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.

Have You Ever Prepared an Expense Statement?

            I can’t cite any statistics, but I can confidently say that based on my experience, very few people have ever prepared a budget or an expense statement.  That means for most people, their income comes into their bank account and they pay their bills from their bank account, but they don’t really have a firm grasp on their monthly expenses and where their money is going.

             Expense statements can be helpful in everyday life, to understand your cash flow and itemize your expenses and have a relatively accurate overall picture of your spending habits and your financial needs.  Unless your monthly finances are unbelievably simple, I don’t know how you could have an accurate picture of your expenses without preparing an expense statement.

             Expense statements can be essential in divorce situations.  The two big financial decisions involved in divorce can be influenced greatly by your monthly expenses.

             First, how will your assets and liabilities be divided?  Without knowing what to expect for your income and expenses, you cannot make informed decisions about what assets would benefit you most.  Is it better to keep assets that have no liabilities associated with them, or retirement assets that produce future income or assets that produce immediate income?  What about liabilities?  Can you afford to keep your house, considering the expected expenses and maintenance costs?  If your liabilities are going to be divided, what can you afford to be responsible for?  Do you have room in your monthly budget for loan or credit card payments?

             Second, how will you meet your expected monthly expenses?  Do you have adequate income?  Do you need to find more income?  How about cutting some expenses?  Do you or your spouse need financial help from the other to meet monthly expenses?  What better way for either of you to demonstrate to the other that you need financial help than by documenting your income and expenses?

             Expense statements don’t need to be intimidating or complicated.  You can probably find samples online for general use and if you’re familiar with Excel or other spreadsheet programs, they can be pretty simple to prepare.  If you’re involved in a divorce situation, your attorney probably has paper forms or Excel spreadsheets with expenses listed, so you just need to fill in the numbers.  In fifteen minutes you could probably sit down and list the majority of your monthly expenses to prepare a basic expense statement.  However, with your attorney’s help and the use of forms, you can probably prepare a much more comprehensive expense statement in less than an hour.  It’s worth the time and effort.

             If you live or work in the central Pennsylvania area, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding communities and would like to discuss budgets, expense statements 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.

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.

Financial Cost of Divorce

Who decides how much a divorce costs? In large part, you and your spouse make that decision. Your actions, attitudes and approaches to the divorce process can have a significant effect on the financial cost. And the personal cost, but I’m not addressing that in this post.

Some costs are fixed and can’t be avoided. There are court costs associated with filing a divorce complaint and custody complaint (assuming you want or need a custody order). There are refinance costs if a house is being refinanced. But most costs associated with divorce come from legal fees and expert fees – so the more you and your spouse can do to control those costs, the better off you’ll be financially.

Since most of the costs associated with divorce come from legal and expert fees, you and your spouse can have a huge impact on the financial cost of a divorce! The more you battle to show who’s right and who’s wrong and try to prove your point, the more expensive it’s going to be. You’ll each be paying hourly rates to your attorneys to continue those arguments about who’s right and who’s wrong. You may also be paying fees to experts to argue against each other about how much your real estate, pensions, businesses or other assets are worth.

You and your spouse can agree to minimize the financial cost of your divorce by actively working together to resolve your disputes effectively and efficiently without paying your attorneys to continue your arguments. You can also agree to consult joint experts. You can agree on the process you’re going to use to resolve your divorce. It is generally less expensive to resolve a divorce using alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation or the collaborative process than it is to use litigation (the court system). However, even if you use litigation, you can take proactive steps to minimize the financial costs.

I make no apologies for my hourly rate because I believe it’s fair and reasonable for the work I do. I also encourage my clients to use my time wisely to avoid any unnecessary expense. If you want to discuss the financial cost of divorce or any other family-law related issue, please contact me.

Valuing Assets

If you’re experiencing a divorce or administering an estate, you will probably need to value assets. In answer to a question I’ve heard many times, there is no one “right” way to value assets. There are many different methods and I won’t try to name them all here. I want to give an idea of some common methods and most importantly, emphasize that asset valuation can be individualized. Two important considerations in deciding a valuation method are the purpose of the valuation and the expense involved versus the probable value of the asset(s).

Expert valuation. You can have an expert provide an opinion of value for pretty much any asset – real estate, businesses, antiques, collections, livestock, household furnishings, etc. Expert valuation can be costly, ranging from hundreds of dollars to many thousands of dollars, but the cost may be worth the benefit depending on the ultimate value of the asset and the importance of having an impartial expert’s opinion. Experts are frequently used in litigation, where you want to do your best to convince a judge, divorce master or other decision-maker to accept your valuation as correct. Expert valuations are not financially practical for valuing relatively low value items such as household goods.

Party’s opinion of value. A party to litigation can testify as to his or her opinion of value of his or her own property. That means you can testify in court about the value of your own property. This may work well for items such as household goods, but may not be very effective for assets such as real estate if you are disputing an expert valuation. The decision-maker must consider who has more knowledge about the value – you or an expert in the field?

Agreements. Agreements can work well both in court and out of court. If you can agree on the value of assets, but not necessarily how they should be divided, decision-makers are generally happy to accept those agreed-upon valuations and deal only with the issue of how the assets should be distributed. If you can agree on the value of assets and you’re making the decisions yourselves, outside of the litigation process, then you are one step closer to resolving the dispute.

Auctions. Auctions are frequently used to value and sell estate assets, which establishes the fair market value based on what a willing buyer will pay. Auctions can also be used in divorce actions, limiting the bidding either to just the parties or opening it to third parties.

The multitude of ways to value assets is good news. It means you’re not stuck with only one method. It is always helpful to actively decide how to value assets so it’s done in an organized, understandable way.