Parties are often encouraged to try to reach an agreement to resolve whatever issues have arisen in any legal matter. In family law, agreements are especially encouraged due to the personal nature of the issues at hand along with the belief that it is better for the parties to draft their own agreement rather than allow a stranger to dictate their family dynamics going forward. Most agreements in family law will be treated as any contract would and the parties will be obligated to comply with the provisions or face an action for contempt. The family court will retain jurisdiction over all agreements entered that are subsequently submitted to the court to be made an order. As with any contract the court is generally only concerned that the agreement was entered into voluntarily and knowingly. The court will not necessarily be reviewing the content of the agreement before allowing it to become an order of court.
A qualified domestic relations order, or QDRO for short, is a document often used in the context of splitting assets in a divorce to rollover a portion of one party's retirement plan/benefit to the other party. QDROs are frequently utilized when pensions, 401ks and other retirement benefits have been classified as marital in nature and therefore up for distribution at the end of the marriage. The benefit of a QDRO is that it allows a tax-free transfer of the funds from one party to their new or soon-to-be ex-spouse. The receiving spouse would then be taxed as they withdraw the money as the tax laws provide. The exact nuances of how the plan/benefit is split and what options are available will vary based on the type of plan. For example, it may be that the party receiving a benefit as a result of a QDRO, often termed the alternate payee, cannot begin to do so until the initial participant in the plan begins to do so. The receiving party may or may not be able to designate an alternate successor if they die before the benefits begin to pay out. Or, the plan may provide the receiving party can only designate a survivor beneficiary that would be able to receive the balance of their portion of the benefit if they have started receiving the benefit before they die. The receiving party's benefit may or may not be affected by the death of the initial participant or his/her early withdrawal penalty, if applicable.
Under Pennsylvania law, one of the parties to the divorce action must have been a bona fide resident of Pennsylvania for at least six months prior to the commencement of the divorce. Bona fide residence is defined as actual residence with domiciliary intent. Domicile denotes the place where a person has his or her true, fixed, permanent home with the intention of returning after any absence. In other words, where an individual sleeps, takes her meals, receives mail, and stores personal possession.
Many people consider their pets as members of the family and accordingly, when the family breaks up, custody of the pets can become an issue. The Today Show recently covered a story of a man who had already spent $60,000 in a custody battle over his dog previously shared with his ex-girlfriend. While pets may be considered members of the family from the perspective of the owners, the courts in Pennsylvania deal with pets the same way as they deal with other inanimate personal property in the event of a divorce.
Often in the context of divorce parties may attempt to hide assets in an attempt to keep them out of the marital estate that will be up for distribution. One of the biggest red flags as far as potential hidden assets is if the spending/assets of the party are way more than would be expected based on their reported income. A party who has a small business and deals in cash can easily hide money. It may become necessary to hire an expert to analyze the income flow and see if their reported income is correct after a thorough investigation. Top level executives may receive alternative forms of income. Examples include stock options, bonuses, car allowances, and deferred compensation plans to name a few. Military members also often have a compensation package that goes beyond their base salary. It is important to obtainformation on all benefits of employment so they can be either be included as income in a potential support calculation or treated as an asset subject to distribution. Another potential problem as far as hidden assets is offshore accounts. Many offshore banks have confidentiality provisions that deflect detection. Parties should also be weary of the other party transferring assets over to family members or friends.
Pensions, as well as other retirement plans, are often one of the assets up for division in a divorce. The court will equitably divide the marital portion of a pension plan after considering all the relevant factors in equitable distribution. The marital portion of a plan would be the portion that accrued from the date of marriage through the date of separation. In some cases, the entire pension will be marital depending on the timing of the marriage alongside the start date of the pension plan.
Frozen embyros are considered marital property and hence, technically up for division in a divorce, however there is some disagreement on exactly how the "property" should be dealt with. This is a relatively new issue in family law and different states have applied different methods for resolving the matter. The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently released a decision regarding the marital status of frozen pre-embryos in Reber v. Reiss, 2012 PA Super 86. In Reber, the court had to determine what should happen to the frozen pre-embyros of a divorced couple. Wife wanted to use the frozen pre-embryos in order to have children of her own whereas Husband wanted the frozen pre-embryos either destroyed or donated for research.