We didn’t agree on a lot of things when we were married. We had a lot of feelings clouding our judgement. There was a lot of stress distracting us from prioritizing. After our divorce was finalized and everything was written in ink and signed off on, it all got easier.
It wasn’t quite overnight, but over time we grew closer and more capable of healthy communication when it comes to our kids. We had been on the same page before we got married and now we are back on the same page. We just needed to get rid of some of the other aspects of our relationship to become the parents we were meant to be.
So while some minor details aren’t always agreed on, we seem to always find a good place to land when it comes to the big issues. Like our children’s wellbeing, mental health, and meeting their individual needs.
Our daughter comes with a whole host of needs. Not all of which made sense to us at first. And not all of which came with any sort of “how to” guide. Allowing our child to transition was the simplest and hardest thing to come to terms with. We both knew who she was and who she needed to be allowed to be. We both were terrified of messing this up. We consulted wit ha specialist. We met with other families, some in real life, some virtually. We took it slowly and followed her lead.
Most recently, we signed documents and mailed out a check. We finally gave our girl what she needed in order to be able to live her life. A child shouldn’t have to come with an explanation or a “heads up” before starting a new class. A child shouldn’t always have to enter a new arena by waiting on the outskirts while their parents explained to the adults in charge what to expect. And now, she won’t have to.
I showed up to the play date with one kid. My friend was shocked. Where was my other kid? I guess the concept of having a split day isn’t something people are too familiar with. Many parents take one kid out for a special activity. Many kids go out with their friends or family without necessarily taking their sibling along. But once you start breaking down their schedules into parenting time, people tend to be far more hungry for that time.
Early on in the divorce process I worried about losing time with my kids. I worried about missing out on huge memories and all of their little milestones. I worried about all of it. As the kids got older though, I noticed that there were a lot of things we were all missing out on. A little one on one time started to become something to look forward to.
Our kids are their own people. They have their own hobbies, interests, all of it. And they have an amazing ability to interrupt each other and a strong desire to steer conversations and play in their own direction. It became apparent that they needed one on one time.
The split day was born. It was such a raging success from the very first one that we knew we had to work this into our parenting schedule. It made it so much more clear too that this wasn’t about my days or about my exes days. All of this is about the kids days.
Birthday parties are much easier to navigate without an extra sibling. Bringing a 4 year old on a 4 hour hike is surprisingly doable when it’s one 4 year old instead of 2. A trip to the museum became a truly interactive learning event rather than a push-me pull-me down a spiral of exhaustion. The kids missed each other and were happy to be reunited at the end of the day. They were eager to share their experiences. They were thrilled to have had one of us to themselves. So yeah, split days are a thing. And we like them.
On October 3, 2018, the New Jersey Appellate Courts rendered an unreported decision on a case about emancipating a child with disabilities. (S.E. v. B.S.B. (A-0485-17T2))
According to New Jersey statutory law, a parent’s continuing obligation to provide child support presumptively ends when the child turns 19 years old, unless a different date is ordered by the Court. However, even if a different date is ordered, the support cannot continue beyond the child’s 23rd birthday (except under exceptional circumstances).
In S.E. v. B.S.B., the child receiving support was 23 years old, born with cerebral palsy, and diagnosed Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The child’s mother filed a motion with the trial court for an order compelling the child’s father to continue providing support even though the child had reached the statutory maximum age. The child had graduated high school, was working towards earning an Associate’s Degree, and had applied to numerous jobs (without success). The child’s mother advised the Court that she had obtained social security disability benefits for the child and that he was also utilizing services available through social service agencies. The Court noted that the child’s father’s testimony was limited, because he basically never had any meaningful contact with his child.
The trial Court terminated the father’s child support obligation. The trial court opined that the mother did not provide any current medical evidence that indicated that the child’s cerebral palsy was so severe that the child required a parent to provide financial support beyond the age of 23. The trial court also remarked that the child was able to attend physical therapy on his own, was able to work, and could be self-sufficient.
The child’s mother appealed. The Appellate Court agreed with the Trial Court’s findings, summarizing their thoughts by citing 2 governing statutes (N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67(e), and N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a)). The Appellate Court stated that when the 2 statutes are read together, they mean that “if an adult child suffers from a disability but is self-sufficient, he is generally considered emancipated beyond the sphere of a parent’s legal, if not moral, obligation.” (citing Kruvant v. Kruvant, 100 N.J. SUPER. 107, 119 (App. Div. 1968). The Appellate Court commented that the record showed that the child was independent in most of his daily living activities. The Appellate Court summed up its decision by stating that the mother in this case bore the burden of rebutting the presumption of her child’s emancipation as a matter of law, and that even though her concerns for her child’s future well-being and financial security were genuine, she had not overcome the presumptive emancipation in accordance with the 2 governing statutes.
On October 5, 2018, the Appellate Division handed down an
unpublished decision in M.B. v. D.B., a case that was appealed from Mercer
County Superior Court, Family Division.
The parties signed a settlement agreement at the time of
their divorce in October 2010. The
parties agreed to share joint legal custody of their 11 year old and 13 year
old children, and that M.B. would be the parent of primary residence
(PPR). The parties also agreed that D.B.
would pay child support to M.B.
In July 2011, M.B. was checked into an alcohol and drug
abuse treatment center, and relinquished custody of the children to D.B. The Court terminated D.B.’s child support
obligation in September 2011. In
December 2011, the Court ordered M.B. to pay child support to D.B. (which she
did not start paying until June 2012).
In 2011, M.B. began receiving Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits
for herself and the children. M.B. also
received a lump sum payment for a period prior to the parties’ divorce. M.B. kept the SSD benefits paid to her for
the children’s benefit because she felt that “she was the one disabled and she
was paying child support.” M.B. also
testified that she had “absolutely no idea what [she] did with any money . . .
The SSD benefits that M.B. received were greater than the
amount of child support she was paying to D.B.
Basically, M.B. was making a net profit from the SSD payments that were
supposed to be for her children’s benefit.
After a 3 day trial in May 2016, the Court issue an Order
for M.B. to pay D.B. $74,584 for the SSD benefits she received for the children
but kept for herself . The Order also
allowed D.B. to deduct the money from his payments to M.B. for alimony due to
her over the subsequent 9 years.
M.B. appealed. The
Appellate Division noted that the trial court had carefully calculated the SSD
payments M.B. received during
1) The period prior to the parties’
divorce (D.B. was awarded all funds);
2) The period when M.B. still had
custody of the children (D.B. was awarded no funds);
3) The period when D.B. had custody
and M.B. paid no support (D.B. was awarded all funds); and
4) The period when D.B. had custody
and M.B paid support (D.B. was awarded the difference between what she paid and
the SSD benefits she kept).
The Appellate Court affirmed the
Trial Court’s decision, opining that that SSD benefits paid on behalf of
children belong to the children, and should be paid to the custodial parent,
and if a non-custodial parent’s child support obligation is greater than the
benefit paid, they need to make up the difference.
On October 5, 2018, the Appellate Division handed down a decision in W.A.D. v. R.M.C., a case that was appealed from Essex County Superior Court, Family Division.
Plaintiff and Defendant met in 2009 and shortly thereafter began an intimate relationship. By autumn of 2009, Defendant moved into Plaintiff’s single-family home in West Orange. In 2011, the parties’ relationship deteriorated because Defendant wanted to have children, but Plaintiff did not. Defendant moved out of Plaintiff’s home, but the parties remained in contact. Defendant became a licensed foster parent during that time.
On December 3, 2011, a child (G.M.) was born, and the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) contacted Defendant and advised her that the child could be placed with her immediately. That month, Plaintiff and Defendant picked up G.M. from the hospital together, and all three began living in Plaintiff’s home in West Orange. The parties agreed that the child would call Plaintiff “Mamma” and Defendant “Mommy.” Two years later, in 2013, the parties found out that G.M. had a brother who was also available for adoption. Defendant wanted to adopt G.M.’s brother; Plaintiff did not. The parties’ relationship once again deteriorated. Notwithstanding the parties’ failing relationship, they both agreed that they wanted to adopt G.M. However, given the fact they were a same-sex couple, they believed that the process would be delayed, and as such, they agreed that G.M.’s adoption would be in Defendant’s name ONLY, and that Plaintiff’s would go through the process at a later date. Defendant formally adopted G.M. on November 11, 2013 (while still residing in Plaintiff’s home).
In 2014, the parties ended their relationship. In June of 2014, Defendant began dating another individual (referred to by the initials C.M.C. in court documents), then moved out of Plaintiff’s residence and moved to Union County, into the C.M.C.’s residence. At that time, G.M. was a few months shy of his 3rd birthday.
In June 2015, Plaintiff filed an application in Essex County Superior Court seeking joint legal and physical custody of G.M., as well as seeking to have her name placed on G.M.’s birth certificate and to have G.M.’s last name hyphenated to reflect both parents’ surnames. The Court entered an Order scheduling a trial, temporarily granting Defendant sole legal and residential custody, appointing a Guardian ad Litem for G.M., and appointing an expert to determining whether there was a psychological bond between Plaintiff and G.M. Plaintiff soon thereafter amended her pleadings to seek an order designating her as G.M.’s parent of primary residence (PPR).
In July 2015 Defendant married C.M.C. In November 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint for adoption of G.M. in Essex County. Coincidentally (or not) that same month, C.M.C. filed a complaint for adoption of G.M. in Union County. C.M.C.’s complaint for adoption was ultimately dismissed and she was ordered to pay Plaintiff $26,000 in counsel fees. The Court awarded the fees because (among other things) C.M.C. failed to advise Union County Court that the child she sought to adopt was the subject of custody litigation that had been pending in Essex County for several months.
The parties’ trial in Essex County commenced on May 10, 2016 and concluded on September 23, 2018. Judge Craig Harris presided over the trial and rendered an opinion on November 18, 2016. Judge Harris’ Order set forth that Plaintiff had met the criteria in V.C. v. M.J.B. to be deemed a psychological parent to G.M. (163 N.J. 223 (2000)). He also found that it was in G.M.’s best interests for Plaintiff to be designated as PPR. Plaintiff’s request to be placed on G.M.’s birth certificate, as well as her request to hyphenate G.M.’s last name to reflect both parties’ surnames were also granted.
Defendant filed a motion for reconsideration of the court’s November 18, 2016 Order. Her motion was denied. Thereafter, Defendant appealed the orders on several grounds, the most important of which were the contention that the court erred in finding that Plaintiff was a psychological parent to G.M., and that the Court erred in ordering joint legal custody with Plaintiff as the PPR.
The Appellate Court affirmed the trial judge’s findings and rulings. The Appellate Court echoed reiterated one of the tenets from V.C., which states that “the psychological parenting doctrine is based on the ‘recognition that children have a strong interest in maintaining the ties that connect them to adults who love and provide for them.’” The Court outright rejected Defendant’s arguments that proper weight was not afforded to her status as an adoptive parent. The Court stated that once an individual is deemed to be a psychological parent to a child, they stand “in parity with the legal parent” and that the standard deciding custody and visitation issues in that regard is “best interests of the child” in accordance with N.J.S.A. 9:2-4.
The Appellate Division also rejected the following several arguments Defendant made, which were nothing more than attacks on Plaintiff’s style of parenting (such as referring to Plaintiff as a babysitter, and a playful caretaker). The Appellate Division instead focused on the abundance of proof in the record that Defendant was a deeply uncooperative co-parent and did things such as:
Failing to provide Plaintiff with information regarding G.M.’s medical providers (on several occasions)
Unilaterally removing the child from his school district
Registering the child in a new school
Denying Plaintiff parenting time during the holiday
Refusing to allow the child to participate in activities with Plaintiff’s family
Disparaging Plaintiff on social media
Moving several times in a short time span (contrasted with Plaintiff remaining at the same residence for 15 years)
The Appellate Division recounted expert witness testimony that stated that the degree of vitriol coming from Defendant was affecting G.M. and” had the potential to cause him to sustain significant and lasting harm.”
The trial court’s admonishment of Defendant’s refusal to co-parent, as well as the Appellate Division’s affirmation of the trial court’s decision should serve as a warning to parents in ugly custody battles; acting as a child’s only parent, and making unilateral decisions with respect to the health, education and general welfare of the child, can and will (and should!) backfire in a custody trial.