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April 2015 Archives

Child Abuse Prevention Month

April is National Child Abuse Prevention month. The goal is to raise awareness in respect to preventing abuse, reducing the risk of abuse and promoting healthy families. The Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health sponsors the annual awareness campaign. The first Child Abuse Prevention week was recognized in 1982. It extended to an entire month of awareness the following year in 1983. The theme continues to be "Making Meaningful Connections" to promote familial and community relationships as a support system to reduce abuse.

Distribution of Debt during a Divorce

During the divorce process, information is gathered not only on assets, but also on debt. Marital debt is debt that is accumulated during the divorce, regardless of the name of on the account. This means that if you have a charge happy spouse, you may be liable to share in the debt created by their spending spree. The balances of the credit cards and debts as of the date of the separation of the divorce is the date to look at for purposes of debt distribution. Since divorce often takes awhile, you will want to gather this information as soon as you separate. You will also want to keep track and gather proof of every payment you make on this debt since you separated so that you can seek credit for this payment when you get divorced. If your overall marital estate is primarily distribution of debt, you may want to consult with a bankruptcy attorney. Any debt that is discharged in bankruptcy does not get considered in the divorce if it is discharged prior to the divorce going through since it no longer exists. It is always wise to consult a bankruptcy attorney when there are high debts in divorce and few assets to determine not only whether to file bankruptcy or if you qualify but when to file it.

Drug & Alcohol Testing in Child Custody

Sometimes in child custody cases one of the parents struggles with an addiction either to drugs or to alcohol. When the parties are no longer together, the court must decide contact for each of the parents with their children. If there is a drug or alcohol addiction, it can impact the type of custody and amount of time a parent will be able to spend with their child. Oftentimes, the other parent will want those visits to be supervised. In order to establish that a parent has an addiction and in order to determine the severity of the addiction, it may be necessary to have the court order mandatory drug and alcohol testing. There are various types of testing that can be done to determine what type of drugs a parent may have been doing and each of the different types of tests have a window of accuracy. In a child custody case, it is always best to request a hair follicle test as this provides the longest history of drug usage for a parent. In addition to drug testing, if a parent has an alcohol addiction, there are tests that can measure the consistency in which a parent consumes excess alcohol. These tests are critical when a parent has an addiction as being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while caring for children can greatly put them at risk of physical harm due to neglect and/or abuse. 

Where do I file for Child Custody?

Jurisdiction for child custody is wherever the child has lived for the past six months. If, however, you already have a court order, the court may have retained jurisdiction of the custody order if one of the parties still lives in that jurisdiction. If no party has lived in any jurisdiction for at least six months, you must look at the state that has the closest ties to the child and see if that Court will exercise jurisdiction. The reason a court exercises jurisdiction where the child resides is because that state and county will have the best available information regarding the child, including education, living conditions, etc. all of which are relevant in determining custody of the child. Within a state, you should file in the county where the child resides. 

Finality in Divorce

Sections 3331-3333 of the Divorce Code discuss the potential to review a divorce after a decree has been issued. The general policy is in favor of finality to avoid endless litigation, however certain circumstances will warrant reconsideration. First, parties should act as timely as possible. Section 3331 limits attacks on decrees. An appeal is the only option where one of the parties has died. There is a two year limit to take action specifically where the party questioning the decree had knowledge of the circumstances supporting the attack and failed to timely take action. Section 3332 outlines when a decree may be opened or vacated. In general, there is a thirty day time limit to request review of an Order pursuant to 42 Pa. C.S. 5505.

No Child Support Responsibility for College Costs in PA


In Pennsylvania, unlike New Jersey, child support terminates when a child reaches age 18 or graduates from high school, whichever is later. The Court has held that there is no obligation for parents to provide for children beyond this time. Even if your child resides with you and does not have a job and instead chooses to go to college, the other parent will have no obligation to pay anything towards college costs. If, however, you negotiate an agreement in writing with the other parent to pay for college costs and the other parent agrees to it in writing, then the Court can enforce that agreement under contract law. Oftentimes, parents who cannot negotiate an agreement for college costs in their divorce assume this means the other parent has no interest in paying or contributing to college costs. This is not always the case. A parent may still intend to assist a child with college costs but by not putting it in writing, they are not legally obligated to do that and instead, can decide if and how much they want to contribute. Also, it is important to decide where the child who attends college will reside as only the income of the parent with whom they reside will be relevant in qualifying for financial aid. If that parent, remarries, however, the stepparent's income and assets can affect the amount of financial aid available to the child even if they have no legal obligation to support the child.

Divorce after Two Year Separation

After two years of separation,  grounds for divorce can be achieved in PA without the consent of the other party. One of the two no-fault grounds for divorce is a two year separation. This separation does not have to mean physical separation. It is legal separation. Legal separation is no later than the date that a divorce complaint is filed. Parties can reside together in the same home while the divorce is pending. After two years, however, from the date the divorce was filed, one party can allege that it has been two years and seek grounds for divorce based on that fact. The other side must actively file a counter-affidavit denying the two year separation or denying there is an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage in order to stop the grounds for divorce from being entered. If a counter-affidavit gets filed, a hearing will be needed to determine if in fact the two year separation has occurred. Grounds for divorce is only the first step in getting a final divorce. In order to get a final divorce, if claims for equitable distribution or alimony have been raised, an agreement either needs to be put in writing or the parties need to go to a divorce hearing after they get grounds for divorce. This is often why there are cases that take at least three years before they are final, and some much longer. 

Benefits of a Law Firm Team

When you hire a law firm, it is a good idea to find out whether the attorney you hire is the only attorney who will be working with you or whether the firm takes a team approach. There are many benefits of the team approach. When you hire an attorney and you meet with your attorney in their office, it is often easy to forget that your attorney is not in their office everyday. You may expect that they will be readily available to you at a moment's notice, despite the fact that they could very well have days that they are in court and not in the office. What happens when your attorney is in court and you have an emergency? What happens if your attorney is scheduled to be in court in another matter the same day that you have court? When a firm takes a team approach your options are expanded. Oftentimes there is another attorney at the firm who can assist you with any of your legal needs should your lead attorney be unavailable. In addition, in a firm that takes a team approach, if your attorney has a conflict, there is another attorney who could equally represent you if you do not want to or cannot move your hearing to another day. If, however, you like the idea of only one person handling everything, it is best to discuss this with your attorney from the outset and also to understand that this could result in slower turnaround if your attorney is out of the office or may result in hearings that have to be rescheduled if there are multiple court proceedings in one day. As with any relationship, communication is key and it is important to discuss all of these things when you hire your attorney. 

Changes to the Custody Order by Agreement

The purpose of a custody order is to provide both parties with a schedule on when they have their children and no longer live in the same home. This eliminates any confusion for everyone involved, including the parents, children, teachers, coaches and others who may need to know who is supposed to pick up a child and when. This is why schools require that a custody order be on file with the school. A custody order is not only a useful tool to help everyone know when they are supposed to have the children but also it guarantees time that both parents get to spend with the child or be held in contempt. With this said, however, there are times when both parents may want to deviate from this schedule by agreement. If BOTH parties are agreeable to change anything in the custody schedule, you do not have to go back to court to do so unless you want to make it a permanent, guaranteed changed. If both parties agree to make changes, it is best but not necessary to put it in writing. It is encouraged that parties work with each other as custody orders cannot contemplate every single thing that may arise such as a wedding, party, or other event that flexibility may need to be used. Parties can always give each other extra time, makeup time, agree to switch days, etc. by agreement regardless of what the custody order says as long as both parties agree. 

Revoking a will

If you create a will, the will is in effect until it is revoked. In Pennsylvania, a will may be revoked in several ways.

Codicils

Every time that you create a will, you revoke all prior wills previously made. However, sometimes you wish to amend the will while keeping the majority of the terms the same. For these situations, it is best to create a codicil.

Living Will

A living will, also called an advanced directive, is a legal document which details your wishes regarding medical treatment when you are in a terminal condition or in a state of permanent unconsciousness, including persistent vegetative state or irreversible coma. A living will gives you the right to determine which treatments, such as cardiac resuscitation and antibiotics, and you choose to accept or decline them.

Life estates

When you pass away leaving real property (i.e. house), the property is sold or goes to your heirs, either under a will or through intestacy. Typically, the heirs have the right to do as they wish with the property, such as selling it, keeping it, repairing it, or renting it. Another option is to give someone a life estate.

What is a Power of Attorney

A power of attorney is a legal document wherein you give another person the right to act on your behalf. It is a very powerful document, in that your agent can act as you. For example, once in effect, the agent may be able to access your bank accounts, pay bills, transfer real estate, make gifts on your behalf, and conduct your business and affairs. While the agent has a fiduciary duty to make sure that he is acting on your behalf, you need to choose an agent (or two) who you strongly trust.

Consequences of Custody Contempt

23 Pa. C.S. 5323 (f) provides that any custody order should have sufficient detail to enable the parties to understand what they are obligated to do and for law enforcement authorities to be able to assist in enforcement where appropriate. Section (g) discusses the consequences for violation of an established custody order. "A party who willfully fails to comply with any custody order may be adjudged in contempt. Contempt shall be punishable by any one or more of the following: (i) imprisonment for a period not more than six months; (ii) a fine of not more than $500; (iii) probation for a period of not more than six months; (iv) an order for nonrenewal, suspension or denial of operating privilege; and/or (iv) counsel fees." 23 PA. C.S. 5323 (g).

Dividing Personal Property in Divorce

Personal Property in a divorce includes the tangible items that you own, such as the furniture, the houseware, the televisions, the paintings, and other items in your home. When parties separate, one of the parties normally leaves the home and takes items with them. What is taken can often lead to a dispute. It is important to keep things in perspective. The court will normally assign garage sale value to the items which means you are not likely to get a huge credit if you walk away from the entire contents of the home. Some parties unrealistically expect a credit of $ 20,000 for all the contents of the home since they left with very little. This is not likely to happen. What the Court normally does is have the parties list out the items in dispute and if you cannot agree alternate on picking items from the list. If you do have valuables that have a higher value, such as artwork or guns, these things can be separated if you have an appraisal. You should have your certified appraisal before you go to court in order to obtain the highest value for this item. While you may be attached to certain items of sentimental value, it is important to weigh the cost of the item against the cost of fighting over the item. Most personal property issues resolve by agreement. When they do not, most get sent to arbitration to resolve unless the items are appraised. When you leave the house, it is best to take the items that you want to have when the divorce is finalized as it can often take years before these issues will even get heard by the Court. 

Danger of the $ 299 Divorce

Oftentimes a person getting a divorce may see ads for a low cost divorce for $ 299. What the ad does not tell you is that this is for a divorce in which there are no issues, no assets, and it likely does not include a filing fee. You also have to do much of the work yourself. Every county in Pennsylvania has their own filing fee. Normally, you file in the county where you resided together when you separated. If you do not have assets, however, you can agree to file in a county in Pennsylvania where the filing fee is cheaper. Some counties have filing fees that start over $ 300 and do not include any of the legal fees. If you do not have any issues, agree to the county that is cheapest, and are prepared to do much of the paperwork yourself, this may be ideal. The danger is that you will not raise issues that should have been raised such as distribution of assets or alimony that you cannot raise after the decree in divorce is granted. If you are going to go this route, it would be wise to at least consult an attorney for a free consultation prior to finalizing your divorce.

No jury trials for custody or divorce cases

Many people who are going through a divorce or custody case are unfamiliar with the court system and what to expect unless they have had friends or family who already went through the process. In most family law cases, there are several levels of proceedings. In Pennsylvania, custody, support and divorce issues are usually heard separately and all usually involve a lower level proceeding before a trial. One thing you do not see in family law cases is a trial by a jury. If you go to court for divorce, or custody or support, and you do not resolve your case at the lower level proceedings, you will have what is called a bench trial. This is very similar to the trials you see on television, as you will have witnesses testify under oath on the stand. The same rules of evidence and procedure also apply. As a party you will also testify under oath. Your case, however, will be decided by one person, the Judge. In criminal matters and even in civil cases, you can opt for a bench trial instead of a jury, but in family law cases, you do not have this choice. You will always have a bench trial. One person will decide the outcome of your case. 

Exclusive Possession and Divorce

Sometimes when a divorce is pending, a party may decide that they no longer wish to live in the marital residence. When a party moves out and establishes residence elsewhere, the party who remains in the home may seek and will usually always be granted an order for exclusive possession of the marital residence while the divorce is pending. This means that even if the house is owned in both names of the parties, only the party who is living in the house will be allowed in or on the property while the divorce is pending. If you are thinking of leaving your home and moving out, it is advisable to make sure that you have secured all of your possessions before you move as you could be prevented from re-entering the property. Until a court order is entered, however, if you left and decide to return unless there is an order preventing it, you can always return to the house. If your spouse leaves, you can change the locks, however, until you get a court order, they can break a window and legally gain access. You may want to either get a written stipulation for exclusive possession or a court order. 

Holidays and Custody

When it comes to holidays and custody, the courts generally will alternate the holidays so that one parent has the children in even years and the other parent has the children in odd years. Easter is usually only considered as a Sunday holiday not an overnight the night before. It is important, however, to always think about the children and parents can always design their own holiday schedule instead of leaving it up to the Courts. If both parties enjoy having Easter morning with baskets, you may want to alternate the Saturday into the Sunday. You may also want to split the day much like you with Christmas so that one parent has the night before and morning the other parent has the other half of the day into the next morning. Even children who do not have parents who are divorced are often shuffled on holidays between homes of in-laws, other relatives, etc. It is important to think about the children and what is in their best interests. When is it is not practical to share the holiday, a good alternative would be to Skype or facetime with the other party and family so that they can share in the celebration by video.

Who provides medical insurance in divorce and support

Typically during a divorce, medical insurance is already in place when parties separated. Unless the parties agree otherwise, you cannot unilaterally drop your spouse from medical insurance during a divorce and must provide coverage until a divorce decree is entered as long as it still available through work. When parties go to support court, if both parties have medical insurance available for the children, it oftentimes make sense to look at who has a better plan and at what cost. It is not just the out of pocket expense on the premium that should be looked at, but also the coverage available and cost of deductibles. If the parties cannot agree on who will provide coverage for the children the court will weigh these variables to decide what makes the most sense. No matter who provides the coverage, the parties should realize that they will both share in the cost of medical premiums in proportion to their incomes either as an add on to basic child support or as a deduction. The parent who receives child support, however, will pay the first $ 250 in out of pocket medical expenses and the balance will be shared based on incomes. 

SSD vs SSI

Social Security benefits may count as income depending on the nature of the benefits be received. For that purpose, it is important to differentiate the types of Social Security benefits to ensure an appropriate support calculation. Social Security disability (SSD) benefits are counted as income. The disability payments are meant to replace the income the recipient would have received if they had not become disabled. Essentially, disability payments have been pre-paid by the recipient during their employment. Accordingly, the recipient must have a sufficient earnings history, or in other words have paid social security long enough, to be eligible for payments.

File to Modify Support if you are laid off

Whenever there is a change income, whether it is the party receiving child support or the party paying child support, it is that person's responsibility to file to modify the support order. When someone is suddenly let go from work, even if they qualify for unemployment income, it is often necessary to file to modify support. Even though the wages are attached and the court receives their funds from unemployment, this still does not mean the court is put on notice. You must take initiative and file to modify the order. Even if it is temporary, you should do this in case you are out of work longer than you anticipate. Having to pay a support order based on income you no longer have can be disastrous. In addition, if you have lost health coverage, it is important that you notify the other party as soon as possible. If you are receiving support, likewise, you should file to modify your support order. Support orders are modifiable if either party experiences a change. 

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