What’s the Difference Between Physical and Legal Custody in Minnesota?

custody2The phrase “custody” is used to describe the obligations, and rights, of parents regarding the care of their children.

Child custody issues come about when an unmarried couple has a child together, or when married parents get a divorce.

The two types of child custody in Minnesota are physical custody and legal custody.

Legal custody involves a parent being able to make decisions regarding the child’s upbringing and well-being (religion, education and healthcare).

Physical custody is the type of custody that a parent has when the children live primarily with them. It involves the day to day care of a child.

Parents can have joint legal custody, which means both parents have a say in the upbringing of the child. If there is a dispute, the court can intervene in order to settle the conflict.

With joint physical custody, children typically (but not always) split their time with both parents.

If a parent is awarded sole physical custody, the non-custodial parent will be granted visitation (now referred to as a more politically correct “parenting time” award). A schedule will be established. For instance, a child may live with dad, but visit mom on weekends.

In some cases, sole legal custody is granted, but those awards are rare (typically reserved for situations in which there is a history of domestic abuse among the litigants). When both parents are in the picture, the court prefers that they are equally involved in making important decisions for the child.

Parenting Plans: An Option for Minnesota Custody Disputes

Once a divorce or paternity action pphas been initiated, physical and legal custody issues may arise, along with a need to determine the appropriate parenting time schedule.

Rather than fighting over custody labels, Minnesota law allows the litigants to simply enter into an agreement called a “Parenting Plan.”

The details of a Parenting Plan are finalized by the parents themselves, and are not based on an Order of the Court; Judges have no authority to unilaterally order a Parenting Plan.

The Parenting Plan will be used in place of a specific child custody order.

The Plan, however, is a legally binding document. Both parents are required to adhere to its terms. Either party may be found in contempt for a failure to do so.

There are variations in Parenting Plans depending upon the needs of the child, as well as the needs of the parents. Some are a few pages long, and others are several dozen pages in length.

You can expect a Parenting Plan to include details about the primary residence of the child, and who is responsible for the child’s medical, educational and religious needs.

We also recommend that Parenting Plans address the circumstances of not only the child - but also the parents, including household routines, schedules and the geographic distance between households.

Finally, many Parenting Plans take into account a child’s relationship with extended family, including grandparents and other family members.

Wondering whether a Parenting Plan is the ideal way to address the child-related issues in your case? We’re here to help. Call (763) 323-6555 to speak with one of our attorneys free of charge.

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.

Minnesota’s Social Early Neutral Evaluation Model for Divorce and Paternity Cases

best iMore than 95% of the cases we handle settle short of trial. When custody issues are involved, many of our clients participate in a process known as social early neutral evaluation – an SENE.

In a social early neutral evaluation, the lawyers and clients will meet with a pair of evaluators. These individuals are usually social workers, custody evaluators, or experienced family law practitioners. The team will consist of one male and one female, to avoid the perception of gender bias.

Most social early neutral evaluation sessions are approximately three hours long.

During the first hour, the parties themselves do most of the talking. The evaluators want to hear from each side. Issues such as physical custody, legal custody and parenting time are discussed. The role of the lawyers during this part of the process is typically rather limited, as the evaluators want to absorb information directly from the litigants.

During the second hour, the evaluators do the hard work. Once the evaluators have heard from the parties, and asked all of the questions that need answering, they will break and discuss the matter privately. This part of the ENE typically takes about 30 minutes. During this time, the parties are usually separated.

Next the parties, the lawyers, and the evaluators come back together, and the opinions of the evaluators are expressed. The opinions of evaluators are nonbinding, but provide some insight into what two qualified individuals believe the likely outcome will be if the matter proceeds to trial. The opinions of the evaluators will not become known to the judge.

Once evaluators have provided their thoughts, the third hour of the session occurs. During this third hour, the parties separate, and negotiation begins. Some, or all, of the relevant issues may be discussed, such holiday schedules, routine access schedules, summer vacation time and non-school days.

About 75% of the time, a settlement will be reached. If the settlement is reached, the terms of the settlement are put into a memo, which is then forwarded to the judge. Assuming the court approves of the agreement, the agreement will be incorporated into the final divorce decree.

Because of the success of this type of forum, many counties have now adopted the social early neutral evaluation model. Some (like Anoka County) call it a custody parenting time early neutral evaluation, or CPENE, where Hennepin County uses the SENE label.

Our lawyers have participated in hundreds of early neutral evaluations. If you have questions about the process, we invite you to give us a call at (612) 767-4404.

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.

Podcast: Establishing Physical & Legal Custody Under Minnesota’s Best Interest Standard

In this edition of The Family Law Show, we offer an overview of the standards Minnesota judges use in determining the physical and legal custody of children.

Custody is an emotionally-charged issue, with a lot of uncertainty for parents and kids.

Topics in this podcast include the difference between physical custody and legal custody, joint custody as compared to sole custody, the “best interest of the child” factors and the key facts judges look toward in making custody decisions.

Run Time: 12:52

Click to Listen[hr]

The Benefits Of Working With A Parenting Time Expeditor

Under Minnesota law, the parties, or the court, can seek the appointment of a parenting time expeditor as part of a divorce or paternity proceeding. Parenting time expeditors can save the parties time and moneyby keeping parenting time disputes out of the court system entirely. No attorney to pay. No motion filing fee to pay. No two-month waiting period to speak with a judge.

A parenting time expeditor works to resolve parenting time disputes by interpreting and enforcing an existing court order. Some parties never use the expeditor, even if appointed, because no conflicts arise. Others use them once. Still others…quite regularly.

Expeditors are supposed to first mediate disputes between parents. If the parents are unable to come to an agreement on their own, the expeditor issues a written decision.

Once a dispute is brought to the attention of the expeditor, they expeditor will meet with the parties in a relatively short period of time – often the same day, by telephone.

If a decision is required of the expeditor, it must be consistent with the existing order. In other words, an expeditor does not have the authority to create new schedules or conditions of visitation.

The decision can include an award of compensatory parenting time, along with an award of attorney’s fees and costs. The opinion must be written and mailed to each party, and is subject to review by the district court if either party requests a hearing. Usually the expeditor’s decision is subject to “appeal” to the district court for a period of 14 days. Thereafter, the right to have the matter addressed by the court is extinguished.

Either party can move the court to remove the parenting time expeditor, but must show “good cause” for doing so. Such a feat can be rather difficult, but tempting to those who are not happy with the decisions of the expeditor.

Give Yourself The Advantage: Tips For Dealing With Custody Evaluators

Child custody can be a controversial issue; it is common for both parents to want physical custody – or for one parent to seek sole custody over a joint custody arrangement.

The disagreements can go on and on, and that means the court has to intervene with the custody evaluation process. A custody evaluator is appointed, or hired, to review the situation and create a report that the court uses to determine what is in the best interest of the minor child.

It is best to cooperate with the custody evaluator in every way possible. How you interact with the evaluator is going to carry a lot of weight in the evaluation – even though the relevant statute doesn’t reference your conduct during the process.

Here are some things you should keep in mind when working with a custody evaluator:

  • They will sometimes make you feel that they are on your side. This is so you will put your guard down. Never ever make the assumption that the evaluator is on your side.
  • Keep in mind that they are human, and will react adversely to certain personalities. If you’re honest and open, then that is going to work in your favor.
  • The custody evaluator doesn’t care about who the good guys and the bad guys are. It is what is best for the child that concerns them.
  • Do not argue with the custody evaluator. You need to make eye contact and listen to them. You need to establish rapport with them, so it may help that you nod your head in acknowledgment of what they are saying. If you disagree, disagree nicely. You need to get your own points across so that they are considered.
  • Provide the evaluator with all supporting documentation, and any other documents that may be requested. It is also important to provide these documents in a timely manner.
  • If there are any collateral contacts, provide the evaluator with their names. These are individuals that are aware of your competence as a parent, and can vouch for the weak points of the other party.

About 95% of the time, the judge will adopt the recommendations of the custody evaluator. We’ve successfully tried many cases, however, in which we were able to discredit the opinion of the evaluator and gain an award of custody in favor of our client. Still, the odds are against if the report comes back in favor of your spouse. For obvious reasons, it is critical to have the custody evaluator on your side.

What Do I Have To Prove In Order To Modify Custody?

Modification of the physical custody of a child is one of the more difficult things to do in family court. Although we’ve successfully moved for modification many times, careful consideration is given as to whether the request should be brought in the first place.

When the court deals with physical custody the first time around, the “best interest of the child” standard applies. The judge takes into account 13 factors, such as who has served as the primary caretaker for a child, the stability of the home environment of each parent, and the wishes of the children, if of suitable age and maturity.

But what if several years after the entry of the initial custody order a parent seeks to modify it? It’s a four-step analysis, in a two-part process. In other words, it’s more complicated. Here’s how it works:

In the absence of an agreement among the parties (or integration of the child into the non-custodial parent’s home with the consent of the custodial parent), the court must find:

  1. There has been a substantial change in circumstance since the issuance of the initial custody order;
  2. The modification would serve the best interest of the child;
  3. The present environment endangers the physical or emotional health, or natural development of, the child; and
  4. The benefits associated with the modification outweigh the potential harm to the child.

In practice, the primary focus involves the endangerment element.

Proving “endangerment” is not easy. In the eyes of the court, endangerment takes on the most traditional of definitions. Has the child been physically abused by the other parent? Exposed to drugs, pornography or provided alcohol by the other parent? Has the child’s health been neglected? Have the child’s nutritional needs been ignored? Has the child’s emotional health changed substantially for the worse? Is the child failing in school?

“Endangerment” does not include a child wanting to relocate with the non-custodial parent, exposing a child to a new significant other, a child’s dissatisfaction with the social structure of the custodial parent’s home, or ongoing arguments between a child and the custodial parent. Actual harm to the child must be proven – and that can be tough, especially if the situation does not involve physical abuse (in those cases, we usually seek the opinion of a counselor or psychologist).

Procedurally, the parent wishing to modify custody must schedule a hearing with the court and serve motion papers on the other parent. At that hearing, the court must accept as true the allegations raised by the non-custodial parent. The question for the judge: if accepted as true, do the allegations establish a primae facie (at first glance) case of endangerment?

If the answer is “yes,” the court will usually appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to investigate and set the matter for a follow-up evidentiary hearing (trial). If the answer is “no,” the matter is dismissed.

Candid Advice From A Guardian Ad Litem

The Minnesota Guardian Ad Litem Program provides advocates who represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in court. They play a pivotal investigative role in protective services cases, and other situations involving allegations of endangerment of a child.

The Minnesota courts web site provides a number of resources for litigants who may encounter a Guardian Ad Litem as part of their case:

Helpful post this week from Ben Stevens’ South Carolina Family Law Blog. A trusted colleague of Stevens, Joanne Hughes Burkett,  family court Guardian Ad Litem, authored a guest article for parents entitled “What This Guardian Ad Litem Wants Parents and Parties to Know.”

Here’s what Burkett says:

  • A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is not your child’s guardian. A guardian is a person who legally has the care and management of a child. Typically, this is a parent. The role of the Guardian ad Litem is to assist the Family Court Judge in ascertaining the best interests of your child.
  • The Guardian ad Litem will NOT make the final decision about custody and visitation. Only the Family Court Judge can make that decision. The Guardian ad Litem’s report is only one of the things the Judge will consider in deciding what is best for your child.
  • The Guardian ad Litem’s role as legal advocate for your child ends at the Final Hearing, unless that Order is appealed. We are not their GAL forever.
  • You control how expensive the case is, and, by and large, the Guardian ad Litem’s fee, which you will have to pay. Be careful not to run up the bill.
  • If you think there is something the Guardian ad Litem needs to know, tell your lawyer first. It could affect the strategy of your case. If the GAL needs to know, your lawyer can write, fax, call, or email the information.
  • What you tell me is NOT confidential. Because I am not your lawyer, I do not have a duty to keep in confidence anything you tell me.
  • I cannot give you legal advice, so if you have questions or concerns, talk to your attorney.
  • All Guardians ad Litem do their work differently. Ask your lawyer how to best work with the GAL in your case.
  • The less a child knows about the litigation, the more impressed I am with the parties.

Thanks to Ms. Burkett for her thoughts.