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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Why Having A “Gifted” Child In NJ May Cost You More Child Support

The benefits of enrolling children in extracurricular activities are endless. Not only do they learn how to play a sport or musical instrument, but also soft skills and valuable life lessons, such as teamwork, the importance of practice and how to handle loss and disappointment. Thus it is not uncommon for kids today to participate in a variety of extra-curricular activities, ranging from athletics and arts, to educational pursuits. Of course, with each additional activity, comes the added expense of not only participating in the activity but the time and cost of allowing a child to perfect his or her talents, including transportation, equipment, private tutoring or lessons. The list is endless. Not surprisingly, the issue over who will be responsible for funding these additional activities can become quite contentious for divorced couples, especially when the parties disagree over which activities are“worth” pursuing over others.

Traditionally, a non-custodial parent will not be required to pay additional child support for a child’s extra-curricular activities because the basic child support award under the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines takes these costs into account when child support is calculated. Notably, the basic child support award under the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines includes expenses for “housing, food, clothing, transportation, entertainment, unreimbursed health care up to and including $250.00 per child per year, and miscellaneous items.” Pressler, N.J. Court Rules, Comment 8 on Appendix IX-A to R. 5:6A at www.Gannlaw.com (2016). Entertainment expenses are defined as “fees, memberships and admissions to sports, recreational or social events, lessons or instructions, movie rentals, televisions, mobile devices, sound equipment, pets, hobbies, toys, playground equipment, photographic equipment, film processing, video games, and recreational, exercise or sports equipment.”

Nonetheless, the Appendix permits that “because some child-related expenses represent large or variable expenditures . . . it is not appropriate to include them in basic child support awards.” Pressler, N.J. Court Rules, Comment 9 on Appendix IX-A to R. 5:6A at www.Gannlaw.com (2016). In other words, there may be scenarios where there are specific expenses that are both predictable and recurring, which might be approved by the Court and not included in the basic child support award to assist in the “special needs” of gifted children.

But how does one measure giftedness? Must a child show that they are the next Michael Phelps or Misty Copeland, or might it be sufficient for a child to simply stand out as the “star” athlete, actor or student in their local community to qualify for additional support beyond that of the guidelines?

Until recently, there was little by way of case law which helped to identify and define what might constitute a “gifted” child. Of course every parent thinks their child is extraordinary but what happens when a Court is left to define whether a child is “gifted” or skilled enough to possibly warrant one parent paying more in his or her child support? Certainly when it comes to athletics, measuring a child’s talent and strengths is a fairly easy, objective task. However, when it comes to more subjective activities, such as the arts, including acting and painting for example, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.

In the recently published opinion of P.S. vs. J.S., Judge Jones of Ocean County took to offering further explanation and guidance as to how New Jersey Courts might define a child’s “giftedness” in circumstances where the non-custodial parent, or parent of alternate residence, might be required to pay additional support.

In P.S., the parties’ daughter, whom the Court fictitiously named “Julie”, was heavily involved in theater and acting. The parties did not disagree over their desire to foster her pursuits, however the question at issue was whether the child was “gifted” to warrant an award beyond the father’s basic child support amount. The father argued that the costs to support Julie’s acting were covered under his basic child support obligation.

Judge Jones addressed how Appendix IX-A (discussed above), typically accounts for extra-curricular activities, consistent with the father’s argument. He then however, went on to confirm that Comment 9(d) of the Guidelines, allows for the Court to “add supplemental funds to guideline-level support to help defray expenses for the development and special needs of a “gifted” child.” The idea being that if a Court “…deems a child to be “gifted” regarding a particular field or discipline, then it may be financially fair, equitable and appropriate for a court, upon application of a parent, to add a reasonable additional earmarked stipend onto both parents’ basic support obligation to help defray the costs of developing, enhancing and encouraging growth of the child’s giftedness in a specific area.”

Which brings us to the crux of the case: how does one measure “giftedness”? Judge Jones noted the difficulty in engaging in such an exercise, explaining that “the term “gifted” is arguably vague, broad, and left undefined in the Guidelines.” As to Julie’s case specifically and her fundamental interests in acting, Judge Jones reasoned that there was no other way for a Court to determine whether someone was “gifted” in acting, other than by way of subjective opinion, which “is simply not a reliable point of focus”. In other words, a Court could not be expected to engage in the task of watching every child act in a school play to determine whether a child is gifted, nor would the Court’s opinion be any more or less valid than the next person’s.

Instead, Judge Jones offered a different approach, commenting that “giftedness does not solely and exclusively apply only to one’s inborn talents or untapped natural skills, but also to one’s self-discipline, ability and willingness to commit and work hard and diligently towards a specific goal. Drive can itself be a gift. A person may be blessed with all kinds of natural talent and abilities in a particular discipline or field. If, however, he or she is unmotivated or unwilling to exert the necessary discipline and perseverance necessary to truly develop and advance such skills, then the person may not truly be truly gifted at all, but simply another individual with a squandered and wasted potential.” What seemed to sway Judge Jones in ultimately concluding that Julie was gifted, was the fact that he had interviewed her twice in the course of two years, and during both interviews she demonstrated enthusiasm, excitement and passion for her love of acting and was able to articulate her dedication and commitment at fostering her talents.

Just because a child is “gifted” however, does not mean Courts should look to the non-custodial parent as an endless checkbook to fund the child’s talents. Rather, Judge Jones cautions that a child’s giftedness and the non-custodial parent’s requirement to contribute additional funds must be weighed against both parents’ financial ability to contribute, specifically noting that the added obligation “…must be reasonable as relating to the parties’ financial circumstances and budgets. For this very reason, there is often a practical logic to placing a reasonable annual cap on such expenditures, rather than authorizing same on an open-ended basis.”

So what’s the takeaway from P.S. v. J.S.? The case of “Julie” is just one scenario and filled with its own unique set of facts, suggesting as previously, that determining when and under what circumstances a court might be inclined to deviate from the child support guidelines, occurs on a case by case basis. At a minimum, the case has opened a new set of avenues (and challenges) for measuring “giftedness”, offering that pure, genuine, objective talent might not always be required when defining what constitutes a “gifted” child. Regardless of how a court makes this determination, if a child is deemed “gifted”, the chances of paying an amount of support above and beyond the guidelines seems likely.

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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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