Pursuant to NJ Court Rule 5:5-5, all counties in the state are required to maintain an Early Settlement Panel (ESP) program. The goal of the program is to promote resolution prior to trial. Most divorce cases will settle prior to trial either at an ESP or otherwise. The panels are usually comprised of two-three attorneys experienced in family law. Additionally, some counties offer specialized panels for complex cases wherein the panel will feature some of the most experienced attorneys practicing matrimonial law. Each party should submit a memo to the panel either prior to or at the time of the ESP. The memo should outline the issues in the case and narrow which issues need to be resolved as well as any issues that have already been settled.

Issues to be considered during an ESP include alimony, child support, college and private school costs, equitable distribution, debts, life insurance, tax issues, and counsel fees. It is important to make sure discovery is complete prior to the ESP to ensure the panelists can be effective and provide a comprehensive recommendation. Additionally, parties should be sure their Case Information Sheet is completed and up-to-date. Cases that settle at the panel can conclude that day. The terms of the agreement can be reduced to writing or put on the record and the divorce decree can be issued. It’s possible parties can be directed to an ESP more than once. If the ESP doesn’t work, the next step is likely another form of alternate dispute resolution, e.g. economic mediation or binding arbitration.

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April is autism awareness month. April has been set aside as the month to raise awareness for autism since the 1970’s. Autism is a group of complex disorders affecting brain development. Generally, signs of autism are most visible in toddlers and may include difficulty in social interaction, and communication. The CDC estimates that autism affects 1 in 68 children representing a significant increase over the past forty years. Early diagnosis/intervention and behavioral therapy are proven methods for helping children with autism which is why widespread awareness is key.

Dealing with children with any sort of special needs or developmental issues requires a great deal of attention, dedication, and commitment. Several of the factors to be considered in any custody award can be particularly relevant in this instance. Specifically, the following factors can be key: (3) The parental duties performed by each party on behalf of the child.(4) The need for stability and continuity in the child’s education, family life and community life.(5) The availability of extended family.(6) The child’s sibling relationships.(9) Which party is more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent and nurturing relationship with the child adequate for the child’s emotional needs.(10) Which party is more likely to attend to the daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational and special needs of the child.(12) Each party’s availability to care for the child or ability to make appropriate child-care arrangements.
These factors can be even more important with a child who may struggle socially and have a greater need for stability/structure as well as familiar faces and familiar environments.

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The current statute relating to paternity is 23 Pa.C.S. §4343. As it relates to testing to determine paternity, the statute provides: (c) Genetic Tests. (1) Upon the request of any party to an action to establish paternity, supported by a sworn statement from the party, the court or domestic relations section shall require the child and the parties to submit to genetic tests. The domestic relations section shall obtain an additional genetic test upon the request and advance payment by any party who contests the initial test. Tests results alone are not sufficient to establish paternity. Instead, the parties must stipulate in writing that the test results prove paternity or the court must make an order on paternity after reviewing the test results.

As a matter of science, it is not necessary to have both parents of the child tested. Either parent can be simply tested against the child at issue to establish clear results as to whether they are a biological parent. However, the courts should make a practice of routinely testing both parents as indicated by the statute. In a recent paternity case, the Father filed a Complaint for Paternity after he separated from his girlfriend who had become pregnant. He never had an opportunity to see the child after birth. Following a hearing, genetic testing was ordered. Father and child were tested but Mother refused to be tested. The results excluded Father as a biological parent. Father, believing there may have been foul play, insisted on Mother being tested. Following a second hearing, Mother was ordered to be tested as well to prove she was in fact the biological parent of the child she brought in for testing. The results from her test excluded her as a biological parent as well. This means Mother brought a child in for testing that she knew was not her child, likely in an attempt to thwart Father’s claim of paternity. Currently, a third hearing is being requested to ensure the correct child is presented for testing. This case should be a lesson to the court to enforce the provision of the statute requiring both parties submit to genetic tests in any action for paternity.

Bucks County has several upcoming “Wills for Heroes” events. This is a program in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Bar Association that provides free wills, living wills, and powers of attorney to first responders and their spouses/significant others. Appointments are required and can be made on the Pennsylvania Bar Association website. Each appointment is for one hour. At the conclusion of the appointment, each participant will have their final, notarized documents to take home with them. If a spouse or significant other is also participating, their appointment will be immediately following that of the first responder. The program is made possible through the time of volunteers including attorneys, reviewers and witnesses.

Upcoming dates and locations for events in our area are as follows:

Saturday, April 5, 2014 – Bucks County Public Safety/Emergency Services Training Center in Doylestown, PA

Saturday, April 12, 2014 – Northeast Regional Campus of the Community College of Philadelphia

Saturday, April 26, 2014 – Community Fire Company #1 in Riegelsville, PA

Saturday, May 17, 2014 – Richlandtown Fire Company in Bucks County, PA

Click here for more information on Wills for Heroes.