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.

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.

Resolutions

It’s that time of year – New Year’s Resolution Time! What will you resolve to change or do this year, if anything? And what is your motivation? How will you know if you’ve achieved it? Since this is a serious blog on my very serious law firm website, I believe I should tie this into the legal realm. So I’ll address the two areas of law in which I practice – family law and estate planning.

I believe that small changes, things that most people around us wouldn’t even consciously recognize, can have a huge impact on our family relationships. How about resolving that you will no longer look at your phone while eating dinner with your family? Not imposing that rule on anyone else, but only for yourself. Or sitting still and looking at your spouse or child and asking him or her how their day went, then quietly listening, with no expectation that the question or the attention will be returned? It may be worth trying.

How about small changes between you and your ex-spouse or ex-partner with whom you share child-rearing responsibilities? What if you resolved to make sure your children were ready early for every custodial exchange with no expectation that he or she would do the same? Or to copy the other parent on every email you receive from coaches, teachers and piano instructors without exception?

Estate planning also involves one small step at a time. If you don’t have an estate plan in place, you are possibly leaving your loved ones with a significant burden when you die. Not if, but when. And most people know that. But they don’t want to think about it or they don’t know where to start or they think it’s too complicated. So take one small step – call a lawyer and ask about estate planning. Odds are, he or she will happily talk with you and give you lots of good information by phone and you’re on your way to having an estate plan. If you’re comfortable with that person, then rely on him or her to guide you through the process.

Some people may think these small steps couldn’t possibly have an effect on their lives and the lives of those around them. I believe most (if not all) of those people have never tried them.

If you would like to discuss New Year’s Resolutions or any other family law or estate planning issue, please contact me.

Happy New Year!

What Should I do with my Will?

You finally had your will prepared and you no longer have that item looming on your “to do” list. Hopefully the attorney who prepared your will gave you specific instructions about what to do with it. If so, you should follow those instructions carefully. If not, I’m going to provide some basic information about how to handle your will.

Preparing your will is a huge step in establishing your estate plan. However, the best will is of no use if your family or friends cannot find it upon your death. The fact is, you don’t need your will when you’re alive. You need your survivors to quickly and efficiently find your will when you die. Therefore, the issue of what you do with your will after it’s prepared is probably more important than having it prepared.

You want your will to be safe and you want your survivors to easily find it upon your death. To keep your will safe, you can store it in a safe deposit box at a bank or in a safe at your home or office. Another option is to have the attorney who prepared your will keep the original will in his or her office. You want your will to be protected from natural disasters such as floods or fire and from accidents such as inadvertently being shredded or thrown out with those old bank statements that have been piling up in your desk drawers.

You need to make sure that your survivors know where your will is and how they can obtain it. Your family or friends need to know not only that you have executed your will, but also where that will is stored and how to get to it. That means having access to your safe deposit box or your home safe or knowing who is holding that original will for you.

These issues may sound simple and they are. However, they are extremely important. If you would like to discuss this topic or any other estate planning issues, please feel free to contact me.

Why Should I have a Will?

Do you know what happens to your assets when you die without a will? Most people don’t. The state legislature has prepared a default estate plan for us in case we die without a will. Your assets will be passed on to family members – maybe not the family members you would choose to receive your assets, but family members nonetheless. If you don’t have any family members within the state-designated structure, then the state will gladly accept your assets.

You need a will to give your executor or executors (the person or persons you designate to handle your estate) instructions about what should happen to your assets upon your death. You’ve worked hard to accumulate assets during your lifetime and probably would like to make sure certain people receive those assets when you die. The best way to make sure that happens is with a valid will.

Maybe you would like certain non-relatives or charities to receive some of your assets after your death. The only way to do that is with a will. Maybe you and your spouse would like to designate a person or persons to care for your children in the event of your death. That’s a compelling reason to have a will! Without those instructions, your wishes may not be carried out. Maybe you would like to leave specific items to certain people – another reason to have a will. Maybe you want a certain person to care for your pet in the event of your death. The best way to make that known is in a will. Maybe you’re not married but would like assets to go to your significant other in the event of your death. That will only happen with a will.

A will doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive. It needs to be clearly worded and validly executed. The preparation and execution of a will is really is not that intimidating and your attorney should be able to lead you through the decision-making process. Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss preparing a will.

Do You Need a Cohabitation Agreement?

If you’re cohabitating (living with someone), you need a cohabitation agreement. That doesn’t mean the world will grind to a halt if you don’t have one, but you’re going into this arrangement without a clear understanding of what happens when conflicts arise. If you want to live with your significant other or even a platonic roommate and have clear expectations, boundaries and consequences, you need to discuss those things in advance and reach an agreement. If not, you may have two completely different sets of expectations going into this arrangement and the law, which provides the default set of rules, may require you or your partner to handle things very differently than what you believe would be fair. I’m not necessarily talking about Sheldon Cooper’s infamous “Roommate Agreement” from The Big Bang Theory, but you can cover a lot of potential pitfalls with a reasonable agreement.

Cohabitation covers a wide range of situations, but the basic scenario is two people who are not married to each other living together. You need to figure out how you’ll handle your finances – from paying monthly bills to putting aside savings. You need to decide how assets will be handled. If you buy things together, who pays for them and how? Who gets to use them? When? How? Who pays for repairs? Are you buying a house together? Does one of you own the house in which you’re both living? Are you both responsible for rent if you’re living in a leased space? Are you included in each other’s estate plans? How about life insurance? What happens if your relationship changes or ends? If you have children together, how will you raise them? I could list a million questions, but I think that provides a taste of what you may need to address.

The purpose of a cohabitation agreement is to eliminate potential conflicts in advance and to provide agreed-upon resolutions of actual conflicts when they arise. You can eliminate potential conflicts by considering ahead of time how you’ll handle finances, parenting arrangements, buying property – pretty much anything you can imagine doing while you’re cohabitating can be addressed in advance. You will have conflicts, disagreements, differences of opinion, or whatever you want to call them. And the more time and effort you put into planning in advance how to resolve those inevitable conflicts, the better position you’ll be in when they actually arise. And if both of you agree, you can change the terms of your cohabitation agreement to meet your changing situation.

Cohabitation agreements can be as creative and inclusive as you both want. You can jointly determine the rules and guidelines and what will happen if you reach a point where you can’t resolve your conflict. It doesn’t matter if anyone else would use the same rules or guidelines because they apply only to you. You can address all of the possible scenarios that come to mind or you can address only the immediate issues that you’re facing when you start to live together. You can also decide in your cohabitation agreement what process you’ll use to end your relationship if you decide it’s not working. You can specify that you’ll use alternative dispute resolution methods, such as the collaborative law process or mediation to reach a resolution, so you can avoid the court system. Without a cohabitation agreement, unmarried couples are caught in a maze of different laws addressing different areas of their relationship.

If you’re living together, you should have a written cohabitation agreement. Set out the rules and expectations in advance so you’re not trying to figure them out as you go along.

Concerns for Same-Sex Couples

In Pennsylvania, same-sex couples face unique legal challenges because even if they consider themselves a married couple, they are not legally allowed to marry. Even same-sex couples who are legally married in a different state are not recognized as a legally married couple in Pennsylvania. This means the default rules that apply to opposite sex married couples do not apply to same-sex couples. Therefore, same-sex couples should take the time to plan their financial and personal affairs going into their committed relationship and should be aware of the legal remedies available (or not available) if their relationship ends.

If an opposite sex couple gets married without a prenuptial agreement, the divorce code provides default rules for how their property will be divided and how they may be required to help each other meet their reasonable financial needs and expenses if they get divorced. These default rules do not apply to same-sex couples. Same-sex couples whose relationship ends without a prior agreement in place are treated as strangers or business partners when it comes to dividing property. There is no provision for same-sex couples to have any responsibility for helping each other meet their own reasonable expenses if their relationship ends.

If an opposite sex couple gets married and does not provide for their estate planning, the estate code provides default rules for how their property will be divided in the event that one or both of them pass away. Those default rules automatically include the spouse as a beneficiary of the deceased spouse’s estate. These default rules do not apply to same-sex couples. When one partner in a same-sex relationship passes away without specific estate planning documents in place, the other partner is not included as a beneficiary of the estate. Unless the deceased partner has specifically provided for his or her partner in their will, that partner is considered a stranger and will not inherit from the estate.

The lack of default rules for same-sex couples places an additional burden on these couples to plan ahead in their relationship. If same-sex couples are going to commit themselves to a relationship and live as married partners, they must establish in advance the parameters of what will happen if their relationship ends for any reason. The good news is that same-sex couples are free to establish their own rules and guidelines for what will happen if their relationship ends, without the artificial constraints of the divorce code.

One additional area in which same-sex couples must actively plan is their health care decision-making. If one spouse in an opposite sex marriage is unable to make decisions about his or her health care, the other spouse is a default decision-maker. That rule does not apply to same-sex couples. If one partner in a same-sex relationship is unable to make health care decisions for him or herself and has not specified their partner as the decision-maker, that partner will not be automatically included in health care decisions.

Until same-sex marriage becomes legal in Pennsylvania, same-sex couples in committed relationships who wish to live as if they are legally married must take the proactive steps to establish the parameters of that married relationship. In these vital areas, the cards are stacked against same-sex couples but the situation can be remedied with a little planning.

Midnuptial Agreements

What is a midnuptial agreement? It’s an agreement entered into in the middle of a marriage. A prenuptial agreement is before a marriage, a postnuptial agreement is after a marriage has ended and a midnuptial agreement is during a marriage. A midnuptial agreement can address pretty much anything the couple wants to address, including how they will handle their finances or their personal lives during their marriage and how they will handle decisions if they separate or get divorced.

Why would anyone want a midnuptial agreement? Lots of different reasons. I’ll specifically address a couple of the most common reasons here. Couples sometimes enter into a midnuptial agreement as an alternative to separation or divorce. They may be experiencing problems in their relationship but they want to stay together and use the terms of a midnuptial agreement to specifically set forth what will happen in the event of a separation or divorce. Then they can both move forward with their relationship without the undue concern about what would happen financially or personally if it doesn’t work out. It’s one less thing for them to worry about as they put their effort into making their relationship work. And if it doesn’t work, they’ve already decided what will happen. A midnuptial agreement can provide peace of mind to both spouses that they are committed to making their relationship work, with the understanding that they’ve already worked out what will happen if they separate or divorce.

Another common reason for a midnuptial agreement is to specifically address how a gift or inheritance received by one person will be handled. Ordinarily, under the PA Divorce Code, a gift or inheritance received by one spouse and kept in his or her separate name is not considered marital property. The growth on that asset during the marriage is considered marital property. Maybe both spouses want to have the asset in joint names for estate planning purposes but don’t want it to be considered marital property in the event of a divorce. Maybe they want to exclude the asset and any growth from being considered marital property in the event of a divorce. Maybe they want a certain portion of the asset to be considered marital property but the rest excluded. A midnuptial agreement can address these situations and pretty much anything else the couple wants to agree to.

Midnuptial agreements are not just for married couples. Unmarried couples can face the same situations as married couples, with even more uncertainty about what happens financially if their relationship ends. Unmarried couples are considered business partners or strangers under the law, not spouses. The default rules for how unmarried couples divide property or handle their finances when a relationship ends are not necessarily what either person would consider fair. Technically, such an agreement between unmarried individuals is not a midnuptial agreement because there was no marriage, but the effect can be the same. When couples are sharing their lives and relying on each other, including financially, it makes sense to have a clear agreement and understanding about how that relationship will work and what will happen if the relationship ends.

Relationships are complicated. Couples can address some of those complications and actually make their relationship stronger by entering into a midnuptial agreement.

Hiring an Attorney

Unless you’ve worked with an attorney before, most people have no idea how to hire an attorney. It’s one of those things that come up only when you need to actually do it. This is by no means a comprehensive list of factors to consider, but it should give you a good starting point.

From my experience, I believe the first and foremost factor to consider in deciding whether to hire someone as your lawyer is being confident that they’re someone you can feel comfortable talking with and relying on. When you have an initial consultation with an attorney, you want to get some information from them about your specific legal problem and you want to find out how much it will cost to hire him or her. You also want to make sure they’re capable of helping you. Above all, you want to make sure you can stand being in the same room and have a conversation with this person for an hour or two. You are interviewing this person with the prospect of paying him or her a substantial amount of your hard-earned money. If you don’t have the feeling by the end of that initial consultation that you will work well together, you owe it to yourself to talk with other attorneys.

It may come as a shock to you, but lawyers don’t know everything about the law. Most of us know a lot about certain areas of the law, a little about other areas, and most importantly, most of us know where and how to find the answers to legal questions. When you’re interviewing an attorney, look for someone with experience in the area in which you need help. You wouldn’t go to a cardiologist for a problem with your foot, so use the same discretion with your legal problems. When you’ve found someone with experience in a certain area, he or she should be able to answer your basic questions, provide information and ask questions that make it clear he or she knows something about your problem. That being said, it’s not a bad thing when a lawyer says he or she needs to do a little research or look into the details of the law before giving you a definite answer. The law is constantly changing and it’s a good sign when attorneys want to make sure they’re giving accurate advice based on the most recent legal precedent. If an attorney is not comfortable helping you for whatever reason, maybe he or she can refer you to someone else.

You want to make sure an attorney has the time and commitment to help you with your problem. As a potential client, I would rather have a lawyer tell me up front that he or she is too busy to handle my case than find out down the road. If you get the feeling this person is too busy or not really interested in your case, it’s best to talk with someone else. You can always go back to the first person after meeting with another attorney if you wish.

You should ask how much your legal work will cost. Don’t be bashful about this because it’s probably an important factor in your decision. Even if money is no object (and I’ve never met anyone for whom money was really no object), you should know in advance what you’re getting into financially. Depending on the matter, attorneys may charge a flat fee (a set amount), a contingent fee (a percentage of the recovery in your case) or on an hourly basis. Most family law attorneys charge on an hourly basis, so it’s really tough to tell how much the total cost will be, but you can do some math to see how the costs can add up quickly if you’re not prudent about how you use his or her time.

When you’ve decided on an attorney, you should have a written agreement specifying the scope of his or her work, how you’ll be charged, whether anyone else will work on your matter and what you can each expect from the other person. Most attorneys who bill on an hourly basis require a retainer up front and you should make sure you understand how that retainer works. Above all, don’t be afraid to ask questions.