January 7, 2013

After 40 Years, Sesame Street Tackles the Issue of Divorce

After more than 40 years, Sesame Street has never directly dealt with the issue of divorce and its impact on children. Until now.

Sesame Workshop recently launched its "Little Children, Big Challenges" initiative, including an online episode featuring Abby Caddabby, Elmo and Rosita. This episode is only available online, and not on the air. According to child psychiatrist Josh Weiner, this new video could be a useful tool for parents to use to discuss divorce with their children. sesame-street-abby_510x313.jpg

The episode features Abby Cadabby talking about her parents' divorce, how she splits her time between her mom and dad, and her "big feelings" about it all after she is asked to draw a picture of her home and then draws two pictures.

Sesame Street has always had a social component of trying to help children deal with difficult issues in their lives, but it has also struggled with how to address the big "D." Twenty years ago, in 1992, the company scripted and shot a potential episode about Snuffleupagus's parents divorcing. But when they tested it with pre-schoolers, some were so upset they cried. As a result, the show never aired.

Because the episode is only available online, parents can choose to watch it when they feel their child is ready, or can choose not have their child see it at all. Ultimately, however parents discuss and share their children's feelings and concerns about divorce, it is vitally important that they focus on making them understand that divorce is not their fault and that they will always be loved by both of their parents. It's a valiant effort, and in our opinion, makes for worthwhile viewing.

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February 8, 2012

Judge Sentences Husband to Take His Wife on a Date

A Florida judge has sentenced a Plantation husband to take his wife on a date for a domestic violence incident that began as a marital spat when he forgot to wish her a happy birthday. As reported in the SunSentinel, Broward County Judge John Hurley ordered the man to stop for flowers on his way home, then pick up his wife and take her on a date to dinner at Red Lobster followed by a night of bowling. He also ordered the couple to commence marriage counseling within a week.

The judge defended his sentence by saying that he determined the incident was relatively minor, there were no prior arrests, and the man's wife was not injured nor afraid of him. The judge said that he would not have made such an order if the incident were more serious, and he believed this sentence was a "better resolution than other alternatives."

Domestic violence is obviously a serious problem, not only here in California but across the country. And, the courts clearly need to address it in a meaningful manner by protecting victims of violence, along with imposing some form of punishment and treatment (e.g. counseling) on the perpetrators in an effort to prevent a reoccurrence of the violence. In doing so, judges are afforded a wide range of discretion. This judge used his discretion to evaluate the situation and made orders he believed were appropriate under the circumstances. It certainly will be interesting to watch and see whether his orders are effective for this particular couple.

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February 7, 2012

Gary Sparks to Return as a Special Guest on the Ronn Owens Program This Week

For those of you who missed Gary's first appearance on the Ronn Owens Program (on KGO-AM 810) this past September, or those who want to listen in again, he will be returning as Ronn's guest this upcoming Thursday, February 9th, 2012 at 10:00 am. Once again, Ronn and Gary will be discussing California family law and divorce issues, and fielding calls from throughout the greater Bay Area and Northern California.

Ronn Owens hosts the top-rated program on KGO-AM and recently celebrated his 35th anniversary with the station. Ronn recently won the 2010 Marconi Award for Major Market Personality of the Year, and has truly become a Bay Area icon.

You can read more about Ronn at his website (www.ronn.com) or on FaceBook (www.facebook.com/ronnowens).

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February 7, 2012

Appeals Court Finds California's Proposition 8 Unconstitutional

The 9th U.S. District Court of Appeals in San Francisco today upheld the ruling by a lower federal court that California's controversial Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. The Court held that Proposition 8 denies same-sex couples the right to a civil marriage in violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and "serves no purpose... than to lessen the status of gays and lesbians in California..."

Supporters of Proposition 8 say they are prepared to take the matter all the way to the United States Supreme Court. And, despite today's ruling, a "stay" remains in place preventing the order from going into effect (allowing same-sex couples to marry) until the appeals process has been exhausted or further court order.

Additionally, the 9th Circuit found no reason that U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker should have either recused himself from the underlying case or disclosed his own sexual orientation prior to taking the case. Walker, who is gay, was found to have properly heard, analyzed and ruled on the case. Supporters of Proposition 8 also tried previously to have Walker's ruling that the law was unconstitutional thrown out to no avail.

This matter is by no means resolved, and may very likely result in an ultimate appeal to the United States Supreme Court. However, at first read, it appears that the 9th Circuit based their analysis, in large part, on the specific circumstances here in California that led to Proposition 8 in the first place; that is, the history of permitting domestic partnerships and extending marital rights to registered domestic partners (without the title) and eventually the ruling by the California Supreme Court that same-sex couples were entitled to marry under the California state constitution. Accordingly, there is a possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court may consider the ruling to apply only in California and not to other states as a whole.

Stay tuned, there's definitely more to come.

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January 3, 2012

Why Hire a Lawyer and Not a Legal Document Preparer?

This is a question a number of clients have asked me over the past few years, especially as the economy continues to slumber along here in California. And it seems tempting, of course, to find ways to pinch pennies until things improve. However, I have also been hired by many clients who have tried to handle family law or divorce cases on their own, and found out that they have actually made matters worse for themselves.

It is important to understand that attorneys have experience in the courtroom and know what Judges want to see and hear. They can anticipate opposing arguments and games the other side may play. Attorneys know and can argue the laws regarding custody, support, property division, etc. that the Judges decide by.

Attorneys can also represent you in court and can speak on your behalf with the court and the opposing party. Attorneys can give you legal advice and guidance, even if you only hire a consulting attorney part-time on the side on an as-needed basis. At the very least, I firmly believe that every party to a family law matter should have a consulting attorney who can answer questions and review documents to ensure that his/her rights are being protected and that he/she is not being taken advantage of by the other side.

Sure, many of these so-called divorce services and document preparers can fill out court forms, but they are not permitted to tell you "how" to fill them out or "why" to fill them out a certain way. They are prohibited from giving you legal advice, interpreting documents, or warning you of the pitfalls or consequences of your choices. They cannot tell you what information to insert in your documents; in fact, they are not supposed to even select the documents you want them to prepare for you. They cannot appear in court, explain to the Judge why you did or didn't do something. And they are not trained in the law nor in court procedures, and are not licensed to practice law in California. And most importantly, if you are given bad advice and decide to follow that advice, you have to live with the outcome with little or no recourse.

Several years ago, independent paralegals in California actually lost the ability to call themselves "paralegals" in part because of concerns about how many of them crossed the line between document preparation and legal advice. As a result, these independent operators now must call themselves "legal document preparers."

Would you allow your child to ride in a car with a driver who had never driven before, or fly on an airplane with a non-pilot at the controls? Then why risk custody, support or property, or worse, by not hiring an attorney? Family law cases affect more aspects of clients' lives than any other area of law. In a typical family law case, the court is making orders about your children, your income, your home, your bank accounts, your pets, your personal property, your retirement accounts, your business, your credit cards... and the list goes on. These are all important issues.

You may decide to hire a legal document preparer to assist you with your court papers because you have no other financial option. I can certainly understand that. We are living in unprecedented economic times, and the downturn has affected almost all of us, myself included. However, it would be in your best interest -- and I strongly recommend -- that you find a way to make arrangements with a family law attorney to spend even just an hour or two with you to make sure you are doing everything possible to protect yourself, your children and your family moving forward.

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September 13, 2011

Your Second Chance to Hear Gary's Appearance on the Ronn Owens Program

If you happened to miss my appearance as an in-studio guest on the Ronn Owens Program (KGO-AM 810) on September 8, 2011, you can now download Ronn's official podcast of that hour. Ronn, his callers and I discussed many aspects of divorce and family law in California. I'm looking forward to our next program together.

To download and play the podcast, click here.

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August 25, 2011

Census Report Shows Marriage Works Better in Pennsylvania than in California

According to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau and reported on in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pennsylvanians are both marrying and divorcing at a lower rate than the rest of the country (including California), a quality they share with many men and women of the Northeast.

That may be because more people in the Northeast delay their marriages until their education is complete. Delayed, or later, marriages have traditionally been viewed as more likely to last longer. That's a link making itself known more favorably in states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York than in places like Arkansas, Georgia and West Virginia, where divorce rates are well above the norm, according to the data released today from the 2009 American Community Survey.

Sociologists have found that factors such as age, income, religion and education can all play key roles in timing and success of marriage. Diana Elliott, a Census Bureau family demographer, said the relatively high percentage of people who pursue degrees in the Northeast is presumably a primary reason for lower marriage and divorce rates. "In the Northeast, first marriages tend to be delayed and the marriage rates are lower, meaning there are also fewer divorces," she said.

At the same time that marriages have been postponed, there has been a surge in cohabitation among unmarried couples across the United States. The new census report does not address those relationships and their outcomes.

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August 24, 2011

Prenuptial Agreements Are Not Just For Hollywood Celebrities

Prenuptial agreements are often associated with the rich and famous (Barry Bonds, anyone?)... but, the reality is that many couples in California can benefit from a carefully constructed premarital agreement to identify separate assets and define the rules of their marriage. For example, prenuptial agreements are frequently considered by parties who have been previously married and divorced (or widowed), or by older, established individuals with significant property and/or children whom they want to protect. A recent article published on Bankrate.com discusses this very topic.

Prenuptial agreements, as unromantic as they may sound, can eliminate disputes at the time of divorce if the marriage ultimately fails. The agreement can serve as a snapshot inventory of assets and debts owned or incurred by each spouse prior to marriage. It can convey interest in property between the parties, or dictate that neither spouse will acquire interest in each other's property.

In community property states like California, the prenuptial agreement can even permit parties to opt out of the community property system, allowing each spouse to earn income and obtain assets independently of the other during marriage and requiring express and definitive steps for the parties to obtain property jointly. The agreement can also limit or eliminate spousal support (alimony) for one or both spouses.

Of course, prenuptial agreements can potentially be unfair to one spouse or the other, which is why states like California have overhauled their domestic relations statutes in recent years. In California, for example, the party receiving a proposed premarital agreement must be given at least seven days to read, review and contemplate the agreement prior to signature. The law also requires that each party have their own, independent counsel (with only a very strict, limited exception), and that the parties provide each other with "full and fair" disclosure of their financial circumstances.

Despite all of the things a couple can do with a prenuptial agreement, there are limits. For example, the agreement cannot limit or restrict a parent's rights to custody, visitation or child support. Additionally, although an agreement can limit or eliminate a party's right to spousal support, the agreement itself is subject to scrutiny by the Courts and examined to ensure it is not "unconscionable," or unreasonably unfair to one party. If a Court decides that the agreement rises to the level of being unconscionable, it may redline the provision(s) it finds excessively unfair. In other words, depending on the circumstances of the couple, the Court may nevertheless award some property interest or spousal support to a party who waived his/her rights to that property or support in the prenuptial agreement.

A couple contemplating a premarital agreement should have a frank discussion about such an agreement at least six months in advance of the anticipated wedding. Not only will this allow plenty of time for the agreement itself to be drafted, reviewed and revised (in and of itself a process that will take several months), but it will allow the parties to put the business of the agreement behind them and then focus on what should presumably be one of the happiest days of their lives.

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August 14, 2011

Just Confirmed: Gary Sparks to Appear as Special Guest on the Ronn Owens Program

We are pleased to announce that Gary Sparks will be appearing as a special guest on the top-rated Ronn Owens Program on KGO-AM 810 radio in San Francisco on September 8, 2011. Gary will be discussing California divorce and family law issues with Ronn and with callers to the program, and is eager to reach out to listeners throughout the greater Bay Area and Northern California.

From KGO: Ronn Owens has had the top rated program with KGO Newstalk 810 for over 35 years. In that time he has had thousands of guests in the hot seat, including President Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Steve Martin, Condoleezza Rice, Benjamin Netanyahu, John McCain, Eliot Spitzer, Joe Montana, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Carter, Willie Mays, Secretaries of State, CIA Directors and community leaders. ronn.jpg
As a versatile talk host and author, Ronn covers everything from politics to pop culture, and his show has been called the "ultimate town hall meeting." Similar to KGO's listenership, Ronn is unpredictable and has long been the voice of reason in the Bay Area, balancing issues so that listeners can make up their own minds. As Ronn says, "I’m just like everybody else – I look at the world around me and comment on it."

Over the years, Ronn has won numerous awards and was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in December 2007. The National Association of Broadcasters presented him with the prestigious Marconi Award for Major Market Personality of the Year Award in 2003 and again in 2010. Talkers Magazine named Ronn one of the Top 25 Greatest Radio Talk Show Hosts of All Time, ranking him 13th and the top local personality in the country. His first book, "Voice of Reason: Why the Left and Right are Wrong," was published in 2004.

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August 12, 2011

Pennsylvania Father's "Psycho Ex-Wife" Blog Ordered Shut Down by Court

A Pennsylvania judge has created a First Amendment uproar by ordering a father to take down his "Psycho Ex-Wife" blog in which he railed against and blasted his former spouse, and sometimes speaks unflatteringly about his children.

Appearing on the Today show, Anthony Morelli said that although he took down the blog as ordered, he is appealing the order on the grounds that it violates his First Amendment rights. Judge Diane Gibbons ordered the blog to be taken down, citing the emotional damage it was capable of inflicting on the parties' children. Morelli claims that the blog is therapeutic in nature, and that the children can be protected by the content provided that the parents exercise control of the children's computer viewing habits. The question facing the appellate court is whether Morelli's right to free speech outweighs the potential harmful effect of his inflammatory comments on the children.

I happen to be a big defender of First Amendment rights, and of free speech in particular. For the most part, provided that the speech does not incite violence, I will almost always stand up for the rights of individuals to say and express what is on their minds. And although I am torn by a case like this, I still ultimately come down on Morelli's right to say and express his feelings, regardless of how distasteful they may be. However, I clearly am not the appellate court in this matter.

At the same time, and although I would defend Morelli's free speech rights, I would also advocate that the family court judge who adjudicates custody in the case should consider Morelli's actions in determining what is in the best interests of his children. Although it may be legal (or should be) for him to post the comments, I believe the family court would be well-within its discretion to determine he is not exercising sound judgment and make the corresponding custodial orders.

I'm not aware of a case in California (yet) involving any such court order. In fact, in my experience, family court judges frequently refuse to grant restrictions on speech in divorce cases. At the same time, we frequently see orders whereby the parties are compelled not to make disparaging remarks about the other parent within the children's earshot, or prohibitions on discussing the adult litigation matters with the children other than in a cursory, age-appropriate manner (and without the gory details). Whether such an order would eventually include the censorship of an inflammatory blog has yet to be determined.

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