Tag Archives: family law

Tips for Drafting Your Settlement Agreement

couples' hands with divorce settlement agreement between them

Divorce Settlement Agreement Tips | NOVAEstateLawyers.com

If you and your spouse have agreed to file for a no-fault divorce, you may be wondering where to begin, from a legal standpoint.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, filing for this type of divorce requires you to be legally separated from your spouse for a minimum of one full year. However, if you have no minor children, you may file for divorce after six full months of separation, provided that you and your spouse have signed a valid settlement agreement.

What is a divorce settlement agreement?

A divorce settlement agreement, also known as a separation agreement, a marital settlement agreement, a separation and property settlement agreement, or a custody, support, and property agreement, is a legal document defining how you and your spouse plan to divide your assets and debts. It also outlines any specific terms you and your spouse mutually agree to abide by during and after your divorce, including spousal support (if applicable) and any custody, support, and visitation matters (if you have minor children together).

One key advantage to a settlement agreement is that you and your spouse can divorce on your own terms, without bringing any nasty details into the courtroom. In a no-fault, uncontested divorce case, a judge can simply review your agreement and incorporate its terms into your final order of divorce. It may also help speed along the already-lengthy divorce process by eliminating the need for multiple court appearances.

How to draft your settlement agreement

Even for the most amicable divorcing couples, it can be difficult and painful to draft your settlement agreement, as it forces you to confront the end of your marriage. Below, we provide a few tips to help you make the process smoother and easier.

1. Start your discussion about the agreement from a calm emotional place, in a neutral location.

If you and your spouse try to discuss the terms of your settlement agreement when you are emotionally charged, or if you’re in a place that feels uncomfortable (such as your former marital home), you may find it difficult to make much progress. Schedule a time and location with your soon-to-be ex – just like any other professional meeting – so you can both mentally prepare for the discussion ahead.

2. Get a good picture of your individual and joint assets.

Every bank account, credit card, loan, mortgage, lease payment, retirement account, property, vehicle, and valuable asset you own will need to be listed in your settlement agreement. Preparing a thorough list of these accounts and assets, including any that you own separately from your spouse, will make it easier to go through them and decide what to do with them moving forward.

3. Agree on your date of separation.

The date of separation listed in your agreement determines when you and your spouse can officially file for divorce. Your date of separation does not necessarily have to be the date you or your spouse moved out of your marital home – it can simply be the date you had a conversation in which you agreed to seek a divorce. However, if you are still under the same roof, be sure to specifically state in your agreement that you are living “separate and apart” (i.e., separate rooms and engaging in behaviors that suggest you are a couple).

4. Know what you want, but be prepared to compromise.

Drafting a settlement agreement is a negotiation. You do not have to sign any agreement that you feel is unfair, and you have a right to ask your spouse to consider different terms. However, understand that you will likely not get everything you want – and neither will your spouse. It’s important to know going into this discussion what you are willing to compromise on, and where you want to stand firm.

5. Consult an experienced attorney.

While it is possible to draft a settlement agreement without legal help, an experienced attorney understands the ins and outs of your home state’s laws regarding separation and divorce. Without consulting a family law professional, the language in your settlement agreement may inadvertently put you at a disadvantage when you begin your divorce proceedings.

To play it safe, we highly recommend hiring an attorney to help you draft your agreement. At a minimum, you should ask a legal professional review the one you and your spouse drafted before you notarize it.

The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor has nearly two decades of experience helping Virginia residents with their family law matters, including settlement agreements and divorce cases. Contact us to discuss your circumstances so we can help you take this important step in your separation.

Do I Really Need a Divorce Lawyer?

divorce dictionary entry with two rings

Do I Need a Divorce Lawyer? | NOVAEstateLawyers.com

Divorce can be one of the most stressful events in your life, from an emotional, financial, and legal standpoint. For this reason, if you need to file for divorce in Virginia, it’s recommended that you do so with the help of an experienced divorce lawyer – especially if you and your spouse have minor children together.

There are some cases in which a DIY divorce could be possible, with a little DIY legal help. However, you may want to consider the benefits of retaining an attorney first. Here’s how to decide what’s right for your situation.

When should you hire a divorce attorney?

Though it’s always advisable to hire a divorce lawyer, it is especially important to do so when you’re in a complicated situation related to finances, custody of children, or other sensitive legal matters with your spouse.

Here’s when you should hire a divorce lawyer:

  • You own a business with your spouse: It can be difficult to figure out how to properly divide assets and ownership of a business, so a divorce attorney will be invaluable. You’ll also need appraisers to assess the business’ worth, and possibly consultants.
  • You expect a child custody battle: If you expect your spouse to challenge you on custody arrangements for your minor children, you’ll likely need a divorce lawyer to represent you in the case.
  • You have significant assets: It will be much harder to divide assets if you and your spouse have more than one bank account, properties, vehicles, and other assets that need to be fairly divided. An attorney can help represent you and your needs in court.
  • You were the victim of domestic abuse: A spouse who is verbally or physically abusive could intimidate or coerce you into a divorce deal that is unfavorable if you choose a DIY divorce. An attorney can be your voice and advocate.
  • You or your spouse are/were in the military: A military divorce can be much more complex. A lawyer can help with the division of military pension, benefits, and more.

If you’re at all unsure of the legal process involved for filing for divorce in Virginia, your best bet is to hire a divorce lawyer. The professional will be your guide throughout, including helping with paperwork, explaining the process, and helping you understand what you can expect at each stage.

When can you use DIY legal help for your divorce?

Not all divorces are bitter, nasty battles. Sometimes a mutual decision to split with a spouse can be amicable and both parties agree to work out the terms of their divorce on their own. If this is the case for you, you and your spouse may be able to represent yourselves (also known as appearing pro se) in your divorce case.

Here are a few scenarios in which a DIY divorce could be feasible:

  • You have no children, or no minor children: With no child custody and visitation issues at stake, the divorce process may be simpler for you and your spouse. You may be able to lean on the support of a mediator, who can help decide what’s fair for both parties
  • You expect an uncontested divorce: If you and your spouse can amicably divide your assets and debts, you may wish to create a divorce settlement agreement upon separating. Once you meet Virginia’s separation period criteria, you may then file for an uncontested divorce. If you go this route, a DIY legal coach can help you through the required paperwork and filing steps, so you can feel prepared to represent yourself in court..
  • You have limited funds: Not everyone can afford to retain a divorce lawyer throughout their case. However, DIY legal help can be an affordable option if you require assistance. You’ll get the help of an attorney, the paperwork you need to fill out, file, and document, and guidance.

Consult an experienced family law attorney

No one should have to go it alone in divorce proceedings. A divorce lawyer is meant to help you navigate a stressful and emotional situation. Even if you are unsure whether you need an attorney for your divorce case, it is always advisable to consult with a legal professional before filing any court paperwork.

Remember, a DIY divorce is possible in certain circumstances, but having the help of an attorney is indispensable. My Legal Case Coach, a division of the Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, makes it affordable to get the DIY legal assistance you need, so you can get through your divorce without creating additional hardship for yourself.

If you’re planning to file for divorce in Virginia and would like to hire an attorney, contact us to learn how we can help.

How Do I Become a Minor Child’s Legal Guardian?

guardian holding a young child's hand

How Do I Become the Legal Guardian of a Minor Child? NOVAEstateLawyers.com

Legal guardianship is a very common family law topic in Virginia. When an individual is appointed as a legal guardian, they are recognized as having the legal authority and responsibility to act in another person’s best interests, on that person’s behalf.

While you may seek to become the legal guardian of an adult child or relative who is incapacitated or otherwise unable to make legal decisions for themselves, this post focuses on the process of seeking guardianship of a minor child. Here’s what you need to know about legal guardianship in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

What are the rights and responsibilities of a legal guardian?

As a legal guardian of a minor child, you are legally responsible for that child’s safety and well-being and must manage his or her personal affairs. This typically involves assuming physical custody of the child from their natural parents, and making important decisions regarding their education, care, health, discipline, finances, and more. In other words, a prospective legal guardian must be able to provide a suitable and safe permanent residence for the child in question, and be able to provide for his or her basic needs.

Legal guardianship is not the same as adopting a child. Assuming the child’s natural parents are still alive and consenting to the guardianship arrangements (i.e. not having custody revoked as an unfit parent), their parental rights are generally not terminated. They often still have the right to participate in the decisions made by a legal guardian on behalf of the child, even if they are not physically present. This being the case, the child’s natural parents may still be involved in his or her financial affairs, including management of the child’s estate.

If there are financial difficulties for the parents and/or the legal guardian in providing for the child, the Court may or may not approve a request for relief. For example, the Virginia Kinship Guardian Program (KinGap) offers eligible families financial assistance to guardians to facilitate the care and maintenance of a child in their extended family.

Common reasons to appoint a legal guardian for a minor child

In most cases of legal guardianship, a minor child’s natural parents select the guardian(s) to ensure continued care and safety of that child when they are unable to do so themselves. A few common reasons where a legal guardian may have to step in include:

  • The death of one or both natural parents (this is typically addressed in the parents’ will)
  • Long-term illness of one or both natural parents
  • Incarceration of one or both natural parents
  • Addiction recovery/rehabilitation of one or both natural parents
  • Other extenuating circumstances wherein the natural parents’ home is unsafe or unfit for the minor child (e.g. civil or political unrest in their home country)

If parents have not appointed a legal guardian for their minor child in these circumstances, it’s possible that the child could go into the foster system. Legal guardianship, particularly by a relative of the child, is generally preferred to foster parents: Research shows that children who live with relatives are more likely to enjoy their living situation and feel loved/cared for, and are less likely to have behavioral issues than children who are placed into the foster care system by the state with non-relatives.

How to petition for guardianship of a minor child

If you are petitioning to be appointed as the legal guardian of a minor child in Virginia, here are the steps you will need to take with your local Circuit Court for an uncontested case*:

  1. Complete, sign, and notarize a Petition for Appointment of Guardian(s) of a Minor. This form establishes your intent and reason(s) to assume guardianship of the minor child and confirms that you are a suitable caregiver. If natural parents are living, they should also sign and notarize this form. Minor children over the age of 14 may sign the Petition for their own guardianship appointment as well.
  2. Obtain completed Exhibits from the child’s natural parents, including a copy of the child’s birth certificate and a letter of consent from the natural parents supporting your Petition (or certified copies of the parents’ death certificates if deceased).
  3. Complete, sign, and notarize a Consent Order for Appointment of Guardian(s) of a Minor. Be sure to leave space for a judge to sign and date the order. Living natural parents and minors over the age of 14 should also sign and notarize this form.
  4. Complete a Cover Sheet for Filing Civil Actions (Form CC-1416). Also known as the Virginia Civil Cover Sheet, this form is required to file any civil case in a Circuit Court in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
  5. File all of the above forms in person with the Civil Court where the minor child currently decides, along with the Court filing fee. If the child is not yet a Virginia resident, you may need to first file a Petition in a court where the child resides, requesting permission to relocate them to Virginia.

*Uncontested guardianship cases mean that any living natural parents support the appointment of a legal guardian for their child. If the natural parents do not give their consent, there may be additional Court hearings and steps in the process. Please consult with a family law attorney to understand the steps in a contested guardianship case.

What if the child is not a U.S. citizen?

Assuming legal guardianship of a minor child whose parents who are living abroad is not an uncommon scenario here in Virginia. The Court documents and process are roughly the same. However, in your petition and in the natural parents’ letter of consent, you will need to specifically address the circumstances in the parents’ country of residence that render it unsafe or unfit for the minor child to live there. You may also need to submit additional Exhibits as required by the Court.

Ask an experienced family law attorney

While it is possible to represent yourself in court when seeking appointment as a child’s legal guardian, working with a family law attorney can ensure that you don’t miss any important steps in the legal process. Our law practice has been helping Northern Virginia families with guardianship cases since 2001, and we are dedicated to working toward the best possible outcome for the child, the parents, and the guardian.

Are you seeking guardianship of an incapacitated adult child or relative? We can help with that, too. Contact the Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor for more information.

How to Update Your Estate Plan After a Divorce

estate planning after divorce

Updating Your Estate Plans After a Divorce
NOVA Estate Lawyers – Leesburg, VA

The divorce process is often a very long and painful one. Although you may have already moved on emotionally, some legal aspects of your life can’t move forward until your divorce is finalized by the court.

When you do receive that long-awaited divorce decree, one of your first priorities should be updating your estate plans. If you didn’t enter into a settlement agreement or obtain a “divorce from bed and board” during your separation period, your spouse may still have been entitled to inherit as much as 50 percent of your estate if you die during that time. Once you’re no longer legally married, your ex cannot benefit from your estate unless you want them to.

One exception is retirement accounts and life insurance if governed by federal law. You must update your beneficiary designations to remove your ex’s name from them if you want to be certain they do not inherit from you (see more on this below).

Which estate planning documents should I update post-divorce?

Following your divorce, you’ll want to review all your essential estate planning documents to see where your spouse is named. Here are a few common items to address:

Your will. As mentioned above, an ex-spouse won’t inherit anything left to them in your pre-divorce will, nor will they be allowed to serve as your executor if you named them as such. But if you don’t appoint a new executor and beneficiaries for your estate, a probate court will decide that for you. To reduce time, frustration, and costs for your family, make sure your will gets a thorough revision after your divorce. It’s important to note that any bequests to an ex-spouse’s family members will still be valid, so considering changing those as well.

Trust arrangements. Unlike your will, spousal trust arrangements are not automatically voided upon divorce. If you named your spouse as a trustee or beneficiary in your revocable living trust, consult with an estate planning attorney to make the appropriate changes. Unfortunately, if your trust was irrevocable, you cannot change it to exclude your ex-spouse unless that trust contains administrative provisions at the time it was originally drafted that permit you to void the document if you and your ex ever divorce.  In addition,  if you never funded that irrevocable trust, then you could control what happens with it by simply choosing to create a new trust and never titling any assets into the old irrevocable trust created during your marriage.

Power of attorney agreements. In Virginia, a durable general power of attorney (for financial decisions) where a spouse is the agent is deemed invalid upon filing for divorce or separation. However, a durable medical power of attorney – which lets your agent make medical decisions for you if you’re incapacitated – still stands, even after a divorce. If your spouse is currently named as your POA agent, change these designations as soon as possible.  If you’re entering into a settlement agreement, make sure it contains provisions that revoke your spouse’s role under all powers of attorney executed by you during the marriage.

Legal guardianship designations. If you and your ex have minor children, you likely named a legal guardian together in your wills in the unlikely event you both died. While courts typically grant custody to a child’s other parent when one dies (unless they are deemed “unfit”), be sure that any other guardians named in your will are people you still feel comfortable with, such as an in-law.

Direct beneficiary accounts. Insurance policies, retirement plans, and other “payable on death” accounts have their own separate beneficiary paperwork. By law, certain policies will not pay out to an ex-spouse, but it’s still important to appoint new beneficiaries after your divorce to ensure your money goes where you want it to.

What if I want to keep my ex-spouse in my estate plan?

The Commonwealth of Virginia automatically negates any inheritance to an ex-spouse in wills written prior to a finalized divorce. However, there may be circumstances in which you still want your include your ex in your estate plan, particularly if you have minor children.

If you want to leave money or property to your ex-spouse specifically for the care for your children, the best way to do this is to create a revocable living trust. This allows you to title your property in the name of your trust and then appoint your ex as the trustee, who manages the assets on behalf of your children until they reach adulthood. If you don’t already have a trust, an attorney can help you create one.

If you have an amicable relationship with your now-ex and still want to leave property directly to them, all you have to do is write this into a valid post-divorce will.

Ask an estate planning attorney.

Even if you know exactly how you want to change your will, trust, power of attorney agreements, etc. post-divorce, you should still consult with an estate planning attorney to make sure your documents have the proper legal language and offer the maximum benefits for your loved ones.

Located in Northern Virginia, The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. is experienced in both estate law and family law, so we are uniquely positioned to help with your estate planning needs after your divorce is final. Contact us today to get started.

Legal Separation in Virginia: What Does It Mean?

Legal Separation in Virginia

Legal Separation in Virginia
NOVA Estate Lawyers – Leesburg, VA

The decision to end a marriage is emotionally painful and often very difficult for both spouses. But unlike an unmarried couple, you can’t simply move out and move on: You’ll need to go through the divorce process to officially dissolve your relationship in the eyes of the state.

For many couples, the first step on the road to divorce is separation, especially in no-fault cases. In some states, couples can file paperwork to officially claim the status of “legal separation,” in which they live apart and fulfill certain marital obligations prior to a divorce, as agreed to by a court order.

This is not the case in Virginia. Here, a married couple is considered “legally” separated if one or both members intend to end the marriage, and cease to cohabitate as a married couple.

What does that mean?

The first of the two main criteria for separation is simple: You and/or your spouse must believe the marriage is over and decide that you will seek a divorce. This decision may be made separately or mutually, and your husband or wife does not have to share your intention. However, a divorce court will not recognize the official start of your separation until you clearly communicate your desire to end the marriage to your spouse (more on that below).

The “cohabitation” requirement can be a little trickier if you still live in a shared residence – which many couples do at the time one or both of them decide the marriage is over. The easiest way to stop cohabitating as a married couple is for one spouse to move out, but that’s not always practical or financially possible, particularly if you have children together.

Fortunately, you can still be legally separated from your husband or wife while you’re under the same roof, but you must live and treat each other as platonic roommates. This means, first and foremost, that you cannot share a bed or room, nor can you act like a couple inside or outside the home. For example, you can’t shop, cook, or clean for each other, sleep together, go on one-on-one outings together, etc. Essentially, you must not behave in ways that would indicate you are a married couple.

How long do I have to be separated before I can get divorced?

Before a spouse can even file for a no-fault divorce, the Commonwealth of Virginia requires that they be officially separated for one year, or for six months if they have no minor children and create a separation agreement.

In fault-based cases on the grounds of cruelty, desertion, or abandonment, you can file for a limited divorce from “bed and board” at any point after your separation period begins. However, the court will only transfer a limited divorce to an absolute divorce from the bond of matrimony (i.e., you become legally single) after the couple has been separated for a full year.

Establishing the date of separation becomes important here: If the timeline is contested by either spouse, it may delay your divorce proceedings. A surefire way to prove the timeline of your separation is to both sign an agreement that clearly states the date you separated, and that you have no intention of reconciling. If one spouse moves out of the marital home and communicates the intent to end the marriage, this can also be considered a valid date of separation.

Your separation timeline is also important for dividing up assets during your divorce. Generally, any income earned and items purchased after the official separation date are considered separate, individual property that cannot be awarded to your spouse.

There are two key exceptions to the separation waiting period. If you can prove that your spouse committed adultery (or other sexual acts outside of your marriage), or if your spouse has been convicted of a felony and sentenced to at least one year of jail time, you may immediately file for a divorce from the bond of matrimony.

Keep in mind that, due to the complex nature of many divorce cases, it can take months or upwards of a year to get through the litigation process and receive a final order of divorce, regardless of grounds.

Consulting a family law attorney about your separation

If you and your spouse are considering divorce, you’ll want to speak with an experienced family law attorney to go over your options. A lawyer can also help you draft your separation agreement and reach the fairest, most equitable divorce settlement possible.

The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C., has been serving Northern Virginia families for more than 15 years, and we can make this complicated, difficult period in your life easier. Contact us today to speak with a counselor about your needs and circumstances.

The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C.
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(703) 669-6700

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