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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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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  • 5329. Consideration of criminal conviction. 

(a)  Offenses.–Where a party seeks any form of custody, the court shall consider whether that party or member of that party’s household has been convicted of or has pleaded guilty or no contest to any of the offenses in this section or an offense in another jurisdiction substantially equivalent to any of the offenses in this section. The court shall consider such conduct and determine that the party does not pose a threat of harm to the child before making any order of custody to that party when considering the following offenses:

23 Pa. C.S.A. § 5329 and § 5330 address a number of criminal offenses that may give rise to additional custody proceedings under certain circumstances in addition to participation in a custody conference.  Those enumerated offenses, in addition to an involvement with a County Children and Youth Agency or the Protection From Abuse (PFA) system, are required to be addressed under PA law prior to a Court entering a Custody Order.  Many County Courts have struggled with the best way to address this requirement when considering the timeliness of custody decisions, the cost of prolonged litigation, the additional strain on the calendars and resources of the Court system and, most importantly, the effect on children and families.
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Gone are the days of the Tender Years Doctrine where it was presumed that a child under a certain age (3) should be in the primary care of his or her mother as a mother is best able to meet the needs of a child from birth to 3 years. The so-called Tender Years Doctrine fell by the wayside in the law several years ago, but many believe the theory behind it holds true. That is, by anatomical default, a mother has a more significant bond with a child born to her and from her body thereby placing her in a better position to continue that bond and meet a young child’s needs. However, that thinking to many people is antiquated and the role and importance of a father’s bond with their children at the moment of birth going forward has gained popular consideration and is now being recognized by courts.
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Every year, the stroke of midnight on December 31 brings with it a host of resolutions and the promise of changes for the new year.  In light of this, NBC News ended 2018 with an article highlighting some interesting new laws taking effect across the country in 2019.  One city will see a change in what to expect from take-out orders, and one state will have a much more difficult choice of what beer to buy in grocery and convenience stores.  Sorry, the last one is not Pennsylvania!

One state is even taking an interesting approach in trying to increase its dwindling population.  Vermont is offering $10,000 to those employed by out of state employers who are willing to make the move.  If Ben and Jerry’s and maple syrup are your thing, and your job allows you the opportunity to work remotely, then pack your bags!
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With the implementation of the changes to the Federal Tax Code proffered by the Trump Administration, alimony payments post-December 31, 2018 will look a little different. Actually, a lot of different. In fact, the tax ramifications are gone.

Pre-December 31, 2018, alimony payments were taxable income to the recipient and deductible by the Payor. These tax ramifications were often vital tools in negotiating settlements in divorce matters where tax consequences were important to the parties and could be used as leverage in negotiation. While parties were free to agree to something other than alimony payments being taxable income to the recipient and deductible by the Payor, court ordered alimony awards were taxable income to the recipient and deductible by the Payor.
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