Nancy S. Caplan, Esquire

Nancy S. Caplan, Esquire
Bend Don't Break- Mediate!

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Step-Parent Boundaries- One Size Does Not Fit All

The evil step-parent or your child's new best adult pal?  Which option would you choose for your child? Neither one may be desirable, however, I think most parents would choose the latter in favor of the evil thing.

Nevertheless, the over-stepping step-parent can become the proverbial stone in the shoe over time and cause great conflict on an ongoing and perpetual basis.

So what is "over-stepping?"  That answer is in the eyes of the beholding parent.  While there is no formula for evaluation of "over-stepping" I can offer a way to evaluate how to avoid conflict which negatively affects your child/children.  Consider this approach:

1. WHAT DOES YOUR CO-PARENT SAY IS BOTHERING HIM/HER ABOUT THE STEP PARENT?  If you don't have these specifics, its time for mediation or family counseling.  Allowing the cold war to fester is a recipe for conflict.

2.  MAKE A LIST OF THE STEP PARENT ISSUES.  For example, is it ok to:
Coach a step-child's game? Once?  Every Season?
Attend Parent-Teacher Conferences? What does the teacher say?
Have Unilateral discussions with other key Adults who are involved in the child's life?
Volunteer in the Step Child's Classroom?
Attend Field Trips?
Attend Back to School night?
Buy expensive gifts/clothes/gadgets for the step-child?  What about expensive activities like football games?
Telephone the step-child for conversational purposes on an ongoing basis?
Plan birthday parties?
Post Social Media about "our" child?
Orchestrate school projects?
Takethe Child for haircuts? Ear-piercing? Tatoos?

3.  DETERMINE WHICH PARENT WILL MEET THESE NEEDS IN THE FUTURE

Don't "course correct" in the middle of a championship (or non-championship) hockey season.

If you believe that your child is unharmed by the conflict and hostilty then by all means, do nothing (said the Mediator sarcastically.)  But, if you want to reduce conflict, doesn't Step 1 go a long way for putting YOU in control of reducing conflict?

In other words, if a parent feels the step-parent's role should not include step-parent's attendance on field trips, don't do it.  Find other ways to have step-parent/step-child bonding; like movie time and board games or family vacations.  I say "don't do it", NOT because it is wrong, or bad or negative.  I say "don't do it" because "other parent" is upset.   What is more important to the child?  Having step-parent at the pumpkin farm field trip or avoiding conflict between the child's parents?  Which would a child choose, NOT what would you choose is the real question.

That's why "fairness" or good intentions might not always matter.   That's why "right and wrong" are irrelevant.  That's why "best interest of the child" is the universal concept in family law matters. From a mediator's viewpoint, extra conflict for a child of divorce is always negative.

Of course all families are different and the circumstances in which the step-parent came to be the step-parent may be relevant.  Did Parent marry Step-Parent after an affair that contributed to the end the marriage?  Or is a Step-Parent bringing additional children into the family and merely attempting to create some sort of "equality" for the step-children?  For example, if new step-parent has seasons' tickets to the Ravens' games, would the parent want the step-parent to exclude his or her Child from that event because it aroused jealousy in the parent?  I didn't claim there was an easy answer, except that  the decision should be jointly made and sometimes explanations provided.  "So what should I do if I have an extra ticket and I'm taking my kids? Exclude your child and take one of my children's friends?"  Sometimes such a conversation might provide perspective for the  upset parent.

The answer is easy and hard. I think the answer is conflict avoidance and harmony among the adults who are the role models of the child.  Determine the child's bests interests, but if you do so, place appropriate weight on the weight of an ongoing parental conflict upon the the child.   To me that weight is very, very heavy.



Mediating Alimony in Divorce - Coming to an Agreement

To mediate an Alimony matter incident to a separation or divorce in Maryland, I take a multiple step approach.

Step 1- Have the parties come to their own agreements relating to Alimony?  Do their agreements address the monthly sum (usually yes) and the duration for the Alimony (usually not.)

If so, it is not the mediator's role to upset the parties' agreements.  That said, the mediator should explore the facts surrounding the parties' agreement for several reasons.  For instance, when was the agreement was made?  Did the parties have a full understanding of their own needs at the time of the discussion?  Was a parties' agreement made at a time when there was an imbalance of power?  If the parties have been living according to the Alimony agreement, has either party has incurred debt during that time frame? Have financial circumstances of the parties changed since they made their agreement?  Have the parties considered the tax implications of Alimony? In general, cash Alimony is deductible by the payor and included in the gross income of the payee for tax purposes.

Step 2-  Analyzing the need for Alimony by one party and the ability to pay Alimony by the other.

It is important to accurately quantify the amount of "need" of the proposed Alimony recipient.  Care must be taken to review past expenses to accurately tally all current needs.  If the residence costs are expected to change (or any other major expenses) then an educated assessment of the new residential costs is a must-do.  The same analysis must be done for the prospective payor of future Alimony.  Once the parties have quantified their respective "need" for Alimony and the "ability to pay" Alimony there should be a range in which to work the negotiations.

Step 3- Alimony- for how long?

There needs to be a practical discussion relating to how long the Alimony will be paid.  If the underlying purpose of Alimony has a "goal" the end-date is explored from this practical analysis.  Are you trying to keep a child in a particular school district until graduation? Or does the Alimony recipient need to educationally rehabilitate his or her skills, and if so, what is the timetable? Do we need to discuss the anticipated retirement date of the payor?  In the case of an anticipated retirement date, what will happen if the payor does not in fact retire?

Step 4- Determining the Circumstances that will Terminate Alimony.

Alimony always ends upon death of one of the parties, and almost always ends upon the recipient's remarriage.   Sometimes the parties make an agreement to terminate the Alimony if the recipient is cohabiting with a third party in a "marriage-like" relationship.

Step 5-  Obtaining Legal Advice on the issue of Alimony.

There are formulas, which are not the law  in the State of Maryland, but which may be helpful in narrowing the negotiations relating to Alimony.   Sometimes a mediator will utilize these formulas to see if the agreed-upon range of Alimony negotiated falls within the parameters being discussed.  However, the best way to understand how the judges in the county in which the case might be tried might rule.  The only way to get that answer is to speak to your consulting attorneys.   I often recommend that in between mediation negotiation sessions when Alimony is at issue.   Having those two opinions from two lawyers is another tool to help narrow the issue, used in mediation.  Consulting an attorney in between mediation session for such a critical issue makes good sense where there is an impasse.   In addition, consulting an attorney at this juncture helps the parties come to an agreement which will not derail the negotiations at the attorney review phase of the mediation agreement.