DOMA Defines "Marriage" as Union of Man and Woman

 The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law by President Clinton on September 21, 1996. DOMA defines “marriage” to consist exclusively as a heterosexual union of a man and a woman. Further, DOMA directs federal agencies to recognize only opposite-sex marriages for the purposes of enacting any agency programs.

 

 

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The Right to Sue Family Members

Over the years, intra-family immunity from lawsuits against other family members developed; “parental immunity” and “spousal immunity.” Some have suggested that these immunities were part of a body of rules that historically limited tort recoveries in general. At one time, there was even a certain stigma to bringing a lawsuit against another family member for damages. This radically changed in the latter half of the 20th Century, when courts (and laws) began to expand liabilities and recoveries for a number of reasons. Not all states recognized the doctrines of parental and spousal immunity from suit, but most states did. Recently, however, more states have abandoned or created exceptions to these doctrines.

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Spousal Rights Regarding Personal Injury Awards

Upon termination of a marriage by divorce, one of the most difficult problems is often division of the couple’s real and personal property. Although there are considerable differences in the way states treat property acquired by spouses while married, there are two common types of distribution schemes.

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Tax Issues Relating to Qualified Domestic Relations Orders and Divorce

An increasingly large portion of the assets of married couples consist of rights to payments and stock from pension plans.  In many states such assets are subject to division during a divorce.  Divorce and division of property are generally controlled by state law, but pension plans are controlled by federal law in many respects.

 
Pension Plans and ERISA
A major advantage of saving for retirement through a pension plan is that contributions from employees and employers for plans such as a 401(k) plan are not taxed as income until distributed by the plan, usually after retirement, at lower tax rates. However, under provisions of the Federal Internal Revenue Code, the assignment of pension benefits, including transfers to a spouse during divorce, may result in the loss of such tax benefits.
 
In 1984, Congress passed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which governs most private pension plans (government and some other plans are not covered, nor are IRAs).  To remedy the anti-assignment problem, the Retirement Equity Act of 1984 (REA) amended ERISA to establish an exception to the anti-assignment bar to division of ERISA plan benefits during divorce. 
 
Federal Tax Treatment of QDRO Plan Distributions
To avoid adverse tax consequences, the plan participant/spouse must obtain a "Qualified Domestic Relations Order" (QDRO).  A QDRO is usually entered by the court, although under certain circumstances other entities may approve a QDRO.  The QDRO must also be approved by the administrator of each plan affected. 
 
The QDRO must contain certain information specified in ERISA, as amended by REA, including the names and addresses of the plan participant and the recipient(s) of the court award (the "alternate payee").  There are also certain provisions that are prohibited in a QDRO, including the authorization of plan benefits and payouts that are not allowed by the plan.
 
A QDRO creates or recognizes an "alternate payee's" right to receive all or a portion of the plan benefits, or it may actually assign that right to the "alternate payee."  An "alternate payee" may only be a spouse, former spouse, child, or other dependent of the plan participant.  A validly created and approved QDRO allows the recipient spouse to be treated, for federal income tax purposes, as a plan participant.  In addition, the QDRO may allow the alternate payee to take a lump sum withdrawal (if allowed by the plan) or commence payments at the earliest time allowed for retirement, regardless of when the participant actually retires.
 
Consequences of Plan Withdrawals Absent a QDRO
If a court orders the division of an interest in an ERISA pension plan during a divorce and the plan participant simply pays the amount from the pension plan without obtaining a QDRO, the participant may become liable for an early withdrawal penalty of 10% (depending on age and method of withdrawal), plus income and/or capital gains taxes on the amounts distributed to the former spouse.  Federal courts have repeatedly upheld this principle, despite claims of plan participants that they were forced to comply with the court's order and had no other source for the payments, and therefore should not be penalized.
 

Absent a QDRO, the amount withdrawn from the plan thus becomes income and/or capital gains to the plan participant, not the former spouse.  If a valid QDRO is in place, however, the distributions from the plan are treated as income and/or capital gains to the alternate payee/spouse.  However, if distributions from the plan are used to satisfy child support or payments to some other dependent of the plan participant/spouse, the distributions are still treated as taxable to the plan participant/spouse for federal income tax purposes, notwithstanding the existence of the QDRO.

Severing the Parental Rights of Inmates and the Constitutionality of Restricting Visitation

 According to the Child Welfare League of America, an estimated 200,000 children have a mother in prison, and at least 1.6 million children have a father in prison. As such, many children have been forced to enter the foster care system, and there has been a significant increase in the number of children visiting their incarcerated parents.

 
Such overwhelming statistics have influenced federal adoption law and, more recently, played a role in a notable U.S. Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of restricting prison visitation by the children of inmates.
 
Adoption and Safe Families Act
With the goal of achieving prompt permanency plans for children in foster care, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) in 1997. The law requires states to move to sever a parent's right to a child after the child has spent 15 months in foster care.
 
As mothers are often their child's primary caretaker, ASFA has certainly affected the parental rights of incarcerated mothers, whose sentences prevent a timely reunification with their children. For example, under ASFA, a state would most likely file to terminate the parental rights of a mother serving five years in prison, where her children have been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months. In fact, an incarcerated mother will often surrender her parental rights after her children have spent 15 months in foster care, so that her children can be formally adopted by their foster family. 
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Same-Sex Marriages and the Federal Defense of Marriage Act

The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law by President Clinton on September 21, 1996.  DOMA defines "marriage" to consist exclusively as a heterosexual union of a man and a woman.  Further, DOMA directs federal agencies to recognize only opposite-sex marriages for the purposes of enacting any agency programs. 
 
Statutory Language
Among other pertinent provisions, DOMA states: "In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife." 
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Tax Issues Associated with Division of Pension Benefits in a Divorce

 

An increasingly large portion of the assets of married couples consist of rights to payments and stock from pension plans.  In many states such assets are subject to division during a divorce.  Divorce and division of property are generally controlled by state law, but pension plans are controlled by federal law in many respects.
 

 

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Permitting Posthumously Conceived Children to Inherit From a Deceased Parent

 

Several states refer to children who are born or adopted after the execution of a parent's will and omitted from the provisions of the testamentary instrument as "omitted" or "pretermitted" children. In the interest of fairness, states that recognize the inheritance rights of posthumously born or adopted children have traditionally allowed "omitted" children to inherit under intestate succession (i.e., taking a share equal in value to what the child would have received if the testator had died without a will).
 
However, the law on the inheritance rights of posthumously conceived children (children conceived after the death of a parent) is less developed. This lack of any firmly established legal precedent for determining the inheritance rights of posthumously conceived children may be attributed to significant and ongoing advances in reproductive technology, which have made it possible for children to be conceived subsequent to the death of a parent.
 

 

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Chicago Family Law Blog Receives Honors

Chicago Family Law Blog today received honors as a Top Divorce/Family Law Blog. It is with great pleasure and humility that we are happy to have achieved this honor for the 2009-2010 year and hope that others can appreciate our efforts to bring to the public the news and topics that concern their rights and their families. You can read the story and see the other top bloggers at http://lawyer.laws.com/

Establishing Rights and Obligations of Unmarried Couples

 

The number of couples living together without choosing to get married has more than tripled in the past two decades. Unless the cohabiting couple lives in a state which recognizes common law marriages, living together does not automatically provide them with the legal rights and protections of a traditional marriage. Accordingly, upon separation or death of one cohabiting partner, the law may treat the couple as complete strangers. To prevent such a result, unmarried couples can opt to legally define their relationship by entering into a cohabitation agreement, which will direct a court on how to divide property and assets among the couple.
Cohabitation Agreements
A cohabitation agreement is a legal contract which defines the partnership of an unmarried couple. The agreement is often necessary to preserve some important legal rights, obligations and protections that an unmarried couple necessarily foregoes. In other words, the privileged legal status of married couples, which is provided automatically through custom, statute and agreement, must be affirmatively contracted into by cohabiting couples. Although cohabiting couples cannot achieve all of the legal benefits of married couples (such as tax benefits), a cohabitation agreement provides a good start in defining the rights and responsibilities of each party. 

 

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