Separation in PA Changes from Two Years to One Year

            Effective December 5, 2016, the PA Divorce Code is modified to require one year of separation, instead of two years, before a spouse can request a no-fault divorce with no economic claims or the appointment of a divorce master to resolve a no-fault divorce involving economic claims, without the other spouse’s consent.  I am not going to discuss whether I think this change was a good idea or bad idea, because at this point my view does not matter.  I will point out the practical consequences of this change.

             First, the change to one year separation is only effective for couples who separate on or after December 5, 2016.  If you separated on or before December 4, 2016, you are bound by the two year separation period.

             Second, the change only applies to situations where both spouses are not consenting to a no-fault divorce. If both spouses consent to a divorce and have resolved their economic claims such as division of assets and liabilities, alimony and claims for counsel fees, they can finalize their divorce as soon as ninety days after service of the divorce complaint.  If they are both consenting to a divorce but have not resolved these economic claims, they can agree to have a divorce master appointed before the one year separation period has passed.

             Third, this change only applies to no-fault divorces.  For practical purposes, that includes virtually all divorces in Pennsylvania.  I believe this change will virtually eliminate fault-based divorces in PA because the primary reason for pursing a fault-based divorce in the past was to avoid the two year separation period if a spouse would not consent to the divorce.  With the one year separation period, it will probably be just as quick to pursue a no-fault divorce through the court system after a year of separation as it would be to purse a fault-based divorce and with a no-fault divorce, both parties can avoid the personal and financial costs of testifying about marital fault.

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

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.

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.

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.

Gathering Information

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

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

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

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

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

Basics of Collaborative Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basics of Mediation

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

How to Truly Listen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.