Figuring Out Who Gets Fido In A Divorce

A new law in California which goes into effect on January 1, 2019 gives Courts the right to determine custody and care of a pet both pending a divorce and as part of a final determination. This is a move in the right direction given that so many couples consider pets part of the family. Despite this, in many States they are treated as property in divorce.

Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey consider pets as property. In New Jersey, if parties reach an agreement regarding the care and custody of their pet, the Court will enforce it. In Pennsylvania, pets are considered chattel, and the Courts will not enforce provisions of a settlement agreement of the parties regarding the custody of a pet.

The landmark case in New Jersey regarding pet custody is Houseman v. Dare, 405 N.J. Super. 538 (App.Div. 2009). In Houseman, the parties had a long-term relationship and had been engaged to be married. They purchased a dog together and were both registered as the owners. When the couple broke up and the girlfriend vacated the residence, she took the dog and its paraphernalia with her. The parties did not have a written agreement about the dog.

Nonetheless, the ex-girlfriend would bring the dog to ex-boyfriend’s residence for visits. At one point, the ex-girlfriend left the dog with her former boyfriend while she went on vacation. Upon her return, the ex-boyfriend refused to give the dog back to her. A lawsuit ensued.

The Court held that when litigants each demand custody of the family pet, and one party asserts the existence of an oral agreement on that subject, (such as bringing the dog over for visits) it is appropriate to conduct a hearing to determine which party had the greater attachment. This hearing is referred to as a “Houseman hearing.” Additionally, the Court held that pets have a “special ‘subjective value’ to their owners.” Because of that subjective value, the Court analogized pets to property such as “heirlooms, family treasures and works of art that induce a strong sentimental attachment.” Houseman at 543 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 360 comment b).

The Houseman v. Dare decision set the following precedent in New Jersey:
1. Pets are still considered personal property, but they have a unique sentimental value that cannot be quantified with a price tag;
2. Pet ownership rulings are based in contract law, not the “best interest of the animal” (in other words, the Court would uphold a pet custody agreement in an Marital Settlement Agreement);
3. New Jersey Courts can issue shared possession orders for family pets.
4. A hearing may be held to determine which party had the greater attachment to the pet if there is an allegation of an oral agreement.

In the case of Mitchell v. Mitchell, 2010 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 188 (App.Div. 2010) the plaintiff claimed that defendant neglected the cat by not taking him for annual checkups with the veterinarian. The Court held that if a pet is being neglected and has suffered some harm, a litigant may be entitled to relief, such as assuming custody, even if the litigant had previously relinquished custody of the pet.

The seminal case in Pennsylvania regarding pet custody is Desanctis v. Pritchard, 803 A.2d 230 (2002). This case involved a couple who divorced in 2000. During their marriage, Wife purchased the dog (Barney). When the couple divorced, they drafted an agreement that stated that the dog was Wife’s property and that Husband would be entitled to visits. However, shortly thereafter, Wife moved away. Husband filed a complaint seeking shared custody of the dog. Ultimately, this case was heard before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which held that the agreement was unenforceable as Pennsylvania law considers dogs to be personal property. The Pennsylvania Court said that the husband was seeking an arrangement that was analogous in law, to a visiting schedule for a table or a lamp. Because a pet is considered personal property, it will be lumped into the “equitable distribution” of all property. The Court held that any terms in the Property Settlement Agreement that provided for shared custody or visitation of personal property were void. This has come to be known as the “Barney Rule.”

With the recent change in California law related to pet custody, there will hopefully be nationwide recognition as to how pets are valued in most families. Time will tell if our local laws change as a result.

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New Developments in Grandparent Custody

On July 4, 2018, two amendments to the Pennsylvania child custody laws went into effect making it easier for grandparents and other third parties to seek custody of a minor child. Specifically, Section 5324 and Section 5325(2) of the Pennsylvania Domestic Relation Code, was amended to expand the ability of grandparents and other third parties to assert standing in custody matters.

This legislation was passed as a reaction to the case of D.P. v. G.J.P., 146 A.3d 204 (Pa.2016), which limited grandparent custody rights by holding that grandparents were no longer able to assert standing solely because a child’s parents were separated for a period of at least six months.

After the D.P. decision, a child’s parents would have had to initiate a divorce proceeding in order for the grandparents to seek custody. This prevented many grandparents from seeking custody of their grandchildren. Under the new law, a divorce action is not required. Rather, grandparents may seek custody of a child when an action for custody has already been initiated. Read more ›

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How To Handle A Special Family Event When Going Through A Divorce

This time of year is especially popular for special family events such as weddings, graduations, and bar/bat mitvahs. For families going through a divorce, these events can pose unique challenges. There is no obligation in Pennsylvania or New Jersey that both parties contribute to the cost of these family celebrations. To the extent these events are foreseeable in the near future and a divorce matter is already pending, it may be worthwhile to have the discussion now as to how the cost of these special events will be shared by the parties in the future. Some parties may desire to split such costs evenly, while others may decide to share the cost pursuant to their income percentages at the time of the event in the future. The risk of memorializing the division of such costs when an event is several years away is that a party’s income or financial resources may change unexpectedly in the future. To account for this uncertainty, using the parties’ income percentages at the time the event occurs will take into account any changes in income. If the parties can reach an agreement as to how to divide the cost of these events, these terms can be memorialized in a formal agreement which will save time and energy in the future as the event approaches.

For parties who have been divorced for several years, communication with an ex-spouse may be more amicable. In these cases, the parties may be able to work out an arrangement themselves as to how to pay for an event and how to share the planning responsibilities for the event. Without a binding agreement, however, neither party can be forced to abide by his/her agreement to contribute a certain amount to the event.

For some families, sharing the cost of an event and attending an event with their ex-spouse may not be feasible due to lingering emotions regarding the divorce. In this case, planning separate celebrations may be best for all those involved. Ultimately, the decision should be made with the best interests of the child as the paramount focus. If the parties can manage to put aside their differences for one day and share the celebration with the child, this is often the best result for the child at the center of the event. On the other hand, if having both parties together would only lead to arguments, separate celebrations is preferred. A compromise of these two options is for the parties to attend the actual event together, such as the graduation ceremony, but schedule their own separate celebrations with the child following the event. Regardless of how the event unfolds, it is important to keep the child out of the discussion and never force the child to choose between the parties

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Navigating Pennsylvania’s New Public Access Policy For Family Law Matters

The State of Pennsylvania recently enacted a new public access policy, 204 Pa. Code §213.81, to address the conflict between providing the public online access to Court filings and protecting private information. The new policy restricts public access to personal information and documents.
The confidential information restricted under this policy includes Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, driver license numbers, state identification numbers, minor’s names and birthdays and all personal and employment information of abuse victims. The Pennsylvania Legislature has given each county the option to choose whether to use a cover sheet outlining all confidential information redacted from a pleading or to require the filing of both a “redacted” version and “unredacted” version. Local rules dictate how to file pleadings in each county.
Confidential documents include financial documents, minors’ educational records, medical and/or psychological records, Children and Youth Services’ records, Marital Property Inventory and Pre-Trial Statements, Income and Expense Statements, and Agreements between the parties. All counties require these documents to be filed with a “Confidential Document Form” and will not be accessible to the public.
In addition to information and documents restricted under the new policy, all pleading must contain a “Certification of Compliance” stating that the filing complies with the new requirements.
If these new rules are not followed, the Court may apply sanctions, including costs necessary to prepare a compliant document for filing.
If you have questions on how this new Public Access Policy, affects your case please feel free to contact us.

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Surviving The Holidays While Dealing With Divorce

The holidays are supposed to be a time of good will and cheer. For those going through a divorce, however, the situation is often not cheerful and may even be grim. With some thoughtful planning and the right outlook, however, the joyful spirit of the holidays can be preserved. Following the tips below will set you on the right path for a festive holiday season;

1) Quell The Loneliness By Keeping Your Ultimate Goal In Mind – No one enters into a divorce lightly. Even if you were the person initiating the divorce, there are times when you long for your former life when you and your spouse were happy together. The holidays often exacerbate these emotions and unearth feelings of nostalgia. Nonetheless, it is important to remember why you are going through this process. While it is certainly not easy, you can look forward to a more peaceful and happy existence moving forward;
2) Make Plans and Stick To Them – Going through a divorce sometimes leaves you feeling ostracized from friends and family. If you have children, there will be times during the holiday season that they will be spending time with the other party. Friends who are couples may be reluctant to include you in holiday celebrations for fear of choosing sides. To overcome some of these social issues, it is important to take control of your personal situation. Contact those with whom you would like to spend time during the holidays and make plans. Consider a change of scenery. A quick getaway can boost your morale and take you away from difficult memories. Start a new tradition. Think about what will please you and do it;
3) Stay Within Your Budget – It is easy to get carried away financially during the holidays. However, when going through a divorce it is more important than ever to devise a budget for gift giving, etc and stay within it. Overspending can cause additional and unnecessary stress and strain. Consider gifts that demonstrate how much you care, not how much you can spend.
4) Put Your Kids’ Needs Ahead of Your Own – Thinking about what is truly best for your kids will not only help you successfully navigate the holidays but will also help you overall in your divorce and custody matters. While you may bear ill feelings toward your spouse, keep in mind that this person is also the parent of your children. Don’t interpret the excitement your children have for spending time with the other party and his or her extended family as a slight against you or your family. It is typically a benefit for the children to spend some holiday time with each parent and extended family. Don’t deprive the children of that benefit.

While there may be some rough spots as well as some bright spots, keep in mind that the holidays, like the divorce itself, is merely a temporary situation and you will get through both.

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Help Me Help You

But first let me introduce myself. I’m Debbie Long, the family law paralegal in Cozen O’Connor’s Philadelphia office. I joined the Cozen O’Connor team this past August. While I am new to Cozen O’Connor, I am not new to family law. I have 20 years of experience in the legal field, with 15 years specifically in the area of family law.

The main focus of my position is to facilitate the procedural aspects of your case so that your attorney can remain focused on moving matters forward – through negotiation, litigation and ongoing analysis as the details of your case unfold. My direction comes from the attorney as she decides what information is needed and/or what steps need to be taken in order to achieve certain goals. I then work with the client, the court, or opposing counsel – or maybe all three – to help get us there. Once we have what we need, the attorney will reassess to see where we need to go next and will then provide further instruction.

As the client, you can help me help you by providing information and documentation as requested, signing and returning documents in a timely manner, and asking questions when you don’t understand. Whenever you leave a voicemail message, be sure to leave details as to the reason for your call as this will cut down on response time and, therefore, billing.

While I cannot give you legal advice, I can answer questions relating to the process and simplify some of the legalese for you. If you are not sure whether your question is procedural or more along the lines of legal advice, don’t worry – I will be sure to pass your questions along to the attorney if they are more substantive in nature. Carefully consider all information provided to you by your attorney and weigh your options to make informed decisions throughout the process.

The legal process can sometimes seem daunting, especially when it comes to such personal issues involving marriage, children and finances. I chose the area of family law because I feel I have a knack for simplifying complicated language and processes, and clients have often thanked me for the clarity I’ve been able to provide. I hope I will be able to ease the process for you as well.

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Moving Out of State? – Relocation Standards in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

New Jersey – The New Relocation Standard

Can a custodial parent in New Jersey move to another state and still retain custody if permission is not obtained from the other parent? A recent New Jersey State Supreme Court decision has made this more difficult by raising the burden of proof that needs to be established.

Previously, a two-part criteria was applied that had been established in 2001 by Baures v. Lewis. Under Baures, a primary custodian would be permitted to relocate out-of-state with a child without the consent of the other parent if they could prove that: (1) a good faith reason exists for the move and (2) the child’s relocation will not be contrary to the child’s best interests. This standard was created under the belief that a relocation that would benefit the custodial parent would also benefit the child.

This two-part criteria was tested recently in Bisbing v. Bisbing, when a mother, who was designated as the primary custodian of her twin daughters, stated her intention to move to Utah to marry her boyfriend, despite signing a marital settlement agreement in which both parents agreed to remain in New Jersey unless they obtained written permission of the other parent. The father filed a motion in the courts to prevent the mother from moving with the minor children.

The New Jersey State Supreme Court overturned the 2001 precedent finding that the progression in the law toward recognition of a parent of primary residence’s presumptive right to relocate with the children had not materialized. The court noted that the Baures standard was not compelled by contemporary social science or grounded in legal authority, as the Court anticipated that it would be when it decided that case.

The Court explained that the new standard will require the courts to conduct a best interests analysis in all contested relocation disputes in which the parents share legal custody. Further, the court stated that the New Jersey Legislature unequivocally declared that the rights of parents are to be equally respected in custody determinations and that custody arrangements must serve the best interests of the child.

As a result this recent ruling, the primary custodial parent must prove it is in the child’s best interest to relocate out-of-state instead of proving that it is in the best interest of the parent. This has raised the burden of proof, making it more difficult for a parent to relocate with a child without the consent of the other parent.

Pennsylvania

Relocation in Pennsylvania is defined as “a change in residence of the child which significantly impairs the ability of a non-relocating party to exercise custodial rights.” 23 Pa.C.S. §1915.17. The parent seeking relocation must provide notice to the other custodial parent, or any other individual who has custody rights. In the event a custodial parent objects to the relocation, the court decides whether to permit the relocation under the “best interest” analysis. In Pennsylvania, the “best interest” analysis considers multiple factors, including the ability to maintain a relationship between the non-relocating parent and the child as well as any new opportunities the child will have as a result of the move.

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The Do’s And Don’ts Of Summertime Custody

Summertime and the living is easy, that is, except for those involved in a custody dispute. With relaxed schedules, vacations, camp, and changing activities, summertime custody can prove to be more difficult for parties to navigate. Nonetheless, following the do’s and don’ts below can have you sailing smoothly until school begins.

Do notify the other party of your vacation plans. If you want to truly relax and enjoy your vacation time with the children, let the other parent know about where you plan to go as well as a contact number where the children can be reached. While you may not want to share what you believe is private information, most custody orders actually require the sharing of vacation itineraries . Plus, you do not want to put the children in the awkward position of having to hide this information from the other parent or disclose it against your wishes;

Don’t keep the children from enjoying all that summer has to offer. While each parent should be due their fair share of time with the children and should not intentionally infringe on each other’s time, there are often opportunities during the summer for children to enjoy special events such as family reunions, camping trips, beach outings, baseball games, etc. Consider being flexible on the standard custody schedule to allow the children to enjoy these special and sometimes once in a lifetime events.

Do discuss camp plans before you finalize them. Good communication is the key to any successful custody arrangement, and this is no different when deciding on camp. While oftentimes, each party is free to determine where they want to send the kids to camp during their time, it is best when they coordinate to make sure that the children have the most enjoyable and beneficial camp experience(s). It is also important to discuss camp when it will impact the other party’s custody time. For example if one parent has to drop off and one has to pick up, you want to make sure that the camp location and times are convenient for both.

Don’t worry because summer does not last forever. It is true that summer custody schedules often vary from the school year schedule. This is a good thing for the children as often they get to spend extended time with a parent they do not see as frequently during the year, or they may get to travel to exciting destinations with one parent, or visit extended family that they don’t normally see. While it is difficult to be away from the kids for any period of time, each parent needs to think about the changes to the normal custody routine as a chance to reconnect with the kids or spend some quality time away from the kids. The good news is that this change to the schedule is merely temporary, and the normal routine will resume before you know it.

In essence, the rules for summertime custody are no different than the normal guidelines for custody. As long as both parents put the interests of the children first rather than their own self-interest, their custody arrangement will be free from stress and disagreement.

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How To Protect Yourself Before A Divorce

As a divorce lawyer, I have met with countless clients who claim they were blindsided by a divorce. While they may have seen signs that something was wrong in the marriage, they chose to ignore them hoping that things would improve. In some instances, they might have even tried marriage counseling to no avail.

Divorces don’t simply happen overnight. In fact, there is often significant thought and some planning that occurs before one decides to proceed with a divorce. If you suspect that your spouse is contemplating a divorce, there are five steps that you can take to protect yourself.

1) Don’t Hide – If you suspect that your spouse is contemplating a divorce, it is better to know rather than hide from it. Confront him or her. Find out if there is really something wrong or is it truly your imagination. If there are problems, can they be resolved? Would counseling help? If things are as bad as you suspect, it is best to discuss them and possibly come up with a plan to try to part in a way that will cause the least damage to your finances and family;

2) Watch The Money – Become familiar with the location of your finances, understand your expenses and keep an eye on both. If money starts disappearing or spending increases, you need to take action. Ultimately, you may need to create separate bank accounts and/or cancel credit cards where you are the primary cardholder and your spouse has a secondary account.

3) Gather Information – It is easiest to gather the pertinent financial information needed for a divorce before the divorce is proceeding. After a divorce is filed, the filing spouse may remove financial information from the home or hide it away. While you ultimately will have the right to full financial disclosure in the discovery phase of a divorce, you can save some time and money by trying to obtain this relevant information before the case begins;

4) Seek Out Legal Advice – Do not rely on well-meaning family and friends to get the necessary information about the divorce process. Similarly, while there is a lot of helpful general information on the internet, divorce is state specific, so you need to focus on the legal process in the state in which you reside. Thus, it is worth the cost to visit a divorce lawyer for an initial meeting. During this time, you can learn about what the divorce process will look like, specific strategies that may work for you in preparing for a possible divorce, and understanding what you may ultimately receive at the conclusion of the divorce.

5) Build A Support System – Going through a divorce is can be devastating especially when it is unwanted or unplanned. Building a support system to guide you through this difficult process is critical. The support system is comprised not only of a lawyer who you can trust, but should include a therapist with whom you can discuss your feelings, perhaps a trusted accountant or financial adviser, and close friends and family who can provide moral support.

Being prepared for a divorce by following the tips above can make a world of difference when going through the process.

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A New Type Of Divorce Party

Today I was interviewed on television [see clip here] about a new type of divorce party. This is not a situation where a newly single person celebrates their freedom from an unhappy marriage, rather, this new type of divorce party has the divorcing couple celebrating the end of their marriage together.

It seems counterintuitive that parties who could not stay married would throw a party together to mark the end of their relationship. Yet, the premise behind this idea is a good one. That is that the couple is showing their children and friends, that while they no longer want to be married to each other, it does not mean that they are closing off or terminating all of their other relationships.

For the divorcing couple’s children, a divorce party gives them a glimpse into how future celebrations for holidays, graduations, weddings, etc. just might play out. It shows that the couple can still have fun together and join together with their family. This behavior can lessen the tension that children may otherwise face when considering how their lives may or may not change in the future.

Frequently, when couples divorce, their friends are alienated altogether or feel as if they must choose sides. When a couple jointly celebrates the end of their divorce, it demonstrates to friends that they are free to carry on their relationships with the couple without bad feelings. Although friends may not see the couple together at future events, there is no need to sneak around, they are free to be openly friendly to either party or both.

Given the animosity between couples that often leads to divorce and carries on through the process of divorce, it is unlikely that most couples will choose to celebrate the end of their marriage together. Nonetheless, the concepts behind this new type of divorce party, that is, showing enough maturity to put your children first and showing friends that relationships can still be maintained, should be considered paramount as the former married couple determines a new normal and learns how to coexist in a different way.

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Posted in Divorce
About Family Law Focus
The Family Law Focus blog provides highlights, updates and insights on complex family disputes including divorce, division of property, and alimony; child and spousal support; child custody; domestic violence; pre- and post-nuptial agreements; name changes; and adoption or termination of parental rights.
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The Editor

Jennifer A. Brandt, of Cozen O'Connor's Family Law practice, has represented a wide variety of clients in hundreds of family law cases throughout her career. Jennifer is a regular legal commentator on national and local television outlets such as CNN, Fox New Network, HLN, MSNBC, Fox29, ABC News, NBC and CBS and frequently writes and contributes to articles in numerous publications, including the Huffington Post, Fox Business.com, The PhiIly Post, Avvo.com, Allparenting.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Business Journal, the National Law Journal, and Main Line Today magazine.
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