During the divorce process, information is gathered not only on assets, but also on debt. Marital debt is debt that is accumulated during the divorce, regardless of the name of on the account. This means that if you have a charge happy spouse, you may be liable to share in the debt created by their spending spree. The balances of the credit cards and debts as of the date of the separation of the divorce is the date to look at for purposes of debt distribution. Since divorce often takes awhile, you will want to gather this information as soon as you separate. You will also want to keep track and gather proof of every payment you make on this debt since you separated so that you can seek credit for this payment when you get divorced. If your overall marital estate is primarily distribution of debt, you may want to consult with a bankruptcy attorney. Any debt that is discharged in bankruptcy does not get considered in the divorce if it is discharged prior to the divorce going through since it no longer exists. It is always wise to consult a bankruptcy attorney when there are high debts in divorce and few assets to determine not only whether to file bankruptcy or if you qualify but when to file it.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention month. The goal is to raise awareness in respect to preventing abuse, reducing the risk of abuse and promoting healthy families. The Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health sponsors the annual awareness campaign. The first Child Abuse Prevention week was recognized in 1982. It extended to an entire month of awareness the following year in 1983. The theme continues to be “Making Meaningful Connections” to promote familial and community relationships as a support system to reduce abuse.

The national website at www.childwelfare.gov includes resources with practical tips for parents on preventing abuse. Topic areas include how to make healthy connections, how to feed your family, how to manage finances, and how to identify risk factors and protect against them.

Information specific to Pennsylvania is available on at www.preventchildabusepa.org  All 50 states have a chapter of Prevent Child Abuse america with Pennsylvania’s chapter being chartered in 2010. If abuse is suspected a report should immediately be made to the local police department and the ChildLine hotline at 1-800-932-0313. A Protection From Abuse filing may also be pursued by the parent or caretaker.

Click here to read more on Protection from Abuse.

Sometimes in child custody cases one of the parents struggles with an addiction either to drugs or to alcohol. When the parties are no longer together, the court must decide contact for each of the parents with their children. If there is a drug or alcohol addiction, it can impact the type of custody and amount of time a parent will be able to spend with their child. Oftentimes, the other parent will want those visits to be supervised. In order to establish that a parent has an addiction and in order to determine the severity of the addiction, it may be necessary to have the court order mandatory drug and alcohol testing. There are various types of testing that can be done to determine what type of drugs a parent may have been doing and each of the different types of tests have a window of accuracy. In a child custody case, it is always best to request a hair follicle test as this provides the longest history of drug usage for a parent. In addition to drug testing, if a parent has an alcohol addiction, there are tests that can measure the consistency in which a parent consumes excess alcohol. These tests are critical when a parent has an addiction as being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while caring for children can greatly put them at risk of physical harm due to neglect and/or abuse.

Jurisdiction for child custody is wherever the child has lived for the past six months. If, however, you already have a court order, the court may have retained jurisdiction of the custody order if one of the parties still lives in that jurisdiction. If no party has lived in any jurisdiction for at least six months, you must look at the state that has the closest ties to the child and see if that Court will exercise jurisdiction. The reason a court exercises jurisdiction where the child resides is because that state and county will have the best available information regarding the child, including education, living conditions, etc. all of which are relevant in determining custody of the child. Within a state, you should file in the county where the child resides.

Sections 3331-3333 of the Divorce Code discuss the potential to review a divorce after a decree has been issued. The general policy is in favor of finality to avoid endless litigation, however certain circumstances will warrant reconsideration. First, parties should act as timely as possible. Section 3331 limits attacks on decrees. An appeal is the only option where one of the parties has died. There is a two year limit to take action specifically where the party questioning the decree had knowledge of the circumstances supporting the attack and failed to timely take action. Section 3332 outlines when a decree may be opened or vacated. In general, there is a thirty day time limit to request review of an Order pursuant to 42 Pa. C.S. 5505.

Section 3332 also draws a distinction between intrinsic fraud and extrinsic fraud. Intrinsic fraud must be alleged within the thirty day time limit whereas extrinsic fraud has a time limit of five years. Intrinsic fraud refers to an issue that was adjudicated. Extrinsic fraud refers to a situation where a party was precluded from having their fair chance at adjudication altogether. Examples of extrinsic fraud include where a party was kept unaware of the proceedings or by promise of a false compromise. There is no extrinsic fraud where the party had ample opportunity to object earlier in the proceedings and simply failed to do so.

Click here to read more on divorce.

In Pennsylvania, unlike New Jersey, child support terminates when a child reaches age 18 or graduates from high school, whichever is later. The Court has held that there is no obligation for parents to provide for children beyond this time. Even if your child resides with you and does not have a job and instead chooses to go to college, the other parent will have no obligation to pay anything towards college costs. If, however, you negotiate an agreement in writing with the other parent to pay for college costs and the other parent agrees to it in writing, then the Court can enforce that agreement under contract law. Oftentimes, parents who cannot negotiate an agreement for college costs in their divorce assume this means the other parent has no interest in paying or contributing to college costs. This is not always the case. A parent may still intend to assist a child with college costs but by not putting it in writing, they are not legally obligated to do that and instead, can decide if and how much they want to contribute. Also, it is important to decide where the child who attends college will reside as only the income of the parent with whom they reside will be relevant in qualifying for financial aid. If that parent, remarries, however, the stepparent’s income and assets can affect the amount of financial aid available to the child even if they have no legal obligation to support the child.

After two years of separation,  grounds for divorce can be achieved in PA without the consent of the other party. One of the two no-fault grounds for divorce is a two year separation. This separation does not have to mean physical separation. It is legal separation. Legal separation is no later than the date that a divorce complaint is filed. Parties can reside together in the same home while the divorce is pending. After two years, however, from the date the divorce was filed, one party can allege that it has been two years and seek grounds for divorce based on that fact. The other side must actively file a counter-affidavit denying the two year separation or denying there is an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage in order to stop the grounds for divorce from being entered. If a counter-affidavit gets filed, a hearing will be needed to determine if in fact the two year separation has occurred. Grounds for divorce is only the first step in getting a final divorce. In order to get a final divorce, if claims for equitable distribution or alimony have been raised, an agreement either needs to be put in writing or the parties need to go to a divorce hearing after they get grounds for divorce. This is often why there are cases that take at least three years before they are final, and some much longer.

When you hire a law firm, it is a good idea to find out whether the attorney you hire is the only attorney who will be working with you or whether the firm takes a team approach. There are many benefits of the team approach. When you hire an attorney and you meet with your attorney in their office, it is often easy to forget that your attorney is not in their office everyday. You may expect that they will be readily available to you at a moment’s notice, despite the fact that they could very well have days that they are in court and not in the office. What happens when your attorney is in court and you have an emergency? What happens if your attorney is scheduled to be in court in another matter the same day that you have court? When a firm takes a team approach your options are expanded. Oftentimes there is another attorney at the firm who can assist you with any of your legal needs should your lead attorney be unavailable. In addition, in a firm that takes a team approach, if your attorney has a conflict, there is another attorney who could equally represent you if you do not want to or cannot move your hearing to another day. If, however, you like the idea of only one person handling everything, it is best to discuss this with your attorney from the outset and also to understand that this could result in slower turnaround if your attorney is out of the office or may result in hearings that have to be rescheduled if there are multiple court proceedings in one day. As with any relationship, communication is key and it is important to discuss all of these things when you hire your attorney.

The purpose of a custody order is to provide both parties with a schedule on when they have their children and no longer live in the same home. This eliminates any confusion for everyone involved, including the parents, children, teachers, coaches and others who may need to know who is supposed to pick up a child and when. This is why schools require that a custody order be on file with the school. A custody order is not only a useful tool to help everyone know when they are supposed to have the children but also it guarantees time that both parents get to spend with the child or be held in contempt. With this said, however, there are times when both parents may want to deviate from this schedule by agreement. If BOTH parties are agreeable to change anything in the custody schedule, you do not have to go back to court to do so unless you want to make it a permanent, guaranteed changed. If both parties agree to make changes, it is best but not necessary to put it in writing. It is encouraged that parties work with each other as custody orders cannot contemplate every single thing that may arise such as a wedding, party, or other event that flexibility may need to be used. Parties can always give each other extra time, makeup time, agree to switch days, etc. by agreement regardless of what the custody order says as long as both parties agree.

If you create a will, the will is in effect until it is revoked. In Pennsylvania, a will may be revoked in several ways.

First, creating a new will revokes any prior wills.

Second, you may create a document stating that the will is to be revoked. This document must be executed the same way as a will is to be executed.

Third, you may burn, tear, cancel, obliterate or destroy the will, with the intention of revoking the will. You may also have a third party destroy the will in the same manner, as long as it is in your presence and by your express direction. In this case, two competent witnesses must affirm that this is the case.