In my last article, “The Case Starts,” I talked about initial pleadings, specifically the Petition, the Answer, the Counter-Petition, and the Answer to the Counter-Petition. Within the initial pleadings, you and your lawyer will ask for the outcomes that you want to be resolved by the judge both on a temporary as well as a final basis if you and your spouse cannot agree.
The way to think about what a Court has the authority to do in a divorce case is with the “PEACE” acronym, and these are the things that you include in your initial pleadings. If it falls into one of the “PEACE” categories, the body of your initial pleadings need to say something about them to put the other side on notice that the court will be making decisions on this topic.
Most lawyers in our area and judges are familiar with the PEACE acronym and use it in their practices. The acronym outlines WHAT topics the court has jurisdiction to decide in your case and the ORDER it is supposed to decide them.
Let’s break this down to determine what a court can do in each category and what each one means.
E- Equitable Distribution
C- Child Support
E- Everything Else
The “P” in the PEACE acronym is Parenting. There are two prongs under this category: 1) parental responsibility, and 2) timesharing (formerly known as and sometimes still referred to as custody).
Sometimes people get the two prongs confused when they are talking about the parenting aspect of a divorce, especially in the context of “equal rights” or “equal parenting” or even just the blanket term “50/50.”
Parental Responsibility is essentially the person, or persons, who are ultimately responsible for all parenting duties. The most common by far in Florida is Shared Parental Responsibility. While I don’t know the exact percentages on how often this is determined by the Court, I have heard percentages as high as 98% and higher. My experience is consistent with these rumored percentages.
Shared Parental Responsibility
Shared Parental Responsibility means that Mom and Dad will equally determine and be responsible for the needs of the child, including health, education, extra-curricular and any other major life decision. In practice, this looks almost exactly like parenting a child in an intact marriage, where the parties discuss the decision that needs to be made and come to a decision together. With this designation of responsibility, some people refer to it as 50/50, but it is more like 100/100. Both parents have equal weight and decision-making authority in the child’s major life decisions. If the parents cannot agree, the resolution is to go to mediation or back to Court.
Ultimate Decision-Making Authority
The second option under parental responsibility is Ultimate Decision-Making Authority. In this type of parental responsibility, the parents are supposed to agree on all major decisions affecting the child. If the parents cannot agree, there is a “tie-breaker” parent, who is awarded Ultimate Decision Making Authority.
Now, as a mom, you will read this and immediately want this status. Almost all parents do. In concept, it can make sense because it can limit disputes and give some resolution when the parents disagree. However, it is not frequently used by Courts unless there is some specific reason, and a finding is made by the Judge, if you go to trial, that it is necessary. It is a very unusual parenting designation and is typically reserved for outlier cases in which there is a clear reason to give one parent the ultimate decision-making on one, or all, of the major categories.
Here is a hypothetical and extreme example:
In a final hearing, the Court finds that during the separation of the parties, the child was frequently not taken to the hospital after serious injuries. All these injuries occurred when the mom had the child. The mom does not believe in traditional medicine and instead believes that you can heal the child with herbal tea.
The child had broken his arm on one occasion, and the mother did not take the child to the doctor. The child had COVID and had not been able to get his fever under 101 for three days, but the mother did not take him to the doctor. The child fell off the roof of the mother’s shed giving him a clear concussion, but the mother did not seek medical help.
Every time these events happened, she told the dad as a good co-parent does, but refused when he insisted on taking him to get medical attention. Ultimately each time, when the dad got the child back, the child was taken to get medical attention which the child needed to heal. In this case, the parents only disagree on medical issues and the mom insists that the herbal tea works. Dad asks for ultimate decision-making authority over medical decisions so that he can take the child to get medical attention, even over the mother’s objections. The judge grants the request.
With each major decision, the judge is supposed to look at the facts and determine if such a designation is necessary. The Judge is no longer supposed to just give a blanket Ultimate Decision-Making Authority over all decisions if no agreement can be reached, but there are situations where this occurs and is justified. Please note that just because one parent, likely the mom, has been making all the decisions about these things when the parties were married, or if the parents fight like cats and dogs over every decision, it still is unlikely to be enough to get this designation by the Court. My point- if your lawyer tells you it is unlikely you can get it at the final hearing, believe them.
It takes a lot more than just being the “default parent” to be designated as the parent with Ultimate Decision-Making Authority.
Sole Parental Authority
Lastly, there is the designation of Sole Parental Authority. This is where one parent has sole responsibility and decision-making for the child. This is very rare. When thinking about this designation, think about incarceration, child abuse, verified and substantial substance abuse, and other extreme scenarios.
After the parental responsibility decision is made, the Court then goes into determining the timesharing schedule. This is the overnight timesharing and holiday schedule that is determined by the Court to be in the best interests of the child based on various factors outlined in Florida Statutes Chapter 61. This is typically the most difficult part of the trial on child issues.
Currently, there is pending legislation on Governor DeSantis’ desk that has a provision making the default timesharing a 50/50 schedule. Right now, while many Judges are doing 50/50, the standard is what is in the best interest of the child.
Equitable Distribution is essentially when the court identifies all of the assets and debts of the marriage, classifies each asset or debt as marital or non-marital, values each asset and debt, and then divides it all equitably. This generally means that all the marital assets and debts will be distributed in a way that each spouse will receive equal portions or 50%. This inventory and allocation of assets does not mean that all the assets must be liquidated but instead moves the values of assets such that the portion of the marital estate is equal on both sides.
There is no hotter topic right now than the alimony issue in divorce cases. As I write this, there is a bill on the desk of Governor Ron DeSantis that would completely change the alimony structure in Florida effective July 1 of this year. We are not sure if he will be signing the bill allowing it to go into effect or if it will be vetoed but hopefully, by the time we get to the alimony section of this series we will have a decision and I can educate you as to the changes in the law.
Generally speaking, the Court has the ability to give temporary support or temporary alimony to one party who may need it during the time that the case is ongoing and also provide support after the case is closed depending on the need of the receiving party and the ability to pay of the paying party.
Child support is an entitlement of the child and cannot be waived by statute. Even if there is 50/50 timesharing (overnight visitation), that does not mean there will not be child support.
Child Support is calculated based on each party’s income less allowed deductions, the overnights for each parent, and other factors like health insurance and childcare costs. The Court and attorneys practicing family law use a child support calculator to get the amount of support required. While there is some debate about some of the line items that can impact the total support owed, all and all, it boils down to the mathematical calculation.
Remember the PEACE acronym not only determines the “what” but also the order in which it is decided. Therefore, the reason child support comes after alimony is because alimony is considered as income to the recipient and as a deduction to the payor when making determinations about the child’s support needs.
An easy example is if you get $1000 in alimony, your income increases by $1000 per month and your ex-spouse’s income goes down by $1,000 a month when determining child support per month.
“Everything Else” can be things as big as life insurance and attorney fees and as small as requiring a parent to provide a copy of an important document. Your lawyer is the best source for knowing whether the remedy you would like the Court to give you is available under this category.
While the PEACE acronym seems like an oxymoron in a divorce, it really is helpful when thinking about the things that will be a priority in your case and to the Judge if you do not settle. If you have an issue that does not fit into one of these categories, or isn’t evidence supporting your position in one of these categories, then it is less likely to be a priority of the Court.
Until next time I wish you PEACE…
Autumn Beck Blackledge has been practicing law for over 20 years and started her own firm in 2014, practicing exclusively in Marital and Family law. She is a Pensacola native and graduate of Tate High School and Florida State University, and FSU College of Law.