Co-Parenting 101 – A Helpful Book

I recently read Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce, written by Deesha Philyaw and Michael D. Thomas.  I wish I had read it earlier, but better late than never.  I will recommend that all of my clients (and potential clients) and anybody else co-parenting their children also read it.

The authors are a formerly married couple who are co-parenting their children together.  The book is meant to be read by other parents, but is also useful for professionals such as attorneys and therapists.  Philyaw and Thomas readily admit that although they have done a good job of co-parenting overall, they are not perfect.  Their candor and openness about their own faults in the co-parenting relationship make the book more genuine and not “preachy.”

The book is divided into three sections entitled “Divorce 101,” “Co-parenting Basics,” and “But You Don’t Know My Ex.”  “Divorce 101” deals with the basics of how you can go through divorce or separation, including description of the collaborative law process, mediation and litigation.  This includes some advice on how to gather your thoughts and determine how you plan to approach the co-parenting situation before seeking legal advice.  They also discuss beginning the healing process associated with divorce or other relationship change.

“Co-parenting Basics” helps you examine your co-parenting style, which is unique for each individual.  They provide practical advice for not only identifying your own co-parenting style, but also working with the other parent effectively by being aware of his or her co-parenting style.  If you only read two chapters of this book, I recommend “Fifteen Things You May Want to Do (But Must Not Do) as a Co-parent” and “Fifteen Things You Must Do (But May Not Want to Do) as a Co-parent,” which are both in the Co-parenting Basics section.  This section also includes information specifically targeted to never-married and noncustodial parents.

“But You Don’t Know My Ex” wraps up the book with specific suggestions for changes that individuals can make regardless of how the other parent acts.  It also addresses the issue of dating and remarriage in relation to co-parenting.  In my experience, adding a new partner to the situation can have significant effects for adults and children, even if parents have been separated for years.

Co-Parenting 101 can be a really useful resource for anybody co-parenting their children.  In case you’re wondering, I paid for the book, have never met the authors and received nothing in return for writing this blog post.

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

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.

Why Work to Reach an Agreement?

I can think of a few reasons to focus your time, money and energy on reaching an agreement to resolve your divorce, support, custody or other family law matter or estate administration conflict. The first three reasons are your time, money and energy and how important those resources are to you. The second three reasons are your children, your privacy and your health. They are not necessarily listed in order of importance and this is definitely not a comprehensive list of reasons. I’m sure this is not the only blog post I’ve written or will write about the benefits of working to resolve conflicts by agreement.

Do you value your time, money and energy? In my experience, most people hate feeling that they wasted their time, money or energy. Working toward reaching an agreement to resolve conflicts can be the best use of your time, money and energy. Compare the litigation process, which is designed to have divorcing spouses or other parties take a position, dig in and fight as hard as possible to convince the judge, divorce master or other decision maker that they are right and their spouse is wrong, to the alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation or the collaborative process, where spouses mutually work toward an overall agreement privately, therefore avoiding the entire court process. It is difficult to appreciate the amount of time, energy and money involved in the discovery, petitions, motions, other filings, pretrial conferences, settlement conferences, court hearings, etc. required for the court process unless you have actually experienced it first-hand. As an attorney, my first-hand experience with the litigation process has influenced the way I practice law and is a source of my encouragement for clients to use alternative dispute resolution methods.

Do you value your children? Your privacy? Your health? Will your children be better off seeing their parents engaged in an adversarial litigation process, striving to prove that each of them is right and the other wrong? Children know what’s happening in a family without their parents sitting down and explaining it to them. They also have their parents as their primary role models – for better or for worse. Would it bother you to have a public record consisting of court filings alleging everything under the sun between you and your spouse? Are you eager to air all of your dirty laundry in an on-line court docket? Last, but not least, how do you think the stress of litigation affects your physical and mental health?

If you live or work in the central Pennsylvania area, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding communities and would like to discuss using alternative dispute resolution methods to reach agreements or any other family law or estate planning or administration issue, please contact me.

Divorce & Parenting Arrangements

Most parents experiencing a divorce tell me that their primary concern is their children’s best interests. And most of the time I believe them. However, that doesn’t mean their children’s best interests are always automatically foremost in their minds when they’re negotiating a resolution to their divorce. Part of my job is to remind my clients to consider what is most important for their children, which they told me was their primary concern, when making those decisions. I focus on at least two different types of parenting decisions – 1) a parenting schedule and 2) financial arrangements.

 

Parenting schedules can be individualized for families, if parents are making the decisions themselves. I strongly advise my clients to make their parenting arrangements by mutual agreement privately, respectfully and with a focus on what’s best for their children. Both parents will almost always have the opportunity to be involved in parenting decisions for their children (considered legal custody). The actual schedule of when children spend time with each parent can vary greatly (considered physical custody). Parents commonly consider their work schedules, school schedules, the distance between their homes, children’s activities and lots of other factors to create this agreement.

 

Financial arrangements include division of assets and liabilities and how to meet the expenses of two households instead of one. How are parents going to meet their children’s financial needs after a separation or divorce? You can sit down and look at your expenses and figure out how best to provide for everyone, which is my strong recommendation. Or you can have the folks at the domestic relations office decide that for you. Personally, I would not want someone else deciding the financial arrangements for my family.

 

You and your family are best served by making a conscious decision to work out parenting arrangements and financial arrangements privately and by agreement instead of having those decisions dictated by someone else. It may be more work and take more energy and self-responsibility to make these decisions yourself, but nobody said that being a grown-up (let alone a parent) is easy. You and your spouse are your children’s most important role models, whether they acknowledge it or not. The way you go about resolving these parenting questions and the way you treat each other during the process are setting examples for your children.

 

If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Hershey, Carlisle and surrounding communities, and would like to discuss parenting arrangements or any other family law issue, please contact me.

What is Separation and Why Does it Matter?

Pennsylvania does not have “legal separation” as the term is used in some other states. Separation simply means that spouses are either living in separate physical residences or that one spouse has filed a divorce complaint with the court and served it on the other spouse. It means you’re legally married but not living as a married couple. There are instances in which couples can be considered separated even if they’re still living under the same roof and no divorce complaint has been filed, but it is very rare for those situations to actually meet the legal test for separation.

 

Separation is significant in several ways. First, the date of separation can affect the marital value of certain assets. As a general rule, contributions made to assets such as retirement accounts after separation are considered non-marital. Calculation of the increase in value of non-marital assets during the marriage ends at the date of separation.

 

Second, separation can mean that one spouse will or could seek financial support from the other spouse. This could be an important consideration for one or both spouses when deciding whether to separate and how to do so. Separation takes the financial resources available to one household and divides those resources between two households. That generally means some financial changes for the entire family.

 

Third, separation means that parents must arrange how the situation will work for their children. Talk about a big change. Explaining the situation to children, working out schedules, trying to keep their best interests in mind can be daunting tasks and can be incredibly stressful for everyone involved. Ideally spouses can discuss the parenting arrangements prior to actually separating so they and their children can know what to expect in advance.

 

There are personal aspects to separation, like figuring out how to tell the kids and how to make parenting arrangements and how to find a place for one or both spouses to live. There are legal aspects to separation, such as the effect on identifying and valuing marital assets. Separation is not something to take lightly and should be decided with as much advance planning and cooperation between spouses as possible.

 

If you have questions about how separation or any other family law issue is treated in central Pennsylvania, including Hershey, Carlisle, Harrisburg, York and surrounding communities, 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.

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!

Holidays and Divorce

Holidays are stressful. They can be fun and hopefully are fun, but they’re stressful. At least for most adults. And also for many children. Adding the stress of divorce on top of the holiday stress can make a really unhealthy situation for everyone involved. I don’t want to dwell on how much stress is involved, but instead look at ways to make the holidays less stressful.

Number one – Make plans. For divorcing spouses without children, this means making plans to continue or replace or alter the holiday activities you enjoyed as a married couple. For divorcing spouses with children, making plans establishes everyone’s expectations. Planning also requires effective communication. That means talking about what you would like and what’s important to you, but even more importantly, listening to what your spouse or ex-spouse and your children are telling you is important to them.

Number two – Accept that your plans will change. We all make plans and have an idealized vision in our minds of how our plans will work out. But those idealized visions never come true. We can blame that on ourselves or other people or fate, but whatever the cause, the result is the same. So if we expect our idealized visions to become reality, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. And anger. And negative interactions with those around us. And stressful holidays.

Number three – Enjoy what happens. You’ll have your plans, with your idealized visions of how they will work out and then you will experience what actually happens. It won’t be the plans or the idealized visions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.

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

Happy Holidays.