Let's talk: Family Law Conference at Cranwell

Issue October 2012 By By Christina P. O’Neill

A gathering to share ideas and experiences

Talking issues through has always been an elemental part of the practice of family and probate law in Massachusetts. At the end of this month, family law attorneys and judges from across the state get an annual opportunity for such discussions, outside of the daily pressures of the courtroom. The 22nd Annual Family Law Conference will be held at Cranwell Resort Spa and Golf Club in Lenox, beginning at 4 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 26, and ending at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27.

Family law practitioners and judges will gather together to share insight on substantive family law issues that they deal with daily. They will also engage in the conference's hallmark collegial social forum to acknowledge the importance of the societal role of family law practitioners and judges.

"Laypeople ask family law attorneys why they chose this work, because it is so wrought with emotion," says co-chair Michael I. Flores of Michael I. Flores LLC in Orleans. "You are always dealing with the disintegration of families. Most every family law practitioner I've come across has a passion for the work and a sense of empathy. They want to help people in times of duress and strife."

Last year's conference in Chatham had an unprecedented number of attendees, driven by the state's new alimony reform law, which went into effect this past March. In response to attendee feedback, the upcoming conference will have fewer programs but their coverage will be more in-depth and will address various topics in a pragmatic rather than academic way, giving registrants the ability to immediately put their knowledge to use in court, Flores says.

Friday afternoon's session will address changes in Massachusetts child support guidelines since the revisions of 2009, in two components - one, an update from the Child Support Guidelines Task Force and the feedback they have received to date. The second component will address recent developments in Massachusetts child support case law.

"We need to better define child care costs," says attorney Marc Fitzgerald, partner in the Boston law firm Casner & Edwards, LLP and conference co-chair. He says the current calculation favors the non-custodial parent; in cases of shared physical custody relationship, a key question is whether the calculation is fair to the higher-earning parent. Currently, judges have discretion on this matter.

Also up for discussion is increasing the income cap from its current $250,000 - and the tax implications of any adjustment - as well as the cost of health insurance. Federal health care law now in place has bumped the child emancipation age to 26, from the previous 23 years.

Saturday morning's keynote address by Probate and Family Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey focuses on the larger issues of probate and family court law. Justice Carey addresses where family court is going, how to meet demands of the public seeking relief in the courts; the societal problems that continue to drive parties to the courts; the economy, which affects whether people can afford legal representation; and how probate and family court administers justice.

The Saturday session that follows Chief Justice Carey's keynote address will highlight the state's Alimony Reform Act of 2011. This program will assess the act's interpretation at the trial court level, and will offer strategies on employing the new statute on the part of clients.

A session on child custody guardians ad litem will include discussion on preparing a client for a guardian ad litem investigation; what a guardian ad litem is looking for from the parties; how to cross-examine a guardian ad litem on the stand, and how to limit the guardian ad litem's report with respect with motions to strike. The panel, run by a retired judge, will feature experienced family law practitioners as well as a highly-respected guardian ad litem, Flores notes.

The final session will cover child custody parenting plans, and their evolution over the years as the result of changing societal norms regarding parenting. A wealth of child psychology research data has produced empirical data to rely on in crafting plans, Flores says. Each childhood age has different psychological and emotional needs that are best addressed in parenting schedules, and those are best when designed by the parents, rather than judges. "Every family is different; there is no default schedule that works for everyone," Flores says. "The more you do this type of work, the more you see this."