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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Resolutions

It’s that time of year – New Year’s Resolution Time! What will you resolve to change or do this year, if anything? And what is your motivation? How will you know if you’ve achieved it? Since this is a serious blog on my very serious law firm website, I believe I should tie this into the legal realm. So I’ll address the two areas of law in which I practice – family law and estate planning.

I believe that small changes, things that most people around us wouldn’t even consciously recognize, can have a huge impact on our family relationships. How about resolving that you will no longer look at your phone while eating dinner with your family? Not imposing that rule on anyone else, but only for yourself. Or sitting still and looking at your spouse or child and asking him or her how their day went, then quietly listening, with no expectation that the question or the attention will be returned? It may be worth trying.

How about small changes between you and your ex-spouse or ex-partner with whom you share child-rearing responsibilities? What if you resolved to make sure your children were ready early for every custodial exchange with no expectation that he or she would do the same? Or to copy the other parent on every email you receive from coaches, teachers and piano instructors without exception?

Estate planning also involves one small step at a time. If you don’t have an estate plan in place, you are possibly leaving your loved ones with a significant burden when you die. Not if, but when. And most people know that. But they don’t want to think about it or they don’t know where to start or they think it’s too complicated. So take one small step – call a lawyer and ask about estate planning. Odds are, he or she will happily talk with you and give you lots of good information by phone and you’re on your way to having an estate plan. If you’re comfortable with that person, then rely on him or her to guide you through the process.

Some people may think these small steps couldn’t possibly have an effect on their lives and the lives of those around them. I believe most (if not all) of those people have never tried them.

If you would like to discuss New Year’s Resolutions or any other family law or estate planning issue, please contact me.

Happy New Year!

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.

Can Children Make Their Own Decisions?

The legal answer to this question is, as usual, “It depends.” It depends on the subject matter involved, the age and maturity level of the child and the reasoning behind his or her decision, among other factors. A 5 year old may be able to decide what flavor of ice cream she wants. A 5 year old should not decide for herself whether it’s safe to cross a busy intersection.

As a family law attorney, people usually ask me this question in the context of “custody” decisions. They want to know if their child or children can decide whether to spend time with the other parent or how much time to spend with the other parent. My answer is always the same – children cannot make their own decisions. About custody, at least. Legally they can’t make their own decisions and in my opinion, morally they should not make their own decisions.

Legally, the court will consider children’s preferences as one of a list of factors in deciding custody matters. Judges consider a child’s age, maturity and reasoning in determining how much weight to give to his or her preference. An 8 year old who wants to spend more time with one parent because he or she doesn’t enforce bedtime and lets the child eat ice cream for breakfast will be considered differently than a 13 year old who wants to spend more time with one parent because he or she doesn’t yell as much and helps the child with homework. Children can legally make their own decisions at age 18 and not before.

Morally, I believe it is our job as parents to make certain decisions for our children. That’s one of the reasons I like to discuss “parenting arrangements” instead of “custody.” Those decisions include where and when children will spend their time. I encourage my clients to look at parenting arrangements from their children’s perspective. Why would any parent want his or her child to make the decision about how, when and where he or she spends time with his or her parents? I can think of very few things more distressing to a child than to be expected to make those decisions about parenting arrangements.

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

Still Parents After Divorce

The title of this blog post says it all. If you are divorcing or ending any other relationship in which children are involved, you and your spouse or significant other will be tied together for the rest of your lives as parents. That means the actions you take in your divorce are going to stick with both of you and with your children.

I’ve had clients point out that they only need to interact with their spouse or significant other until their child or children turn 18 and are legally adults. I always correct that perception and point out that even after children are legally adults, children still need to interact with both of their parents and their parents still want to be involved in their children’s lives. There are graduations, weddings, births of grandchildren, holidays and numerous other occasions where you and your spouse or ex-spouse will need to interact. I think it’s important to keep that fact in mind while deciding how to handle your divorce and making the substantive financial and personal decisions during that divorce process.

If you want to provide a positive role model for your children to show them how adults can make difficult decisions with dignity and respect, take the time to carefully consider alternative dispute resolution methods such as the collaborative law process and mediation before starting your divorce action. Your children will see and hear how you and your spouse conduct yourselves during the divorce process and will learn from those observations how they should conduct their own relationships.

If you want to preserve a positive parenting relationship with your spouse or significant other after the end of your marriage or personal relationship, carefully consider alternatives to the litigation process. Traditional litigation puts parties in the role of adversaries, using their time, money and energy to show that their position is right and the other person’s position is wrong. This process does nothing to preserve a positive parenting relationship. If you and your spouse are able to work together through mediation or the collaborative law process to make the difficult decisions involved in ending your personal relationship, you will also be preserving that positive parenting relationship.

Remembering that you will still be parents after a divorce can be a powerful incentive to handle your divorce with respect and dignity. If you would like to discuss this topic or any other family law related topic with me, please feel free to contact me.