Priorities in Divorce

I believe that prioritizing is an important part of decision-making. We must decide what is most important, or most urgent, or what must be done first to effectively move on to other tasks. Without determining the order in which things must be done or can most efficiently and effectively be done, we are just floundering from one task to another hoping that it will work out.

Prioritizing is not necessarily easy under the best circumstances. In times of stress, it is even more difficult. In times of stress and when making really big decisions that will impact your life and your family members’ lives, it is yet more difficult. For example, the decisions surrounding a divorce or other family change are overwhelming to many people. Let alone working out how to go about making those decisions and in which order to consider them. You probably need help prioritizing the topics you need to address in a divorce situation.   And there are resources to help you with determining those priorities. Your attorney should be able to help you prioritize the steps you need to take. Financial experts and divorce coaches can also provide guidance to establish priorities.

Another area in which you will need to prioritize in making divorce decisions involves evaluating possible resolutions and deciding whether they will meet your needs. This usually requires prioritizing your needs, goals, objectives and concerns so you are aware of how possible resolutions will meet or not meet your most important to least important needs. Your attorney and other professional advisors should be able to help you establish these priorities and evaluate options for resolution.

Prioritizing is important regardless of the method by which you are addressing your divorce. Whether through alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation or the collaborative process or by litigation, you must establish priorities to make informed decisions and take effective, efficient actions. If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding areas, and would like to discuss priorities in divorce or any other family law related issue, please contact me.

My Approach to Practicing Law

I emphasize providing “effective and efficient legal services.” That means I want to do everything necessary to serve my clients and accomplish their goals. I do not want to take unnecessary actions or make my clients incur unnecessary expenses. I strongly believe in self-determination and encourage my clients to be actively involved in the decision-making regarding their legal actions. Three general principles are integral to my family law and estate planning practice.

First – Use my time and your money wisely. Don’t pay my hourly rate to do things that you can accomplish on your own, such as gathering and organizing financial or other documentation. Gathering and organizing information is an inevitable part of most divorce actions, but it is not the most effective or efficient use of your money or my time to have me do it, assuming you are capable of doing so. Also, use my time and experience to address legal issues. We will certainly discuss the personal and emotional aspects of a legal problem, but don’t use me as your therapist. That’s why I recommend that all of my clients engage a therapist while experiencing divorce proceedings.

Second – Make decisions privately and use court only as a last resort. I practice primarily in Dauphin, Cumberland and York counties and they all have excellent court personnel and judges. However, the court process is not the most effective or efficient way to resolve divorce and other family disputes. By engaging the help of a mediator or collaborative law professionals you can resolve divorce and related family disputes privately and more effectively and efficiently than through litigation. If you have never been involved in litigation, then you must take my word for it and heed my advice – that’s why you hired me, right?

Third – Focus on what’s important to you and don’t get distracted. Most of my clients want to have their divorce or other family conflict resolved or their estate plan created and move on with their lives. Part of my job is to remind my clients of their goals and question whether their actions are furthering those goals and are in line with the things they tell me are important to them.

If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, Hershey, Mechanicsburg and surrounding communities and would like to discuss how I practice or any other family law or estate planning issue, please contact me.

When to Consult an Attorney

You should consult an attorney as soon as you think you might need legal help. You can save a lot of stress and anguish by finding out early on if you have anything to worry about and whether you can take any steps to help yourself. If you’re facing divorce or another family law situation or concerned that you don’t have an estate plan, consulting an attorney can be a huge relief. Why wait and worry and wonder about what’s happening when you have a possible legal problem if there are professionals who can give you advice?

Why wait until the situation becomes unbearable or you’re clearly in over your head and now dealing with an emergency that could have been addressed long before getting to this point? Lawyers can usually offer better advice and provide more options for how to deal with a situation in the early stages versus the later stages. Much of what we do is give clients advice based on our knowledge of the law and experience with the legal system and help clients develop and implement plans designed to achieve the best possible outcome. As time goes on and you get painted into a corner, you are reacting instead of planning and acting proactively. I believe I am more helpful to my divorce and other family law clients when they seek my advice early in the process.

Consulting an attorney does not obligate you to do anything. You are there to discuss your problem, get answers to questions, get a better understanding of what to expect going forward. You can then make an informed decision about whether you want to take action, what that action will be and whether you would like the attorney you’re talking with to be involved. The consultation allows you to make informed decisions. Some of my clients seeking consultation for divorce or other family law matters do not immediately retain me, but they leave the consultation ready to make informed decisions and also knowing that I am available to help them when they decide it’s time to retain me.

Some attorneys charge for their initial consultations. Others do not. I charge for my initial consultations because I’m taking approximately 90 minutes out of my workday, during which time I could be doing work for other clients, to give a potential client my undivided attention and to focus on giving him or her the best advice possible. My time, experience and education are valuable to me. One of your decisions after an initial consultation is whether, in your opinion, the cost of legal representation is worth the possible benefit.

However, I will gladly have a 15 minute phone conversation with a potential client at no charge so he or she can decide whether to meet with me for an initial consultation. If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, York, Carlisle, Hershey and surrounding communities, and wish to discuss divorce, estate planning or any other legal issue, please contact me.

The Central Pennsylvania Collaborative Law Community

Central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Hershey, Carlisle, York and surrounding areas, has a thriving collaborative law community. This community includes collaborative attorneys, divorce coaches and financial professionals. The Collaborative Professionals of Central Pennsylvania (CPCP) focuses on educating the public and other professionals about the collaborative law process and how it can be used to resolve divorce and other family law issues. As a current board member and former President of CPCP, I value the educational and networking opportunities the group provides.

Collaborative law came to Pennsylvania in approximately 2003, but has been practiced in other parts of the United States and other countries since about 1990. Many of the collaborative professionals initially trained in 2003 and 2004, who established CPCP, are still involved and actively practicing collaboratively. Cumberland, Dauphin and York counties have well-established networks of collaborative professionals working to help clients through the divorce process in a private and respectful way. Through CPCP we have established accepted procedures and guidelines for handling collaborative cases, so all members know what to expect and can explain to their clients what to expect in the collaborative law process.

All attorney members of CPCP are also trained as mediators. Not all of them conduct private mediations, but many do. For clients who choose to resolve their divorce or family law conflict by mediation, this provides a network of trained mediators throughout central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, Mechanicsburg and surrounding communities. I enjoy serving as a mediator for couples. When I’m representing an individual who is interested in pursuing mediation, I look first to my trusted colleagues in the central Pennsylvania collaborative law community to recommend a mediator for him or her.

Almost all CPCP members will provide a free 15 minute phone consultation for individuals interested in learning more about the collaborative process. In addition, central Pennsylvania collaborative professionals conduct seminars and community events throughout the region to educate and inform other professionals and the general public. Individuals who have resolved divorce and other family disputes through the collaborative process are the best source of first-hand information about what to expect and why the process works. All members of CPCP are also members of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP), whose website provides additional information about the process.

If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Hershey, Harrisburg, Carlisle and surrounding communities and would like to discuss the collaborative law process and divorce or any other family law or estate planning issue, please contact me.

Where I Practice

Attorneys are licensed to practice throughout the state, so in theory I can practice in any Pennsylvania county. However, most attorneys limit their practice areas to certain geographical locations. I’m no exception. I practice primarily in Cumberland, Dauphin and York Counties. Therefore, the majority of my clients are from Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey, York and surrounding communities. It makes sense for me to limit the counties in which I regularly practice for a couple reasons.

The first is convenience and practical considerations for my clients and myself. The majority of my clients live and/or work in central Pennsylvania, primarily Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey, York and surrounding communities. They can travel to my office relatively easily from all of those areas when necessary. Although we can usually handle a lot of communication by mail, email and telephone, some things must be done in person. I also conduct mediation sessions and collaborative law meetings in my office. It is convenient for me to travel to Carlisle, Harrisburg and York for necessary court filings and appearances and that travel time does not unnecessarily increase the cost to my clients.

The second is maintaining familiarity with local court rules, procedures and expectations. All counties have local rules dealing with certain procedural issues. These local rules are not consistent from one county to another and are changed on a fairly regular basis. Each county also follows certain procedures for court conferences and hearings. For example, in Dauphin County, if either party disagrees with a support order recommended by the Domestic Relations conference officer, he or she can request a hearing before a judge. In Cumberland County, the hearing request goes to a Support Master instead of a judge. Every judge also has his or her preferences for submitting pleadings, contacting the court and courtroom procedures.

Although I encourage my clients to resolve their conflicts privately and without court intervention, sometimes the court is involved as a last resort if they are unable to reach an agreement or if their spouse chooses to pursue litigation. Therefore, I want to be aware of the local court rules, procedures and expectations. The best way for me to maintain that awareness is to limit the counties in which I will go to court.

If a client from a different area wants me to represent him or her and is aware of the possible increased expense due to travel, I will do so. If a client from a different area wants to engage in mediation or the collaborative law process and is willing to travel to my office, I will do so. If you would like to discuss this or any other estate planning or family law related issue in or out of the Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey or York areas, please contact me.

Gathering Information

Regardless of the process you use to go through a divorce, you must gather information in order to make informed decisions. There are numerous ways to gather information, ranging from relatively simple and inexpensive to increasingly complex and increasingly expensive. The information you need is the same no matter what process you use to obtain it. You need information regarding incomes, marital assets and liabilities, nonmarital assets and liabilities, education and earning capacities, health problems and treatments and most likely some other information specific to your marital situation.

Ideally, you and your spouse will agree on the process used to gather information. That way you have a “game plan” understood by both of you. You and your spouse can do the majority of the legwork to gather information, saving both of you some counsel fees and emphasizing the fact that you can work together to resolve your divorce. That means agreeing that you will exchange information that’s important to both of you, share it with your attorneys and streamline the information gathering process.

Some processes, such as mediation and the collaborative law process, incorporate information gathering into the decision-making steps. As part of the mediation and collaborative process, both spouses agree that they will voluntarily provide information that’s relevant to decision-making and that information gathering is done informally. It is both effective and efficient without taking unnecessary time or expense.

Information gathering in the litigation process is usually different. This often involves the exchange of formal written request for information such as interrogatories and requests for production of documents. It can also include depositions, where individuals are asked questions under oath with a court reporter present. It may involve subpoenas to third parties for information. All of these methods include much greater involvement by both attorneys in the information gathering process and are more confrontational in their approach. They are more expensive and more likely to harm the relationship between spouses instead of helping them work together.

Ultimately you and your spouse decide how to gather information. If you are in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, York and surrounding areas, and would like to discuss the issue of gathering information or any other family law related issue, please contact me.

Basics of Collaborative Law

Collaboration means to work together to achieve a common goal. The collaborative process involves the spouses, their attorneys and any other involved professionals engaging in non-confrontational sessions to discuss the issues and goals of the involved individuals. The issues may include divorce, support of a spouse and/or children, how to divide the marital assets, co-parenting plans and anything else that spouses need to decide.

The collaborative process involves spouses interacting directly to reach a negotiated settlement through a series of four-party conferences. The parties and their attorneys agree that if they are unable to resolve their issues through negotiation, the attorneys involved in the collaborative process will not participate in any future litigation.

The attorneys work together with the goal of reaching a negotiated agreement and listen to both spouses. The collaborative team focuses on the same goal. Even with this team approach, each individual can also feel confident that his or her attorney represents only him or her. Individuals can rely on their attorneys for advice and guidance with the assurance that the attorneys are also working toward the parties’ single goal – a negotiated resolution.

Collaborative attorneys have specialized training and assist the parties in defining their issues, gathering the information needed and offering creative solutions. The collaborative process usually results in a quicker resolution than the litigated alternative and can be less costly.

Everyone commits to good faith negotiation in a respectful and constructive manner. The parties and their attorneys also commit to full disclosure of information that is relevant to the spouses in their decision-making. If the parties successfully negotiate a resolution it will be reduced to a written contract that can, if necessary, be enforced through the courts.

The collaborative process can help the parties maintain a cordial relationship once the divorce and/or other issues have concluded. This is especially important when there are children involved. Children learn how to conduct themselves primarily by watching their adult role models, especially their parents. Demonstrating to your children that adults can address tough problems with respect and dignity to reach a negotiated resolution is an invaluable lesson for them.

If you are in need of assistance in dealing with family-related issues, including separation or divorce, you should carefully consider the process by which you will resolve all the issues that will arise and whether the collaborative process can meet your needs. The way in which you deal with these difficult situations may impact you and your family more significantly than you can imagine. If you would like to discuss the collaborative process and its use in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, York, Carlisle and surrounding areas, or any other family law issue, please contact me.

Basics of Mediation

Mediation is negotiating with the assistance of a neutral third party (the mediator) who facilitates the negotiation process. Mediation involves non-adversarial negotiation between individuals based on their interests, needs and concerns. It is usually an informal process, with the mediation sessions taking place in a conference room setting. The parties participate in a series of mediation sessions in which they work jointly to resolve their conflicts without litigating the case in court. Mediation allows the parties to be in control of the decision-making process and requires that both of them be involved for the conflict to be resolved.
Usually the parties and the mediator are the only people actually involved in the mediation sessions, although the parties should also be represented by their own attorneys. The parties’ attorneys can provide legal advice outside of the mediation sessions and review the terms of a proposed agreement to make sure the agreement is legal and enforceable. Generally, the parties’ attorneys will also prepare the formal agreement containing the terms arrived at by the parties during the mediation process. The mediator may also speak with the parties’ attorneys.
The mediator does not offer legal advice to either party and does not make decisions for the parties. Instead, the mediator serves as a neutral third person who helps the parties interact with each other in a purposeful and non-threatening manner. The mediator guides the conversation during the mediation process, but the parties decide which issues they will address and which issues are the most important to them.
Individuals may use mediation to address virtually any conflict they encounter with any other individual or business. In the area of family mediation, the parties can address divorce, child custody and co-parenting arrangements, division of assets and financial issues such as child and spousal support. Individuals can even attend mediation to work out the terms of a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.
Effective mediation can influence how individuals interact with each other, even after the mediation process has ended. Effective communication between the parties is the basis for mediation. This sets it apart from litigation, in which the court’s decision is not usually dependent on whether the parties can communicate effectively. Parties do not need to communicate effectively before attending mediation, but during the mediation process they must be willing to explore more effective communication techniques.
If you would like to discuss mediation in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, Hershey and surrounding areas, or any other family law issue, please contact me.

How to Truly Listen

Most of us (including me, more frequently than I would like to believe) don’t listen very well. We talk back and forth with other people. Sometimes we yell back and forth or talk over one another. But with all that talking, we don’t really put aside the “response” part of our thoughts long enough to truly comprehend what others are trying to communicate to us.

I recently listened to a TED Talk with John Francis entitled “Walk the Earth … my 17-year vow of silence.” If you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend it. It’s a worthwhile 20 minutes. He describes the realization that came to him after he stopped talking as follows “Because what I used to do, when I thought I was listening, was I would listen just enough to hear what people had to say and think that I could — I knew what they were going to say, and so I stopped listening. And in my mind, I just kind of raced ahead and thought of what I was going to say back, while they were still finishing up. And then I would launch in. Well, that just ended communication.” What a great explanation of how most of us avoid truly listening to others and defeat effective communication.

It’s difficult to truly listen to other people without forming a response in your mind while you’re supposedly paying attention to what they’re saying. It takes a concerted effort to truly listen. But it pays off when you achieve more effective communication.

I believe that truly listening to other people is the single most useful technique to help resolve conflict. As an attorney and mediator, I must truly listen to what my clients, other attorneys and everyone involved in a conflict is communicating to me if I’m going to help them reach an acceptable resolution. I must also be aware of when others do not seem to be truly hearing what I or another person is saying and not let the conversation go on until I’ve done my best to help that happen.

Even if you’re skeptical, it’s worth a try. What do you have to lose? I don’t think that making an effort to listen to others in a conflict will make thing worse and you might be pleasantly surprised.

If you would like to discuss listening or any other family law or estate planning issues, please contact me.

Should I Agree to Pay for College?

In Pennsylvania, parents have no legal obligation to contribute to their child’s college education expenses. Different people have different opinions about whether it’s a good idea to help children pay for college. Some divorced parents agree to help pay for college in some manner. Some parents even include that obligation in a written contract. In my opinion, including such a provision in a written contract is a bad idea. If you’re inclined to do it anyway, the provision should be extremely specific about what the expectations are for both parents and their child.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently addressed such an issue in Mazurek v. Russell, 2014 PA Super 130 (June 24, 2014). In this case, the court held a parent in contempt of court for violating a provision of the parties’ divorce contract, which required the parent to pay for college costs. The Superior Court reversed the finding of contempt after looking at the circumstances of the case. This parent had been estranged from the child for five years, the child chose a college at which the costs exceeded $50,000 per year without consulting the parent, and the parent showed that the child had not made significant academic progress in high school.

You may look at this situation and read the case and decide the court was absolutely wrong. Or you may applaud the court for getting the decision right. I can argue either side of that case, which is part of what I learned in law school. My point is not whether the court was right or wrong. My point is that the litigation over this issue could have been avoided up front by not including that provision in the agreement. Or if this parent believed it was absolutely necessary to include the provision, he or she could have made sure the expectations and limits for everyone involved were clearly spelled out.

You should make sure you understand every provision of a contract into which you are entering. You never know when it may come back to haunt you. And even if you “win” in the end, it may be a long, expensive process.

If you would like to discuss this issue or any other family law related issue, please contact me.