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February 2015 Archives

Testimony of the Child in Child Custody

Sometimes when you are going through a custody battle your children may have to testify. Oftentimes, depending on their age, it will be done in chambers with the Judge and attorneys present but not the parents. There is always the possibility, however, it may be done in open court which is much more intimidating for the child. Usually, it is the very last testimony in a case as throughout the trial, the attorneys and the Judge may still be trying to settle the case. No judge wants to have to make a child testify but if one of the parents wants the child to testify, the judge has no choice. Rather than have your child miss an entire day of school or sit at the courthouse all day, you may want to see if you can have the child can be brought to court by a third party if needed.

Who Pays What During a Divorce

Child Support: The party who does not have the majority of time pays child support or if the parties have equal custody time usually based on overnights, the party who earns more pays child support.

Grounds to contest a will

Contesting a will in Pennsylvania is a very difficult process. The person contesting has the burden to show that the will is not valid.

Kinship Adoptions

Some of the statutory requirements for adoption are waived in the case of a family member adopting a child. A standard adoption will require a home study to be completed by the local Children & Youth services agency. This process is expensive and takes a number of months. This requirement is waived in the event of an adoption of a stepchild, grandchild, brother, sister, niece or nephew by blood, marriage, or prior adoption. Now that Pennsylvania recognizes same-sex marriages, same-sex partners can also benefit from this provision. 

Another Approach to Divorce - Collaborative Law

When getting divorced, there are several different approaches that a couple can choose. Some people opt for mediation to try to resolve their disputes and save them money. Others, take the traditional approach and opt for attorneys to handle everything. There is another approach that is less known but can be quite effective - collaborative law. Collaborative law, unlike mediation, involves two attorneys similar to the traditional approach. What makes collaborative law different, however, is that both spouses agree from day one that they want to settle everything out of court. They formalize this agreement in writing with their attorneys wherein they agree that they will make any and all efforts to resolve their issues involving divorce, custody, and support out of court. While they always reserve the option to go to court if they cannot reach an agreement, there is a hefty price to pay - loss of representation by both side's attorneys. Even if one party is still willing to work it out of court, both spouse's and their attorneys agree that if one of the parties decides to litigate, both attorneys will withdraw from the case and both parties will have to start over with new attorneys.

Dividing a Pension in Divorce and the Survivor Annuity

Oftentimes when parties get divorce, one of the biggest assets that they have accumulated is the pension of one or both of the spouses. In a Pennsylvania divorce, the pension portion that accumulates during the marriage is what is considered marital. There may also be a non-marital portion for the years of service prior to the marriage or the years of service after the marriage. When getting divorced, there are two methods of getting each spouse their share of that pension. One method is to do a percentage distribution of the marital years. When this method is use, the spouse receives a percentage multiplied by the number of years married that the pension accumulated divided by the total number of years that the pension accumulated. This is usually distributed by a separate document called a Qualified Domestic Relations Order which is often paid to and drafted by a company or firms that handles QDROs. The other method of distribution, and the preferred method by the Court (according to case law) is an offset. Under this method, the marital portion of the pension is assigned a dollar value based on a report prepared by a company who does pension valuations. This dollar value of the pension can then be swapped with other marital assets as an offset.

How to Preserve Premarital Assets without a Prenuptial

If you are getting married and the idea of a prenuptial agreement puts a distaste in your mouth or that of your spouse, but you are still concerned about losing your premarital assets, there are a few things that you should and should not do if you get married without a prenuptial. Never add your spouse's name to the house or bank account you had prior to marriage unless you are willing to gift this asset to the marriage. This is not to say that the house you own prior to your marriage will not be distributed in a divorce, but you can minimize the amount by keeping it separately deeded. The equity that you have when you get married will remain your asset should you get divorced. You should know what this value is when you get married by having the house appraised and keeping documentation on your mortgage balance at the time of your marriage. Without a prenuptial agreement, the increase in value during the marriage will become marital, whether or not you add your spouse to the deed or title of your account. If you have a mortgage and pay it off during the marriage, you will be accumulating marital equity even if the house does not go up value. In addition, if you have any bank accounts, you will want to keep the funds that you had going into the marriage in your separate name.

Disabled? Unemployed? When to Modify your Support Order

Whether you are receiving or support, it's important that if you become disabled, or end up on unemployment, even temporarily, that you file to modify your support. Just because you are out of work, or undergo surgery, does not mean that you can explain it all later to the Court. Nor does it mean that your support will not be due. You need to file to either lower or stop your support if you are paying during the period of time you are disabled or out of work. Otherwise, if you do nothing, the amount you were ordered to pay will continue to charge against you and you could find yourself in contempt if it is not paid. If you are the one receiving support and you become disabled, or suddenly lose your job and are on unemployment, you need to file in order to see if you can get an increase in support temporarily while you are out. If you are unable to file yourself, it may be a good idea to give someone you trust a Power of Attorney to file on your behalf.
Support is modifiable whenever there is a change in circumstances. It does not always have to be due to a disability or unemployment. Whenever there is a change income or any of the factors that play into a support order such as child care expenses, health insurance expenses, etc. you may need to go back to court have your support order recalculated. If you think you may have a change in circumstance that warrants a modification, always consult with an attorney.

Tips for Keeping Divorce Costs Down

1. Understand that family lawyers charge based on their time. This includes time reading emails, talking to you and anything else related to your case. Sending daily emails or calling constantly to talk about your case is a surefire way to escalate your bill. Instead, keep a journal of your thoughts and schedule one block of time to go over all your issues with your attorney and be sure to engage a private therapist or good friend if most of your conversation is related to emotional struggles instead of legal issues.

Five Mistakes to Avoid in a Child Custody Case

1. Allowing your new spouse to act as the go-between with other the other parent. In a custody situation is it important that the parents communicate with each other. Your new spouse or significant other should not be the one to handle all the affairs of your child. It is important as a parent to show that you are involved with your child.

Changing the Locks during a divorce

Sometimes the first action in a separation or divorce is when a spouse moves out. When a spouse moves out of the house, oftentimes the spouse who remains changes the locks. This is something that you can do, however, it is not always assurance that they will not get back into the home unless their exit was the result of a Protection from Abuse. Until you have an exclusive possession order signed by a Judge during your divorce, a spouse could legally gain entry to the home by breaking a window or any other method. In order to get an exclusive possession order, you would have to file a Petition for Special Relief and ask that Court to enter an order while the divorce is pending to award you the home. If your spouse left and has another residence that he/she has established, it is very probable that the court will award you the right to live in the home and your spouse will not be allowed in at that point without your consent. Once you have that Order from the Court, you can be assured that a violation of that Order will result in Contempt of Court. If you are the spouse who left, until that Order is entered by the Court, you can usually move back into the house if you change your mind. Getting an Order in place is something to consider to eliminate unexpected surprises. 

Remedies for the landlord

The most important thing that a landlord can get after an eviction hearing is the property itself. After a hearing, the tenant has 10 days to appeal, or else the landlord may request (and pay for) an Order for Possession. 10 days after that, the sheriff/constable will come and evict the tenant.

Typical landlord/tenant fees

To file a landlord/tenant eviction, you must pay the court's filing fees. The fees are based on several factors: the number of defendants, amount seeking in damages (i.e. unpaid rent, destruction of property, legal fees), where you are filing (i.e. Bucks County vs. Philadelphia county).

Should you have a will?

Many people ask me if a will is necessary for them. They believe that they're too young, or they don't have enough assets, or they can't decide who gets their estate when they pass away. A will is important for anyone. I recommend setting up a will as early as possible. A will is always modifiable as long as you are competent to make changes so it's not a problem if you change your mind. It is also recommended that you periodically review your wills to make sure that the terms have not changed. You should also modify your will whenever a significant event occurs in your life (i.e. marriage, divorce, birth of a child).

Theories on Property Division

There are two different theories on how title to property may affect the division of the property at the time of divorce. The title theory looks at which spouse holds title to each asset. There are multiple forms of title. Sole title grants the unilateral power to control. Examples of assets that may be relevant in divorce that are solely titled include retirement accounts, individual bank accounts, and vehicles. The remaining forms of title often apply to real property. Tenancy in common is the co-possession of an entire asset where each party has a ½ interest. Joint tenancy with right of survivorship is also co-possession of an entire asset with the condition that the surviving party will receive sole possession upon death of the other party. Each party can potentially transfer their interest during their lifetime. Finally, tenancy by entireties is similar to joint tenancy with right of survivorship but can only exist between spouses and any transfer of the interest can only occur with consent of the other spouse. Most states prefer the title theory. Equitable distribution is the method for property division under this theory. 

My spouse left me, why do I now have to pay the mortgage?

If you are getting a divorce in Pennsylvania, oftentimes the court will require the occupant of the marital home to pay the mortgage. It does not matter whose name is on the mortgage. The theory behind requiring the occupant to pay the mortgage is that only that person is receiving a benefit for use of the home. Consider it fair rental value. The court will normally impose a support obligation on the spouse to pay you if they earn more and you have been married for at least a few years. If you have children with your spouse, you can seek a mortgage contribution as part of child support if they children remain the home with you. The mortgage contribution, however, is never going to be equal to the mortgage, nor is it even half of the mortgage. In some cases, you will not even get a mortgage contribution if your income and the child support amount do not mathematically warrant it. It is also in the discretion of the Judge whether to even award it. If you cannot afford to pay the mortgage between the income you have and the support you receive from your spouse, it may be time to consider selling the home. If you fail to pay the mortgage while living in the house during a divorce, the Court can intervene and order it sold. It is a good idea if you are separating to consult an attorney who can assist you by figuring out approximately how much you can expect to receive. This not only helps in deciding if you can afford to stay in your home during a divorce but will also help you decide how much you can afford to live elsewhere if you have to move. The attorney can also provide you with the documented expectation of support in order to help you secure a rental if your income does not support it alone. 

Divorcing and Preserving the Proceeds from the House Sale

If you are getting divorced and need to sell your house as part of the divorce process, it is important to keep your attorney informed. Oftentimes when you go to settlement, if you do not have an agreement in place, the proceeds will be split equally. As part of the divorce process, you can obtain a court order either through an agreement with the other spouse or through the court that preserves your proceeds until such time that an agreement on divorce is reached. In Pennsylvania, assets are distributed equitably, not equally. Usually the spouse who earns less money at the time of the divorce receives more than half the overall assets, although there are many factors that determine equitable distribution. If the parties can agree, it may be best to distribute equally that portion of the proceeds that are not in dispute and only hold the amount disputed in escrow or in joint names requiring two signatures. You should have this agreement or court order put in place prior to closing and if possible, prior to signing your agreement of sale.

Notice to Quit

In Pennsylvania, before an eviction may be filed, the landlord must serve the tenant(s) with a Notice to Quit. The Notice to Quit must explain why the tenant is being evicted: Nonpayment of Rent, Termination of the term (i.e. the 12-month lease is over and the lease was not renewed), or Breach of a term of the lease (i.e. no pets). However, the lease sometimes allows for the waiver of the Notice and permits the Landlord to file for eviction immediately.

Real estate ownership

In Pennsylvania, there are several ways that real property (i.e. houses) may be titled. When two or more people own property together, they should be aware of the manner in which the property is owned:

Security Deposit

Before you rent an apartment or other dwelling, a landlord usually requires a security deposit. This deposit is held by the landlord in case you damage the residence during your tenancy.

Landlord Tenant appeals

In Pennsylvania, once a landlord/tenant eviction hearing is decided by a Magisterial District Justice (or by a Municipal Court Judge in Philadelphia), either party has the right to appeal if they disagree with the decision.

What to expect at a hearing

Once a landlord tenant complaint is filed in the local courthouse, a hearing date will be set. The hearing will be scheduled no later than 15 days from filing. The local sheriff or constable will then serve the tenant with the complaint and hearing notice, either personally or by posting them conspicuously on the property.

Why a Power of Attorney is as Important as a Will

Oftentimes people are very concerned about making sure that they have a will but do not think about a power of attorney. While it is an important part of an estate planning process, and is critical if you have specific goals and desires on how you would life your life's savings distributed upon your death, without one your closest relatives will still receive your assets under the intestate laws. If you are married, this means your spouse. The state does not take your assets unless and until there are no living relatives.
A power of attorney, however, has no fall back provision. If you do not have a power of attorney when you need one, your loved ones will have to petition the court and ask to be appointed as your guardian. This can be an expensive and time consuming process. A power of attorney, unlike a will, is a document that takes effect while you are living. It gives power to whomever you choose to handle your financial affairs, including paying your bills, signing checks, even selling your property. You can use a power of attorney while you are still capable of handling your affairs but are unavailable or you can use it solely in the event that you become you incapacitated and are no longer able to handle your affairs. Some people will use one if they are out of state and need to sell their house. They can designate a power of attorney to handle the transaction for them at settlement. A power of attorney can specify what rights and power you give the other person and it can be limited to specific things.
It is a very powerful, but often overlooked document. You should trust fully the person you designate as it can be abused. You can revoke it in writing at any time. It can be used for many different reasons. If say, for example, you have a child in college and you want information on their account with school or grades, you can talk to your child into signing a Power of Attorney to allow you access to this information. So many parents are frustrated when they pay college bills and yet the school will not even tell them the balance due. It is a very useful tool in the event of an unfortunate and tragic accident that does not result in death. If the breadwinner is suddenly not available, rather than have to file a petition and wait for court, a Power of Attorney will enable the spouse to handle all the affairs, negotiate checks, obtainformation on the mortgage and other bills that may only be in the other person's name.
The cost of a Power of attorney is very inexpensive (approx. $ 100) compared to the cost that will be incurred if someone does not have one when it is needed (thousands). It is something to think about to protect yourself while you are living or assist your loved ones.

What happens to the ring when the wedding is called off

Sometimes an engagement does not always result in a happy ending. If the couple, for any reason, does not get married, what happens to the ring? Oftentimes, a woman who has been dreaming of getting married feels justified keeping the diamond engagement ring that was given to her. These feelings are especially strong when she is not the one who called off the wedding. If she is in Pennsylvania, however, the law does not support her. In the event an engagement does not result in a marriage, the engagement ring legally belongs to the giver. It does not matter who calls off the wedding. The ring is a gift conditioned on a promise of a wedding. When the wedding does not take place, the ring must be returned. If the ring is not voluntarily returned, filing an action through court may be the only route possible. In either event, it may be wise to make sure the diamond is examined to ensure that it is the same diamond that was given before the wedding was called off.

Self-love on Valentine's Day

Self-Love is important. For those who are separated or divorced, remember that loving yourself is a way you can make Valentine's special for yourself. Enjoy a day at the spa, read a good book, spend time relaxing in a bathtub or doing something you enjoy. Maybe go see a new movie and celebrate with friends or children or family. No one can make you happy but yourself and this is a day to celebrate the love you have for yourself just as much as it to celebrate the love you have for others. 

NJ Divorce on the Papers

Certain counties in New Jersey will now allow a divorce to go through without requiring appearance in court. This option is available if there are no issues raised other than the divorce. For example, there are no custody, support, or equitable distribution issues. Alternatively, if the parties reach an agreement on all outstanding issues, the agreement can be incorporated with the request for the divorce and the appearance requirement can still be waived. A final judgment of divorce will need to be prepared. The judgment should include whether an agreement is being included. The judgment should also cover the minimum requirements for divorce such as appropriate jurisdiction based on residency. Further, if wife intends to retake her maiden name, that should be included in the proposed final judgment. 

Child Support and where the money goes

Oftentimes people who have to pay child support do not understand why they have to pay the amount that they do. Sometimes they think that they can demand receipts for everything that their money is used to by for the child. In PA, the parent who has the majority of the time is the one who is entitled to receive child support. If parents have equal time, the parent who earns less is entitled to receive child support. There is no accounting required for expenditures except in the instance when the party is seeking additional money in unreimbursed medical expenses, or child care costs which are over and above the basic support obligation. While it may seem that several hundred dollars is more money than you would spend on the average child in a given month, the paying parent often fails to consider that the basic child support factors in basic needs including housing, electric, food, clothing that the primary parent needs to provide. When you consider the additional cost that a two bedroom apartment costs versus a one bedroom apartment, and the additional water or electric used, it becomes easier to understand and accept why the court orders the amount of support that they do and easier to accept that it is not a dollar for dollar tally of the expenses used for the child. 

Getting through child custody with gratitude

Child custody is one of divorce's greatest challenges. When all is said and done and the assets are distributed and the divorce is final, there are still the children of divorce that forever tie you to the other parent. Whether your children are little or grown, there will be times when you will encounter the other parent whom you are no longer married to but have children and possibly grandchildren in common with after the divorce. This can be frequent during child custody. Oftentimes, when children are little, there remains hurt feelings, resentment, possibly jealously as the other parent moves on seemingly unscathed. It may be very difficult during these times to maintain the level of civility in child custody that is critical to raise happy, successful children of divorced parents. The last thing you may want to do is have to continue to parent with this other person that you no longer love, that you resent or that continues to undermine everything that you think is best. It takes acceptance of the fact that both parents are entitled to have a loving and caring relationship with their children after a divorce in order to provide the best for your children.

Dividing a Business in a Divorce

Oftentimes in a divorce, one of the assets that the family court in Pennsylvania must decide how to distribute is a business.  In most instances, the Court is not distributing or dividing the control of the business but rather the value. If the business is premarital, the increase in value during the marriage is considered for purposes of the divorce.  In order to determine the value of the business, the parties can either stipulate to the value or they will need what is known as a business valuation.  There are generally three different methods used to value a business and one method or a combination may be appropriate depending on the type of business.  If the spouse who does not control the assets needs to get a business valued, it may be necessary to petition the court during the course of the divorce to request the other spouse to advance the cost of the business valuation.  A business valuation is neither simple nor inexpensive.  

Social Security Benefits when Divorced

When you get divorced in PA, social security is not considered as an asset in divorce. It may be considered as income for purposes of alimony but not as an asset.  If you were a spouse who did not work and did not contribute to Social Security or if you worked part-time and your benefit is not very much, you should inquire as to whether you are eligible for spousal benefits.  If your ex-spouse worked and contributed to Social Security, you may be eligible for Social Security.  In order to be eligible, you must be unmarried at the time you apply for benefits. Even if you are divorced in between marriages from someone else, you may still be eligible to collect on the first spouse if you meet the requirements.  You must be at least 62 years.  You must have been married to the spouse for at least ten years to collect.  If your spouse is not yet collecting, you can still collect as long as you have been divorced for at least two years.  If you wait until full retirement, you will receive half of what your ex-spouse's full retirement benefit is.  Your collection of the half of their benefit does not reduce their full benefit.  They will still be eligible for their full retirement benefit.  Social security no longer sends statements out in the mail of your earning history but they are easily accessible online at www.ssa.gov and you should set up an account for yourself to view online.  To learn more about your rights if you are divorced visit: 

Custody and Incarceration

What happens to a child when their parent goes to prison? If a child is placed with the state agency, such as Children and Youth, a parent may still be able to visit with their child during the time that the parent is incarcerated. It is important for an incarcerated parent to do everything possible to maintain contact with their child and to be active in order to protect their parental rights. Failure to maintain contact or interest can result in a termination of parental rights and adoption if the child is in agency care. Even if visits do not occur, it is important to write, request information about the child, attend hearings and take parenting classes while in prison. If drug and alcohol abuse is an issue, it is important to seek help while incarcerated through the programs offered through the prison.

Planning foreign travel with children when separated

If you are separated and plan to travel out of state with your child, you will need to make sure that you have a passport and that you have permission from the court. In order to obtain a passport you will need consent from both parents and signatures. If your custody order does not provide for travel out of the country which most do not, then you will need to also obtain consent from the other parent in writing with specifics on the travel or you will need to obtain permission from the court if the other parent objects. In most instances when a parent objects to out of the country travel, the parent wanting to travel will have to establish the necessity and that it is in the best interests of the child. Oftentimes, the court errs on the side of caution and denies the request. Taking a child out of the country imposes many risks when parents are separated, depending on which country you intend to travel. These risks include the difficulty of enforcing a custody order should a parent decide to not return with the child. Oftentimes the court will look to see if the country is part of the Hague Convention which means that the country has signed on to enforce foreign custody orders. Even if they are part of the Hague Convention is not a guarantee for a speedy return of child. Research should be done on each country prior to traveling to see how they have treated United States custody orders. Other risks in travel include diseases, instability of a country, and requirement for certain vaccinations. If you plan to travel with a child and are separated, you will need to plan well in advance in case you need to go to court to seek permission.

Date of Separation in a Divorce

When you get divorced in PA, the date of your separation is no later than the date that a divorce is filed. It can be earlier but the burden will upon the party seeking an earlier date to establish it with evidence should the other spouse contest it. The date of separation is an important date when it comes to determining what is an asset and what is a debt. Assets and debts accumulated up until the date are marital. This means if you file for divorce or separate you will want to know what the balances are on your debt at that time. It does not matter whose name the debt or asset is in. If your spouse has credit cards, even if you did not know about them during the marriage and they can produce statements showing a credit card balance on the date of separation, it gets included. If you think your retirement is your own, again you will be mistaken. Retirement assets up until the date of separation are marital assets even if they are only in one person's name. There are exceptions on some assets that are passive such as a house where the value is determined as of the date of distribution. Much money and time is spent in a divorce figuring out what the assets and debts are and what the balances are. It is a good idea to keep records, when you marry, when you separate and each month after you separate. It will save much time and much money to stay organized.

Disestablishing Paternity

It is difficult to avoid the obligations that come with parenting a child. Paternity can be established in a number of ways including by acknowledgment, by genetic testing, or by estoppel. Once an acknowledgment of paternity is signed, it is very difficult for a father to then try to allege the child is not his. An acknowledgment acts as conclusive evidence that the person who signed the acknowledgment is in fact the father of any subject child(ren). A court order on paternity will follow if the genetic test results indicate 99% probability of paternity. Paternity by estoppel recognizes a man as the father based on his role in the child's life rather than the biological connection. 

Reasons to consider a Prenuptial Agreement

If you are getting married, you may want to consider a prenuptial agreement before you tie the knot.  A prenuptial agreement is not necessary in every situation, but is very useful to avoid conflict in certain situations.  It is not always just for divorce.  You may want to use it to allow you to decide how your assets will be distributed in the event of death rather than have your spouse be entitled to their elective share.  

Protection from Abuse Claims in Bucks County, PA

Today is PFA day in Bucks County, PA.  Historically, it was evident by the overcrowded and flowing areas of the courthouse.  PFAs will now be heard in the new Bucks County Justice Center, but somehow that will not change the fact that is one of the most crowded days in court. A Protection from Abuse starts as a civil action where one person who must meet the relationship requirement under the PFA statute files and accuses another person of abuse, usually physical, but can include stalking, harassment.  If you are a Petitioner in Bucks County, you have options to help you file that include a free service offered through the Women's Place or through Legal Aid.  Not only will they assist you with filing your claim, they will also represent you or assign you an attorney in court. They will have someone also accompany you to court so you do not have to go alone and this person will provide support to you. You also have the option of hiring a private attorney who will be devoted exclusively to your case that day.  They can assist you by preparing your petition and making sure all the necessary facts are set forth in your petition. You can ask for protection for up to three years and this protection can include absolutely no contact to restricted contact if you have children.  While the court can award custody and support as part of a PFA, you should file both those actions separately as well, especially support which will lapse if you do not file for it.

Handling Custody during bad weather/sickness, use common sense

Oftentimes when you have a custody agreement, your agreement or order spells out specific times and meeting places for custody exchanges. Even the best crafted custody agreement, however, does not contemplate every situation that possibly could arise.  In these circumstances, you must often make a judgement call.  For example, if your child is burning up with a fever, it may not be in the best interest of your child to insist that they return to you for your designated custodial time.  You may want to consider your child and let them rest until they are up for travel.  With winter upon us, you may also find yourself required by your custody order to exchange your child in the middle of a snowstorm, or worse, blizzard.  Again, you should use your best judgement in deciding whether to follow the custody agreement.  This is why it is very important that parents be able to communicate with each other.  Oftentimes, you will need to make accommodations for the other parent.  You cannot expect a custody agreement or court order to resolve every possible scenario.  

Why you should file a counterclaim in custody

If you are one of the many families who are facing custody issues and you find that your ex has file a petition for custody or a petition to modify your current order, you should consider filing a counterclaim for custody.  While it is true that you do not have to file an answer or a counterclaim in order for the court to decide a schedule, what happens if your ex suddenly withdraws their petition the day of the hearing?  If you do not have a counterclaim filed, then the Court will cancel the hearing since there will be no petition to hear.  While this is fine if you do not want a change, it may not be so great if you were expecting to raise issues on why you need an order or why you want a change, this is not such good news.  In order to prevent this from happening, you should always file a counterclaim on custody.  That way, if your ex does decide to withdraw the petition filed, the Court will have to hear the case unless you also withdraw your petition.

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