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.

Earth Day & Family Law

            What could Earth Day and family law matters possibly have in common?  I’m going to make some comparisons and you can decide whether they make any sense.

             Earth Day started in 1970 with the idea of engaging individuals in small actions that can improve the future of our planet for future generations.  Even if we couldn’t undo the changes mankind had caused on the earth up to that point, we could make a conscious decision to take action going forward to improve conditions or at least minimize the extent to which we worsen the problem.

             When family law clients come to me, they are inevitably a part of a family system that has experienced problems over time.  Usually those problems are severe enough that the adults involved have decided to end their marriage through divorce and dramatically change their family structure.  Like mankind looking the preserving the earth for future generations, my clients can use this decision and the divorce process to make small changes that may make things better (or at least not worse) for themselves, their spouse and their children.  Although I will encourage them to consciously make decisions and take actions with that goal in mind, nobody will force them to do so.

             Any actions we take to make the earth a healthier place will benefit future generations and our children, grandchildren, etc. will have the opportunity to reap those benefits and possibly continue the changes we started.  Similarly, any actions that individuals take in the divorce process to decrease the amount of conflict and maybe even attempt to see the situation from their spouse’s viewpoint can make their world and their children’s world a healthier, safer place to live.

             Some people could care less about Earth Day or the idea it represents.  They deny that humans have any negative impact on the earth or that we have any responsibility to leave the world a better place for our children.  Maybe they benefit financially from environmentally destructive activities.  Or they see others in the world creating environmental problems and refuse to take any action until others lead the way so they won’t be “disadvantaged.”

             Some individuals could care less about the conflict their actions (or words) create or worsen.  Maybe they deny that they have any role in the conflict or they actually enjoy the feelings surrounding that conflict.  Or they see their spouse doing things that create or worsen conflict and refuse to change their ways until he or she changes first.

             In both of these situations we can decide, as individuals, whether to change our actions, regardless of whether anybody else changes.  And even if the positive impact would be greater by having everyone change just a little bit, we can only control ourselves so we can be satisfied that regardless of what anyone else does, we have done something to improve the world for future generations – whether that means the entire earth or the small world surrounding our children.

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

Priorities in Divorce

I believe that prioritizing is an important part of decision-making. We must decide what is most important, or most urgent, or what must be done first to effectively move on to other tasks. Without determining the order in which things must be done or can most efficiently and effectively be done, we are just floundering from one task to another hoping that it will work out.

Prioritizing is not necessarily easy under the best circumstances. In times of stress, it is even more difficult. In times of stress and when making really big decisions that will impact your life and your family members’ lives, it is yet more difficult. For example, the decisions surrounding a divorce or other family change are overwhelming to many people. Let alone working out how to go about making those decisions and in which order to consider them. You probably need help prioritizing the topics you need to address in a divorce situation.   And there are resources to help you with determining those priorities. Your attorney should be able to help you prioritize the steps you need to take. Financial experts and divorce coaches can also provide guidance to establish priorities.

Another area in which you will need to prioritize in making divorce decisions involves evaluating possible resolutions and deciding whether they will meet your needs. This usually requires prioritizing your needs, goals, objectives and concerns so you are aware of how possible resolutions will meet or not meet your most important to least important needs. Your attorney and other professional advisors should be able to help you establish these priorities and evaluate options for resolution.

Prioritizing is important regardless of the method by which you are addressing your divorce. Whether through alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation or the collaborative process or by litigation, you must establish priorities to make informed decisions and take effective, efficient actions. If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding areas, and would like to discuss priorities in divorce or any other family law related issue, please contact me.

Why Work to Reach an Agreement?

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

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

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

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

Should I Attend Couples Counseling?

That is not an easy question to answer. Although a great deal of my practice centers around family law, primarily divorce and related financial and personal issues, I don’t like to see people get divorced and don’t encourage them to do so. So my first instinct is to say “Yes, attend couples counseling.” If you don’t want to be divorced or aren’t sure about whether you should be divorced, counseling can help clarify that decision for you. That doesn’t mean that if you participate in couples counseling then you won’t get divorced. That is one possible outcome, but it is possible that participating in counseling could help you and/or your spouse decide more definitely that divorce is the right decision for you and your family.

Even if you experience divorce after engaging in couples counseling, you may go into the divorce process with a better understanding of how and why your marriage ended. Maybe you will gain some insight that could help you in future relationships. Maybe you and your spouse will agree that even if you’re going to be divorced, you want to consciously keep your children’s best interests foremost in your minds throughout the process.  You may be able to discuss how you want to proceed through the divorce process (see my blog post about the first decision to make in divorce).

If you are not facing the possibility of divorce, but are having some relationship problems, then it may be best to participate in counseling earlier rather than later. In my experience helping clients through the divorce process, I have found that many couples wait until they are actually discussing the possibility of divorce before starting couples counseling. Not having performed a scientific study, I can only guess from my observations that counseling at that stage in their relationship was often too little, too late.

Ultimately, you and your spouse must decide whether to attend couples counseling and live with that decision. There are many qualified, experienced marriage and family therapists in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, Hershey and surrounding communities. You can get specific recommendations from your family doctor, friends, family, coworkers, etc. If you would like to discuss couples counseling or any other divorce or family law issue, please contact me.

Divorce & Parenting Arrangements

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

What is Separation and Why Does it Matter?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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.