What to Expect in Oklahoma Family Law in 2021: Parental, Financial, & Property Issues
By: Amber Godfrey
Parenting Time / Visitation and Parental Fitness Issues
Another major issue we are seeing concerns parenting time / visitation:
Where can visits occur, if they have to be supervised?
What if one parent is “anti-masking”?
Who can the parent(s) take kids around?
Can we ask the Court to step in and limit, say, a grandma from having contact? What about a stepparent or fiancée who is a frontline worker—can they be prevented from being at the other parent’s house when the children are present?
And so on and so forth.
My colleagues and I expect to see more visitation modifications in 2021 due to these issues, as well as the thousand different ways everyone is working now. They are home more often, working a blended schedule (if not home 100% of the time), which provides the ability for a parent to care for their children on a more frequent basis. This has the positive effect on more bonding time between child and parent, as well as a reduction in private childcare costs, but one drawback includes using it as a “carrot and stick” to do side-bar modification agreements.
Due to the rising number of states who are legalizing medical marijuana, or even legalizing recreational use, we also speculate that more drug tests will be ordered for parents traveling to these states. At their best, positive drug tests often bring with them stricter guidelines for visitation and increased costs (both in ongoing testing and visitation supervisor fees); however, as too many people have experienced, they also often lead to child welfare involvement and/or guardianships being granted over children while parents attempt to work a reunification plan.
Financial and Property Issues
A trend we are seeing this year, due largely in part to the “COVID crisis of 2020”, is the impact it is making on people’s finances. Money—no one has it and everyone needs it. If there are already control issues present, that seems to be the quickest way for a wealthier parent to squeeze the other one.
Conversely, low-income workers, aside from the obvious issue of finances in general, are seeing a rise in a common Catch-22: lower income means that a child support modification would be helpful, but that same lower income prevents them from hiring competent counsel to make that move. They are also running into problems modifying child support when their hours at work can vary so much week to week, making it difficult to get to an attorney’s office or speak during their office hours or even attend Court for their hearings. Additionally, if they experience unexpected absences or shutdowns due to quarantining, that may impact their income or job security, as well as their ability to support their children while in their care. They are left in an impossible situation.
Something I am seeing specifically in my practice are clients requesting longer continuances between hearings so they can afford the next step of litigation. That “step” might be mediation or performing discovery or conducting depositions, but each of those things can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, and many people do not have that kind of money laying around right now. If they do, many of them are holding onto it, not knowing what tomorrow brings (again, through the lens of last year).
A few colleagues also mentioned to me that they are seeing a rise in clients skipping out on paying their attorney fees, which means more attorneys are withdrawing from cases. This often leaves frustrated, jaded, and [legally] uneducated parties to try to navigate the litigation waters themselves or to find another attorney to take their case, which may be all the more complicated if the party has a history of non-payment, making a new attorney leery of taking on the case.
In addition, new / emerging currencies are seeing a rise in popularity, like property divisions aspects concerning Bitcoin, Dogecoin, and the like. Finding a Judge or mediator who understands the ever-changing values of those assets, though, is proving rather difficult, which may then lead to the need to have a financial expert testify about them.
Property division does not stop with new and innovative currencies, though. Stimulus payments has become a huge hot topic in family law—to share or not to share? Is it considered marital? What if one party claims the other one received their “share” and, thus, they are entitled to reimbursement of that amount? A difficult thing we are seeing, though, is how to prove one way or the other whether a parent actually received the stimulus payment yet. Short of getting access to their bank account or even their IRS personal online account, there is no easy way to prove the other party is not holding (or spending) all of the funds. Which then leads to another problem: appealing a court’s ruling on the division of them. In Oklahoma, domestic judges have a lot of discretion, given that they are “courts of equity” (not “equality”), and their standard is “abuse of discretion.” In other words, unless a party can show that the Court violated a law in its ruling, they have to prove that the Court abused its discretion (or authority) in ordering what it did. Since its discretion is based on equity, it can be hard to prove that it was “abused”. In addition, the cost of filing an appeal and pursuing it can get into the thousands of dollars; arguably, a $600.00 or even $2,000.00 stimulus payment is not worth that fight.
We are also seeing more people work from home because they now can, which, as touched on above, is prompting more arguments in favor of ending formal childcare arrangements or even homeschooling / virtual schooling. The argument then becomes something along the lines of, “Well, you’re working from home; you can’t possibly help [child] learn all day.” It also means a lot more stepparents who are otherwise available step in to fill these roles to help “trim the fat” where they can—and not always with the approval of the other parent.
Stay tuned for the rest of this blog series, What to Expect in Oklahoma Family Law in 2021, to be released this month.
To learn more about family law in Oklahoma, visit our Oklahoma Family Law page.
Related: Family Law
Ms. Godfrey has been practicing law for 13 years. Prior to joining WhitbeckBennett, she founded her own private practice in 2016 in Oklahoma City so that she could serve her clients in Cleveland, Oklahoma, and Canadian Counties. She focuses on family law, which includes divorce, child support, custody modifications, Guardian ad Litem, adoption, and guardianships, as well as estate law which includes estate planning, probate.