Sink or Swim? Childcare Costs Rising

December 10th, 2019

Having a child brings about major financial stress: The cost of raising a child in 2018 was $233,610 – (excluding the cost of college)– for a mid-income family, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  This figure only considers costs prior to your child turning 18…not 21.  (Mississippi recognizes 21 as the age of automatic emancipation unless a minor is married or joins the military full-time).  Expect that figure to rise by a few thousand bucks each year. 

The financial stakes are sufficiently higher for new parents than in previous generations.  This trend is primarily due to a combination of both changing demographics and economic pressures faced by those having children in the modern world.  The new reality is that the vast majority of our population cannot afford to have children at all, as harsh as it may seem.   

In the context of practicing domestic law, my peers and I receive a large number of calls regarding child support obligations.  Often, they consist of a dad calling in an attempt to avoid paying support.  I would like to give a rough sketch of the math behind my opinion that these calls are not only irritating, but nonsensical…at best. 

Average per capita income in the state of Mississippi is around 32k (thousand).  After taxes, average take-home pay is roughly 2k per month.  When our state’s child support laws come down to calculating support, 14% of the take home (plus or minus, depending on a few other factors, but this number is a solid baseline) will be paid to the child’s custodian.  So, in our example, average income dad will owe about $280 per month, or $3,360 per year.  Until the age of 18, he will owe $60,480.  Sounds like a big burden, right?  Not so fast.

Consider this; given that the average cost of raising a child is about FOUR TIMES that amount until age 18, it seems pretty clear that dad is shouldering only a quarter of the burden (and yes, single dads do exist…I happen to be one so if you are also take no offence in my example).  Is state law failing to keep up with the exponentially rising costs of child rearing?  From my perspective, the answer is more than clear.

There are never simple solutions to complex problems, and never will be.  As frustrating as it is, the only cure to the financial struggles faced by single parents starts with making sound choices about whether kids are affordable for them in the first place.  Based on current law, dad gets off pretty easy.  Based upon common sense, 14% of income as child support is terrible public policy.  Even if the baseline support guidelines were raised to 20%, mom would still have close to two-thirds of the burden.  Take a moment to digest how archaic our support laws really are.

So, now we need to look at all of this in the context of custody factors (Albright factors…who gets the child and an award of support).  The third factor in Albright is “The parenting skills and willingness and capacity to provide primary care for the child”.  So to all of you dads out there, be forewarned:  working those long hours will work to your disadvantage if you are seeking custody.  Get ready to pay child support absent extraordinary circumstances.

In sum, my observations are fairly basic in the scheme of things.  As I have stated, non-custodial parents, as much as they may feel cheated, get off easy financially.  Shouldering on average a quarter of the costs of child-rearing should be a relief, so non-custodial parents are lucky in that regard.  Our legislature needs to pass an increase in child support reflective of the actual costs today…not based on decades old data. 

I recommend that anyone reading this write your local representative and voice this concern.  Regardless of the sacrifices we must make, our children should never go without.

Screen Time: What’s Best For Our Kids

December 6th, 2019

My son, fortunately, attends a top-tier academy with strict academic requirements.  My family and I would settle for nothing less.  When I finish work in the afternoon, my mom (who is a lifesaver) and I look over homework, make revisions, and help when needed.  This process often takes around 2 hours…a day.  The principle of his school is adamant that children should only be allowed to use screen devices (tablets, smart phones, etc.) on weekends.  Seems a bit harsh, right?  Well, I am not quite as rigid, but it seems that some degree of limitation is necessary.

Screen time has been blamed for everything from mental health issues, social instability, and even some degree of developmental problems in both children and teens.  The issue has become so prevalent that the Journal of the American Association devoted significant resources in exploring the issue.  Is there an adverse effect on kids who are in front of a tablet, video game, or t.v.?  Does the age of the child play a role in determining what is appropriate? It seems that the results are actually a mixed bag and depend largely on age. 

A recently published JAMA Pediatrics analysis of dozens of past studies on screen time and academic performance suggests that pondering “how much” may be the wrong question, even when nearly half of all say they’re online about constantly.  Welcome to the digital age.  For us middle-aged folks, it seems like the entire modern world is often unrecognizable. This study found that the types of screens children are using and their age—rather than the total amount of time, has the most significant impact on learning, behavior, and overall academic performance.

There is actually, according to this analysis, some advantage of watching television and playing video games for young children because they tend to learn by repetition and observation, and teens generally do not reap the same result.  Linguistic ability appears to be aided in young children by listening and watching.  In fact, it also appears that teens suffer adverse academic consequences when allotted more than a small amount of any screen time.  The researchers drew this conclusion on a randomized basis, and the science appears accurate in my estimation. 

I am a child custody attorney, not a child psychologist.  However, having dealt with hundreds of parents and children in tough legal battles, there are some observations that seem to be beyond dispute.  So, here is my short list of what I can say with certainty.

1. Children who are given unfettered access to screen-based devices suffer not only academically, but behaviorally. Unlimited access is never a good thing.

2. Parents can use the reward of screen time to increase their childrens’ drive to do homework, and do it well.  It is simple Pavlovian psychology.  For example, “Sure you can use the IPad for 90 minutes if you do all of your assignment correctly”. This method has worked quite well with my 10 year old son.

3. Some degree of time with the tablet/phone is not detrimental, so long as it is content appropriate.

I would advise any person seeking custody or increased visitation to be prepared to answer simple questions about their plan to help their child succeed in the real world–and the landscape of modern electronics.  If any good lawyer starts to grill you about your plan and your answer is “I really haven’t thought much about it”, you just got dinged a way you won’t see until the court rules.  As is often said, a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.

Always be prepared.  Raising children and implementing simple rules, with balance, demonstrates to the court that you are fully vested in your child, that you are dedicated to their well-being.  After all, that is what you are fighting for and, if prepared, will more likely win control of their upbringing.  When the dust settles, you will realize that you are in control of every aspect of their livelihood.

Matthew Poole is a single father and child custody attorney located in Northeast Jackson, Mississippi.  He has managed over 1,300 domestic cases since 2004.

ALIMONY IN MISSISSIPPI – AN OVERVIEW

November 18th, 2019

By Michael Louvier

The subject of Alimony has been often discussed on this site; however, it is always appropriate to review such an important topic.  With that in mind, please allow a few paragraphs to set forth the general guidelines of Alimony.

                The Mississippi Supreme Court set forth the guidelines for an award of alimony in Mississippi divorce cases in the case of Armstrong v. Armstrong, 618 So.2d 1278 (1993).  They are:

  1. The income and expenses of the parties;
  2. The health and earning capacities of the parties;
  3. The financial needs of each party;
  4. The obligations and income of each party;
  5. The length of the marriage;
  6. The presence (or absence) of minor children in the home, which may require that one or both of the parties either pay or personally provide child care;
  7. The age of the parties;
  8. The standard of living of the parties, both during the marriage and at the time of the support determination;
  9. The tax consequences of the spousal support order;
  10. Fault or misconduct of either party;
  11. Any wasteful dissipation of assets by either party, or;
  12. Any other factor deemed by the Court to be “just and equitable” in connection with the setting of spousal support.

This list of criteria, of course, can be found on a myriad of web sites and searches.  That said, I believe it is still useful to spell them out – to have them in plain writing before going forward with any analysis of the “Armstrong factors”.  As always, this medium does not lend itself to an “end all – be all” examination of this or any subject.  Rather, this is meant for you, the reader, to become a bit more educated on the subject matter while allowing me, the writer, to delve topic by topic into some of the real nuts and bolts of domestic relations practice.

I am personally very intrigued by a specific few of the above listed items, more so than the others and they are:  numbers 8, 10 and (almost “of course”) 12.  The use of the word “OR” between 11 and 12 instead of the word “AND” is also very interesting to me.  Let us explore.

I’ll start with number 12.  This provision is commonly referred to as a “catch all” by attorneys.  Whenever the Court uses the phrase “any other factors…”, this is an open invitation for the Chancellor to interpose his or her own beliefs about the case into the decision.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as there may be something that is revealed in the case that screams for the award of, or the denial of alimony that does not quite fit into the other 11 specific factors.  And the Chancellor’s discretion should always be allowed, to some extent.  After all, the Chancellor is the finder of fact in the case – the Judge and the jury.  Some would argue; however, that this unilateral type of discretion inherently lends itself to grounds for appeal – whichever way the Chancellor decides.  As Voltaire so eloquently said:  “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. 

A Chancellor should never use this last provision as the deciding factor, lest we believe that the possibility of corruption in this important decision be present, or even possible.  Far be it from me to suggest that a Chancellor would favor one side over the other for 11 factors and then choose to employ the catch-all to rule against that party…in fact my cursory research tells me that such a situation has not been reported in Mississippi Courts.  Good.  As it should be. 

Factor number 10 is interesting to me for the simple fact that marital misconduct can give rise to grounds for the divorce itself, without which there can be no claim for alimony in any form.  Therefore, a party found to be responsible for marital misconduct (drug abuse, an adulterous affair, habitual cruel treatment toward the spouse, etc) can be penalized twice: once in the granting of the divorce and again in the award for alimony.   

Factor number 8 is intriguing because we are all aware that financial difficulties leads to many, if not most divorces.  Therefore, if the standard of living that a spouse has become used to during the marriage is the main reason for the breakdown of the marriage; that is, a couple is living well beyond the means of the main bread winner and that causes or contributes to the demise of the marriage, should the bread winner be Ordered to continue to provide that lifestyle for the ex?           

                Finally, the use of the word or at the completion of the list of factors indicates that the Court can Order alimony based on only a few, or perhaps even only one, factor being present.  This is unlike a case where child custody is the issue and the Albright factors are used as a kind of “score card” for the Chancellor to make a decision.  As discussed above, the Chancellor can employ only one factor or maybe a few, to determine whether or not a divorce should be granted and whether or not an award for alimony is appropriate. 

Michael Louvier received a Bachelor of Arts (Political Science) from the University of New Orleans, 1988 and a Juris Doctorate from Mississippi College School of Law, 1994.  He has been married to Tammy Luquette Louvier for 29 years and they have 2 children:  Amy, 25 and Nicholas, 21.

Married and Mourning? Consider This First

November 11th, 2019

Sociologist Linda J. Waite and several contributing authors wrote a peer-reviewed study looking at several assumptions about happiness before and after dissolution of marriages that were deemed to be unhappy by the study participants…both women and men. It is 44 pages long and exhaustively looks at a variety of issues anyone contemplating divorce should consider. It is published by the American Institute of Family Values and can be downloaded from their site as a pdf. file. The article title is “Does Divorce Make People Happy?”. Googling the title and author will be worth your time if you are considering a divorce. It is the best in terms of both randomization and completion that I have seen to date for a variety of reasons.

One narrative that has been often floated in modern society and media is that women tend to be happier than men after divorce and tend to be more likely to remarry. There is some related information published by authors of smaller case studies than the Linda Waite study I reviewed over the weekend. The case in point looks at over 10,000 divorces…by far the most I have seen examined and followed up upon yet. Many of the other surveys utilized much smaller statistical samples, some even less than 800 couples.

I am no statistical genius, but I do know that larger randomized samples are more reliable. Of course, the manner in which the questions are asked also creates some interesting disparity and issues regarding the quality of random samples. For instance, if we pulled a sample from only New York City, the study is flawed and so are the conclusions. That is not a representation of all marriage…the geography imparts social values that are unique by law and culture. Statisticians consider this need for actual randomization crucial to the Z Factor and other measures of the strength of a correlation.

I suppose many would argue that imparting a person’s gender into this conversation is irrelevant, but I disagree. I firmly believe that men and women most often bring very different mindsets into the divorce process. Their results often vary based upon child-rearing and income as well. Although no two cases are exactly alike, the theory that women are happier and that their ex-husbands are more likely to be miserable seems a bit suspect. Both tend to suffer at a nearly equal rate after divorce in my experience.

After looking at Ms. Waite’s extensive work in detail, it is more clear to me that two conclusions can be drawn.

Conclusion 1

Very few people of either sex are extremely happy with their decision to divorce. Most often there is some degree of second-guessing that occurs and the level of doubt truly runs the gamut. Happiness is not easily attained by divorce alone. Constrained finances, increase in cost of living, and, as a truism, two really can live cheaper than one are in play. Also, sharing the kids and the associated expense is not exactly an easy task.

Conclusion 2

There is little difference, if any, related to gender. In other words, the narrative that women move on more easily is not well-substantiated by this enormous study.

I wish I had a clear answer as to why the differences in the data are often so glaring. It seems to me that some of the studies which are not reviewed by peers are questionable. Some even seem to encourage divorce for women. I have yet to find any similar studies finding that men move on more easily. It is truly puzzling. Although I am not sure that the studies indicating women happiness after marriage are what Trump would call “fake news”, there are certainly some yellow (maybe even red) flags to recognize.

In the end, it seems to me that divorce is far too personal and complex to allow people who do not know you intimately give their opinions without scrutiny. If an article/study seems to have an agenda, be cautious. If an attorney appears willing to push you in the direction of divorce, trust your instincts first. It is always easy to seek support and comfort in this difficult time, but do not forget that you are still most likely vulnerable and open to suggestion more than you are in a calm state of mind.

Encouraging or glorifying divorce is almost never the right way forward. Sometimes it is simply a last resort to protect the happiness of both you and your children. The best, most reliable social science has only one agenda…not having an agenda at all.

How Chancery Judges Decide Your Fate

November 8th, 2019

Reflecting on 16 years of practice in Mississippi Chancery Courts has led me to an understanding of what it takes to win a close case.  Chancery judges are not always an easy read, but there are certainly some common themes that play out when seeking a positive result.  Child custody and divorce are not simple matters and require a great deal of preparation in order to walk out of the courthouse with a victory.  It always amazes me that some believe there is a simple solution to a very complex problem.  Simply put, there are a lot of moving parts and angles to approach.  So, what are the common denominators?  Some may not be exactly what you would expect.

Years ago, I had a particular judge in the northern part of our state that I could not seem to get to see my point of view…ever.  It was a frustrating experience.  Although most litigation is on a razor’s edge (a close call, or it would have been settled), even the calls that seemed to be clear I would get the shorter end of the stick. 

Toward the latter point in litigating a custody fight in front of this frustrating judge, a good friend gave me some advice that I will not ever forget.  Essentially, he said, “Matt, next time you go in front of this judge, act as if you think they are the best judge on the planet…that you have incredible respect for them and their decision-making ability.  It sounds silly, but it works”.  And it did work.  Suddenly I was winning the close calls.  My frustration was working against me the whole time, unbeknownst to me.  Law is more art than science.

It is so true that in many ways litigation is a replication of general, simple life principles.  Chancery judges are very quick to spot dishonesty and a vindictive persona.  It is important to remember that having a client that is hell-bent on destroying their spouse/ex is not an easy endeavor.  I cannot stress enough the importance of attitude.  If your client is calm, collected, even sad, those things resonate with the court.  When they walk in pounding on the table and angry, the lawyer had a much more challenging task.  People often forget that the judge has heard more fussing in a month than they have in their entire life.  Make them want to listen to you by being the cooler head in the room…it works.

As a final thought, it is absolutely imperative to ensure that you bring credible witnesses with you.  I cannot count the times that an opponent brought a convicted felon to testify for them, or even someone with several misdemeanors.  People who have lost custody of their kids do not exactly make great witnesses either.  It is amazing that some attorneys do not properly vet the witnesses they call to the stand.  I would even argue that bringing the wrong person to testify has not a neutral but a negative effect because it reflects poor judgment on the client…and the attorney who called the less than magnetic witness. 

There is an old saying…”Those who can see have the world in common”.  When you get to court, never forget that the judge is more reliant on common sense and intuition than law.  Although to some it may seem unfair, they are going to find a law to justify their decision, one way or another.  Don’t be a victim of your own emotion and you will come out with a fair result every time.  After all, law is more art than science.

Matthew Poole is a Jackson, Mississippi Domestic Attorney and single father.  He has managed over 1,300 family law matters since 2004.

Battered Woman Syndrome…All Too Common

October 31st, 2019

Battered woman syndrome (BWS) is a psychological condition and describes a pattern of dysfunctional behavior that develops in victims of domestic violence as a result of serious, extended abuse. BWS is dangerous in part because it can lead to what some psychologists often state is a “learned helplessness” — or psychological paralysis — wherein the victim becomes so very depressed, defeated, and also so passive that she believes that she is not capable of leaving the relationship without her own destruction.  While there is no question that claims of abuse are often manufactured, many women are legitimately abused at the hands of a bigger and stronger male companion, husband or otherwise.  What a shame.  As Voltaire once said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

What is a “syndrome”?  Is the term often used incorrectly?  How does it apply to an abused wife?  Let’s take a look at Merriam Webster’s definition and try to shed some light. 

Definition of syndrome

1: a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality or condition

2: a set of concurrent things (such as emotions or actions) that usually form an identifiable pattern

The more I have dealt with abused women, it reminds me of the similarities between BWS and Stockholm Syndrome.  The human psyche is immersing and deep.  If you have ever read about people who are kidnapped, held against their will, you may be familiar with Stockholm Syndrome.  It is essentially a psychological defense mechanism that allows an abused, subjected person to cope with their present challenge.  Although it does appear sickening to an outsider, this defense mechanism is often the best route for the subjected, unfortunately. 

Stockholm syndrome is a condition which causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors during captivity.  These alliances result from a bond formed between captor and captives during intimate time together, but they are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims. The FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database System and Law Enforcement Bulletin indicate that approximately 8% of kidnapped victims show evidence of Stockholm syndrome.  It is not much different from the signs shown by a battered wife.

This term was first used in the media in 1973 when four hostages were taken during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. These hostages defended their captors after being released and would not agree to testify in court against the suspects. Stockholm syndrome is quite paradoxical because the sympathetic feelings that captives feel towards their captors are the opposite of the disdain which an onlooker will feel towards the captors.  Again, the similarities with BWS are extraordinary.

One key point that always stands out to me about the psychological makeup of battered women is that the men they are with are always lacking core confidence.  Instead of loving and caring about their wives, they have no other medium than abuse, control, and bringing down the one they married or have an intimate relationship with.  There is simply no workable path in marriage that allows for abuse and control.  Confident men are a breed apart.  They will not resort to anything that harms the one that they married.

My advice to a battered woman is simple.  If in fact you are being abused, remember that victims act like they are abused.  Multiple occurrences of abuse that are swept under the proverbial rug are going to appear less than credible.  Even though the mindset of a true victim is difficult to fully comprehend to an onlooker, you must be aware that perception from the outside is very powerful.  The perception a chancery judge has regarding your credibility is even more so.  If you are being abused, find the strength to confide in those who care about you.  Find the will to get away, because there are always people who care…if you have the desire to look around you.

Battery of women is commonplace.  When you find the will to get far away from an abuser, know that you are better off without them, even if you stay single for the rest of your life.  Understand that a chancery judge will question the merits of your claims, and with some degree of skepticism.  For those who have never been true victims, it is difficult to understand why you stayed.

Divorce Dilemma: Stay or Leave

October 25th, 2019

There is little question that many divorcing couples are faced with a tough choice…whether to leave the marital home.  Oftentimes in domestic violence scenarios, one has little choice.  What impact does this have on the outcome in a divorce?  Does the spouse who leaves forfeit marital equity as a matter of fact?  We will also consider not only domestic violence, but other related issues that commonly prompt one spouse to head for the door…adultery. 

One very common mistake we see is a spouse who alleges physical abuse but stays in the home anyway.  Usually this scenario occurs when someone has a small child and no real options on the table other than maintaining the status quo.  Verbal abuse and emotional damage that ensues are also commonly alleged.  They must be extreme and continuing or they are not legally actionable.  So, let’s take a look at two hypothetical scenarios regarding 1. Physical abuse, and 2. Verbal abuse.

Physical Abuse

Although men can certainly be victims of physical abuse, I am going to present the more common scenario in this hypothetical wherein a woman is the victim.  Too often, women are harmed by their spouse in moments of anger.  Although the #metoo movement certainly has some valid detractors, it also demonstrates that abuse, be it sexual or violent, is far too common.  There is also no question that some women will cry wolf in order to leave their husband for other reasons (found another lover for instance). 

As a society, the popularization of abuse claims is both a blessing and a curse.  As has been said, if it’s not paradoxical, it isn’t true.  Any woman who is being abused needs to have documented every instance, and that usually means doing the simple things first…calling the police.  When she fails to do so and then walks into chancery court and claims she was abused but stayed anyway, she has a tough hill to climb.  Photographic evidence is always helpful, but in the cases where she has close friends nearby, family who live close, the likelihood of her being impeached and found not credible increase significantly.  If she had no option but taking the young ones to the nearest Motel 6, she is on much stronger ground.  

In short, wives must always consider the totality of circumstances when alleging habitual cruelty when they remain silent.  If she was physically harmed multiple times in the marriage and failed to contact the police, she can often deflect any attempt to impeach by arguing that she suffers from Battered Wife Syndrome.  It is the only method that will have an effect on the court for the women that remained silent for too long and failed to leave their abusive spouse. 

Verbal Abuse

Accusations of verbal abuse occur in almost every divorce we have ever handled.  While yelling, screaming, and cursing can be a ground for divorce for habitual cruel and inhuman treatment (not inhumane, which is a slightly different term in the context).  Let’s look briefly at what would and would not constitute cruel and inhuman treatment.  It must also be noted that the word habitual is particularly important in divorce claims that allege solely verbal assaults. 

First, make no mistake that the verbal abuse must be extreme.  Getting into a couple of shouting matches will not suffice as a ground for divorce.  The tongue lashings must have persisted for a period of time that convinces the court you have been treated in a way that is inhuman.  In other words, you must have been treated with so little respect that no reasonable person could possibly endure the abuse.  This is what lawyers refer to as a subjective, rather than objective standard. 

It boils down to having to show the court that no reasonable person would be able to perform their marital duties under the circumstances.  If you can demonstrate that the hail of your spouse’s verbal bullets were both extreme AND pervasive, you have likely earned your way out of an unhappy marriage.  If you are seeing someone else (romantically of course) and simply want out, got into a few screaming contests, be forewarned:  you will not get a good result in court.

For anyone seeking a divorce, always remember that courts of equity are judging your every action and inaction of marital duties.  Even though only God can judge you in the end, make no mistake that you will be judged by a Chancellor in this lifetime.  At the end of the day, never forget that the person who is granted the divorce (and gets a better result) is the one who is less at fault. 

Although it is true that there is almost always blame to share, if you were decent and kind in marriage, the court will reward you.  The little things you were taught as a child can make a world of difference.  After all, what you really need to know most in life, and in divorce, you probably learned in kindergarten.

Mom Has the Advantage with the Young Ones

October 21st, 2019

Laws in Mississippi have certainly changed since the passage of Albright v. Albright (it is on our home page), but the reality is that mom almost always has a slight advantage when it comes to obtaining primary physical custody of a young child.  We have often looked at the doctrine that was front and center in custody cases prior to the Albright case, which was referred to as the “tender years” policy.  Although it has been deviated from, based upon the preference for Albright analysis, many of the same approaches are still employed when litigating a custody case.  After seeing this play out first hand–hundreds of times, mom usually does carry a slight advantage…unless she screws it up by cheating, drug use, alcohol abuse and, well you get the point.

The “tender age doctrine” has been undergoing a re-evaluation in the past decades, and rightfully so.  Times have changed in many ways, but so much remains the same.  Two states have essentially upended the notion that mom is better with having custody of a young child, and their courts have held that the maternal presumption favoring mothers in custody cases violates state as well as United States Constitutional guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Some of the challenges to the tender years (or tender-aged) statutes have also been based in the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.  See Watts v. Watts, 77 Misc.2d 178, 350 N.Y.S.2d 285 (1973). The tender years presumption has also at times been held unconstitutional as a gender-based classification which discriminates between fathers and mothers in child custody cases solely on basis of their sex. Devine v. Devine, 398 So.2d 686 ( Ala. 1981).  However, state statutes generally control unless appealed to a federal court.  Few can afford to do so.

So, where does Mississippi stand?  Is there truth that dad doesn’t have a chance?  Not necessarily, but he usually has a taller hill to climb to obtain custody of a young child than mom does, and that’s not written law, it is likely cultural more than anything else.  The Albright analysis does afford some advantage to mom, particularly because of the continuity of care when dad is at work. 

I fully appreciate that dad often gets punished in this sense for earning and supporting his family.  If mom is also at work and their child is being equally cared for by both parents, this advantage can easily disappear.  However, due to the commonality of mom staying home, receiving some maternity leave, continuity of care usually will favor her.  Some states do require employers to mandate paternity leave, but not Mississippi.  See our other articles wherein we discuss the power and importance of being the primary caregiver, because they are particularly front and center in this conversation.  It truly is the most likely predictor of who wins custody.

In sum, dad has a relatively equal shot at obtaining custody but for the fact that they are likely not an equal caregiver…especially if mom stays home.  If the father of a child truly wants to increase the possibility of obtaining child custody, he needs to find a way to, at the very least, be an equal participant in child-rearing.  Even though it is difficult to afford for many, hiring help is usually his best shot so that mom can return to work.  That way, at least he can argue that mom who does not stay at home is not advantaged by his daily absence.  Make no mistake, I understand full-well how unfair this may seem to all of the dads out there.

If you have a child custody issue and are seeking primary custody, give us a call and we can give you unfiltered advice in obtaining the best result for your kids.  As a single dad, I appreciate your devotion to your children, but more importantly, so do they.

Paying Support = Custody Rights?…Nope

October 11th, 2019

One of the most common calls we receive is a father who is paying child support, most often through the Mississippi Department of Human Services (D.H.S.), and believes that somehow he has automatic visitation or custody or visitation rights.  He is terribly and fundamentally incorrect. As morally wrong as it may seem, paying child support does not afford the payor to have any custodial rights at all …only an obligation to pay. Make no mistake, the state is merely a collection agency, nothing more.  They cannot, by law, be involved in when and where you get to see your little ones. Seems unfair, right? We will touch on that shortly, so stay with me.

Years ago, the state of Mississippi had a program administered by D.H.S. that promoted access for a paying parent to their child.  That is no longer the case. In fact, D.H.S. is so overwhelmed with deadbeat dads (and occasionally moms) that they have suspended the access/visitation program outright.  They simply lack the funding to continue what are deemed “non-essential” administrative duties required by statute. So what is a dad to do? Unfortunately they have no option other than hiring an attorney to pursue any rights at all.  Again, this seems to be unfair, but it is a reality that has to be faced sooner or later.

As I have said many times, if every person were reasonable, I wouldn’t be a domestic attorney.  Oftentimes, mothers are reluctant to allow their child to go with dad without a court order that requires a certain return time or other specifics that delineate their rights…and they should have that concern.  That belief is well-justified. Fathers generally are reluctant to pay an attorney to garner clear rights to the when, what, and hows that are front and center in any parenting scenario. The predicament that exists is a literal catch 22…both mom and dad have genuine concern and merit to their concerns, as they should.  

So what is the best answer?  It was said to me by a former client that “the only way to prevent a misunderstanding is to have a clear understanding”.  Well said. Couple that thought with the fact that Mississippi requires a court order on anything pertaining to child custody, support, and visitation and the best recipe is clear…the court must issue an order addressing all of these issues, or mom and dad both suffer…so does the child.  Even though dad is the likely recipient of a legal bill, the court’s involvement is paramount, mandatory for the child having a steady and peaceful, even predictable life and schedule. Kids benefit from that predictability in more ways than we, as adults, often realize.  

When you call an attorney and ask for advice, there are a few key ways to simplify your path forward. First, know that most of the callers to family attorneys have little or no communication with the person they created a child with, be it husband, wife, or an ex they never married.  Obviously, that is a shame. The best way to help yourself (and your child) is to make all efforts to keep an open line of communication with you ex…and I know this is easier said than done. If you are able to communicate, drop the hate that may exist, forget the past wrongs that may have been done, and your child will be the first benefactor. After all, their best interests are sacrosanct with yours.  Forgiving and forgetting are powerful tools when your child’s happiness is at stake.  

In the end, what matters is that you thrive for the sake of you and your children.  It is easy to relive old memories of being hurt, rejected, cheated on, or betrayed. However, your child deserves the benefit of a clear understanding, a court order, to thrive and have predictability, peace, and happiness.  Don’t do it for you, do so for them.

Cyber Civics: Children and Online Ethics

September 30th, 2019

It is estimated that children are online more often than they are in school.  Some studies have found that the average teenager is on the internet for in excess of 10 hours per day.  The interactions that we all have online are a gigantic part of who we are.  Our interactions frame us and we will be judged by them not differently than we are judged by our appearance and profession. 

Safe and civil interaction online is fundamental for children.  They often have little idea about how to navigate the bullying and anonymity that goes with it.  Now, schools have begun experimenting with civics classes focused on childrens’ online interactions.  After looking at this issue, it seems at first glance to be the right course when we are increasingly becoming digital citizens.

The introductory phase in these “cyber civics” classes is generally focused on bullying.  Interestingly, it appears that most studies link cyber-bullying predominantly to making fun of one’s appearance.  While there is always online hatred based upon a child who does not fit into a prototypical gender group or traditional sexual orientation, appearance is by far the most common target for online bullies based upon randomized studies.  There are not simple answers, but the focus on bullying seems a logical place to start for the new curriculums being offered.

Cyber civics is also, in a typical curriculum, secondarily focus on being able to identify “fake news” versus true and factual journalism.  Years ago, it was often said that the first tenet of journalism was objectivity.  The only agenda being that no particular agenda was appropriate is the primary goal.  We have come a long way from that basic principle.  If you read either the conservative or liberal media it is all too clear.  No middle ground seems to exist anymore.  True journalism may not even exist anymore.  That’s a shame.

The core values of our society are generally agreed upon.  We must be kind, respectful, and honest.  Although cultures may vary somewhat as to the way they apply these ideals, it is clear that very few would disagree with this basic premise.  Children are essentially being placed into a broader culture when they have access to the internet.  The odds of a child seeing something inappropriate online are extremely high.  Parents are the only filter for their kids.  The internet, as helpful as it can be used as a teaching tool, is also a double-edged sword.

Although cyber civics as an academic study is a relatively new concept, its focus is not altogether different from social science concepts that are well-established tradition.  Whether we call it cyber civics, social media consciousness, or plain old common decency, the concept remains essentially the same.  Unfortunately, the average person should already be familiar with the importance of decency and honesty but may have eluded that long ago.  When online, some take advantage of avoiding this should-be common ground. 

Anonymity plays a huge role in online interactions, and children are particularly vulnerable.  As such, a new era of digital coach is becoming common.  They now exist in public junior high schools in New Hampshire and Vermont.  Many courses are also offered online as a non-mandatory supplemental option.  Go to Google and search for “cyber civics course” and there are a ton of results.  Whether they are useful is still up for debate.  It seems that much offered is simply a reiteration of common decency.

In sum, it seems that the goal of online decency is a noble one, although somewhat arbitrary when distinguished from simple human interaction and courtesy.  Children are at a great risk of depression and suicide from being harassed, intimidated, and otherwise abused online.  The root cause is that we, as a society, seem to have sheltered and protected online interactions that would run afoul of the laws we have already created regarding defamation and harassment.  Until politicians recognize that anonymous bullies are a significant driver of teen and adolescent suicide and depression, nothing is likely to change. 

It’s time that we identify the real problem…poor public policy.  The legislature could solve much of the problem.  We have to let them, as our elected representatives, know that anonymous online harassment needs to end, once and for all.

Matthew Poole is a Jackson, Mississippi domestic attorney.  He was admitted to the state bar and the federal district courts in 2004.