Making the decision to contact a family law attorney to address your legal issues is understandably stressful, and can add anxiety to the already painful concerns that have prompted your need for representation and legal advice. Whether your matter is related to divorce, child custody, child support, spousal support, alimony pendente lite, alimony, or equitable distribution matters, knowing in advance what to expect can help you be prepared and raise your comfort level. The information provided here will hopefully take some of the mystery and worry out of taking that first step: the consultation.

Once you have contacted the law firm and have confirmed that there are no existing conflicts, you will be scheduled for a consultation with a family law attorney. Consultations generally last for an hour but could be longer depending on the circumstances of your case. Prior to your consultation you should gather documents for the family law attorney to review. You should bring your important financial documents to the initial consultation, including tax returns, bank statements, retirement account statements, 401(k) statements, and mortgage statements. You should also bring any statements as to liabilities such as credit card statements, loan documentation and the like. If you have been served any legal documents, such as complaints for child support or spousal support, petitions for child custody, complaints in divorce, notices of any hearings or conferences, you should bring those for the attorney to review during the consultation. Likewise, if there are existing court orders in your matter, such as child custody orders, child support orders, spousal support or alimony pendente lite orders, marital settlement agreements, or any other order, you should bring those documents as well.

When you contact a family law attorney to schedule a consultation, you may already have a lot of questions. Write those questions down and bring them to the consultation so they can be addressed during your initial meeting. In the beginning of the consultation, the attorney will ask about the specific circumstances of your case. Some of these questions may seem very personal or irrelevant but please understand it is necessary. You will also be advised of the applicable laws in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. The family law attorney needs to have a complete understanding as to your facts and circumstances in order to provide quality information. This may be overwhelming, but you will have the opportunity to have your questions answered.

Pursuing a family law matter can be difficult and stressful, but understanding what the first step entails and coming to the consultation prepared will lower your anxiety and result in a more productive experience.

 

The holiday season is in full swing with Thanksgiving and Hanukkah already passed and Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s rapidly approaching. What is supposed to be a happy and festive time of the year can feel anything but for parents who are separated or divorced and their children. Here are some suggestions for making the season more enjoyable and stress free - the greatest gift of all.

Children often struggle to enjoy the holidays if they know that the other parent is sad because they will not be together. If the holiday is not your day with the child(ren), you can help by making it clear to them that you are happy for them to celebrate with the other parent and that you will be ok. Even if you are having a hard time, do not put that burden on the children. You can certainly let your friends know that this is a tough time for you and reach out to them for support, but do not let your child(ren) know. Make some plans, even if it is just a movie marathon at home or finishing that book that you have been reading, so that your children know you have plans and are looking forward to the holiday.

Help the children pick out and wrap a gift for the other parent. Encourage them to make handmade cards. When the children have a gift for the other parent that you helped them to buy or make, they are excited to bring the gift to the other parent and can sense that you want them to enjoy the holiday with the other parent. It does not need to be an expensive gift, just something selected or made by your children to gift to their other parent. Yes, you should do this even if the other parent does not reciprocate, because ultimately it is good for the children. This promotes positive feelings for the child about your good will and allows the child(ren) to experience the joy of giving a gift to the other parent.

Make plans with the children to celebrate the holidays when they are with you, even if it is not on the actual holiday. The children will certainly be excited to have an extra celebration and it gives you an opportunity to create new traditions and memories with your children. While we all know that the holidays are on the calendar on specific days each year, there is no reason that you cannot celebrate on another day.

Stick to positive messaging to your children around everything holiday related. Avoid negatives such as putting the Christmas tree away on Christmas before the children return to your house. Just accentuate the positive, and you can’t go wrong! A good rule is to keep in mind throughout this special time of year that the child(ren) did not ask to be subject to a custody schedule or order - so it is your job as a parent to do what you can to make the holiday and transitions as easy as you can for them. You will be glad that you made a happy holiday memory for your child(ren), whatever day it may be that you had the opportunity to celebrate together.

As for New Year’s, be creative. If you have the children during the day on December 31st, celebrate at noon. If you do not, before they go to their other parent’s house for New Years, have a celebratory breakfast with a sparkling apple cider toast. It can be something fun and easy for you and the children and will start off their time with their other parent on a good note.

We hope these tips are helpful, and wish you all a happy holiday season and a happy and healthy New Year! As always, we are here to assist you with your custody and family law needs.

Elizabeth Fineman concentrates her practice on domestic relations matters and handles a variety of issues, including divorce, child support, alimony/spousal support, marital taxation, equitable distribution and child custody matters.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020 15:51

Holiday Custody Planning: The Time is Now

While it is not yet Halloween, it is already time to starting thinking about your winter holiday custody schedule.  Thanksgiving is only about a month away followed in December by Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa.  Now is the time to take out your Custody Order to determine what the schedule is for this year.  If you do not have a Custody Order or agreement, now is the time to start having a discussion with your child’s other parent to determine a holiday custody schedule.  If you cannot resolve any disputes, now is the time to have the discussions and if necessary, file to have the courts assist in making a decision.  If you wait until the eve of the holiday, it may very well be too late.  

In addition to the actual schedule, now is also the time to start having discussions as to whether there will be any travel involved and who else will be at any holiday celebrations.  While these may not be issues in most years, travel and who is at the holiday celebrations may very well be at issue in the age of COVID.  These issues, along with the actual custody schedule, should be worked out well in advance of the holiday.

Finalizing the holiday custody schedule now will allow you all to have a much more enjoyable and less stressful holiday season.  

In Pennsylvania, the paramount concern in a child custody proceeding is the best interest of the child. In determining the best interest of the child, courts engage in a comprehensive analysis of the factors outlined in 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5328.  Pennsylvania Health and Safety Statute §10231.2013 states that the use of medical marijuana in accordance with state laws is not a consideration by itself in a custody case. The custody laws have not been amended to address the issue or make similar limitations regarding the use of medical marijuana by a parent.

On December 18, 2019, however, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania issued an opinion affirming an April 5, 2019 Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas decision limiting self-represented Father’s contact with son, age 10, to periods of supervised physical custody. The case involves a child born in May of 2009 to Mother and Father, both who have struggled with substance abuse. The court noted that Father’s recreational use of marijuana has been a recurring issue throughout the custody litigation. Father obtained a medical marijuana license when the parties were living in Georgia. At the time of the hearing, the child’s maternal grandparents had primary physical custody of the child. The trial court had awarded maternal grandparents primary physical custody of the child adding a provision that conditionally extinguished Father’s supervised custodial time “upon Father’s willingness to demonstrate sobriety and continued abstinence.”

Father argued that in light of his license to use medical marijuana as a mechanism to manage his wrist pain, the trial court should not weigh the fact of his medical use against him. The trial court rejected Father’s argument and reinstated the prior custody arrangement and the hair-follicle-testing condition. The trial court reasoned that it is unknown to the Court what effect, if any, Father’s alleged medical condition and use of marijuana, whether prescribed or used recreationally, may have on his ability to care for a child. Father appealed, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

The Superior Court noted that the Medical Marijuana Act prohibits the fact-finder from penalizing a parent simply for using medical marijuana. However, in the instant case, the trial court concluded after a consideration of all of the best-interest factors and the evidence presented, that it was not in the child’s best interests to expand Father’s supervised partial custody to unsupervised overnight custody without requiring Father to continue to submit to the previously-ordered drug screening regimen. The Medical Marijuana Act does not preclude the court from making relevant findings concerning effective marijuana use, medical or recreational, on parent’s ability to care for a child. The Superior Court noted that the fact finder should consider not only the parent’s history of drug and alcohol use, but also the parent’s mental health and physical condition that might require the parent to rely on prescribed medication to subdue that pain. The Court concluded that a parent’s history of drug and alcohol abuse, including a parent’s legal use of any substance, should be considered in determining the child’s best interest.

The holiday season can be a stressful time of the year, especially for children whose parents have recently separated or have a tense custody arrangement.  I often remind my clients to keep in mind that the children have not asked to be put in this position, and parents should do all they can to ensure a happy and stress-free holiday for their children. After all, the children should be the focus in the holiday season.  Here are some tips to help reduce tensions for your children over the  holiday season . 

1. Make it clear to your children that you are genuinely happy for them to spend time with the other parent.

2. Help them make cards and gifts or take them out to buy something for the other parent.  It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but this small gesture will go a long way in bringing happiness to your children, and hopefully foster more civility with their other parent. The children will be excited that they have a gift to give,  and hopefully the other parent will reciprocate in the future.

3. If your children are having fun at the other parent’s house, spending time with family they haven’t seen in some time, and want extra time with that family, consider allowing them to spend a little extra time before you pick them up, especially if your plans are flexible. 

4. Don’t cancel Christmas or Hanukkah. Some parents decide that because they are not going to have their children at a specific time on the holiday, they are not going to celebrate this year. The only ones hurt with this approach are your children, who – after all -  did  not ask to be subject to a custody order. Make it clear to your children that you were excited to celebrate with them, and that you will be celebrating when they are back at your house. That will also give them peace of mind to enjoy the holiday more when they are with the other parent free of guilt and worry that you are sitting home alone and sad since they are not there with you.

5. Make sure you look at the custody order in advance. If you have any questions make sure to have those questions answered by your attorney or resolved in a discussion with the other parent well in advance to avoid disputes on  the eve of the holiday .

If your children see that you are happy to celebrate the holiday, no matter what the schedule is, that will allow them to more fully enjoy the holiday as well.

Wish you and your family a very happy holiday season.

Monday, 04 June 2018 13:51

Changes to Custody Law in Pennsylvania

On July 4, 2018, recent changes to the Pennsylvania custody law will go into effect. These laws take into account changes in the family structure and the expansion of classes of individuals who may qualify to file for physical or legal custody of minor children. 

The new class of individuals (third parties) who will have standing to file for custody must meet all of the following criteria as set forth in 23 Pa. C.S. 5324: 1.  The individual has assumed or is willing to assume responsibility for the child; 2.  The individual has a sustained, substantial and sincere interest in the welfare of the child; and,  3.  Neither parent has any form of care and control of the child.

In order to have standing, the individual must prove all three criteria by clear and convincing evidence, which is a high burden of proof.  Presumably, the burden is high to ensure that the child is protected and does not end up in the custody of someone unsuitable.  This opens up the possibility for neighbors, family friends, aunts and uncles or even sports coaches being awarded custody of children. The law also has a further limitation in that,  if there is a dependency proceeding, meaning that  there is a pending dependency petition alleging that the child(ren) is without proper parental care and should be supervised by the court, then the above criteria will not apply.

It should be noted that grandparents could have standing under two sections of the Custody  Code.  While grandparents and great-grandparents may have standing under 23 Pa. C.S. Section  5324, above,  they may also have standing to seek partial physical custody or supervised physical custody of their grandchildren or great-grandchildren under 23 Pa. C.S. 5329.  There have been changes to this section that will be effective July 4, 2018 as well.  Case law previously struck the sections that allowed for grandparents’ standing if the parents of the child(ren) were separated for at least six months or were getting divorced.  This is because it is unconstitutional  for intact families and families that are not intact to be treated differently.  The new revisions reflect that case law, and also strike those sections, but also added an additional section to  allow for grandparent standing: 1.  Where the relationship with the child began either with the consent of a parent of the child or under a court order and where the parents of the child:      A.  Have commenced a proceeding for custody; and,      B.  Do not agree as to whether the grandparents or great-grandparents should have custody  under this section.

Essentially this change allows a grandparent or great-grandparent who has an existing relationship with the grandchildren or great-grandchildren to be added as a party to a custody proceeding when the parents of the child cannot agree if the grandparent or great-grandparent should have any custody.

The final change to 23 Pa. C.S. 5329 changes the word parent to party in the section for consideration of criminal conviction.  The court must consider criminal convictions and make sure that there is no threat to the child(ren) before entering a custody order. This consideration relates to entering an order of custody to a party (not just a parent) who does have certain criminal convictions.

The timing of these changes to the custody law coincides with the rise of the opioid epidemic both nationwide and in the local area specifically.  Sadly, there has been a rise in the past few years of parents battling drug addiction and unable to care for their children, to the extent that  Pennsylvania legislators have felt compelled to address the impact of this crisis on minor children. These changes to the custody law increase the potential third parties who could seek to assume custody of the children in these situations.  The changes in the law reflect the reality that some of these third parties may already be caring for the child, but did not have standing to file for physical and/or legal custody previously.  As of July 4, 2018, they will be able to do so. 

Although the weather is just starting to change to cooler temperatures, the holiday season is fast approaching.  Holiday displays are up, holiday music is already playing and even the pre-Black Friday sales have started.   It seems that with the warmer temperatures well into the fall, the holidays have snuck up on us all.  While it is easy to get wrapped up in the spirit of the  season, if you have minor children and a custody agreement or order, it is time to take a look at your custody documents  and give some thought to what lies ahead in the next several weeks.
 
Before you make plans with your children, it is important to see what the holiday schedule is for this year.  Which days of the holidays are your children with you, what times are they with you, and who is responsible for transporting the children?  It is important that you know the answers to all of these questions.  Take out your custody agreement or order now and look through the schedule for Thanksgiving through New Year’s.  If you have questions, now is the time to ask your attorney, not on Thanksgiving morning.  We all know that a lot of advance planning occurs for the holidays, and family gatherings are scheduled.  If it is important to you that your children celebrate with you and your extended family, you want to be sure to make your plans around when you have physical custody of the children.  Knowing the details of the holiday schedule now will enable you to make plans based upon the custody schedule and keep everyone happy, which should result in a more peaceful holiday for you.    

People are often surprised to find out from their domestic relations attorneys that there are two different types of custody that have to be addressed: physical custody and legal custody.

Physical custody is simply which parent the children are with at a given time.  This is generally addressed in a custody agreement or custody order based upon three time periods.  First, who has the children on a regular weekly basis.  This is for both days and nights.  Second, how much vacation time does each of the parents have with the children.  Third, who has the children on holidays.  The parents can decide which holidays are important for them to address, and usually not every holiday is considered.  Primary physical custody occurs when one parent has the child or children more than half of the overnights each year.  The other parent is then considered the partial physical custodian.  Even if there is a primary and partial physical custodian, this custodial arrangement is still considered a form of shared physical custody.  Equal physical custody occurs when the parents each have half of the overnights in a calendar year.

Legal custody relates to legal decisions that impact the children.  The major areas of legal custody are education, religion and healthcare decisions.  In the vast majority of custody cases, the parents will share legal custody and therefore make these decisions jointly.   Parents with younger children will have to make more legal custody decisions as compared to those with older children, for whom many of these determinations have already been made.

Custody schedules can be structured many different ways based upon what is in the best interest of the children, and what works for the parents.  Parents are highly encouraged by the court to work out custody schedules.  If they are not able to, the court will make a determination and issue a custody order.

Custody is often the most emotional aspect of a divorce or separation.   We strongly recommend that parents facing custody issues contact an attorney to be sure they understand the process, and their rights under the law. 

Blogger Bios

  • Alan Wandalowski Alan Wandalowski
    Alan concentrates his practice in Estate Planning, Estate Administration, Elder Law, Estate…
  • Bill MacMinn Bill MacMinn
    Bill concentrates his practice in the area of litigation, including Commercial Litigation,…
  • Christopher D. Wagner Christopher D. Wagner
    Christopher Wagner is an experienced and results-driven business law attorney with a comprehensive understanding…
  • Elaine T. Yandrisevits Elaine T. Yandrisevits
    As an estate planning attorney, Elaine Yandrisevits is committed to guiding individuals…
  • Elizabeth J. Fineman Elizabeth J. Fineman
    Elizabeth Fineman concentrates her practice on domestic relations matters and handles a…
  • Gabriel Montemuro Gabriel Montemuro
    Gabe’s practice focuses on litigation, including commercial litigation, personal injury, estate and…
  • Jennifer Dickerson Jennifer Dickerson
    Jennifer Dickerson is committed to a career focused on helping individuals and…
  • Jessica A. Pritchard Jessica A. Pritchard
    Jessica A. Pritchard, focuses her practice exclusively in the area of family…
  • Joanne Murray Joanne Murray
    Joanne concentrates her practice in the areas of Business Law, Business Transactions,…
  • Lisa A. Bothwell Lisa A. Bothwell
    Lisa Bothwell counsels corporate/business clients on the formation, operation, acquisition, and sale…
  • Lynelle Gleason Lynelle Gleason
    Lynelle A. Gleason has spent her legal career in Bucks County, representing…
  • Melanie J. Wender Melanie J. Wender
    Melanie J. Wender is a dedicated and supportive advocate for individuals and families…
  • Michael Klimpl Michael Klimpl
    Michael’s practice areas include Real Estate, Municipal Law, Zoning and Land Use, Employment…
  • Michael W. Mills Michael W. Mills
    Mike is devoted to helping businesses build value and improve working capital,…
  • Patricia Collins Patricia Collins
    Patty has been practicing law since 1996 in the areas of Employment…
  • Peter J. Smith Peter J. Smith
    Pete is a business lawyer and trusted partner to his corporate clients…
  • Stephanie M. Shortall Stephanie M. Shortall
    Throughout her career, Stephanie has developed a practice focused on advising closely…
  • Susan Maslow Susan Maslow
    Sue concentrates her practice primarily in general corporate transactional work and finance…
  • Thomas P. Donnelly Thomas P. Donnelly
    Tom’s practice focuses on commercial litigation and transactions. In litigation, Tom represents…