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.

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.

Can’t a Judge Decide Everything?

Yes. A judge (or at least the court system) can decide everything in your family law dispute, whether it involves divorce, division of property, support or parenting arrangements (custody) or some combination of these issues. Of course, before you decide to use the court system to reach a resolution, you should consider what that process will actually involve and what it means to have the court system make decisions for your family.

You should recognize that even if you use the court process, you may never actually appear before a judge. The actual procedure varies from county to county, but most Pennsylvania counties have one or more steps you must go through before getting to a judge. This is designed to help people reach agreements if possible and also to reduce the number of disputes that judges need to address. Divorce masters handle divorce cases, including conducting the hearing; domestic relations support officers handle child and spousal support cases; custody conciliators meet with parents to address custody cases.

If the dispute is not resolved at these initial levels, you may then end up in front of a judge or there may be another intermediate step, depending on the county practice. Most disputes are either resolved by agreement before actually getting to a judge or the interim decision-maker’s decision is not appealed to a judge. So you may be signing up for an adversarial system that will ultimately push for you and your spouse to make the decisions yourselves.

If you’re going to make the decisions by agreement anyway, why not voluntarily engage in a process that is designed to help you reach agreements instead of a process designed to have you fight against each other? Alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation or the collaborative law process are specifically designed to help couples make their own decisions privately and respectfully, without the unnecessary complications involved in the court system. Before you decide to have a judge make all the decisions for you, consider the alternatives.

If you decide to push through the litigation system and have a judge make decisions for your family, be prepared to be disappointed. You will experience a lot of stress, confusion and a hefty price tag to have a less-than-perfect decision imposed on you and your family. That’s why I recommend using litigation as a last resort instead of as a first choice.

If you would like to discuss litigation, alternative dispute resolution methods or any other family law issue, please contact me.

Divorce and Homemakers

You’ve taken care of the house, your spouse, the kids, the pets and pretty much everything else involving your family’s home life. You’ve supported your spouse in his or her career decisions, relying on the partnership you’ve built so that he or she provides most or all of your family’s financial sustenance and you provide the daily caretaking. You’re a homemaker, a stay-at-home parent, a supportive spouse, whatever name you want to adopt. Now you’re getting divorced and you have to adjust to huge changes in your financial and personal expectations. No matter if you’ve initiated the divorce or your spouse has, or if you jointly decided it was the right change for your family, you have a lot of decisions to make.

Before you make any decisions or changes, you should meet with an attorney. The time and expense of an initial consultation will be worth it if you are then able to make more informed decisions. You probably have a lot of questions about how your role as a homemaker during your marriage impacts the resolution of your divorce. It can impact the division of your assets, your income and expenses decisions (child and/or spousal support) and the resolution of your parenting arrangements or custody decisions.

Homemakers contribute greatly to the overall health and welfare of their families. They make valuable contributions throughout a marriage or long-term relationship and those contributions should be considered when that marriage or relationship ends. Under the Pennsylvania Divorce Code, homemakers’ contributions are considered in the litigation (court) process. Those contributions are also considered outside of the litigation process when using alternatives such as mediation or the collaborative law process to resolve divorce issues.

I’ve heard it said that since one spouse did not work outside the home during the marriage, he or she did not financially contribute to the family and should not receive a portion of retirement assets or other marital assets upon divorce. I’ve also heard it said that upon separation or divorce, a spouse who did not work outside the home during the marriage should immediately be expected to obtain full-time employment and support himself or herself. In my experience, these blanket statements are unrealistic in divorce situations. I believe both spouses are better off discussing the practical reality of their financial situations with their attorneys using an alternative dispute resolution method such as the collaborative law process or mediation to arrive at a mutually agreeable outcome instead of sticking to such unrealistic positions.

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

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.

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.