Law and Daily Life: June 2009 Archives
Law & Daily Life - The FindLaw Life, Family and Workplace Law Blog

June 2009 Archives

What Happens to Debt After Death?

Reports today pointed out the possible existence of a 2002 will for Michael Jackson (believed to be his last) that divides his estate amongst his mom, children, and charity, although it looks like Papa Joe was left out. Regardless of questions regarding the validity of Michael Jackson's will, whatever happens to his assets will probably be complicated by the fact that he had sizeable debts plus varied, complex financial relationships. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal story suggests Jackson died with an astronomical $500 million in debt. Although such debt is way, WAY, beyond that which most will ever face, it still may leave many people wondering what happens to debts after a debtor passes away?

Although for the sake of our children and families most would probably wish that it simply vanishes, it doesn't work that way. So what, does it become a families' debt, instead? That would be a rather painful legacy, and, fortunately, that is generally not what happens either. Generally, unless someone has signed on to it in some way, they cannot be held personally liable for another person's debt. Examples of such circumstances would be if someone has co-signed a loan or is a joint credit card holder. People should also be careful about intermingling their assets (i.e. in joint or family bank accounts), because for purposes of creditors, funds therein could be attributed to anyone with access to the account.

Prenups in the Downturn: Make Them Flexible

Prenuptial agreements can specify who gets what in a wide variety of splitsville scenarios. However, as some couples divorcing in the downturn have found, numbers that didn't sound so big a few years back can now seem much bigger. One way to avoid having a prenup that quickly goes out of date is to make it flexible and use formulas for calculating payments, rather than set dollar amounts.

Changed circunstances can affect a prenuptial agreement in a variety of ways. As discussed in the Wall Street Journal's The Wallet, specified payments on divorce may no longer be possible. Some prenups also require the wealthier spouse to pay into an account during the marriage. The money to make those payments may no longer be there.

One way to avoid the unavoidably awkward topic of renegotiating a prenup after the fact is to draft the original agreement broadly enough to take into account possible changes circumstances. These could include the birth of children, loss of a job, and decreased income to name a few. Instead of specifying any hard dollar amounts, putting a formula based on assets, income and other factors into the prenup will allow it to stay current in unforeseen circumstances.

Jackson's Mother Appointed Temporary Guardian of King of Pop's Kids

In what may be the opening shot in a legal skirmish over custody of Michael Jackson's children, a Los Angeles judge has named the late singer's mother as temporary legal guardian of his three kids, the Los Angeles Times is reporting this morning.

But what is guardianship, and how will today's decision impact any future legal wrangling over custody of the singer's children?

What is Guardianship? A person who has been granted guardianship of a child has the legal authority to act on the child's behalf until he or she reaches the age of 18 -- including the power to make decisions related to education, health care, and finances.

Following up on the New Haven firefighter "reverse discrimination" case being heard in the Supreme Court (see the background covered here), the high court today ruled 5-4 in favor of white and Hispanic firefighters who sued New Haven, Connecticut, claiming racial discrimination. The Court said the city was not allowed to discriminate against plaintiffs by throwing out its test used for promotions, as the city did not adequately show that it would have been liable to minority firefighters under "disparate-impact" law. However, the clarity of the line the court drew in the sand for these types of cases is already being questioned.

Here's what was going on and what was decided. The firefighter plaintiffs in the case, who were predominantly white, claimed "disparate-treatment" (i.e. they were being treated differently) due to the city's race-based decision to discard the test results. Such a racially motivated decision, even if made in favor of minorities, violates civil rights laws unless there is a valid legal excuse. The city's excuse? It should be allowed to toss out the test results because, if it didn't, it would be liable to minority firefighters under a separate law for "disparate-impact" discrimination. In other words, its test had an illegal discriminatory effect on minorities.

Debbie Rowe, Michael Jackson's Ex, to Get Kids?

Law on Termination of Parental Rights May Give Her Chance

Following the tragic news of Michael Jackson's death yesterday, many questions have been asked relating to the circumstances surrounding his untimely passing. However, an article out today deals with a question that, from the perspective of a family dealing with unforeseen tragedy, is probably of far more importance and immediacy. That is, what's going to happen to Michael Jackson's children, Paris, Prince Michael, and Prince Michael II (aka Blanket)?

The story suggested that although in the short term they will probably be staying with Michael Jackson's mom, according to NBC News' legal analyst Dan Abrams, "a custody battle may be on the horizon. The most likely claimant would be Debbie Rowe, Jackson's second wife and the biological mother of Prince Michael and Paris; Blanket was born of an unidentified surrogate mother in Europe." Abrams further suggests that even the existence of a will by Jackson dealing with the custody issue might not be enough if Rowe steps in. And indeed, KTLA reports that Debbie Rowe is planning on doing just that, despite reports that she has had "very limited" contact with her children and that she even tried to give up all her parental rights to her two children back when MJ and Rowe divorced in 1999.

When Married Same-Sex Couples Have Difficulties: Divorce an Option?

Martina Navratilova's ex, Toni Layton, is suing the former tennis star for, basically, dumping her. Layton is claiming millions of dollars in the suit for, as the Daily Mail describes it, "'emotional, mental and physical trauma' she suffered after being 'removed' from 52-year-old Navratilova's life a year ago." The suit claims "the couple agreed to 'evenly share' all funds and assets earned and obtained by either while together' when they wed in New Hampshire in 2000." Without delving into the details of the underlying claims, an interesting aspect of the case is how the suit is described as a "domestic partnership lawsuit", as opposed to a "divorce". The case illustrates how, despite advances made by advocates in having same-sex marriages legalized in various states, there may exist major legal hurdles should such a marriage face difficulties down the line.

Police Paid to Shoot ... Hoops? Note on Whistleblower Claims

Some cops in Tacoma, Washington, may have had some pretty enviable job "duties". That is at least, according to a whistleblower, who claims police officers in the Tacoma Police Department got paid to play basketball. Worse yet, this might have been happening for years, reports KOMO. Okay, to avoid being one-sided here, the cops apparently were playing in a yearly charity that promotes "a community free of illegal drugs and gang activity". But then again "the complaint alleges, the officers were even getting paid to practice." Well, unfortunately for the police basketball players, someone didn't approve (wasn't invited on the team, perhaps?) and filed a whistleblower complaint leading to an internal affairs investigation.

Although whistleblower complaints are heard about fairly frequently in the news, people might not know much about whistleblower laws. The basic idea behind these laws is that employees who report, i.e. blow the whistle on, believed violations of law by an employer are protected by both state and federal whistleblower laws. Whistleblowing laws have also been designed to encourage the reporting of government waste and fraud.

Jon and Kate No More: Would an Affair Affect Divorce?

So, the sad and arguably, inevitable, conclusion many anticipated to the Jon and Kate Gosselin marriage may have arrived. People reports that divorce papers for the two stars of the popular TLC show Jon & Kate Plus Eight were filed in Pennsylvania this afternoon. Speculation on the rocky state of the Gosselin marriage had been rampant, and it was long-rumored that a split was coming. This was particularly so after rumors surfaced of an alleged affair by Jon. Although such affair was never confirmed, admitted, etc., many people might be wondering if an affair would affect anything in the divorce proceedings?

Although some states now go with a "no fault" system for divorce, Pennsylvania allows both "no fault" and "fault" divorces. In a "no fault" divorce, a spouse asking for a divorce isn't trying to say or prove that the other person did something wrong to cause the divorce. In Pennsylvania, one or both parties can claim that a marriage is "irretrievably broken" due to no fault of either party, but interestingly, a court will still look into the matter further if the other party disputes the issue. 23 Pa.C.S.A. section 3301.

Employers Want Online Passwords and Usernames for Background Checks?

City of Bozeman, MT, Pushes Privacy Boundaries with Background Check Form

It might be getting to the point where people are starting to tune out the countless warnings and tales of workplace woe involving regrettable pictures or posts put up on Facebook, MySpace, or other Web social networking sites. By now, most people probably understand that they could very well get looked up online (whether via Google or elsewhere), and that they need to watch what they post on the Web.

Well, the City of Bozeman, Montana, would like to add a bit more kindling to stoke the flames of prying-employer worries. Apparently, Bozeman is requiring all job applicants to hand over usernames and passwords to various online accounts.

Yeah, you read that right. Here's Bozeman's short, one page "waiver" form, where it states about three-quarters of the way through:

Considering news that the unemployment rate went up in almost every state during May, or to be more specific, in 48 states plus D.C., there may be no better time to review some tax considerations in the context of losing a job.

Bob D. Scharin, Senior Tax Analyst for the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters has some great tax tips for couples and families where one of the wage-earning spouses has lost their job. One of the tips was for income tax withholding, which is something that may be often-overlooked because people sometimes don't remember that their withholdings usually anticipate a full year's worth of earnings:

Most people know that employers can't discriminate against someone on the basis of that person's sex, age, race, religion, national origin. Most might assume that the law is going to scrutinize those forms of discrimination in a similar manner. But a Supreme Court ruling today essentially says that age is different. Those suing under federal law for age discrimination in the workplace will have a significantly higher hurdle to jump in proving certain age discrimination claims.

The lawsuit reviewed by the high court was brought under the federal law covering age discrimination known as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). This law prohibits employment discrimination against persons 40 years of age or older. The plaintiff, Jack Gross, brought his lawsuit claiming he was wrongfully demoted by his employer, FBL Financial Group, Inc., on account of his age. A jury ruled in his favor and awarded him a money judgment, but a federal appeals court overturned the ruling.

Next in Line to Sue Obama ... 100+ Kids?

Children Join Immigration Debate via Lawsuit

President Obama's been sued over his citizenship before, but the most recent lawsuit against him involving citizenship actually was brought by over a hundred kids who say they are being denied their rights as U.S. citizens. The children are suing Obama and asking that a court stop their immigrant parents' deportations, according to an AP story.

The children's plight is sympathetic, after all, they had no part in the decision-making leading to their circumstances. Now some face the prospect of perhaps being raised by a single parent, or alternatively moving out of the country they've known their whole lives. Opponents argue deporting parents is about the same as having their children deported. At the same time, the policy arguments supporting the deportation of the parents may be strong, as well. After all, if the parents were allowed to stay simply by having a baby in the country, wouldn't that encourage illegal immigration?

Defense of Marriage Act Defended by Obama DOJ

Recently, the Department of Justice moved to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the Defense of Marriage Act. The move itself, and the particular arguments made in support of the law have drawn criticism from groups waiting for Obama to make good on campaign promises to get the Defense of Marriage Act repealed.

For a nice description the of why the Obama administration likely saw a need to defend the Act, why they will likely win and where they may have gone too far, see this article by Cornell Law Professor Mike Dorf.

The Defense of Marriage Act was passed in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton. It does two important things. It:

  • defines marriage to be between one man and one woman for purposes of federal law (implicating taxes, federal employment benefits, immigration and other arenas); and
  • specifies that no state has to recognize a same-sex relationship as marriage, even if another state has deemed it a marriage.

Normally, without that second part, one might think that all states need to recognize same-sex marriages from other states for the same reason they have to recognize heterosexual marriages from other states -- the Constitution's full faith and credit clause. It requires states to recognize the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. Marriage is typically viewed as a public act.

Can a Judge Tell You What to Wear in Court?

The Michigan Supreme Court has voted 5-2 to give judges across the state control over what witnesses wear in court, which could very well include the veil Muslim women sometimes wear, the AP reports. The issue came up after Ginnnah Muhammad, a Muslim woman, refused to remove her niqab and had her case dismissed by a judge. The AP piece noted that the dispute over Muslim veils in court is a "cutting-edge issue" likely to recur elsewhere in the country, so Michigan's high court may have set an important example.

The proposed amendment to Michigan's Rules of Evidence suggested adding the following language to the existing Rule:

"(b) Appearance of Parties and Witnesses. The court shall exercise reasonable control over the appearance of parties and witnesses so as to (1) ensure that the demeanor of such persons may be observed and assessed by the fact-finder, and (2) to ensure the accurate identification of such persons."

RadarOnline Website Hit With Labor Violations for Taping Octomom Kids

Are You Doing "Work" You Should get Paid For?

The RadarOnline Web site has been nailed by California authorities with a bunch of child labor law violations involving the videotaping of two of the now-infamous "Octomom" Nadya Suleman's octuplets. This comes on the relative heels of similar reports about the Jon and Kate Plus 8 "crew", involving investigations of child labor law violations with their reality series. Now, it might not even cross some people's minds that a child, who might simply be living their daily life, could actually be "working" in the ordinary sense of the word. But at the same time, those same people might not be aware there are a number of instances where they themselves may be entitled to get paid by their employer, even though they might not be "working" in the typical sense.

Here's a quick run-down of four big categories that are sometimes overlooked:

The California Mortgage Foreclosure Prevention Act went into effect today. For lenders deemed to have less than comprehensive loan modification programs, the new law places a 90 day delay on some foreclosures. Though many lenders already have federal incentives to offer loan modifications, the new law will delay foreclosure on some owner occupied residences and will hopefully give California lenders further incentive to renegotiate mortgages instead of foreclosing.

Under the new law, unless they wish to wait an additional 90 days longer than normally required, lenders must apply for an exemption in order to foreclose on certain mortgages. To get an exemption, they must offer a "comprehensive" loan modification program. To be covered under the new law, in addition to the lender not having an exemption, the mortgage must:

  • be secured by residential property and have been recorded between January 1, 2003, and January 1, 2008;
  • be the first mortgage or deed of trust secured by that property;
  • be on the borrower's principal residence at the time the loan became delinquent; and
  • a notice of default must have been recorded on the property.

One potentially large hole in California's new law is that it does not cover many mortgages that are "investor owned." This leaves out in the cold many homeowners whose mortgages were securitized. That now seemingly dirty word refers to mortgages packaged into securities which were purchased all over the world. In short, these bundled mortgages are governed by contracts specifying what the servicer can and cannot do with the bundle. If renegotiating the mortgage would be contrary to that contract, California's new protection will not apply.

Additionally, the borrower cannot be in bankruptcy, and cannot have hired "an organization, person or entity whose primary business is advising people who have decided to leave their homes regarding how to extend the foreclosure process and avoid their contractual obligations to mortgagees or beneficiaries."

Connecticut's highest court has ruled that anti-aging "guru" Dr. Nicholas Perricone's confidentiality agreement he had with his former wife Madeleine is still valid and can be enforced to prohibit her from discussing the former couple's relationship. Perricone, the writer of such best sellers as "The Wrinkle Cure" and "The Perricone Prescription", had sought a restraining order against his ex after finding out she wanted to appear on TV (presumably to trash him?). Anyway, in an age when information can be easily published and disseminated to a huge audience, such a case might make people wonder about confidentiality agreements in marriage, and if/when they might be necessary or useful.

Often, when we hear about confidentiality agreements it is in the context of our jobs, where someone might sign such an agreement upon accepting a job offer (along with a multitude of other forms and paperwork). Some jobs and locations deal with sensitive equipment, ideas, or other information that is valuable in and of itself. For this reason, employers have a financial interest in not letting employees divulge their secrets, either during or after their employment.

Do Chapter 13 and Student Loans Go Together? Supreme Court to Tackle Case

The AP reports that the Supreme Court is going to rule on whether a person can have their student loan debt discharged in Chapter 13 bankruptcy if the creditor holding that debt gets notice of the intended plan, but fails to object. For anyone dealing with the burden of student loan debt, the story might raise a number of valid questions. Foremost might be, can a Chapter 13 bankruptcy be used to reduce student loan debt? Also, why wouldn't a creditor object to such a plan?

Unlike Chapter 7 bankruptcy, a Chapter 13 bankruptcy is used to create a "bankruptcy plan" that sets up a schedule of outlined payments by a debtor to his or her creditors. Upon successful completion of the plan through its duration (often 3 or 5 years), the debtor generally obtains a discharge of the debts provided for by the plan.

However, as those who've looked into the issue at all might be aware, it is often said that student loans debts are difficult to discharge in bankruptcy. So what happened in this Chapter 13 case? Well, sometimes debtors (unwittingly or otherwise) try to squeeze in student loan debt into their Chapter 13 bankruptcy plans to try and get such debt discharged.

When Can Foreclosure Start?

Actor Steven Baldwin's foreclosed home in New York is going to public auction later this month, and although the AP reports that Baldwin reportedly paid only $515,000 on the home, filings indicate that "Baldwin and his wife Kennya defaulted on more than $824,000 in payments" to the mortgage holder. Now, most of us might not ever be in a position for that sort of default, but many people might still be wondering when can a lender start foreclosure proceedings?

Mortgages are creatures of contract, and it is these contracts, along with the laws and procedures in each state, that guide: 1) mortgage defaults; 2) what types of foreclosures are available; and 3) when and how a foreclosure can proceed against a defaulting borrower. It's important for homeowners to read up on and be familiar with the specific terms of their mortgages and the actions a lender can take upon missed payment(s). Most mortgages, for example, will have a grace period for a missed payment, and also will have acceleration provisions that allow for lenders to "accelerate" the total amount due on a mortgage upon default.

'Mercy' for Madonna: Malawi Supreme Court Allows Adoption

The Supreme Court of Malawi has allowed Madonna to adopt her second Malawian child. The decision reverses a lower court ruling which held that the pop diva had not satisfied Malawi's requirement that those seeking to adopt must reside in the country for 18 months. The judge looked past this requirement in light of Madonna's large charitable contributions to the children of Malawi.

When her application to adopt Chifondo ("Mercy") James was initially rejected, we discussed Malawi's residency requirement and the lower court judge who was willing to actually enforce it against Madonna. Malawi's law requires adoptive parents to live in Malawi for at least 18 months. It aims to prevent child trafficking. As put by the lower court judge, Madonna's wish to adopt the girl squarely put the interests of a single child against rules designed to protect all Malawian children.

As reported by the AP, Madonna's extensive work on behalf of Malawian children was enough for Malawi's Supreme Court to tip the scales. Amongst other efforts, Madonna founded Raising Malawi to assist Malawian children with AIDS. Critics argue Madonna used her celebrity and power to force the court's hand. Others say the assistance she's provided (and will continue to provide) benefits the children of Malawi as a whole, and that she is a far cry from the child traffickers whom the residency requirement aims to thwart.

Malawi's Supreme Court held that the lower court had taken an antiquated view of the situation, applying old rules and not taking into account Madonna's many contributions to Malawi's children.

When combined with divorce, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter don't simply give us anecdotes about the seemingly least human ways to communicate intimate information. They also give attorneys a treasure trove of information that could affect the outcome of divorce proceedings.

Stories like the supposed first "Facebook divorce," don't really show us anything new. In that one, a woman in the UK first found out her husband intended to divorce her by reading his Facebook wall.

Social media tools simply add to the long line of communication tools used to deliver the marital knock-out. No doubt there was a first divorce by letter, a first telegraph divorce, a first telephone divorce, and a first email divorce. (Though the public nature of letting someone know on a social networking site is admittedly weird.)

However -- throw an angrily divorcing couple and some social media together, and you can get a spicy stew of information that can be used by divorce attorneys to affect decisions about custody and/or assets.

Steps to Deal with Workplace Sexual Harrasment, and Worse

The CEO of Steiff, the toy maker known for the original Teddy bears, and the company itself have been slapped with an $80 million sexual harassment and assault lawsuit by the CEO's former executive assistant. A CNN story listed some of the horrific conduct alleged by the former assistant (now a marketing exec), including a claim that he raped her. For fear of losing her job, she did not report that incident, and she claims to have endured various other unwanted advances for about 5 years.

Unfortunately, rapes and sexual assaults are underreported crimes for many reasons, and it might be that it is even tougher to bring the issue up in the workplace context, despite statistics showing that nearly 7% of all rapes occur at work. It is understandable for employees to fear for their job when considering reporting sexual harassment or discrimination at work, but the law does prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who make those types of reports (for example, the Steiff employee above still works for the company). The following are some steps for individuals dealing with sexual harassment, or worse, incidents of sexual assault in the workplace:

Adoptions, Divorces, and Marriages: All Slowed by Recession

Although some have suggested that the ongoing recession may result in a rise in the divorce rate, results from a FindLaw survey may indicate that the recession is actually delaying many Americans' major life events such as marriage, having children, and yes, even divorce. FindLaw's survey indicated that due to their concerns over the economy:

  • One in ten Americans are postponing marriage
  • One in ten Americans are delaying having children
  • Six percent of Americans considering adopting children are holding off
  • Four percent of Americans are delaying divorce

The survey also suggested that economy's effect is felt in particular by younger people as almost "40 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 are delaying marriage, divorce or having children." Perhaps hand-in-hand with that statistic, more than a third of people with yearly incomes below $35,000 say they are delaying marriage, divorce or having children because of the economy (compared to only 7% of those making $75,000/year or more).

Judge Says Horn Honking Is Not Free Speech: Neighbors' Dispute Leads to Arrest

People who honk their horn gratuitously and/or angrily better watch out because they might not have the First Amendment to fall back on if they get in trouble for it. At least, that's what an appellate court judge in Washington said in the case of Helen Immelt, who got arrested for, essentially, excessive horn honking.

The whole noisy matter started, as is so often the case, with a dispute between neighbors. One of Immelt's neighbors, John Vorderbrueggen, complained to their neighborhood homeowners' association about chickens Immelt was keeping in her yard. It's not clear whether the chickens were making too much noise, or what exactly the problem with the chickens was. But if their noise was actually the problem, Vorderbrueggen ended up bringing on a whole lot more raucous issues onto himself.

"Widow Penalty" Finished? DHS Suspends Actions Against Widowed Immigrants

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) today announced that it is going to stop deporting certain widowed immigrants under an oft-criticized "quirk" in immigration law. According to the AP, current law requires the deportation of immigrants who have applied for residency based on their marriage to a U.S. citizen, but whose spouse dies before the residency application gets processed. The DHS's decision affects not only those widowed immigrants, but also their children, and suspends any actions against them for two years.

Previously, the issue of the so-called "widow penalty" in immigration law had been battled out in the federal court system. However, appellate courts that have addressed the issue have had mixed decisions on the validity of such deportations. Recently, the First Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with the issue head-on, invalidating the deportation of Neang Chea Taing, a widowed immigrant from Cambodia.

Evicted for Being Nudist: 4 Common Eviction Defenses

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A couple in Colorado say they are the victims of discrimination via threats of eviction from their landlord. One of them fumes, "We want our freedom...We want exactly what the law gives you, and we don't want to be harassed about it." Well said! So, what insidious form discrimination do they face? It might be...well...thong and pasties discrimination?

Robert and Catharine Pierce, 58 and 51-years old, respectively, say that their near nude gardening wearing such skimpy gear has got their neighbors and landlord all fed up at the sight. The cops haven't been much help, as they reportedly say the Pierces aren't breaking "the law as long as their genitals are covered."

So now, the landlord is turning to threats of eviction, claiming the Pierces, in all their undressed-gardening-glory, constitute a nuisance. Although hopefully their case doesn't end up in court (although we might love to hear the arguments for and against their being a nuisance), it might make people wonder what sort of defenses exist in eviction cases. Here are four commonly employed defenses to eviction actions:

The West Virginia's high court has ruled in favor of Kathryn Kutil and Cheryl Hess, a same-sex couple, who sought to stop the state's Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) from removing a baby girl from their foster home. The high court ruled in the couple's favor rejecting claims that the foster child would be better placed in a "traditional" home with a prospective adoptive mother and father pair.

This case involved a baby girl who was born with traces of cocaine and oxycodone in her blood. As a result, she was taken away from her mom (the dad's identity is unknown) by the state and placed in Kutil and Hess' home. Noteably, the couple's home had been approved by the Department for both foster care and adoption, and actually was serving as a foster home to other children.

In the wake actor David Carradine's tragic death in a Bangkok hotel, papers filed by his ex-wife in their 2003 divorce have been unearthed in attempts to shed light on his lifestyle and death. Seeing such intimate personal details laid bare reminds us that it is often a good idea to request, and confirm, that divorce papers be filed under seal.

Confidentiality in divorce proceedings is a good idea for many reasons. Divorce papers contain personal information including names, addresses and social security numbers at the very least. Additionally, bank account information and other data could be an identity theft risk if made public. As the Carradine case makes clear, divorce papers can also include extremely personal information which furthermore can come from parties trying to paint each other in the worst light possible.

So, what can a divorcing party do? One option is to request that divorce papers be filed "under seal."

Five Tips on Child Custody and Visitation

Earlier we wrote about New Jersey dad David Goldman's continuing effort to get back custody of his son Sean, who has allegedly been kept wrongly in Brazil ever since the family went there on vacation in 2004. Well, CNN had an update noting that, despite the fact that a Brazilian court had ruled in David Goldman's favor, a Brazilian Supreme Court judge on Tuesday suspended the custody order. According to the judge "taking Sean 'in an abrupt manner' from his home could cause the boy psychological harm."

However, Goldman replied that "the boy was suffering psychological harm simply by remaining with his Brazilian relatives, whom Goldman accused of turning his son against him." Although the Goldman case is probably not typical, custody disputes can still often be bitter, and it is particularly unfortunate when a child is exposed or placed in the middle of such a battle. With both children and families' wellness in mind, here are five tips on general child custody and visitation issues:

The image most associated with parental neglect is an undernourished child. The recent case of a South Carolina mother and son, however, brings to the forefront an issue more states will be grappling with: can a child's obesity related health concerns result in a parent's loss of custody?

Medical neglect leading to loss of parental rights does not always have to involve religious parents who opt to refuse cancer treatment for their kids. While the case of Daniel Hauser brought child health, parental rights and religious beliefs into conflict, the case of Alexander Draper in South Carolina presents a question that may become more common -- can a child's obesity can signal parental neglect worthy of taking the child out of the home?

The short answer is that yes, it sometimes can. As reported by the AP, 49 year old mother Jerri Gray was arrested yesterday for violating a custody order. Instead of appearing at an ordered hearing with the Department of Social Services (DSS), she fled the state with her son. As indicated by WYFF Greenville, DSS was set to remove Gray's 14 year old son from her home due to medical neglect. He reportedly weighs 555 pounds.

WFYY quotes Gray's attorney as confirming that the child's was to be taken from the home due to his mother's alleged failure to address his medical needs.

Just in case there isn't enough alarm about finances and the state of the American health care system, here's a little bit more bad news to pile on. According to the AP, a study shows that medical bills are behind over 60 percent of personal bankruptcy filings. Even more alarming, this is despite the fact that over 75 percent of those bankruptcy families had health insurance! In the words of one Harvard researcher, "[u]nless you're Warren Buffett, your family is just one serious illness away from bankruptcy".

Some might simply cite this as one reason why it is important to have a "rainy day fund " set aside of personal savings to lessen the impact of unexpected medical bills (not to mention job losses or other catastrophes), but for many people this is far easier said than done. Further, even having some savings set aside may very well not enable people to avoid some of the overwhelming debt described in the article. In light of this, many might be wondering about the debts dischargeable in bankruptcy, and whether medical bills would be one of them.

Adoption: Same Sex Couples and the Law

A federal court of appeals yesterday upheld a lower court's rejection of a lawsuit brought by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights against San Francisco. The lawsuit was brought after the Board passed a non-binding resolution in 2006 resolution that, to put it mildly, had some harsh language about a Catholic leader's directive on same-sex adoptions. Although the suit itself was noteworthy (you can read more about it here), people might wonder just what the laws are on same-sex adoption in the first place. The following provides a quick primer on the subject, as well as some resources.

Individuals, including those who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, are allowed to petition to adopt children individually in every state except Florida. However, if it is an unmarried partner that wants to adopt their partner's child, this is called a second parent adoption and such petitions may be allowed in about half of all states. Stepparent adoptions, where a married spouse adopts their partner's child are also permitted by some states' domestic partnership laws.

Court Says Starbucks Baristas Must Share Tips With Supervisors

A California court has ruled against Starbucks "baristas" in their class action suit to recover tips they had claimed were wrongfully shared with Starbucks "shift supervisors". This overturns a previous judgment requiring Starbucks to repay the baristas $85 million in allegedly unpaid tips.

The baristas in the case had argued that a provision of California's labor laws prohibited the shift supervisors from getting piece of the tip box pie because the law stated:

"No employer or agent shall collect, take, or receive any gratuity or a part thereof that is paid, given to, or left for an employee by a patron . . . . Every gratuity is hereby declared to be the sole property of the employee or employees to whom it was paid, given, or left for."

The trial court agreed with plaintiffs, saying that a shift supervisor is an "agent" who can't take tips left for employees (baristas). However, the court of appeals disagreed, reasoning that even assuming shift supervisors are agents, the law says nothing about them taking their share of tips left for both baristas and shift supervisors.

International Parental Abduction: Laws and Tips

In a long-running dispute, a Brazilian court has ruled in favor of a New Jersey father trying to get his 8-year old son, Sean Goldman, back to the United States. David Goldman's efforts to regain custody of Sean started after David and his then-wife Bruna Goldman traveled to Brazil with their son. It was then that she allegedly disappeared with Sean and told David she wanted a divorce (and obviously custody). She succeeded in obtaining them in Brazilian courts, but Bruna passed away in childbirth last August.

It was then that David renewed his efforts to regain custody of Sean, while Sean's stepfather allegedly took such steps as having David's name removed from the birth certificate in Brazil (despite the fact he was born in New Jersey). Well, finally, apparently with high profile, e.g. Hillary Clinton, and media help, David appears to have succeeded. So what happens if a parent wrongfully removes a child out of state, or worse yet, the country?

A North Carolina judge has been publicly reprimanded by the state's Judicial Standards Commission for his online activities relating to a case before him. His misdeeds? "Friending" the defense counsel and discussing the case with him online plus doing extra-curricular online research regarding the plaintiff. Though judges (if foolish enough) can now do it online via Twitter, Facebook or whatever comes next, these are examples of long standing no-no's for judges: "ex-parte" communications and doing independent research about cases before them.

What's one way to have a child custody order vacated? Show that the judge "friended" the other side's lawyer and discussed the case on Facebook. The case in question was a child custody dispute before North Carolina District Court Judge B. Carlton Terry Jr. He presided over it last Fall, until his online activities came out, he had to disqualify himself, his decision was vacated and a new trial ordered, as reported by WXII Winston-Salem.

According to the public reprimand, the fiasco began innocently enough -- the judge in chambers with both plaintiff's and defense counsel chit-chatting about Facebook. Though plaintiff's counsel said she did not know what Facebook was and had no time for it, the judge and the defense attorney apparently had plenty of time for it.

Tightened restrictions on the documentation required for travel were implemented today by the government, reported CNN. However, the start of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative's anticipated border ID requirements didn't exactly rock border crossings. Actually, according to the AP, they didn't appear to even put a crimp in regular traffic. The AP reported:

"Travelers said they had no problems or delays entering the country in Texas, Vermont, Michigan, New York and Southern California, and traffic was even light at the normally busy San Diego crossing."

The port director for the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) even called it a "nonevent". Well, that said, travelers are probably still well-advised to travel with the proper documentation, to avoid any actual "event". Here's a quick list compiled form government sources on some of the documentation requirements for U.S. citizens and permanent residents:

Law Passed on Nevada Domestic Partnership: Same As Gay Marriage?

CNN reports that Nevada is legalizing domestic parterships in the state. The state assembly had to overcome a veto from Nevada's governor Jim Gibbons, and did so in a 28-14 vote. The question that is probably on most people's mind is whether this would have the same effect as legalizing same sex marriage. This might be particularly on people's minds in light of last week's court decision in California, which up held an amendment banning same sex marriage.

CNN noted that the law would "extend most of the rights given to married couples to couples in domestic partnerships, including those of the same sex." However, some might argue this is a bit of a stretch. According to UPI, despite the new law, "[e]mployers are not required to offer healthcare and other benefits to domestic-partner couples, but may if they wish."