table, with their favorite beverage, talking.

As time goes on, we suspect the FENE process will gain statewide acceptance. Most of the counties in the Twin Cities metro area have adopted such a program. Why wouldn’t they? With a 3/4 reduction in divorce litigation, everybody wins….except those lawyers whose practice model is based on “dog fight” mentality. But, who’s feeling sorry for them anyway?

Harrison & Hannah: Two With An Interest In Taxation

Tax season is in full swing. Thanks to Jeanne Hannah, Michigan divorce lawyer, for her summary of the IRS tax resourcesthat may be of interest to current, and former, divorce litigants.

Hannah’s recent post provides links to the IRS forms and publications that address an individual’s filing status, exemptions, tax interceptions and claims for innocent spouse relief:

Of course, our favorite tax-related link – the Beatles “Taxman,” from their 1966 Revolver album. A breakthrough songwriting effort for George Harrison, with the guitar solo, ironically, played by Paul McCartney.

Podcast: Navigating Minnesota’s Child Support Maze

The Family Law Show is back with an easy-to-understand summary of Minnesota’s child support laws.

Of the issues involved in a divorce, child support is the most black and white. That is not to say, however, that there are no shades of gray.

Topics addressed in this podcast include basic child support, medical support and childcare support, the modification of child support, the relationship between parenting time and child support offsets, and how to calculate the appropriate level of income in child support situtations.

Run Time: 10:18

 

Minnesota Child Support In A Nutshell

In January of 2007 the Minnesota child support guidelines underwent significant changes. Prior to the enactment of the present legislation found in Minnesota Statutes Section 518A, child support was based soley on the income of the obligor (the paying parent). Today, child support is based upon the relative income of both the obligor and obligee (the receiving parent), taking into account the nature of the physical custody of the minor children of the parties. The intent of the legislature was to enact guidelines that strike a balance in the income of each parent, the time each parent spends with the children and expenses non-custodial parents incur during their parenting time.

Child support involves three types of financial contribution: (1) basic support; (2) medical expenses; and (3) child care costs. Basic support is a monthly cash payment made from one parent to another for the support of the children. Medical support involves the payment of insurance premiums and uninsured expenses. Child care costs involve all work or education-related child care expenses incurred by the parents of a child.

The PICS (percentage of income for child support) of each parent is critical to determining how much support will change hands. The guidelines call for the Court to combine the gross (pre-tax) income of each parent and assign a relative percentage of the combined income to each. Once determined, this percentage (or PICS) is multiplied against the total support figure listed in the guidelines to determine how much basic support must change hands. A non-custodial parent receives a credit against the amount of support to be paid based upon the amount of parenting time they exercise. That same PICS is applied to the actual cost of health premiums, uninsured expenses and daycare to appropriately allocate the obligations of each parent.

New Child Support Guidelines Still Not Satisfying Many

The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently published an article about the Minnesota child support guidelines that were amended as of January 1, 2007. Seems no one is happy with what was sold as a more equitable approach to calculating child support, despite the legislature’s goal of reducing acrimony among split parents.

Reporter Jean Hopfensperger provides examples of mothers who are upset about the reduction in support received and writes that that “Fathers’ rights groups say orders still are set too high and the formula is based on unrealistic child-rearing expenses.”

Unlike the old child support guidelines that looked only at the net income of the paying parent, the new guidelines examine the gross income of both parents and divides support based upon their relative incomes – like most other states. Hopfensperger says that with the sagging economy, more parents are seeking to re-open the issue and see if they can increase the amount received or decrease the amount paid. Many are shocked to learn that the opposite will result.

If you are interested, you can access the Minnesota Child Support Calculator found at the Minnesota Department of Human Services web site to determine updated support amounts in your situation. Keep in mind that a “substantial” change in circumstance must present itself – meaning that under the new guidelines the difference paid or received per month must be at least 20% of the prior obligation and total more than $75.00.

Can My Spouse And I Deviate From The Minnesota Child Support Guidelines By Agreement?

Many couples question whether they can deviate from the Minnesota child support guidelines by agreement. While the court ultimately has discretion to do so, it does not happen very often. In fact, we’ve had orders kicked back because our stipulated support calculation was off by as little as $5.00 per month. Courts consider child support the “child’s money,” and, as a result, rarely afford parents the ability to unilaterally negotiate a different figure.

At the same time, however, we have successfully persuaded the courts to deviate. In considering a deviation from the child support guidelines, the court will examine factors such as:

  • Earnings, income and resources of the parties;
  • Financial needs and resources of the child;
  • Physical and emotional needs of the child;
  • Educational needs of the child;
  • Standard of living the child would enjoy in the absence of divorce;
  • Tax implications associated with the child’s dependency exemption;
  • Debts of the parties; and
  • Receipt of public assistance.

If the court deems appropriate, it may order or permit a child support obligation greater than, or less than, the Minnesota child support support guidelines. Still, the odds are against.

“I’ll Quit My Job” Says My Spouse. Can They Get Out Of Paying Child Support Or Alimony To Me?

The court will “impute” income if your spouse is voluntarily underemployed. Rest assured, you have nothing to fear.

Let’s suppose your spouse is trained as a physician and decides, for the time being, to work as a waiter at a local restaurant. The court can take an individual’s education, work history, job opportunities in the local market and earnings associated with those jobs into account in calculating appropriate child or spousal support. Assuming your spouse is reasonably assured of obtaining a position as a doctor with a six-figure salary, a doctor’s salary will be attributed to them.

One of the more common discussions we have with new clients involves a spouse’s claim (with laughter) that they will quit their job and our client will receive nothing. “I’ll quit my job” they say. Wrong strategy. Your spouse is free to work in whatever capacity they wish. At the end of the day, however, the amount of support they pay is based on what they actually earn or have the potential to earn, whichever is greater.