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Divorce Can Be Ruff on Your Pets

by Paul Simon, Hedgepeth, Heredia & Rieder

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When couples get divorced, the court divides all their assets, including their cash, vacation property, jewelry, and cars. Their expensive artwork and even their country club memberships are all equitably divided by law and process. There’s one other valuable belonging to be divided that most don’t consider property: a cherished and beloved pet.

Yes, you read right: Pets are considered property just like earrings and golf clubs. From your purebred labrador to a scruffy rescue dog to expensive birds and treasured tropical fish, pets have the same rights as your kitchen table.

Couples spend considerable time and effort to reach agreement on who gets primary custody of the kids, how often each parent gets to spend time with them, etc. Depending on the ages of the kids, they might be interviewed by a an officer of the Court to determine with which parent they want to primarily live or which parent is best suited for primary physical custody.

However, for better or worse, the Court is not known to interview the family dog to determine where he or she wants to be. There’s also not much a judge can discern from a game of catch. Georgia courts, like most across the country, consider pets as personal property without much, if any, investigation into which party is the best puppy-parent.

A New Breed of Pet Legislation

The New York Times reported recently that “Alaska was the first state to enact pet-custody legislation, which allows a court to consider the animal’s well-being. The measure defines animals as a “vertebrate living creature, not a human being” and took effect in January 2017.

At last glance, we haven’t seen any Georgia legislators who’ve suggested similar legislation. In our experience, most couples have a very sensible perspective on what’s best for their furry friends. We have, however seen some “pet custody” arrangements that rival child custody complexity.  

For example, parties may agree to a shared custody arrangement of their dogs and write that into their divorce agreement, specifying a 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Sunday time where both dogs could spend time together.

Take a Paws to Consider Your Options

Similar to child custody agreements, couples can agree on different options without baring their fangs:

  • If one partner brings a pet into the marriage, they would generally maintain “primary possession.” If a pet comes into the relationship after marriage, or if a strong bond has developed, that may  change.
  • Shared custody - Ex-spouses create a schedule where the pet alternates weeks or weekends.
  • Pet Expenses - The agreement might also specify how expenses are shared if the pet requires expensive food or medicines (or even routine veterinarian visits).

Planning for pet custody isn’t usually the first thing our clients think about when they seek a divorce, but the issue can bubble to the surface quickly once divorce proceedings begin. Your family law attorney can help you dig up your options.

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 Paul Simon is an associate with HHR. He can be reached at .

Valentines Day; Harry and Meghan; That Ring and the Rules of Engagement

By Jessica Reece Fagan, Hedgepeth, Heredia & Rieder

Photo Credit: SAMIR HUSSEIN/GETTY IMAGES & DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/GETTY IMAGESWith the announcement that Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle are planning a royal wedding, it seems engagement is on everyone’s mind.

And what is more fun to discuss than the ring? Prince Harry designed a gorgeous sparkler incorporating several diamonds from his late mother Diana’s  collection and some new elements (placing the value between $350,000 and priceless).

Should you do the same with your family heirlooms? As with so many wedding plans, that depends! Because, if a love story does not end in a fairy tale, who does the engagement ring belong to?

It’s important at the outset to recognize that there is a difference between what is legally correct and what is societally acceptable behavior. We’ll focus here what the legalities of a decision regarding an engagement ring may be under American matrimonial law, not what Emily Post or one’s own grandmother may say.

In Georgia, as in most states, an engagement ring is considered a conditional gift. In other words, the gift is conditioned on an implied promise to get married. If a marriage occurs, the condition is satisfied, and the receiver can generally claim the gift free and clear of any claim by the giver.

A Few Scenarios

Consider this example: Love Bird #1 designs a bespoke ring and presents it to Love Bird #2. Love Bird #1 hands the ring to Love Bird #2, who places it on the ring finger. A bit later, the couple is canoodling, and Love Bird #1 says, “We should plan a wedding!” Love Bird #2 agrees.

Conditional gift? Arguably, no. The recipient’s argument would go like this: “Love Bird #1 gave me a gift. I accepted the gift. I put it on my hand. It was only after the ring was accepted and on my hand that we discussed marriage. I thought we likely would get married, but that’s not why I accepted the ring.” So, if this hypothetical relationship does not end in marriage, then Love Bird #2 has a legal argument that the ring was given unconditionally.

But compare this second hypothetical: Love Bird #1 designs a bespoke ring and presents it to Love Bird #2 while asking, “Will you marry me?” The gorgeous ring sits in Love Bird #1’s hand expectantly while Love Bird #2 considers the proposal. “Yes, of course!” Then, Love Bird #1 places the ring on Love Bird #2’s finger.

Conditional gift? Arguably, yes. If the relationship does not end in marriage, then Love Bird #2 would likely have to hand back over the ring because it was an engagement ring given on the condition that the relationship would end in marriage, which condition was not fulfilled.

Ending the Engagement

Does it matter who calls off the engagement? Not typically. Many states, including Georgia, South Carolina and New Jersey, follow a “no-fault” rule, meaning it doesn’t matter which party ends the engagement. If it was a conditional gift and the condition is not met, the recipient must return the ring.

Does it change anything if the ring incorporates a family diamond or other family heirloom? Again that phrase: “It depends.” On one hand, some courts have found that incorporating a family heirloom does not change the underlying question of whether the gift was conditional or unconditional.

If it is given unconditionally, the ring can be kept by the gift receiver. If it was conditional, it should be returned. Other courts look at the facts more clearly to determine if there was another condition on the gift, a fact that actually makes the ring more akin to a long-term loan than a gift.

For example, if Love Bird #1 might say, “This is my grandmother’s ring and we will pass it down to our children so it stays in the family.” So even if the ring was not given on the condition of marriage, a judge would likely look at the underlying facts to discern the intent of the donor (Love Bird #1) and order the ring stay with the family as the condition of that gift was keeping the ring in the family.

But what if Love Bird #1 says, “Aren’t we lucky that I don’t have to go buy a new diamond, since my aunt who just got divorced gave me hers?” In that case, even though the diamond may have come from Love Bird #1’s family, it isn’t really a family heirloom and, looking at the facts, a judge may order that the recipient could keep the ring in the event of a broken engagement.

What’s a Lover to Do?

The challenge in disputes over engagement rings is that many of these conversations — which memorialize intent and condition — are not written down in the heat of the moment. Should such issues be at the forefront of your (or your family’s mind), a gift giver is well-advised to speak with legal counsel. Depending on the value (real or personal), it may be worth the effort and unromantic conversation to hire counsel to draft a basic agreement making the ownership of the ring — and conditions of ownership — clear.

Failing that kind of first-level documentation, second-level testimony could become important, but memories fail and change, especially when family lines are drawn.    

After all, isn’t everything fair in love and war?

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Jessica Reece Fagan is a partner with HHR. She can be reached at .

Photo Credit: SAMIR HUSSEIN/GETTY IMAGES & DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

 

Michaela Mericle named Associate at Hedgepeth, Heredia, & Rieder

 Michaela Mericle

ATLANTA, November 28, 2017 -- Michaela Mericle has joined family law firm, Hedgepeth, Heredia, & Rieder (HHR) as an Associate. She joins the Cobb County firm continuing her focus on family law.

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Mericle serves as the chairperson of the Family Law Committee for the Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of Georgia, and is a member-at-large for the Executive Committee for the Family Law Section of the Georgia Bar. She joins HHR from another local law firm where she worked on high asset divorce and complicated custody cases.

Michaela’s experience in complicated cases gives her a unique insight into her family law cases,” said Hannibal Heredia, managing partner at Hedgepeth, Heredia & Rieder. 

She has spoken at several Continuing Legal Education seminars, including seminars focused on navigating the local court rules of Fulton County, meet the judges events, and events focused on complicated custody issues. Atlanta Magazine has also named Michaela Mericle a “Rising Star” in the area of family law. 

In 2011, Mericle received her JD from Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law. While in law school, she worked as a legal assistant at the Law Offices of John Goodner. She also served as an officer in the Association of Women Lawyers and volunteered with the Georgia Legal Services Program. Her undergraduate degree is also from Mercer.

Mericle is an avid runner and is active with volunteer pet rescue organization in Metro Atlanta including Angels Among Us, Re-Leash Atlanta and All About Animals. She lives in Brookhaven with her three rescue dogs. 

Daily Report: Advice for Rookies: Understand Yourself, Recognize Your Limitations

HHR Paul Simon smallerNavigating a new career can be tough. HHR Family Law attorney Paul S. Simon tells the Daily Report the keys to making your mark and succeeding as an attorney.

  • Asking questions is not enough.
  • Learning takes place when you figure things out yourself.
  • Know yourself and be willing to continue learning.

Click the link for the full story: http://tinyurl.com/yd2g7y2u

Simon can be reached at

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Moving Apart Happens in Divorce, But It Doesn’t Have to Split Your Family

By Hannibal Heredia, Hedgepeth, Heredia & Rieder

In a divorce, families go from living in one home to two. But what happens when one partner decides to move a significant distance?

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  • We’re not talking moving a few blocks, but moving out of the city where the entire family has been living, or out of state entirely.
  • One partner might move before the divorce, possibly thinking the move would be temporary, or that the other partner and kids would join them later. But it often doesn't work out that way, and the former partners end up living in different cities with a divorce underway.

Parental relocation is an issue that is growing as our society becomes ever more mobile. Here are three key things to think about for couples in this kind of “moving” situation:

1. Best Interests of the Children. You must ask: Is this move in the best interests of the child, or just the parent? The judge, as in any modification case, will look at factors such as who was the primary parent; what schedule was being followed by the parties; how active was the parent with less parenting time; what activities were the child(ren) involved in; and what age is the child. 

However, there is no formula for determining what constitutes the best interests of the child. Each judge makes the decision on a case-by-case basis. For example, a parent who accepts a job in another town paying the same wage and lives in a house the same size as the one left behind may not present a compelling argument for moving.

But adding increased access to grandparents or other family, or attending a school recognized for excellence makes it more compelling. In the end relocation decisions tend to be case by case.

2. Job Changes. Accepting a job (or marriage proposal) out of town does not automatically mean that the judge will alter the custody agreement. Before accepting, talk to your former spouse about making adjustments to the custody agreement. Ideally, if you can get buy-in from your parenting partner, then you can present the request for changes in the custody agreement together.

moving vanIf your former spouse is not on board with the move, it may take longer to get changes made. If you’ve already made the move before requesting the custody change, you may find yourself with considerably reduced access to your children.

3. Where You Are Moving Matters. If you are relocating to a different neighborhood in the same town or a nearby town, the judge is more likely to allow it, because the disruption is minimal.

Remember, however, that moving even as little 45 minutes away can mean an hour and half of travel time for the visiting parent, and can make getting a child to school on time an unmanageable challenge. The judge may decide to give weekday custody to the parent who stays in the school district, and restrict the relocating parent to custody on weekends and holidays.

Moving across the country - or to another country - ups the ante considerably. Daily visitation becomes impossible. The challenges of coparenting are magnified by distance. Most crucially, it will require significant travel by the child, which can be very expensive. The farther away a parent wants to move, the more significantly the custody agreement will have to be reworked. It becomes unlikely the parent who’s moving will get everything they’re asking for in the arrangement.

If you choose to move, for whatever reason, the judge may decide to place all travel expenses for the child solely with you. Considering that most children under 14 cannot fly alone, two plane tickets may have to be purchased for every visit.

4. Question Your Own Motives. It is common for parents to want a fresh start, but unless that fresh start comes with some tangible benefits for the child, the judge may be unlikely to grant it. Getting far away from your former spouse isn't good enough.

 It’s worth mentioning that even when a parent moves away, advances in technology have made keeping in touch easier than ever before. FaceTime, Skype, and social media allow even the most faraway parents to stay in daily contact with their kids.

Of course, physical custody of the kids is what we’re focusing on here. Divorce by its nature will always involve spouses moving in some fashion. They key is to follow these guidelines so the best interests of the children are well-considered.

Always consult your family law attorney to help you through these legal processes. You can reach Hannibal Heredia at  or (404) 846-7025.