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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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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This post is part of our ongoing series exploring the impact of technology on legal issues.  For an introduction to the series and a collection of the posts in the series, check out this post.

Bing. Bing. Bing. Bing.  That would be the sound of a text message showing up on my phone, watch, iPad, and computer all at the same time.  Don’t worry, I actually have the sound turned off on all but one of those devices, so I don’t drive myself and everyone around me insane.  I love the convenience of it.  No matter which device I am using, I can easily respond to a text or call without having to figure out where the heck I left my phone. And because my fiancé has sworn off all things Apple, I never have to worry about him seeing any surprises I’m planning.

But we’re not like most couples.  Most couples I know have the same type of phone and if it is an iPhone, they often share the same Apple ID.  Sure, this is convenient for a number of reasons.  But what happens when a couple decides to separate and forgets that their ex has access to all of their text messages?  Or can see their emails?  Sadly, I’ve had more than one client who discovered their spouse was unfaithful because the spouse forgot their devices were linked.  I’ve had clients who can’t figure out how their ex found out about someone they were talking to months after separating even though they were never seen together publicly and most communication was limited to texting.  If you shared an account or had your texts or calls going to another device that you do not have exclusive control over, you need to be mindful that your ex may still have access to what you assume are private calls or text messages.
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On December 5, 2016, the law in Pennsylvania as it relates to the required length of separation in order to establish grounds for divorce reduced from two years to one year.  This reduction was highly contested for many years in our legislature and had been proposed on multiple occasions during the last decade.  While the pros and cons of the reduction in the length of separation were argued multiple times, the legislature finally determined that the reduction was appropriate.

The reduction of the two-year waiting period means that any spouses who physically or legally separate after December 5, 2016 now will only have to wait one year before they have established grounds for divorce unless otherwise established.  In no-fault divorces, there are only two ways to establish grounds for divorce.  The parties consent to the divorce, or complete a separation period which has now been shortened to one year. 
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Years of effort led by the Pennsylvania Collaborative Law community paid off on June 28, 2018, when Governor Wolf signed into law the Pennsylvania Collaborative Law Act.  The new law creates a uniform standard of procedure and practice in Pennsylvania for parties opting to proceed with collaborative divorces.  The purpose of the law is to make the legal process of collaborative divorce more uniform across Pennsylvania.

Collaborative Law is a method of dispute resolution which some divorcing parties opt to engage in, requiring both of them to sign a participation agreement to stay out of court.  The process  was created by Stuart Webb, a Minnesota attorney who sought a method that would permit divorcing parties to retain decision-making and control over the complex yet often emotional decisions regarding their divorce, including separation of assets, custody of their children and financial support.
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As income tax season is quickly ramping up, I am commonly asked by clients which parent can claim the children as dependents when they are separated from the other parent. And like any good lawyer, I often say it depends.

So what exactly does it depend on? According to the Internal Revenue Service, in order to claim a child as a dependent he or she must be a qualifying child. Assuming your children are qualifying children, only one exemption can be claimed per qualifying child. The IRS has determined that the “custodial parent” gets the to claim the exemption. The IRS has its own definition of “custodial parent.” According to their regulations, a custodial parent is the parent with whom the child lived for the greater number of overnights in the calendar year.
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