Coronavirus Update - Helpful Information for Our Clients

 As we enter the uncharted territory of the COVID-19 pandemic,  the implications of the virus  changes everyday life as we know it.     As the stock market plummets,   supply chains are interrupted,  workers are furloughed and/or laid off, the implications of the novel coronavirus go well beyond what the pandemic means for individual portfolios.     The most vulnerable  in our society –those in need of family supports, such as child and spousal support may be hit hard.  

 Child support is one of the largest sources of income for families. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nationwide, the child support program serves one quarter of all U.S. children and half of all U.S. children in poor families—totaling 17.5 million children.   Research shows it reduces child poverty, promotes parental responsibility and involvement and improves children’s educational outcomes.    Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce, and  many women, especially mothers with children, fall into poverty after divorce.    As the COVID-19 spreads,  this group may become the silent victims of  this contagion.

 In almost every state,  child support  and spousal support is tied to the income of the parties.  Should that income diminish due to reduced work and layoffs, or dissipate completely as a result of job terminations,  support payments can change radically.  Payments may dry up if pay checks disappear.    Payors  with reduced income may ask for  downward modifications in their support orders.   Payees who receive support and were working at the time an order was entered may lose a job, and be unable to replace it through support, if the payor also has lost income.  The ramifications are broad, and might affect the day to day survival for many.   

At Bookspan Family Law, LLC we meet many  of you at a vulnerable time in your lives.  Our goal is to help you through life transitions and ease your way to a better future.  Foremost in our minds now is the health and well-being of  you —our clients,  our friends and colleagues.  I am continuously reviewing and assessing the recommendations and requirements of applicable state, local and federal authorities, as well as the World Health Organization and the CDC, to implement necessary precautions and protective steps. As we face the coronavirus global pandemic together,  I want to assure you that we are continuing to work for you.

A note about financial obligations such as child and spousal support and alimony…

If you have lost your job, and or been temporarily laid off, it may affect your support payment (obligation and or receipt).    In Pennsylvania,  parties who either pay or receive support have a statutory obligation to report to Domestic Relations  a change in financial circumstances   As we have not faced  before anything like coronavirus and the interruptions in work and financial security it may bring, we may be in uncharted waters.  However, if you are laid off for a significant period of time, or lose you job, this is a change in circumstance that should be reported.  Alimony payments also may be affected.  Depending upon how alimony was provided for in your property settlement  agreement,  it could be impacted by a recent  financial change.    Please let us know if this is the case, and we will evaluate any next steps with you. For further discussion on financial security and cCvid-19, and a financial webinar,  see more information below.

You decide not a stranger

The range of emotions that arise when a family with children splits up can be overwhelming.   Complex decisions  have to be made around the lives of children, which can cause  among other things, anxiety, anger, stress, and resentment.   Depending upon the age and developmental stages of the children they may be more or less attuned to the changes happening around them.   Even the youngest of children is aware of stress and knows when mommy and daddy is, or is not, around.   As the children get older, they may feel  confusion or “caught in the middle.”    Normalizing decisions around custody and keeping a sense of control and harmony over this difficult situation is essential to the child(ren)’ s well-being.

Unaware of the potential or possibility of mediation in custody matters,  many families  begin a case by filing for custody and the matter ends up in court—before a master or a judge.   We suggest that  keeping custody cases out of court,  whenever possible,  is perhaps one of the kinder and wiser things you can do for your family.     Afterall, who knows  your child or children better than you?   How can a judge who does not know your children or the quirks of your family possibly be better at deciding what is better for your children than you?

Private mediation is a viable and underutilized option in custody.  There are many things that can be decided by parents in a safe setting with appropriate guidelines.    Among these are the obvious:

  • custody – how the child’s time will be split between two homes, and when each parent will have time with the child(ren);
  • Vacation and holiday schedules;
  • Changeover times and places can be agreed to, including transportation arrangements.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.   Once the  initial details are agreed to,  parents in mediation can discuss and reach agreements about  the things that are just superficially addressed in other settings.  These are  what we call the rights and responsibilities      Even if parents have reached an Agreement or a Custody Stipulation in the traditional arena,  we find the nitty gritty details are not fleshed out because the document was written by lawyers.  In mediation, Parents set the  rights and responsibilities agenda and fully discuss issues and reach agreements.  Among the topics, they may discuss:

  • rules for each house- bedtimes, use of electronics, when children can be left alone, etc.;
  • information sharing- medical information, school reports,  events;
  • communications- how will they talk with each other,  how will the children talk with the parents, when,  how often, on what devices;
  • changes to routines;
  • travel plans—family travel, business travel;
  • changes in family makeup- introducing new “friends,”  can someone move in, remarriage;
  • new children etc.

In  a custody mediation,  parents should be asked  to  identify their goals,   and perhaps to  think about Continue Reading

     Conflict is an inevitable and pervasive part of human psychology and social relationships.  The traditional approach to conflict is a flight or fight response.  The kinds of emotions that trigger this  response are hurt, anger, fear, vulnerability and pain,  the  triggers that can  bring  a couple or a relationship to the brink of separation and divorce.   When  the level of conflict is high the fight or flight leads to a situation where the disputants want to fight and win.  If someone wins, then naturally the other person loses.

While in the midst of  intense feelings it may be hard to believe that things will change, or that one has the power to make a difference.  Some parties may flee and seek the courts  and/ or an attorney for a remedy.   Some may feel stuck and remain in a negative situation until it becomes unbearable.  Regardless, the conflict is dealt with, either through avoidance or more directly through a form of dispute resolution.   For couples,  when avoidance no longer works,  mediation should be considered because the possibility of a win/win is better than the alternatives.

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Mediation is attractive because it allows the parties to take control of their situation and the resolution of their dispute.  In the marital arena  parties can go to mediation for division of property in divorce;  to work out child support and spousal support; to work on parenting issues around children; to work out custody;  and for all of these.  Mediation allows a forum  for the parties to  air their  concerns and grievances, to talk  honestly and work out solutions that they craft together.  Mediation provides a  safe place to  come to a negotiated agreement  and resolve  marital conflict in a positive way.   When parties can work together to craft either a division of property, or a custody schedule or a support plan this, most importantly,  allows for a positive relationship going forward into the future Continue Reading

What is Alimony?

Alimony is a system of ongoing payments made by one spouse to another after the divorce is complete.    It is a remedial remedy,  the purpose of which  is not to reward one party and to punish the other, but rather to ensure that the reasonable needs of the person who is unable to support himself or herself through appropriate employment, are met.  In a  case called Pullett v. Pullett, the  Pennsylvania Superior Court said that  “alimony is based upon the reasonable needs in accordance with the lifestyle and standard of living established by the parties during the marriage, as well as the payor’s ability to pay.”

What is Alimony Pendent Lite and how is it different from Alimony?

 

Mediation is a wonderful tool for resolving disputes.   In divorce, especially, it can be an empowering and healing process.  However, not all marriages can be dissolved through mediation, and you almost never can successfully mediate with a narcissist.   The irony is that living with a true narcissist is a prime cause of divorce.

The shared love, compromise, mutual understanding and support necessary for a marriage to thrive are lacking in a narcissistic relationship.    If you are considering a mediated divorce, before proceeding we suggest carefully evaluating your   current relationship and your partner to see if mediation really can work for you.

The term narcissism is used with almost abandon in common parlance today to describe people who may be self-absorbed and think highly of themselves.   However, a degree of withdrawal into one’s self and having positive feelings about one’s self are not always negative qualities.   Such traits are common in many successful people who may be driven to excel.  Indeed, they may be essential for certain professions and tasks.   Narcissism appears on a spectrum from arrogance and conceit to full blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).     If you are married to a successful partner who has become aloof, arrogant, and/or checked out of the marriage, that does not mean that your spouse is not  a good candidate for mediation.   Look closer.

The kind of narcissist not suitable for mediation is one with  real NPD.  About 8% of men and 5% of women in the United States have NPD.   This is a clinical diagnosis for a cluster of traits that define a narcissistic personality.  Psychiatrist, Stephen E. Levick, in his book Clone Being says that “people with Narcissistic Personality disorder have a sense of grandiose self -importance and are pre-occupied with grandiose self-fantasies.  They believe that they are special and unique, and only want to associate with other special high-status people or institutions and may show arrogant haughtiness in the way they relate to others. Requiring excessive admiration, they have an unreasonable senses of entitlement, lack empathy, and are interpersonally exploitative…. Self-righteous rage, exhilaration and shame associated with anxiety are states of mind associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”   The need for admiration, sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, and leanings toward exploitation are what make successful mediation impossible with someone with a narcissistic personality. Continue Reading

 

A few weeks ago I went to the annual Pennsylvania Council on Mediators Conference.  One of the wonderful things about going to a conference is that it gives me time away from the day-to-day practice to refresh and reconsider.  The positive energy in the  seminar rooms reminded me that for many couples there may be a kinder way to dissolve their marriage,  and  I came away with renewed dedication to promoting  the tools in my alternative dispute toolbox  to make the divorce practice less stressful for our clients.

Much of traditional divorce practice  can devolve into a win/lose strategy.   When the Court titles the case  Smith versus Smith or  Jim versus Jane, the matter organically starts out as he against she fight.    So,  when we begin with Jim  fighting Jane, or vice versa,  it seems reasonable for the parties to think they need a “heavyweight” in their corner.    Indeed,   in our office we sometimes field calls from potential  clients asking   if we can fight for them like a bull dog?    We understand that clients may be  hurt and/or angry and think they need  a lawyer  who will  bark and roar and bite if necessary  to win,  but we think this approach to divorce  oftentimes  results in long-term destruction to family good will, and fractured lives– especially if children are  involved.    Alternatively, if the divorce process can be framed not as a one versus the other, but as an action in the best interests of the family  to move forward with the least destruction all the parties (children included) may come out more whole.

Consider Alternatives to the Traditional Process

Traditional divorce often is a closed, rather than an open process.  An adversarial  couple may dispute  sharing  child custody,  schedules,  routines, etc,   child and spousal support may be litigated and  equitable division of assets may be hotly disputed.    Not surprisingly, the more unresolved feelings between the spouses,  usually the more issues  end up  in court rather than worked out through negotiation and settlement.   Custody may end up being decided by a third party who really does not know the child(ren).     Nasty things may be written in  pleadings filed with the court.    A  court appointed Master may determine how much a spouse will pay to support a family.      Parties reluctant to divide assets fairly may try to hide assets.      Costly discovery becomes necessary when there is distrust and fear of hidden assets.   The attorney must do due diligence  to look for the hidden assets.    Parties may return to Court numerous times  for hearings.    The process can drag on,  and costs  will  escalate.    In the end neither side may be happy with the results,  nor with the aggressive attorney that the party wanted so desperately to  hire at the start.  Indeed,  one or both parties  may find that the “bulldog”  chewed up a lot of  assets,  and  tactics employed unintentionally may have destroyed any goodwill that still was  intact  in the family. Continue Reading

Divorce if never easy, but if you have children, the issues are complicated in a way that differs from economic issues.   Spousal and child support and division of property involves mostly you and your spouse, if you have children, however, they are affected at every stage of your divorce. And how you deal with your children from the very start of your separation through the children’s adulthood can have profound impact.

Oftentimes parents think they can protect their children from the struggles of their parents. Unhappy couples may stay together for the sake of the children.   Child psychologies differ on whether, in fact, this does children well.   Children are extremely sensitive and pick up upon the tension, anger, and hurt that parents may be experiencing even if parents may be “putting on a good face.”   Thus, the idea of “sticking it out” until the kids are grown, while well intentioned, may not be the best choice—especially if the level of discord between the parents is high.

If you have decided to separate, involving your children in suitably in the separation and divorce process is exceedingly important. Child development experts agree that being upfront with children and telling them what is happening is important.   Edward Kruk, PhD., advises that you should talk with your children about divorce.

Recently, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania provided some helpful clarification for custody litigants. The case, R.L.P. v. R.F.M., involved a custody order which was delivered orally by a Judge sitting in Montgomery County. This means that the Judge explained the Custody Order on the record and subsequently let the transcript of the hearing serve as the order. The Superior Court’s opinion clarified that all custody orders have to be delivered in a separate, written order.

This is important for several reasons. Custody Orders are frequently complex, and rightly so. Parties should walk away from a custody trial with no confusion as to how they are going to co-parent their children. In R.L.P. v. R.F.M, the transcript of the trial (which subsequently became the order) was 46 pages long, and included corrections and confusions. The Superior Court noted that when an order is confusing or contradictory, it is significantly harder to enforce.

When a Judge explains the intricacies of a Custody Order in the courtroom, oftentimes it becomes difficult to then enforce that order. In this case, the Superior Court noted that in order to understand the terms of the order, one had to read the transcript several times. A separate, written order gives both parties a tangible document to look to for guidance if a disagreement regarding the children presents itself. A Custody Order delivered orally on the record is just one example of a very dangerous phenomenon in family law: vague orders.

Continue Reading