Family Law Conference tackles alimony reform, other hot topics

Issue October 2011 By Christina P. O’Neill

Family Law attorneys and professionals whose specialties intersect with family law are invited to attend the 21st Annual Family Law Conference at Chatham Bars Inn in Chatham. The two-day event begins with an education session and cocktail reception on Friday evening, Oct. 28, with the educational programming continuing all day Saturday.

The seminar is sponsored by the MBA's Family Law Section Council, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers -- a distinguishing aspect of the event. The opening reception is sponsored by the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Association of Matrimonial Lawyers.

"The collaboration of the academy is a real asset to the conference," says conference co-chair Michael I. Flores, of Michael I. Flores LLC in Orleans. The academy comprises family law attorneys who are admitted based on a rigorous review, exam and thorough vetting process by a national body, and must have between five and 10 years of practice experience, dependent on what percentage of their practice is family law. "The academy fellows in Massachusetts are luminaries in the practice. They've all been involved in high-profile cases that have changed matrimonial and family law."

This conference provides attorneys a unique opportunity to meet judges, socialize with colleagues and update skills, while learning techniques and gaining insights from panel members consisting of judges and legal experts from a broad range of specialties. Among the half-dozen judges on the faculty is Probate and Family Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey.

This year's topics include: Developments in Family Law; Defining, Finding and Allocating Income in Support Cases; Removal; Alimony Reform; and, Parent Alienation. Significant cases to be discussed are Ansin v. Craven-Ansin; Halpern v. Rabb; JS v. CC, and several rule 1:28 cases.

The alimony reform session, beginning at 4:30 preceding Friday's cocktail reception, "should be extremely lively," Flores notes. It will focus on the new alimony reform bill, which was signed into law Sept. 26, and how it might transform alimony cases in Massachusetts. Proposed changes to the law include: taking into account the length of the dissolved marriage; cessation of alimony payments when the recipient is cohabiting with someone else; assessment of the ability to pay; and allowing the cessation of alimony payments when the paying party retires.

Marc E. Fitzgerald of Casner & Edwards LLP marks his third year of involvement with the conference and his second turn at co-chairing it. He's also in his second and last year as chair of the Family Law Section Council. Fitzgerald and Flores concur on the utility of the program for non-law professionals in real estate, social work, therapy and the state Department of Children and Families.

A Saturday panel will examine what defines income as support for the purposes of alimony, including imputed income - effectively, what a person is capable of earning.

The panel on parental alienation -- cases in which divorced parents attempt to alienate the child against the other parent - will include a therapist, a judge and two practitioners. It will instruct how to define parental alienation and what to do when it is alleged.

Removal cases are considered by judges to be the most difficult cases to decide, Fitzgerald says. Parental mobility in a job-scarce economy may come at the cost of a parent-child relationship with the non-custodial parent.

An example of the connection between family law and the economy is the approach to the fate of the family home. While the family home is still considered the most important marital asset in many instances, it can now become a liability due to the liquidity problem created by the inability to refinance, and by uncertain prospects for future income on the part of one or both of the divorcing parties.

"Family law is so much wrapped up in how families operate in connection with the greater economy and the rest of the culture, that family law is evolving much faster than other areas of the law out of necessity," says Flores.

Many practitioners don't hold themselves out or think of themselves as family law specialists, but they do handle a significant amount of divorces, he adds. As a result, those practitioners have to stay current on the trends in family law.