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Family Law

A Lawyer's Pointers For Controlling The Speed And The Cost Of Your Legal Matter

A Lawyer's Pointers For Controlling The Speed And The Cost Of Your Legal Matter

By Inna G. Materese

Ask any family law attorney what clients want to know most and you'll likely hear the same answer. Clients generally have two burning questions: 

“How long will this take?" and “How much will this cost?"

You've probably asked your attorney these questions at one point or another and received a decidedly equivocal answer. To both of these questions, the honest answer is almost always, "I don't know, it depends."

Though the question sounds simple enough, the factors your attorney must consider in trying to give you a time and cost analysis are quite complex. The reason it is difficult to estimate the cost of a family law case is because much of what happens is driven by factors outside of the control of the lawyer and a client.  

It is important to keep in mind that your family law matter may involve four, five, or even six individuals - you, your ex-spouse, your attorney, his/her attorney, and perhaps even expert witnesses. The efficiently and speed with which your particular matter can be resolved depends on all of those people working with efficiency and speed.

For example, obstinate spouses and difficult or unresponsive opposing counsel can delay resolution of even simple issues and drive up fees significantly. As frustrating as it may sometime feel, the case is only as efficient as its weakest link. 

In addition, no matter how proactive your attorney may be in filing motions and meeting deadlines, the unpredictable pace of the court system can be a headache for clients. We are all familiar with TV and movie legal dramas, such as Law and Order, where an entire case is neatly wrapped up in an hour. The perception is that access to the court system is easy and swift. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Our court system can be sluggish and reactive, rather than proactive, due to the volume of cases brought to the court's attention at all times. Court schedules are quickly filled, judges are often backed up on their caseloads, and procedural tasks must be accomplished before you are able to present your case to a judge. These issues can (and do!) take time and can drive up legal fees, as well. 

Further complicating predictability, issues often arise after your case has begun that may require additional work and attention. A matter that may have seemed straightforward at first blush can become more complex based on events unforeseen at the time of the divorce filing.

For example, a medical issue may arise with a child. You or your spouse may lose your job or get a new job. You or your spouse may begin a new romantic relationship.  Either of you may need to relocate. The twists and turns your life may need to take cannot be predicted by your attorney. Predicting the length and cost of your family law matter is so difficult for your attorney because your case is ever-evolving. 

So what can you do to keep your costs down and keep your case moving?

Get information to your attorney in a  timely manner.
Your attorney will likely ask you for supporting documentation, a summary or explanation, and/or other needed information during the course of their representation of you. Ask your attorney when he or she would ideally need the requested information and provide it in a timely manner. Failing to do so may result in delays in your case and/or additional legal fees. 

Be a planner! 
Though emergencies do happen, they are few and far between. Most issues will not be deemed a true emergency in the eyes of the court. If you anticipate an issue arising in the future or may need to take a course of action in the near future, notify your attorney as soon as possible. He or she will need time to negotiate a resolution with the other side or get a hearing date

Be judicious with your communications.
We live in world of instant communication and access. While your attorney is there to address your legal needs, remember that legal fees associated with multiple communications to your attorney can add up. If you have questions, grouping several clear and concise questions in one e-mail can be more cost-effective than several emails regarding various topics throughout the day. 

Likewise, it is often hard for clients to recall exactly what his/her attorney explained regarding a legal concept or course of action during a phone call or meeting. If having something in writing would make it easier for you to thoughtfully consider an issue or response from your attorney, tell him or her so. Your attorney will be happy to send you a letter or email with his or her thoughts instead. 

Three Back-To-School Tips For Parents

Three Back-To-School Tips For Parents

By Inna G. Materese

The beginning of a new school year may not just be nerve-racking for your child - it can also be nerve-racking for you and your co-parent. Here are some tips to help you adjust:

Talk to your co-parent (whether in person, on the phone, or via email) regarding everyday arrangements that must be accounted for. Having a plan for transportation, extra-curricular activities, tutoring and other school-year needs will guarantee a smoother transition for your child.

Be straightforward about responsibilities toward your child. Remember that exchanging sports equipment and uniforms, ensuring your child has appropriate clothing for school, providing appropriate lunches, purchasing school supplies, etc. should be the responsibility of both parents.

Making sure your child completes their homework and is ready to learn the next day is your responsibility when your child resides at your home. The same goes for your co-parent. Coordinating with your co-parent regarding schoolwork can also help your child succeed in school. Let your co-parent know about important due dates and if your child did not complete something before it is time to switch between homes.

Having contact with your co-parent may not always be comfortable for you. However, actively participating in events important to your child's well-being can help you maintain a strong relationship with your child. If possible, attend school orientations, parent-teacher conferences, sporting events, recitals or any other important events on behalf of your child.

A Look At Expenses For Summer Camp And After School Activities

A Look At Expenses For Summer Camp And After School Activities

By Elizabeth J. Billies

With the summer winding down, it's time to think about the upcoming school year and, gulp, maybe even camp for next year. Do your children attend camp and/or participate in after-school activities? Do those activities cost money? If so, you may be asking, who pays for those expenses if the parents are separated? Are they part of the basic child support order?

In addition to determining basic support, the court can also allocate additional support expenses and include them as part of your support order.  Examples of those additional expenses are childcare costs, health insurance premiums, unreimbursed medical expenses, summer camp expenses, private school expenses, and after-school activities. With these expenses, remember to provide your attorney with written documentation of the actual costs and proof of payment. The court wants to see documentation of the actual expenses before they are going to order your co-parent to contribute. This will also help to show that the proposed cost is reasonable given you and your co-parent's incomes.

Summer Camp Expenses

The court will allocate summer camp expenses if there is a need for the expense and the expense is reasonable given the circumstances, both financial and otherwise. Generally, the division of the cost will be proportional to the parties’ respective incomes. 

There are a few ways to share this expense. If the total expense for camp is already known, then it can be included in the support order as part of the monthly support obligation. Or, the court can order the payor to pay his/her portion of the expense directly to the camp or the other parent when the expense is incurred. 

Although a camp expense is generally only incurred in the summer, the court will generally divide the total amount over a twelve-month period so that the monthly support order remains consistent.  What if the expense is not included in the monthly support order? Then, the party incurring the expense must provide documentation of the actual expense and request reimbursement from the other parent. 

What if you and your co-parent disagree about summer camp?

Generally, the biggest issue about camp is the cost. For example, one parent may want to send a child to an expensive sleep away camp, while the other parent may prefer (and only be willing to pay for) the local YMCA day camp. You may be asking what happens in this scenario.

This is both a legal custody and a child support issue. If you and your co-parent disagree on which camp to send your children to for reasons other than the cost, then you will have to resolve this dispute in custody court. In general, the court will look at whether the objection against the camp is reasonable. If not, then the request for permission for the children to attend the requested camp will likely be granted.

If the issue is cost only, then the court will look at whether the expense is appropriate given your finances. For example, is the cost of the overnight camp almost half of what you and your co-parent collectively earn in a year? If so, the court is not going to order that you share in that expense. In the alternative, if you have the resources and have sent your children to the same overnight camp for many years, the court is likely going to find the cost reasonable and order it to be shared.

Expenses for After-School Activities

As you know, many children are involved in regular after-school activities which come with a cost. The allocation of extracurricular activities is not specifically set forth in the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure relating to support. However, those rules do say that a court can allocate “other needs” which have “not been factored into the Basic Child Support Schedule.” Extracurricular expenses have consistently been found to be considered “other needs” by the Pennsylvania Superior and Supreme Courts.

Examples of after-school activities include equestrian activities, music lessons, dance lessons, community sports leagues, travel sports, Boy/Girl Scouts, after-school clubs and racquet/swim club memberships. Really, anything that your child regularly participates in that is outside of school. It does not include vacations, trips to amusement parks, movie tickets, or video games.  

In determining whether to divide the expenses for these activities, the court will again look at whether they are consistent with the family’s collective standard of living and station in life.  If the court finds these expenses reasonable, then the cost will likely be allocated commensurate with the party’s incomes.

What is an after-school activity expense?

So, now that we know what an after-school activity is, what is an after-school activity expense? In general, registration fees, tournament fees, lesson fees and membership dues are an after-school expense. In addition, any equipment or uniforms needed are also included.  However, other costs such as, transporting the child to the activity, meals out, snacks for the team, and hotel rooms for weekend tournaments are grey areas.

If you are looking for your co-parent to contribute to those expenses, you need to show: (1) how the expense is benefiting the child directly; and (2) that it was required so that the child could participate in the activity. If possible, discuss these types of costs and how you are going to handle them with your co-parent first before incurring the expense.

Like camp, the cost can be included in the monthly support order. It can also be paid outside the court system via paying the provider directly or reimbursing the paying parent. In general, I see after-school expenses paid outside the court system as they fluctuate more than summer camp costs.

Happy Coparents, Happy Life?

Happy Coparents, Happy Life?

By Inna G. Materese | Esquire

What would you do in the name of coparenting? Gwyneth Paltrow and her new husband Brad Falchuk are doing something that would be surprising to most married couples. You see, the actress and her writer/director husband are choosing to only live together part-time in the name of coparenting.

Due to a custodial arrangement that has Falchuk assuming custody of his children from a previous relationship three days per week, the couple maintain their own residences and cohabit in Paltrow’s home only four days each week.

The non-traditional setup is a type of “nesting” schedule. “Nesting” is a transitional arrangement whereby, typically, divorced or separated parents attempt to maintain a stable next for their baby birds by rotating in and out of the home and taking turns being on duty for the kids. The child or children in such arrangements stay put in the home while their parents transition from home to home. While such an arrangement may have its benefits, in most circumstances it is temporary given the possible cost thereof (both financial and otherwise).

While this form of marital arrangement may not be for everyone, the couple are proving that effective coparenting can be done. Read more here.

Place Of Residence Can Impact Child Support

Place Of Residence Can Impact Child Support

Child support laws vary from state to state, particularly when it comes to whether a parent will be obligated to pay for post-majority expenses relating to college. 

In Pennsylvania and Delaware, the law is such that children are considered emancipated upon the age of 18 or graduation from high school, whichever occurs last. Thereafter, neither party has any obligation for basic child support or to contribute to college tuition and related expenses.  Conversely, in New York and New Jersey, a parent can be obligated to pay for post-majority support, as children are not necessarily considered emancipated until after college graduation. 

The New Jersey Appellate Division recently addressed the differences between Pennsylvania’s and New Jersey’s approaches to college support in the case of Flynn v. Flynn.  In this case, the parties were divorced in Pennsylvania.  Their child support obligation was initially determined in the Commonwealth and was part of their Property Settlement Agreement, which was incorporated into their Divorce Decree.  Sometime thereafter, both parties and the child moved to New Jersey and registered the Decree there. 

After high school graduation, the parties’ son began attending college, thus resulting in the issue of whether the parents could be held responsible for payment of his college expenses.  The trial court found that, because the parties and the son resided in New Jersey, the payment of college support could be compelled pursuant to New Jersey law.  However, the appellate court found that because Pennsylvania initially determined the support obligation of the parties, Pennsylvania law should still be applied. Applying Pennsylvania law resulted in the termination of both parties’ child support obligations upon the son’s graduation from high school.  Thus, neither could be compelled to contribute to his college expenses or basic support. 

The Pennsylvania appellate courts have not yet addressed such a scenario.  This is interesting, as it is rather common for people to move from state to state, particularly between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The Flynn decision raises a lot of questions.  First, what would Pennsylvania do if the situation was reversed?  Moreover, the fact that the parties had gone to court in New Jersey about support since moving there did not seem to make a difference to the appellate court as to whether Pennsylvania law should still be applied. 

I find it interesting that the fact that the initial Support Order had been litigated and modified after its initial determination in Pennsylvania carried no weight in the New Jersey appellate court’s decision.Also, what about situations in which only one party move to a state with post-majority child support?Finally, how many people are going to consider all other states’ possible child support rules when they are determining an initial support award? I am sure parties are not considering what a potential move to another state five or ten years later will do to their support obligation.  It will be interesting to see if the Flynn decision results in further litigation regarding this issue in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania. 

If you have an interstate child support issue or any other questions related to child support, please contact our Family Law attorneys by calling 215-362-2474 or by email at info@dischellbartle.com.

Parenting Coordination Returns To Family Law

Parenting Coordination Returns To Family Law

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in August issued new rules for Parenting Coordination. Effective March 1, Parenting Coordination will again be a part of Family Law. It was eliminated by a Court ruling in 2013.

The new rules state that a “Parenting coordinator shall attempt to resolve issues arising out of the custody order by facilitating an agreement between the parties and, if unable to reach an agreement, recommend a resolution to the court.”  

The Parenting Coordinator does not determine major issues such as who obtains physical custody or a parent’s relocation, but rather the nettlesome issues such as places and conditions for transitions, the child’s participation in recreation, childcare arrangements, clothing, and many more mundane issues that trouble parents and custodians.
 
“Parenting Coordination is a very good thing for clients, lawyers, the courts and, most importantly, the children of the Commonwealth,” said Dischell Bartle Dooley attorney Mark Dischell.
 
After a final custody order has been entered, a judge may appoint a parenting coordinator to resolve parenting issues in cases involving repeated or intractable conflict between the parties affecting implementation of the final custody order, according to the Court’s rules. A parenting coordinator should not be appointed in every case. The appointment may be made on the motion of a party or the Court’s motion, the rules state.
 
A Parenting Coordinator must be licensed to practice in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as either an attorney or mental health professional with a Master’s degree or higher, according to the Court’s rules.  
 
A Parenting Coordinator can be helpful when the parties in a custody dispute have difficulty reaching an agreement, Dischell said.
 
“There are times when the parties in custody litigation can’t emotionally or financially continue with a process in the courts,” Dischell explained. “Parenting Coordination is an important option in those situations.”
 
For more information on Parenting Coordination, call Mark Dischell at 215-362-2474 or click here to email him.

 

Liz Billies Authors Book Chapter

Liz Billies Authors Book Chapter

Family law attorney Liz Billies has written a chapter for the Pennsylvania Bar Institute’s upcoming book on “Child and Spousal Support.” Liz’s chapter is on child support adjustments to basic obligations. The book will be available this spring. Liz is an experienced family law attorney with expertise in divorce, pre- and post-nuptial agreements, equitable distribution and custody and support matters.  She has been honored as one of the “10 Best Family Law Attorneys for Client Satisfaction in Pennsylvania” by the American Institute of Family Lawyers for five consecutive years.  

Click Here to File for Divorce

Click Here to File for Divorce

By Inna G. Materese | Esquire

These days, you can complete nearly any task from your digital device. Purchase groceries? Done. Print photos? Yep. Design your perfect bedroom and purchase furnishings? Absolutely. Send a payment to a friend for last week's lunch? In seconds. 

File for divorce? In China, you can now do this, as well. 

The Chinese app WeChat, which is used by one billion active users worldwide, rolled out a new function permitting its users to schedule appointments with their local divorce registration office. In addition, the app permits users to enter information regarding themselves and the spouse they intend to divorce and store personal documents. Indeed, WeChat is so widely used across China for a multitude of purposes that in one case a woman was contacted via WeChat during a court proceeding when she failed to appear in court. 

Swipe right to file for divorce? Read more here

FAQ’S: FILING FOR CHILD SUPPORT

FAQ’S: FILING FOR CHILD SUPPORT

By Elizabeth J. Billies | Esquire

1. How do I begin a support action?

In order to initiate a support action, a party must file a Complaint for Support and an Application for Support Services at the appropriate Domestic Relations Office.  Those forms are generally available on the appropriate Domestic Relations Office’s website.   Parties may file a Support Complaint in person or by mail. Make sure to check the website to see if there is a filing fee.  The other party must be served with the Complaint as well as notice of the support conference date. It is best to serve the other party quickly after filing, as they will begin to receive notices from Domestic Relations whether or not they have been served.

2. What happens at the support conference?  

 In all counties, the support action will first be addressed at a Domestic Relations Support Conference before a Domestic Relations Support Conference Officer.  Conferences are scheduled before the Officers (who are not attorneys) approximately four to six weeks after the filing of the Complaint. At this level, the parties may appear with their attorneys or without counsel. The Conference is relatively informal, with the Support Conference Officer reviewing the documents and data submitted by parties.  Counsel and the Officer may also ask relevant questions regarding the income and expenses of the parties and needs of the children, particularly if one party doesn’t bring the information required. 

3. What do I need to bring to the conference?                        

Both parties should bring the following documents, if applicable. Remember, if you don’t bring verification of an expense it may not be considered! Also be sure to bring at least three copies of all documents, one for you, the other side and the officer to review. 

  • Completed Income Statement form which is provided by Domestic Relations with the conference date notice;
  • Most recent federal income tax return with W2's and 1099's;
  • Six months of pay-stubs;
  • Medical insurance documentation;
  • Verification of child care, tuition, and summer camp expenses;
  • Mortgage, real estate taxes and homeowners’ insurance documentation;  
  • Documentation relating to any social security derivative benefits received on behalf of the children and/or;
  • Any other information relating to any deviations being requested (i.e. multi-family deviations or shared custody adjustments).

4.  What happens after the Officer looks at the documents? 

After reviewing all of the information provided, the Officer will enter the data into the PASCES support calculation software and share his/her verbal recommendation with the parties.  The Officers will also generally show the parties their calculations so that the parties can understand how the recommendation was calculated.  The Conference Officers strongly encourage the parties to reach an agreement.

If the parties agree to accept the recommendation, or some other amount is agreed to, the Officer will prepare a Support Order for the parties to sign and the support proceeding is complete.

5. What if we can’t come to an agreement?

If a final agreement cannot be reached, the Officer will enter a temporary Order and the matter will be scheduled for a hearing before a support master or judge, depending on the county. That hearing is generally scheduled before the parties leave the Conference, so be sure to bring your calendar.  The Conference Officer will also provide payment instructions to the obligor and direct deposit information to the obligee at this time.

Five Years of Client Satisfaction!

Five Years of Client Satisfaction!

For the fifth year in a row, DBD Family Law attorney Elizabeth J. Billies was honored as one of the 10 best Family Law Attorneys for Client Satisfaction in Pennsylvania by the American Institute of Family Lawyers. Congratulations Liz!

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A Messy Process Made a Little Messier...

A Messy Process Made a Little Messier...

By Inna G. Materese | Esquire

In December, we touched upon an emerging challenge for family lawyers and litigants alike: crypto-currency. Unfortunately, this new form of asset acquisition continues to be an ephemeral safe-haven for those determined to shield assets in a divorce action and, in the process, makes an already messy divorce process even messier. 

As reported by Bloomberg, not only is crypto-currency volatile, making it difficult to value, but it can be traded with relative anonymity. Crypto-currency holdings that are traded online can be traced and valued with a bit more ease, while holdings that are moved offline (and to a USB) are much more difficult to assess.  

As regulatory agencies grapple with the best method of tracking, disclosing and reporting crypto-currency, it is safe to say that some couples may encounter even more bitterness and frustration in their divorce matter. 

KIDS DON’T DECIDE THEIR OWN CUSTODY AND FAULT DOESN’T MATTER

KIDS DON’T DECIDE THEIR OWN CUSTODY AND FAULT DOESN’T MATTER

*This article was written and originally publish by Judy Malmon on SuperLawyers.com and can be found in its original form here.

By Judy Malmon

Divorce is ubiquitous. Many of us know someone who’s been through the process, or have been divorced ourselves. Stories of divorce are on TV, social media, the internet—nearly everywhere you look. Despite this, there remain a surprising amount of misconceptions.

What you think you know about divorce isn’t necessarily true.

Kids Don’t Choose

Lansdale family law attorney Elizabeth Billies, of Dischell Bartle Dooley, says that one of the most common errors she encounters is the belief that children over a certain age (usually 12 or 14) can decide their own custody arrangement. I have so many people that come in and say, ‘My kid can decide where they want to live.’ And I have to tell them, ‘No, that is not what the law says.’”

Pennsylvania custody law outlines 16 factors that go into a judicial determination of custody based on finding what would be in the best interest of the child. Within these factors is one that takes into account a child’s “well-reasoned preference.” But this is only a factor, not dispositive in itself, and is considered in light of their maturity and judgment.

Billies shares a story from early in her career to illustrate the rationale behind this law: “In one memorable case I worked on, the girl was 15 or 16, back when MySpace was popular. The dad lived out of state, and he found evidence in his daughter’s MySpace postings that she was hanging out with guys who were 19 years old and drinking. They showed in the custody trial that mom was trying to act like a friend, not like a parent, and exercising poor judgment. In that case, custody was transferred to dad, and the child had to move. Obviously, that was not the child’s preference, but it was in her best interest, and is an example of why preference can’t rule the day. Because why should a 12 year-old know what’s best for them?”

No Fault Means Exactly That

Another common misconception Billies sees regularly has to do with property distribution under no-fault divorce. “People think if someone cheated on them, abused them, was not good with money, that should really count for something in the division of property. And it just doesn’t.”

In a no-fault divorce there is no examination of the behavior of the parties related to the dissolution of their marriage. “When it comes time to divide up assets, I tell my clients to look at it as a dissolution of a business,” says Billies. “It’s a business transaction. That makes the emotional piece really different.”

Billies recommends working on emotional issues with a therapist or friend, while keeping the legal end of things more practical. This also helps keep the legal bill down, as fighting with your ex through your lawyer can be very costly.

Pennsylvania is an equitable distribution state, meaning that property between divorcing spouses is not divided evenly in half, but apportioned according to what a judge considers fair in light of factors such as relative income of each spouse, anticipated retirement income of each, duration of the marriage, and other factors deemed relevant (but not fault-related behavior). Assets that were owned prior to the marriage or a gift or inheritance are generally not part of the marital estate.

Prevalent misinformation can leave you with incorrect assumptions about your divorce or custody situation. Talk to an experienced family law attorney to make sure you have the best information and advice.