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Texas Toughens Child Support Enforcement

Posted on July 11th, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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In the old west, if you were convicted of certain crimes your punishment would be forfeiture of your horse. This was a serious punishment – at that time your alternative transportation options were quite limited.

Texas is taking a page out of the old west when it comes to dealing with anyone who falls far behind on their child support. But rather than targeting your horse, they are after your horsepower. Beginning this December, any Texas resident owing six months or more of child support will be unable to renew their vehicle registration.

For those with any knowledge of how Texas deals with child support scofflaws, this latest action is no surprise. The state is very aggressive in pursuing these individuals, and already holds the power to revoke all forms of personal licenses, including driver’s, professional, and recreational. This latest action by the Attorney General’s Office is just the latest measure to force compliance.

Here’s how it will work. This September, any resident already behind on their payments by six months or more will be notified of the new regulation in the standard three month renewal notice sent by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. The letter will likely state that there is currently a “hold” on that person’s registration renewal, which would normally be due in December. It will include information on how to have the hold removed.

These same individuals will also receive a letter from the Child Support Division of the Attorney General’s Office prior to the renewal date. It will outline what must be done to clear the hold on their registration. While this has obviously not yet gone to effect, as the rule stands now, anyone who doesn’t take the required action will have an expired registration come January.

While it is not my purpose to debate the pros and cons of this new child support enforcement mechanism, it is important to note that some contend this is bad public policy. Taking away a person’s transportation cannot help but make it more difficult to hold a job, make a living, and pay for their obligations. However, there is also the argument that asks, “how is revoking their auto registration going to make it more difficult to do what they are already not doing?” It is similar to the argument that putting a person in jail for not paying child support means that they will lose their job and have no chance of their paying the support they owe in the future. Judges do not usually buy this argument, for good reason. Anyone who practices family law in Texas knows that putting people in jail for not paying child support frequently results in the child support suddenly being paid. Somehow, the money becomes available. Child support becomes a priority, which it should be. The same may very well be true of revoking a scofflaw’s auto registration. It is important to add that only a small number of egregious cases result in incarceration for past-due child support.

The Attorney General’s Office will say that there are procedures in place to be sure that honest, hardworking parents who want to do the right thing and satisfy their debts to their children are able to continue to drive legally. First, there is a dedicated phone number for all registration-related inquiries. And second, parents will not be required to completely pay all past due monies – just establish a payment schedule and keep it current.

The reason this public policy question bears mentioning is because of how this rule was enacted. It was not written into law due to a bill that was passed by the Texas state legislature. The Attorney General’s Office believed it had the authority to make this change under the Texas Family Code. As such, it could be challenged (and possibly reversed) in court. On the other hand, many of the procedures the Attorney General uses have been put into place without the legislature being involved. They fall under the powers and mandate of the Office of the Attorney General to collect child support. In the 30 years I have been practicing law, the amount of child support collected has grown enormously. This has resulted in not only many more children being provided for by their own biological parents who have the responsibility for them, but an overall reduction in the costs to the taxpayers of Texas.

There is another criticism of this rule – it only targets registration renewals. If you buy a new vehicle, there will be no holdups if you’re behind on your payments. So stay tuned to see how everything turns out.

My firm will be glad to represent anyone served with such a notice.

 

Post Divorce – What Are My Social Security Benefit Options?

Posted on June 2nd, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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While we do our best to entertain and inform, today we have to tackle a tough topic. Not to be morbid, but we need to discuss death. Two types, actually – the death of a marriage (aka divorce) and actual death. Both of these types of death have profound implications for your social security benefits, and it’s never too early to be informed.

As you might have guessed, the rules pertaining to divorce and social security benefits are complicated (of course they are.) But below we will sketch out the basic facts you will need to know.

The magic number for divorced people and SS benefits is ten. If your marriage lasted ten years or longer, the SSA throws you a bone to ease your transition to retired single person. It is called the divorced spousal benefit, and once you’ve been divorced two years you can claim it.

It works like this – if you satisfy the two requirements above, you can claim either your own DSB or that of your ex-spouse – whichever is higher (generally, one ex can receive as much as 50% of the other’s benefit – less if initiated before FRA.) Or you can claim both! At full retirement age, many retirees begin collecting the higher of the two DSBs and keep collecting it until age 70. While they collect, their own SS benefit continues to grow. Then at 70 they switch to their own benefit, which in the four years could be worth as much as 30% more per month. Of course, you get that increased payment (plus COLAs) for life. See, it pays to know the rules.

Unfortunately, if you retire before FRA, you can’t use this trick. Rules require you to take the higher of the two payments, which you are stuck with for life.

What happens if you get remarried? Glad you asked – you then lose any benefit from your former spouse but are eligible to ride on your new spouse’s coattails, generally after one year. If you have been married two or more times, with each lasting 10 years, you will need to sit down and call us – the rules start to get crazy.

One other thing – you don’t have to wait for your ex to file to file yourself. You can file at age 62, but you give up the dual filing option we described earlier.

So what happens if your ex-spouse dies? From a social security perspective there are more options to consider. And again, the magic number is 10. If you were married for at least ten years, you are now eligible for divorced survivor benefits. Best of all, this benefit can be as much as 100% of what your late ex-spouse was due. You can file for this as early as age 60, or 50 if you are disabled. And listen up you senior lovebirds – if you remarry before age 60 you lose this eligibility unless the new marriage ends. But interestingly, if you remarry after 60, you can still file for the survivor benefit. And if you are receiving the divorced spousal benefit described earlier, the SSA will automatically switch you over to the higher paying survivor benefit. Thanks SSA!

Please keep in mind that Congress has tweaked the FRAs for people born after certain years. To find out what your full retirement age is, visit https://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/agereduction.html.

Life always throws a few curves, and death does too. Keep these SSA rules in mind, and feel free to call us with any questions.

 

Make the deal!

Posted on April 21st, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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People just can’t help it. Even the most congenial divorces usually involve some level of hurt feelings and rejection. And then things can quickly deteriorate into a legal tangle worthy of a Grisham novel.

True congenial divorces are pretty rare. And even if the two parties get through the initial emotional trauma, logistical issues, and child custody arrangements without a blow up, things often break down during the division of property. This is when total reality sets in, and even worse, by this time one or both parties probably has friends, relatives or neighbors giving them advice. This “advice” usually results in a more intransigent position as far as negotiations are concerned. Why? Because they are feeding into whatever feelings they see in their relative or friend. If he/she wants to punish the other person, then punishment they will get! If he/she wants to make them pay, then by God, they will pay!

This kind of thinking is like a double expresso – it will make you feel energized and alive for a while, but then it will fade and leave you worse off than before.

Keep in mind that in any legal conflict, the longer something takes, the more expensive it usually becomes. People can (and do!) fight for years over teapots and lawn chairs, or someone can ask themselves, how can this impasse be broken?

Often, it’s not that hard to resolve quickly.

Ask yourself two questions:

  1. What do I really want most?
  2. What does my counterpart want most?

If the two things are different, you are on your way to settlement.

Here’s an example – two people are married many years but the relationship slowly ends. One files, and before you know it, counter suits are flying back and forth along with discovery demands, the possible hiring of expert witnesses, etc. But the silver lining is one person would love to stay in the house, and the other wants to keep his/her retirement account.

Bingo! Your negotiation will be started by offering to trade half the home equity for half the account equity. Get an appraisal on the property, compare the two numbers mentioned, and then quibble about chairs and teapots. The quibbling won’t last because each party already believes they’ve won. They won’t care much about the small stuff.

It doesn’t have to involve assets of approximately equal value either. It’s the perceived value that matters. One person might want the house, but the other wants granny’s silver settings. Again, we have the beginning of a resolution to the negotiation – the rest is just splitting the household inventory.

In any negotiation, it is important to achieve small victories, but in a divorce, the other party must also feel successful (barring any unlawful or immoral behavior.)

If you are involved in a contentious divorce (or any similar situation), take a few breaths and ask yourself the two questions referenced earlier. This technique can often be the key to a swift resolution that respects the feelings of all parties (including children) while easing the financial and time burden.

We can assist you in asking and answering these questions. Please feel free to call anytime.

 

Money and Marriage Can Be Happily Ever After

Posted on March 23rd, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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Money and marriage. Like oil and vinegar, they don’t mix well unless you take the time to shake things up a little.

One of the earliest acknowledgements that personal finance was fraught with danger was by the Apostle Paul. He told his young disciple Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” And Paul was single, so maybe he was sugarcoating it a little. Dr. Phil (who is married) is more succinct, firing a warning shot over the whole institution of matrimony with “Money can ruin your marriage.”

Strong words that happened to be spoken 2,000 years apart. What are newlyweds to do? How can such dire warnings be addressed?

Communication and Expectations.

When you think about the sequence of events that occurs when two people fall in love, discussing a family budget does not even rank. This is not because the parties don’t consider family finance important, it’s because they consider it very important and personal.  As everyone knows, “it’s personal” is a commonly used excuse for keeping a secret, but when committing to a new life with a partner, there can’t be secrets. How do two people confront this topic early, in an honest and non-confrontational way so feelings are not hurt and mutual cooperation is preserved?

The recommendation is pretty unanimous among marriage counselors, bloggers, and reporters, including Chris Arnold of NPR – make a budget.

In his March 8 story “How to Keep Money from Messing Up Your Marriage,” Arnold writes that there are deep-seated feelings to be addressed when two people combine financial forces. Maybe one person is handling more of the home responsibilities and working less. Maybe there are children involved and one career is being sacrificed more than the other. Or perhaps the split of household expenses has become unequal over time.

If something is bothering one party and the other doesn’t know, this is a recipe for problems. So hold a family summit and get all the financial issues on the table. Figure out how much your household expenses and other mandatory outlays are (a good exercise for everyone) and how they should be paid. List the non-mandatory but very important expenses (like contributions to retirement or savings accounts) and decide how to find these. Then, tackle what might be the most important category – personal expenses. Agree on how much of the monthly pot each of you gets to call your own.

It doesn’t sound that critical, but consider this, as pointed out in the NPR story. What happens when one party needs to approach the other for spending money? Is that a healthy way to maintain a life partnership, or have things suddenly gone parental?

There can’t be unequal partners in any sort of marriage, so decide on some basic rules. Each party gets a certain amount of money twice per month that is theirs and does not have to be reconciled. Either party can make purchases up to a certain amount without checking with the other. Then, agree on how credit card balances will be jointly handled.

Communicate with full disclosure, and then agree on rules so expectations are set. Commit to a periodic review of the rules to be sure to account for changes in circumstances.

Get this right, and Dr. Phil won’t be.

 

Programs that help with child support payment and collections

Posted on February 25th, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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One of my goals is to bring awareness to families in The Greater Houston area of programs that are offered right in our backyard. There are several families who find themselves needing assistance and I’ve outlined two programs which are beneficial in helping with child support payment, and collections.

The Noncustodial Parent Choices (NCP Choices)

The Noncustodial Parent, or NCP, Choices Program is offered to low-income noncustodial parents who are unemployed or underemployed and behind on their child support payment. The children of these parents must be current or former recipients of public assistance in order to be a part of the program.

The NCP Choices Program has a mission to help noncustodial parents overcome the barriers to employment and career advancement while working to become stable and make consistent child support payments.

The NCP Choices Program operates in 17 Workforce Development Boards in the state of Texas including the Gulf Coast and Southeast Texas. (For a full list of the development boards, visit their website.)

Over the last 10 years the NCP has been successful at delivering employment, job retention and child support results to one of the hardest-to-serve population while producing some hefty stats:

  • 71% of participating noncustodial parents entered employment.
  • On average, the noncustodial parents entered employment within eight weeks.
  • 77% of participating noncustodial parents retained employment for at least 6 months.

In order to be eligible for the NCP Choice program, you must meet certain qualifications. Download their comprehensive guide in order to learn more about the eligibility requirements and program.

The FOCAS Program

The FOCAS Program stands for Focus On Collection And Services and is provided by the District Clerk’s Office in collaboration with partners to enhance the collection of child support by monitoring and enforcing child support utilizing various enforcement tools.

The main goal is to ensure that children in the Houston area are given continued support and improving their lives.

There are several benefits of this program including:

  • Locating non-custodial parents
  • Collecting child support through income withholding and income tax refund intercept
  • Enforcing child support orders and medical support orders
  • Reviewing and modifying child support orders

There are certain qualifications for the FOCAS program. Learn if you and your family qualifies by downloading the FOCAS presentation.

While many families hire a private attorney to handle certain aspects of a divorce, as they find the process less stressful and faster than dealing with an agency. However, it’s important to learn about and understand the many different programs available to families and children while going through a divorce. Take advantage of these programs and share them with your friends and family in order to build awareness in our community.

 

Be My Ex-Valentine

Posted on February 12th, 2016 by The Red Headed Lawyer

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It’s Valentine’s Day this Sunday. Have you finished your shopping and dinner plans yet? Maybe you scheduled some spa services as a gift? Did you get a sitter for the kids? Who’s going to let the dog out? It’s not surprising that family strife seems to escalate around holidays. There’s pressure to entertain, pressure to cook and clean up for company, and of course, pressure to smile the whole time like you’re having a blast. However, when it comes to holiday-induced stress, Valentine’s Day is probably the worst.

Why?

Let’s face it. At the end of any other holiday, you get to show everyone the door. Valentine’s Day is a celebration for two, and most of the time, you already live together. You can’t go to your corner after the fight and nurse your wounds. You both live in the corner!

So for Valentine’s Day, stress is already off the charts due to the high expectations of “getting it right.” If you and your partner aren’t getting along, that just adds another layer of misery to the occasion. And unfortunately, you can’t escape the hype. Why? Because it’s everywhere! Walk away into Wal-Mart and there is row upon row of heart-shaped merchandise. Local supermarkets set up special stand-alone Valentine boutiques where all of us are expected to select fabulous gifts for our partner or prospective partner. Some of them are drive-through! Even Papa Johns has heart-shaped pizzas! Expectations are super high, as is fear of failure.

Psychologists will advise couples in turmoil to examine their situation in logical steps. Define the problem first. Often the problem will look different to each partner, and by stating it out loud (either together or in front of a mediator or other unbiased third party), they may be able to boil it down to a single statement or two that makes sense to both. Of course, this may not be possible, but you have to try. Second, it is important to determine what the underlying factors might be. Sometimes, the loss of a job can cause mental as well as physical issues. Aging results in changes to the bond and mind. Couples sometimes report a feeling of lethargy and uselessness once the kids leave the nest for school. Retirement by one or both parties often causes the same reaction. Once the problem or problems are identified and you both agree why, it is often possible to find a way forward.

But it may be that the problem issues are too ingrained, or you both have become too locked into your positions. And this realization, whether you realize it or not, can turn a normal holiday into an excruciating curse. How do you fake romance and empathy when you don’t feel it? Unless you have a handful of Oscars on your mantle, it can’t be done. And this is why holidays like Valentine’s Day can become the proverbial straw the breaks the camel’s back. At some point, the fear of breaking up gives way to the fear of staying together.

If you and your significant other are having problems, by all means seek counseling. Divorces are rarely a joy-filled experience. But if you have realistically exhausted all avenues of reconciliation, give us a call at The Essex Law Firm. We know relationships are very difficult and we don’t judge. But if we begin the process while relations are still relatively civil, the process can be faster, less expensive, and far less painful.