For many years, fathers in Arizona have not been treated fairly when their children were born out of wedlock.  Recently, the Arizona Court of Appeals changed that.  Children born out of wedlock in Arizona are in the sole care and custody of the mother until a court orders otherwise.  This makes sense because the maternity of a child is beyond question, while that is not the case with paternity.
 
However, Arizona has long had statutes that say that when a father has established paternity, he has a right to access to his child and that one parent may not deny access to the child to the other parent.  For years, however, courts have not held that these statutes mean that a mother of a child born out of wedlock for whom there is no custody order may not move a child out of state without a court order or the father’s consent.  Courts have allowed it because children born out of wedlock are in the sole custody, care, and control of the mother.
 
In April, 2017, the Arizona Court of Appeals changed that.  A father of a child born out of wedlock had established paternity by signing an acknowledgment of paternity with the mother and filing it with the Department of Economic Services.  He and the mother did not previously seek a court order regarding the child.  The mother then moved with the baby to Wisconsin without seeking a court order and without the father’s consent. 
 
The trial court ruled, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, that the father had established his paternity by signing and filing the acknowledgment of paternity with the mother.  Although the child was in the sole care and custody of the mother, the mother did not have the right to deny access to the child to the father because he had established paternity.  Here is the part that changes the way Arizona courts approach this issue: the court ruled that the mother wrongfully denied access to the child by moving the child out of state without first seeking a court order and without the father’s consent.  Therefore, the mother had to bring the child back to Arizona or face legal consequences.
 
For years, many fathers faced this situation having thought that the mother of their child could not just move their children to another state.  By the time they found out the truth, it was often too late.  Now, the Court of Appeals has taken the step of correctly holding that the mother of a child born out of wedlock whose paternity has been legally established cannot legally move the child to another state just because she is the mother.
 
The important distinction is that the parents of the child in this case had legally established paternity of the child.  Had the parents not established the father’s paternity of the child, the mother could have legally moved the child out of Arizona without a court order or the father’s consent.  In that case it would have been possible for the judge to order the mother to return the child to Arizona if the judge found that a return to Arizona was in the child’s best interests because Arizona courts would still have jurisdiction over the child.  However, it would not have been strictly required to order the mother to return the child to Arizona and the mother would not have been breaking the law.
 
The lesson from this case is that father must establish paternity without delay.  The child in this case was only two months old.  Had the father not established his paternity of the child, this case may have gone a very different way.  Besides establishing paternity (which parties can only do with a court order or by signing and filing an acknowledgment of paternity), the parents should seek an order for legal decision making, parenting time, and child support, rather than having the constant conflict that not having an order causes.  There are plenty of other reasons to seek orders, but they are a subject for another blog post.  If mothers and fathers need help with these issues, my firm offers a consultation at a discounted rate.  Thanks for reading!
 
You can read the entire Court of Appeals decision here:http://www.leagle.com/decision/In%20AZCO%2020170413015/GUTIERREZ%20v.%20FOX
Published in Blog
Thursday, 17 November 2016 10:44

Court Appointed Advisor in Arizona Family Court

I recently finished the report to the court on my most recent court appointed advisor assignment.  A court appointed advisor is someone whom the family court appoints to investigate the facts in a custody/legal decision making/parenting time dispute.  It usually involves allegations of abuse, neglect, drug use, domestic violence, or some combination of these factors.  The court appointed advisor is the court’s eyes and ears, who investigates the case, reports to the court, and makes a recommendation.  The court ultimately makes the decision.
 
The advisor has the authority to retrieve medical, school, criminal, department of child safety, or any other records. He or she interviews the parents and any other people whom the advisor deems appropriate to interview.  The advisor inspects the parents’ homes and may interview or observe the children.
 
The instructors in my training said that both parents will act like they love me at first, but will both be angry with me if I do a good job.  This latest case was no exception.  One parent agreed with my recommendations, although my recommendations were not one-sided, but appeared to be angry with me and would not even look at me.  The other parent, however, denounced me to the court, claimed that I had not done my job, claimed that I am biased, and sat in court glaring at me.
 
This was still a rewarding experience because, unlike other pro bono cases, I am not an advocate for one of the adults.  My only concern is to gather and give information to the judge and I can truly focus on the best interests of the child.
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A mother in Minnesota who defied family court orders and hid her children from their father for two years has not only lost custody of her children to their father, but she has been convicted on criminal charges for doing so and will go to prison for eight months.
 
I have dealt with these extreme cases in Arizona.  Sometimes, the other parent even goes so far as to move the children to another state in an attempt to hide them and destroy their relationship with the other parent.  If this happens to you, don’t give up.  Immediate and aggressive action in Family Court will often ultimately result in you getting your children back.  Judges don’t like this sort of game.
 
Here is the article about the mother in Minnesota who hid her children from their father for two years:
Published in Blog
Thursday, 15 September 2016 10:23

Do's and Don'ts of Custody Cases in Arizona

Here are some things to avoid and some things to do when you have a custody/legal decision making/parenting time battle with the other parent of your children.
 
DON’T:
 
1. Send angry text messages or email to the other parent.  Anything you write that is inappropriate or makes you look violent, threatening, reckless, etc. will hurt your case if the judge sees it and you can bet that the other parent will show it to the judge.
 
2. Post anything dumb on social media.  The same goes for social media.  Also, portraying a party lifestyle, or posting pictures of guns, or posting about the new person you are dating can also hurt your case.  In fact, don’t use social media at all.
 
3. Say anything dumb.  You never know if someone is recording what you are saying.
 
4. Do anything dumb.  In my career, I have seen all kinds of dumb things that people get caught doing while they are fighting for their children.  Don’t commit crimes, drive drunk, do drugs, disappear, hide the children, make death threats, or do anything else that will hurt your case if the judge finds out about it.
 
5. Call the other parent incessantly or in the middle of the night.  Don’t make yourself look like a stalker, harasser, or abuser.
 
6. Put your children in the middle of the conflict with the other parent.  This almost always backfires.  More importantly, it is very bad for your children.
 
7. Allow the other parent to push you around.  This doesn’t mean that you should act aggressively or be unreasonable.  However, don’t move out of the house just because the other parent told you to move out.  This makes the other parent the de facto primary residential parent.  Don’t put up with the other parent withholding the children from you.  If the other parent withholds the children and you file with the court right away, you will get to see your children sooner.  If you put up with it for a long time, then you don’t look like your children are your priority when you do get around to filing with the court.
 
8. Be unreasonable.  Three quarters of getting what you want in Family Court is being reasonable.  Don’t withhold the children from the other parent unless you have a very good reason. Most often, a very good reason is drugs or severe abuse.  Don’t take away the car that the other parent is driving or remove his or her insurance.
 
9. Wait.  There is little advantage to filing first, but you should not put off filing with the court.  The sooner the court establishes your rights the better.  If the other parent is withholding the children or allowing very little contact with the children, the sooner yo file the sooner it will stop.
 
10. Give up.  You have a long-term goal.  It may seem like you are losing now, but you will not lose in the long run if you do the right things and don’t give up.
 
DO:
 
1. Assume the judge will see anything you write or post.  Only write and post things that you will not be afraid to explain to the judge.
 
2. Assume the judge will hear anything you say.  Only say things that you will not be afraid to explain to the judge.
 
3. Communicate in writing with the other parent as much as possible.  People can lie about what you said, but they can’t lie about what you wrote.
 
4. Remain civil with the other parent.  Not being civil hurts your case.  Being civil helps your case.  More importantly, this is what is best for your children.
 
5. Cooperate with the other parent to the extent possible.  Show the judge that you are the reasonable, cooperative parent.
 
6. Focus on the best interest of your children, not on what is best for you or how mad you are at the other parent.  This is the most important step in not screwing up your children during your legal dispute with the other parent.  It will also help your case.
 
7. Send civil, detailed emails to the other parent regarding decisions that the two of you must make for your children.  Show the judge that you can co-parent and make responsible decisions.  If the other parent responds in kind, you have begun a good co-parenting relationship with the other parent, which is good for your children.  If the other parent refuses to respond or responds inappropriately, you have created evidence favorable to your case.
 
8. File quickly.  Waiting usually hurts you.
 
9. Hire an attorney.  This may sound self-serving, but you don’t do this every day. An attorney does do this every day.  An attorney knows the law, knows the judges, knows the procedure, knows the ins and outs of custody battles, knows what is persuasive, and can look at your case with an unemotional eye.  Your children are worth it.
 
10. Try to settle.  The two people in the whole world in the best position to make decisions in the best interest of your children are you and the other parent.  If you and the other parent cannot make a decision on your own, a stranger who doesn’t know you, the other parent, or your children, but who happens to be a judge, will listen to two or three hours of evidence and make a decision for you.  It might be a decision you hate.
Published in Blog
I always try to settle my cases in family court and one of the best ways to do that is through mediation.  If the parties settle, they may not be completely happy with the outcome, but they controlled the outcome and avoided a decision from a judge, who may have given them an outcome that they hate.  As I tell my clients in legal decision making (custody) and parenting time (visitation) cases, the two people in the whole world in the best position to make a decision in the best interests of the children are the mother and father.  If the mother and father cannot come to a decision together, a stranger who happens to have been appointed to be a judge (and who does not know the mother, father and children) will listen to about three hours of evidence and impose a decision on them. 
 
Settlement is better.  One good way to work towards a settlement is to use a mediator.  A mediator is a neutral person who can give both sides an unbiased perspective and help them reach a settlement.  One way to mediate a case with children is a parenting conference.  The judge will appoint a parenting conference officer who will hold a conference with both parties for about two to three hours.  The conference officer will try to get the parties to work out a settlement regarding the children.  If the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the officer will make a limited written report to the judge about his or her observations during the conference and may make recommendations to the judge regarding the children.  The officer will report any partial agreements.  Each party must pay $300.00 for the parenting conference, but the judge may order that the parties can make payments.  Attorneys do not attend the parenting conference. The conference officer may interview the children.
 
Another way to mediate is for the judge to refer the parties to Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”) for a settlement conference.  The parties’ attorneys attend this conference with their clients and the conference will include all issues before the family court.  The mediator in this case is an attorney appointed as a judge pro tempore with the authority to enter orders.  The parties do not pay for this conference.  If the parties reach a settlement the judge pro tem can enter the agreement on the record and approve it as a final order of the court.  If they do not reach an agreement, the judge pro tem simply reports to the judge that the parties did not reach an agreement.  A good judge pro tem can get a case settled that the parties did not think would settle.  ADR settlement conferences usually last about half a day.
 
Finally, the parties can go to private mediation.  Private mediation is expensive and the mediator does not have any authority because the court did not appoint the mediator.  The mediator generally follows the same process as the ADR judge pro tempore and may help the parties draft a settlement agreement if they reach an agreement.  Private mediation can be very helpful in settling a case when a parenting conference and ADR are not available. 
 
Anyone in family court in Maricopa County, Arizona should at least try to reach a settlement with the other party.  Mediation can be very helpful towards reaching a settlement.
Published in Blog

Many people seek answers to their family law questions on the internet.  My website has a lot of information and answers to peoples' questions.  I have also answered a lot of actual questions from people on Avvo.com.  A good example of this family law Q & A is my last answer:

 

I have had my son since he was three weeks old, and now that he is 1 year and 8 months his mother wants to share custody.

What can I do? She works 10 hour days and leaves him with whoever will watch him.

Thomas’s Answer

If there is no order and you were never married to the mother, she has the right to take your son at any time because children born out of wedlock in Arizona are in the sole care and custody of the mother until a court makes an order to the contrary. Therefore, if this is the case you should probably act quickly and file to establish paternity, legal decision making and parenting time.

If there is a court, order, you have to abide by the court order. Either one of you can file to modify the court order, assuming that it has been long enough since the court entered the order.

If you are married and there is not court order, then neither one of you has a superior right to the other.

 

To see all of my answers on Avvo.com, go here: https://www.avvo.com/attorneys/85013-az-thomas-morton-419854/answers.html

You can also browse answers from many other attorneys.

Published in Blog
How do Arizona courts deal with legal decision making (custody) and parenting time (visitation) modification issues when one parent’s service in the United States armed forces necessitates the modification?  Generally, the courts may modify legal decision making and parenting time when to do so is in the children’s best interest.  The court must consider the terms of a military parent's family care plan when considering the child's best interest during that parent's military deployment.
 
If the children live primarily with the military parent, and that parent receives temporary duty, deployment, activation or mobilization orders that require that parent to move a substantial distance away, Arizona courts will not enter a final order modifying parental rights and parent-child contact until ninety days after the deployment ends, unless the military parent agrees to the modification.  This means that Arizona family courts will not modify a military parent’s rights and responsibilities to his or her children while that parent on deployment or temporary duty.
 
Furthermore, Arizona courts will not consider a military parent's absence caused by deployment or mobilization or the potential for future deployment or mobilization as the sole factor supporting modification.  Note, however, that Arizona courts may consider this as one factor, as long as it is not the only factor.
 
Arizona courts will, after a hearing, grant temporary orders modifying parental rights and responsibilities during the period of deployment or mobilization if the circumstances meet the following requirements: 1) the military parent has received orders that require him or her to temporarily leave; and 2) that parent’s deployment will have a material effect on his or her ability to parent the children.  For example, the court may enter temporary orders if a Marine Reservist received orders to Iraq for six months.  The court may also allow the military parent to present testimony and evidence electronically if the other side gets advance notice and the parent’s military service has a material effect on his or her ability to appear in court in person.  At the request of the military parent, for the duration of the military parent's absence, the court may delegate the military parent's parenting time, or a portion of that time, to a child's family member, including a step-parent, or to another person who is not the child's parent but who has a close and substantial relationship to the minor child, if the court determines that is in the child's best interest. The court will not allow the delegation of parenting time to a person who would be subject to limitations on parenting time, such as supervised parenting time.   All temporary modification orders will include a specific transition schedule to facilitate a return to the pre-deployment order within ten days after the deployment ends, taking into consideration the child's best interests parents do not come to an agreement on their own, which is for what all parents should strive.
 
Military parents should know their rights and responsibilities.  Parents who serve their country should not have a disadvantage in family court due to their service.
Published in Blog
I very often hear from people that they heard that a child can decide where they will live and with which parent when the child is 14 years old (or some other age).  This is not true.  My answer to the question “How old does my child need to be to decide with whom they live?” is always the same: 18 years old.
 
The wishes of the child are a factor in the Arizona legal decision making (custody) and parenting time statutes, but they are only one factor.  The older and more mature the child, the more weight the child’s wishes will carry with the judge.  However, they are still only one factor among many factors.  Also, the judge must explore the reasons for the child’s wishes.  The reasons may cause the child’s wishes to lose some or all weight.  For example, if a 17-year-old child tells a Family Court Advisor that he wants to live with his dad because his dad lets him smoke pot, the judge may not just ignore the child’s wishes, but give weight to the opposite of what a child wants.
 
Therefore, Arizona Family Courts will consider a child’s wishes, and will give more weight to the child’s wishes depending on the age and maturity of the child, but the child does not get to “decide” where the child lives until the child reaches the age of majority.
Published in Blog

Unfortunately, many people lie to the court during legal decision making (custody) and parenting time cases.  Often, the person who is acting badly is the person lying to the court about the other parent.  Too often, these people get away with it because the judge does not know who to believe.

One American soldier just solved this problem with his GoPro camera.  His wife is accusing him of domestic violence while she is committing domestic violence against him.  He hid his camera on his body and captured her not only committing domestic violence against him, but threatening to falsely accuse him of committing domestic violence against her.  The story is here: http://www.wtsp.com/story/news/2015/09/20/soldier-uses-gopro-to-prove-wifes-domestic-abuse/72545676/

People often ask if it is legal to record telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings.  People often tell me that they want to record the other party because the other party lies about what happens or what people say.  In Arizona, it is legal to record a conversation of which you are a part.  Therefore, you can legally record your phone conversations and encounters that you have with other people.  You may not legally record the conversations of other people without their permission.

The story about the soldier who solved the he-said-she-said problem shows how to effectively use recording devices when the other parent lies to the court.

Published in Blog

The Superior Court's website in Maricopa County has many useful forms for people representing themselves in court.  The family law category of forms is the most impressive, with forms for divorce, annulment, legal separation, child support, spousal maintenance, alimony, temporary orders, custody/legal decision making, parenting time, and many other topics.  I do not particularly like the forms because they are too long, sometimes don't make much sense, and lack flexibility, but they are far better than the alternative of not submitting anything at all, or someone with no legal background or training attempting to write court filings.  If you decide to use the court's forms, my advice is to do so with the advice of an experienced lawyer.  However, if you are using the forms, it is probably because you cannot afford a lawyer.  In that case, be very careful about what you sign and submit to the court.  Do not be afraid to cross out requests in the form that you do not want to make.

 

Aside from forms for family law, the court's website has many useful forms for probate, juvenile law, civl law, and powers of attorney.  The court has sufficient probate forms to complete an entire informal probate from beginning to end, juvenile court forms sufficient to complete a voluntary guardianship, and four powers of attorney sets of forms (general power of attorney, special power of attorney, parental power of attorney, and revocation of power of attorney).  The court also provides detailed instructions for its forms.

 

Again, my usual advice is to hire an attorney because attorneys have experience, are familiar with the judges, have an emotional detachment to your case, and know the potential pitfalls.  However, sometimes doing something on your own is better than doing nothing and the reality is that not everyone can hire an attorney.

 

This is the link to the Maricopa County Superioe Court's forms (Self Service Center): http://www.superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/SuperiorCourt/Self-ServiceCenter/

 

Good luck!

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