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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  • 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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The short answer is that it is a Qualified Domestic Relations Order,  however, QDRO (pronounced KWAH dro) is a quick and easy abbreviation.  No matter how you say it, this Order is used to document and execute future distributions of retirement benefits after a divorce.  For those of you who like details or just want to have a better understanding of the process used to divide different types of retirement benefits, read on for the long answer.
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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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November is National Adoption Awareness Month. Any month is a good time to recognize the life-changing impact of adoption and the love and support given by adoptive families.  I have worked with countless families throughout the years and they are among the most loving and generous people I know.

For many families, fostering children is their calling. Those families will foster many children for a period of time before those children return to the custody of a biological parent or other family member. Other families foster for the purpose of adopting children themselves. Families interested in fostering in order to be an adoptive resource in the future for their foster child  should always understand as much about the process as possible.  Start by asking the caseworker   questions.  Here are my top ten:
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As we move through the last quarter of 2018 and approach the end of the tax year, many families begin to gather necessary information for tax filings.  For adoptive parents, the process of claiming their adopted child as a dependent on their annual income tax returns can be somewhat confusing when the adoption occurs later in a tax year and certain information and documentation cannot be obtained prior to tax filing deadlines.

When children are adopted, their legal status as dependents and their change of name are completed the day of their adoption finalization hearing.  Typically immediately following the adoption finalization hearing, the judge overseeing the hearing will execute an Adoption Decree and shortly thereafter, the County court office which is responsible for processing adoption paperwork will issue a Certificate of Adoption.  Those documents evidence an adoptive child’s new name and identify their legal parents.  That information should be sufficient to claim a child dependency exemption for an adopted child.  However, additional details are required in order to actually take an appropriate child dependency exemption for an adopted child. 
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