Often in the context of divorce parties may attempt to hide assets in an attempt to keep them out of the marital estate that will be up for distribution. One of the biggest red flags as far as potential hidden assets is if the spending/assets of the party are way more than would be expected based on their reported income. A party who has a small business and deals in cash can easily hide money. It may become necessary to hire an expert to analyze the income flow and see if their reported income is correct after a thorough investigation. Top level executives may receive alternative forms of income. Examples include stock options, bonuses, car allowances, and deferred compensation plans to name a few. Military members also often have a compensation package that goes beyond their base salary. It is important to obtainformation on all benefits of employment so they can be either be included as income in a potential support calculation or treated as an asset subject to distribution. Another potential problem as far as hidden assets is offshore accounts. Many offshore banks have confidentiality provisions that deflect detection. Parties should also be weary of the other party transferring assets over to family members or friends.

The first step in tracking down assets, hidden or otherwise, is discovery. Discovery in family matters typically consists of interrogatories (set of questions to the opposing party) and a production request (requesting certain documents be turned over). Tax returns and bank statements are routinely requested and are good starting points for tracing sources of income as well as where the income is going. From a tax return you can see rental income, interest on bank accounts, dividends on stock, etc. Bank statements can show the transfer of money and identify where it went to and for what purpose. Parties in a divorce may also conduct depositions wherein they question a party under oath. Further, the parties can subpoena documents directly from the custodian of the documents if the spouse will not turn them over. If these initial avenues of discovery do not yield the desired results, a party will have to contemplate whether it is worth to invest more money in the chase for hidden assets. Additionally, if a party anticipates that hiding or dissipating assets may become a problem during the pendency of the divorce, it is important to get a court injunction right away preventing the dissipation or transfer of any marital assets.

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Section 4321 of the Domestic Relations laws provides that married persons are liable for the support of each other according to their respective abilities to provide support as provided by law. Similar to child support, spousal support will be calculated based on a statewide guideline. Without children, spousal support is 40% of the difference of the net incomes of the parties. If there is also a child support order, spousal support will only be 30% of the difference of the net incomes.

One longstanding exception to the duty to pay spousal support is where the spouse seeking support has engaged in conduct that would constitute grounds for a fault-based divorce. The fault grounds under the Pennsylvania Divorce Code include: (1) willful and malicious desertion without reasonable cause for at least one year; (2) adultery; (3) cruel and barbarous treatment of an injured and innocent spouse; (4) bigamy; (5) imprisonment for at least two years after conviction of a crime; and (6) indignities to the innocent and injured spouse which makes that spouse’s condition intolerable and life burdensome.

Many cases have touched on the issue of whether spousal support is appropriate due to alleged existence of another relationship outside of the marriage. It is up to the spouse who is objecting to a spousal support award to prove a fault ground for divorce by clear and convincing evidence. Adultery is defined as voluntary sexual intercourse with a person other than his/her spouse. Alternatively, indignities may be established even when the evidence does not necessarily support adultery. “Indignities may consist of vulgarity, unmerited reproach, habitual contumely, studied neglect, intentional incivility, manifest disdain, abusive language, malignant ridicule, and every other plain manifestation of settled hate and estrangement.” A single act by a spouse will not support a finding of indignities. Instead, it must be a course of conduct that renders the life of the innocent party intolerable or burdensome.

Conduct which takes place after separation is generally not relevant, however, such conduct may be introduced if it will go to show the conduct began before separation. In one case, the evidence supported that Wife had not started dating someone new until three days after the divorce complaint was filed. Accordingly, the award for spousal support was appropriate because of the post-separation nature of the relationship. In a different case, the support award was upheld despite Wife’s conduct before separation. The evidence supported Wife’s contention that her relationship with a certain man other than her husband was strictly platonic. Even though she had been spotted with the man several times, there was no evidence that anything that would support fault grounds for divorce had occurred. In the same case, Husband also alleged desertion as a reason why he should not have to pay spousal support. This defense was overcome as well since Wife’s absence from the marital home was justified based on Husband’s emotional abuse. In most cases, there will not be a problem obtaining spousal support, however, parties should be careful of the timing of new relationships.


In Warmkessel v. Heffner, 2011 PA Super 46, the Superior Court held that credit will not be given for time already spent in jail between being taking into custody and the support hearing due to non-payment of child support. The Defendant Father had been ordered to pay $260 per month in child support for his two children. After failing to pay regularly, several contempt petitions and a missed support enforcement hearing, the court issued a bench warrant for Father’s arrest. Police took the Father into custody a few months later and a hearing was scheduled for approximately 3 weeks out. At the hearing, the court found Defendant Father owed $6,037 in late child support payments and sanctioned him to a maximum of 3 months imprisonment. Defendant Father’s attorney asked the court to give Father credit for the 21 days already served and the court declined.

On appeal, the Defendant argued, among other things, that the purpose of incarceration as a sanction is meant to coerce parents to timely pay child support. Accordingly, the Defendant posits the time spent incarcerated based on the bench warrant issued by the family court was indistinguishable from the time incarcerated after the hearing in that the Defendant was able to reflect on the necessity to pay support in both circumstances. Defendant further argued that criminal defendants always receive credit for time served so the court violated his equal protection rights by treating him differently solely based on the civil nature of his case. The Superior Court determined that Defendant Father’s arguments on appeal were without merit and upheld the trial court’s decision.

The takeaway here is that child support obligations are a very serious matter. The family court has the authority to issue a bench warrant to have a party who is not making support payments taken into custody. Additionally, the court can order additional incarceration at a subsequent support hearing as a means of reiterating the importance of regular support payments and demonstrating the severity of the punishment available for failure to comply.

Pensions, as well as other retirement plans, are often one of the assets up for division in a divorce. The court will equitably divide the marital portion of a pension plan after considering all the relevant factors in equitable distribution. The marital portion of a plan would be the portion that accrued from the date of marriage through the date of separation. In some cases, the entire pension will be marital depending on the timing of the marriage alongside the start date of the pension plan.

The Superior Court recently released a decision regarding the marital status of post-separation cost of living adjustments (COLAs). In MacDougall v. MacDougall, 2012 PA Super 83, the Superior Court held that Husband’s post-separation COLAs were marital property subject to equitable distribution because they accrued without any effort or contribution by Husband. Wife had filed a Petition for Contempt after discovering that Husband’s monthly pension benefit had continued to increase due to COLAs but he was still only paying her a percentage of the monthly benefit from the date of separation. The trial court ruled in favor of the Husband in finding the post-separation COLAs were not marital, however, the Superior Court reversed their decision.

In reaching its decision, the Superior Court analyzed several previous decisions regarding post-separation increases in pension plans. Most notably, in Berrington v. Berrington, 534 Pa. 393 (1993), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that increases in a pension plan due to the employee spouse’s own efforts or contributions are not marital whereas increases not attributable to the employee spouse are marital. In MacDougall, the Superior Court determined the increases based on COLAs were automatic and not dependent on any additional effort or contribution by Husband, thus the COLAs were marital and subject to division. Therefore, the Superior Court held Wife’s share of Husband’s pension should also increase to reflect the COLAs. The case was remanded to the trial court in order for exact calculations to be made as far as Wife’s share of the pension with the COLAs included. This approach is arguably more fair in that it doesn’t allow one spouse to benefit from an increase that wasn’t earned and that the parties likely did not know about at the time of equitable distribution.

Frozen embyros are considered marital property and hence, technically up for division in a divorce, however there is some disagreement on exactly how the “property” should be dealt with. This is a relatively new issue in family law and different states have applied different methods for resolving the matter. The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently released a decision regarding the marital status of frozen pre-embryos in Reber v. Reiss, 2012 PA Super 86. In Reber, the court had to determine what should happen to the frozen pre-embyros of a divorced couple. Wife wanted to use the frozen pre-embryos in order to have children of her own whereas Husband wanted the frozen pre-embryos either destroyed or donated for research.

In reaching its decision, the Superior Court considered how other states have dealt with a similar issue. Some states have focused on whether there is a prior agreement between the parties concerning disposition of the pre-embyros in the event of divorce and if so, will uphold the agreement as enforceable. At the same time, other states have held that enforcing such an agreement is a violation of public policy and have declined to do so. The Supreme Court of Iowa follows a mutual consent model requiring both parties to agree on disposition, however, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania did not find this model feasible since parties would not be in court in the first place if they could agree. The approach that was ultimately adopted calls for the court to balance the interests of the parties.

In applying the balancing approach, the court found that Wife’s interest in procreation using the frozen pre-embyros outweighed Husband’s interest against procreation. This decision was based primarily on evidence that the pre-embryos were likely Wife’s only opportunity to procreate along with testimony that Wife would allow Husband to be involved and wouldn’t pursue support in response to the concerns raised by Husband. The court did acknowledge that the party against procreation should normally prevail in a balancing test, however, due to the unique facts of the case, the scales tipped in Wife’s favor. It also seems that the court would’ve likely enforced an agreement on the issue if there had been one. Accordingly, parties who intend to undergo in vitro fertilization should draft a clear, unambiguous agreement as to the disposition of embryos upon separation, divorce or death, or else be subject to a balancing approach by the court.