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.

Alternative Dispute Resolution Methods

“Alternative” refers to alternatives to litigation (the court process). If you need to resolve a conflict, but don’t want to go through the court process (I advise avoiding court if possible!) then you have alternatives to consider. I strongly recommend alternative dispute resolution methods to my clients for divorce and other family law conflicts. This is not an all-inclusive list, but you can consider the following: 1) sit down and reach an agreement on your own; 2) mediation; 3) collaborative law; and 4) arbitration.

Reaching an agreement on your own can save a lot of time and money, but it is not realistic for most divorcing couples because they are unable to effectively communicate. It can also be legally hazardous. It’s great if divorcing spouses can communicate effectively and address dividing their assets and debts, providing financial support and making parenting arrangements (custody) privately. Even if no attorneys or other third persons are involved in the negotiations, both spouses should get independent legal advice before signing any agreement. I have worked with divorce clients who entered into an agreement prepared on their own or downloaded from the internet (Bad Idea!) that ended up not saying what they wanted it to say or thought it said. It is more costly and time-consuming to challenge an agreement afterwards than it is to do it right the first time.

Mediation is a great way to have a neutral third person (the mediator) help spouses have the difficult conversations necessary to resolve their divorce and related financial and parenting issues. There are high quality mediators available in central Pennsylvania, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding areas. I conduct private divorce and other family law mediations and also recommend mediation as an alternative for my divorce clients. Both spouses should be represented by attorneys in the mediation process to get private legal advice.

Collaborative law is an organized, effective process designed to help spouses resolve their divorce and related financial and parenting conflicts in a private, respectful manner. Clients and their collaboratively trained attorneys meet with an agreed-upon agenda to systematically make decisions based on their interests and concerns. I am collaboratively trained and encourage my clients to use the collaborative process if both spouses are interested in a mutually acceptable divorce resolution. Central Pennsylvania, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding areas, has a thriving community of collaboratively trained attorneys.

Arbitration is a private litigation process, where the spouses choose the decision-maker and present their respective sides of the divorce conflict to him or her through their lawyers. Arbitration is often used in conjunction with mediation, where spouses agree to mediate their divorce and related financial and parenting issues and give the mediator the authority to make decisions as an arbitrator if they are unable to come to an agreement.

If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding areas, and would like to discuss alternative dispute resolution methods for divorce or any other family law 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.

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.

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.

Trust and Divorce

Individuals starting the divorce process often have problems trusting each other. Sometimes the trust that existed during the marriage was violated by infidelity. Sometimes, trust is eroded due to lack of communication that leads to one or both spouses misinterpreting words or actions. That misinterpretation can be perceived as deceit or “hiding something” even if there was no intent to deceive. In other situations, both parties still trust each other even though their marriage is ending.

How do you work in good faith to reach an agreement with your spouse when you are skeptical about what he or she tells you or when you just don’t believe anything he or she says? Is it possible? Yes. The first step is to get the facts about the situation so you don’t have to rely on information from a source you don’t necessarily believe. The second step is to make your decisions based on the cold, hard facts in front of you and not based on the emotions you feel. I recommend the same two steps for people who completely trust the information from the other person. By following this process, you eliminate the doubt and second-guessing that comes along with mistrust.

Step 1 – Get the facts. There are lots of ways to get information. My favorite way is by asking directly for it. I make a list of information I’d like and give it to the other person. It doesn’t need to be complicated, drawn-out, combative or expensive. Most of the time, it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. If the other person is unwilling or unable to provide the information, I’ll use a different method. If he or she simply refuses to provide it, I can either get it from a different source or use another method to give the other person an incentive to provide it. That may mean issuing subpoenas to outside sources for the information or using the court process to make it clear to the other person that it’s important for him or her to provide the information and in his or her best interest to do so.

Many people assume (especially if they are having problems trusting the other person) that if it’s more difficult to get information from someone than we believe it should be, then they must be hiding something. In my experience, that’s sometimes true, but not always. Often, the person is disorganized, uninterested or just doesn’t realize how important the information really is. I do my best not to make assumptions about why it may be difficult to get information and focus on how to most effectively and efficiently get it. In the long run, it doesn’t matter if the other person is being deliberately difficult or is just unorganized because I just want the information my client needs to make decisions.

Getting the facts sometimes requires patience and persistence – for both spouses. The person seeking information needs to have some patience and understand that everything probably won’t be immediately available or forthcoming. The person being asked for information needs to have some patience and understand that just because the facts look clear to him or her, that’s not necessarily the case for the other person.

Step 2 – Make decisions based on the facts. You have all the information. Now it’s time to use it and make informed decisions without worrying about whether you trust the other person or not. Trust doesn’t matter at this point. You may need someone to remind you where you are in the decision-making process, which is not a bad thing. Your attorney should be helping you focus on the decisions you need to make, not re-hashing the reasons for your original lack of trust. Divorce often involves a lack of trust, but that doesn’t need to send both parties on a collision course through the court system.

Who Gets to Keep the Family Pet?

For those who don’t have pets, this may seem like a silly question in the big picture of a divorce. I know first-hand that for many pet owners, this is a very important question that can take on many of the same aspects as determining parenting arrangements for children. I’ve been personally involved in these discussions at times.

The answer depends on what process you’re using to resolve your divorce. The court views pets as personal property, just like your cars, furniture and jewelry. The court will not arrange for parties to share time with pets or make visitation arrangements, just like the court will not arrange for parties to share or visit furniture. The pet goes with the party that makes the best argument for keeping it and the court assigns a dollar value to the pet. For pet lovers, this may sound like a harsh remedy.

If you and your spouse are making the divorce decisions for yourselves, then the options for pets are wide open. Parties can agree to virtually anything they want. You can split time with the pet, using a schedule that works for everyone involved. The pet can live with one individual with the other person visiting as agreed. Sometimes there are multiple pets and each individual keeps one or more of them, possibly with arrangements to have them visit each other.

Just like any other important divorce provision, your pet arrangements should be part of a written, enforceable contract. If the pets are important enough to be included in the divorce discussion, you don’t want to leave the future of those arrangements to chance.

You and your spouse have the most flexibility to make arrangements for your pets if you keep your divorce decision-making private and outside of the court system. It’s one more reason to embrace the alternative dispute resolution methods of collaborative law and mediation.

What am I Entitled to?

A lot of clients come to me with the overall question of “What am I entitled to?” In most cases, they mean “What can I expect the financial outcome to be if I get divorced?” and I can appreciate their anxiety about the possible outcome. I like to emphasize that the ultimate outcome of their divorce will be 1) a piece of paper from the court declaring that they are no longer married; 2) a division of their marital assets with their spouse; 3) a resolution of their income and expense situations so they know how they’ll meet their expenses going forward; and 4) if they have children, some schedule for their children to share time with both parents.

The big question is how you will get to that resolution. I like to tell clients that they are entitled to engage in a respectful, private decision-making process in which the spouses maintain control over the ultimate outcome of their divorce. There are several processes available by which that can be accomplished, including mediation and the collaborative law process. It’s a matter of how both spouses choose to engage in the divorce process.

If spouses choose to use the court process, I can and will explain how the PA Divorce Code instructs courts to divide marital assets, make alimony determinations, decide when to enter a divorce decree and all the other issues that go along with getting divorced. I can and will explain how the Domestic Relations office calculates child support, spousal support and alimony pendente lite. I can and will explain how the PA Custody Act instructs courts to decide the issues of legal and physical custody for children. I will also advise clients that it’s never too late to make these decisions themselves instead of having a third party make the decisions for their family.

I’m never able to give clients a simple answer to this question because every individual’s situation is different. I can always give clients a “ballpark” estimate of how I expect their situation to resolve, but I emphasize that I would prefer to work with them to determine their own destiny instead of having someone else make that determination.

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.

Using the Domestic Relations Rules

The Domestic Relations child and spousal support guidelines deserve special mention here. Talk about a one-size-fits-all (or none) solution! The PA support guidelines are based on both parents’ net monthly incomes, with virtually no consideration for the parents’ or children’s actual expenses or needs. The guidelines are necessary for deciding the sheer volume of support cases throughout the state, because the available conference officers don’t have the time or resources to tailor support solutions for each family. But that doesn’t mean the support guidelines are the logical solution for all families.

The support guidelines are a default rule to be used if the parties can’t reach an agreement. There’s no magic to the guideline formulas. Child support is based on statewide statistics. Spousal support and alimony pendente lite are based on a formula. Just because they exist doesn’t mean they’re right for everybody. If the guidelines changed drastically tomorrow, would those new guidelines suddenly be right for everybody instead of today’s guidelines? I don’t think the new formulas would be any more “correct” than the old formulas.

I suggest using the domestic relations guidelines (and the domestic relations office, for that matter) only as a last resort, if you’re absolutely unable to reach an agreement. I’ve seen many clients spinning through the revolving door of the domestic relations office, attending one conference and court hearing after another, steadily and surely increasing the level of animosity between the parties and the amount of money they spend on attorneys’ fees, without much to show for their efforts.

In my opinion, parents, spouses or partners are much better off reaching a mutually acceptable support agreement based on their incomes, expenses, needs and unique circumstances instead of using the one-size-fits-all guidelines. This is not meant in any way as a derogatory comment on the hard-working individuals who work in the domestic relations offices. I admire the work they do and I’m very glad they do it. I just think they should have less work.

If you would like to discuss the use of domestic relations guidelines in central Pennsylvania, including Hershey, Harrisburg, Carlisle and surrounding areas, please contact me.