In the age of HGTV and the ever-fluctuating real estate market, it can be difficult to reconcile how real estate is valued for purposes of divorce litigation versus what a homeowner believes their real estate is worth. Let’s face it, we all believe that our personal residences are probably worth more than they actually are because our homes are personal to us. We live there, we raise our children there, we take care to ensure that our homes are well maintained, decorated nicely, safe, located in a good school district, and so on. The care that we take to make our real estate a home, combined with the personal memories that are made there, often skew one’s perception of what real estate is worth.

For purposes of divorce litigation, the value of real estate is defined as its “fair market value” (FMV). What does fair market value mean? It is the amount a buyer is willing to pay on the open market without any requirement to buy. So how do you figure out FMV for your marital residence? For some, a value for marital real estate can be agreed upon because the parties are familiar with the real estate market in their area, there are comparable homes in and around the area in which their home is located and the parties are sophisticated enough to be reasonable about what their home would sell for. Others look to Zillow and other similar internet resources for value. I often caution my clients to ensure that any value they are agreeing upon, or that they are relying upon based on internet research, should have a second look either informally by a licensed real estate agent who can perform a Comparative Market Analysis, or through a real estate appraisal performed by a licensed real estate appraiser.
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Whether you are making the choice to consider separation or divorce, or your spouse has made that decision and you are scrambling to make sense of it all, making the most of your initial divorce consultation with a divorce attorney is vital. Initial consultations are called initial consultations for a reason: you only get one. Some firms will offer free initial consultations, and others will charge a lower flat fee than an attorney’s typical hourly rate. As such, you are getting either free or discounted legal advice one time and should take advantage of that.

First and foremost, choose local counsel who is experienced in family law. Don’t call your father’s business attorney, your best friend’s bankruptcy lawyer, or your hairdresser’s personal injury guy. Family law cases are often decided on specific nuances that exist only in your case, and often cases are presented with local judges’ preferences, unwritten local rules, and consideration of the temperament of opposing counsel in mind. So, local counsel is a must. Experienced family law lawyers are easy to investigate, and ones who come with personal recommendations from prior clients are always the best option. There are many marketing tools that attorneys can use to hold themselves out to the community as experts in certain fields of practice, and some who assert they are rated “super-lawyers,” “best in their field,” etc. While those lawyers may, in fact, be “super-lawyers” and “best in their field,” those rating systems are not necessarily indicative of an attorney’s experience level, expertise or reputations, but may be purchased marketing items. Going with a locally known, respected, and personally recommended attorney is always best.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.


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When spouses separate and wish to divorce, there are many issues they must address before receiving a divorce decree. If spouses have acquired property during their marriage, that property must be divided between them before a divorce decree can be entered. If not, the property becomes the sole possession of the titled spouse post-divorce and any jointly titled property must be divided pursuant to a separate legal action called “Partition.”

So how do spouses divide their property (equitable distribution)? Quite simply, they either agree how it will be divided, or they don’t. If they don’t, the Court will hold a hearing to determine what property or portions of property each spouse will retain. If they do agree, a written contract between the parties is required to memorialize their agreement and ensure the enforcement of that agreement in the future if one of the parties does not comply with the terms of their agreement. That contract is often referred to as a Postnuptial Agreement and can also be called such things as a Marital Settlement Agreement, a Property Agreement, a Divorce Agreement, etc. Regardless of the name of the document, it is a legally binding contract enforceable under contract laws in the state of Pennsylvania.
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When families consider adoption, they have many choices and many decisions. Families can utilize a private adoption agency, where they can provide information to be included in a profile for birth parents to review and determine if that family should be the adoptive resource for their child. Private agencies charge a fee for their services. Families can also adopt through local social service agencies were children are placed because they are dependent. In those cases, no fees are paid to these social service agencies and instead, when children are placed for foster care, and/or adoption, often subsidies are paid to the family for the care of the child placed in their home. Both options result in adoption opportunities for many families, but it is always best to have a full understanding of the process. Whether a child is placed with a family for adoption privately, or through a local social service agency, here are ten questions you should ask at the beginning:
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If you are asking yourself this question, the answer is absolutely yes, you should seek the advice of counsel about whether a Prenuptial Agreement is a good idea for you. Let’s face it, the era of everyone getting married right out of high school and acquiring all of their assets and liabilities together during the marriage is long gone. Chances are, you already have assets and liabilities going into your marriage, or maybe it is even a second marriage, and you really need to understand the impact your upcoming marriage will have from a legal standpoint.

I realize that prenuptial agreements are often regarded as unseemly. But they get an unfair rap. A prenuptial agreement is just the legal document that outlines the understanding of both spouses as to how they wish to maintain their assets both during the marriage, and in the worst case, upon a divorce. It simply codifies the intention of the parties going into the marriage as to how they will keep both separate and joint assets, and treat debts, so that it is perfectly clear how the division of assets and liabilities is to take place upon a divorce. It is often used as part of an estate plan for a second marriage. In fact, just like if you die without a will, without a prenuptial agreement, your marital assets and debts are divided pursuant to the law. Most of us don’t want the law to decide for us what happens with our assets after we die, so we undertake estate planning and sign documents such as Wills in order to control the distribution of our assets. A prenuptial agreement is no different– it puts you in control of what happens to your marital estate upon divorce or death.     
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In my previous post I discussed the steps leading up to the adoption hearing.  In this post I will talk about your testimony and completing the finalization of your adoption.

Adoptive parents testimony is typically a recitation of the information contained in an Adoption Petition, and is simply comprised of each parties’ own biographical information, including your name, address, date of birth, age, place of birth, occupation, religious affiliation, racial background, date of marriage, and the first names and ages of any other biological or adoptive children.  The adoption then requires confirmation of additional information, which I always refer to as “the silly questions.”  They are silly because they are obvious, but the law requires that they are affirmed on the record. Those questions include the following:

  1. Have you received the medical history information with regard to your adoptive child, and is there anything in that information that would cause you to not proceed with this adoption?
  2. Does the proposed adoptee own any property of value? (toys don’t count)
  3. Is it your desire to continue the parent-child relationship you have established with the proposed adoptee, and if so, are you willing to assume the parental duties with regard to this child?
  4. Do you understand that if the Court grants your Petition today, the proposed adoptee will have all the rights and obligations as if they were your biological child? (duh – everyone knows that there is no distinction in the law between adoptive children and biological children)
  5. Have you had any out-of-pocket expenses related to this adoption that would not be reimbursed to you?
  6. This one is my favorite – What name would you like the proposed adoptee to assume?


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Now that April 15th has passed, the dust is still settling about how tax changes impacted taxpayers and many of us were surprised at the effects. The effects of the new tax laws also changed child and spousal support payable in Pennsylvania.

As of January 1, 2019 new guidelines are now in effect. These have been put in place largely to deal with the issue that alimony and temporary alimony or support payments to a spouse are no longer tax deductible by the person paying support, nor includable as income by the recipient. These new guidelines pertain to any new orders after January 1, 2019, but not the modification of prior orders. So it’s important to understand whether your case will be calculated under the old or new guidelines, as it makes a difference.
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In a prior blog post, I explained that divorce cases here in Lancaster county are heard by Divorce Masters instead of Judges. Because the proceedings before the Master will be the only chance you have to present your case, it is important to understand the process.

Your lawyer will appoint a Divorce Master with a Motion with the Court.  Once appointed, the Master will hear the claims that you have raised which may include claims for the distribution of property and/or alimony. When a Master is appointed, a telephone conference is scheduled with the lawyers. The Master will deal with procedural issues and determine if the case is ready to move forward or whether there are any impediments to moving ahead such as disputes about the date of separation or missing discovery.

Discovery is the legal term for the gathering and sharing of necessary information to move a case forward. Your lawyer will ask you for information about your assets and income and may need to seek valuations of those assets by outside parties (such as real estate and pension appraisers). If you want a good outcome, you should prioritize getting your lawyer all of the information that he or she is asking for. It may seem burdensome, but since this is your only opportunity to present evidence, it is worthwhile to provide as much information as possible on the assets and incomes involved. This may require inquiries to the bank, to your accountant or even to your human resources department, but all of your efforts will matter very much to your case.
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As a prior Divorce Master, I witnessed a lot of confusion from clients about the Divorce Master process. During one of my more contentious cases, I overheard a litigant talking to his attorney during a break, and he asked: “When will I get a hearing with a real Judge?” Clearly he was disgruntled about how the case was going, but it’s a fair question. And the answer here in Lancaster County is that you won’t–  your Divorce case will be heard by a Divorce Master, not a Judge.

In most counties in Pennsylvania (including here in Lancaster), divorce cases are heard and decided by Masters instead of Judges. Divorce Masters are court appointed officials, and they have jurisdiction to decide issues of property distribution and alimony. In Lancaster County, Divorce Masters serve as the finders of fact for the case. In practical terms, that means that the proceedings before the Divorce Master will be the only opportunity you will have to present your full case. So, be prepared and take it seriously.
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Headlines last week detailed the divorce settlement agreement between Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos. It was a huge marital estate estimated at 137 billion dollars; the largest asset was Amazon which Jeff Bezos founded during the marriage with help from his Wife MacKenzie.  MacKenzie agreed to accept 25% of the Amazon stock which amounted to about 36 billion in assets. Most of us cannot relate at all, but in reading the details, it occurred to me that there are pertinent lessons to take away from this. In this post, I have highlighted five takeaways that apply even when you are not the founder of Amazon.  I will elaborate on some of these subjects in future blog posts, but for now, here is the Cliffs Notes version:  
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