Litigation and Practice Areas
Divorce: A divorce is one of the most painful and difficult transitions in a person’s life. The result is that during this stressful and highly emotional time, you are forced to make life changing decisions about your children, your home, your job and your future. Our goal is to help our clients make those decisions in a way that causes the least harm, financially and emotionally.
The divorce process itself involves many issues including property rights, support and custody of children. If the parties are unable to agree on the outcome of any of these matters, they submit their case to the courts.
Pennsylvania courts have jurisdiction over divorce actions when either party has resided in Pennsylvania for more than six months prior to the commencement of the action. An action for divorce is initiated by one party filing a divorce complaint in the county court. The Plaintiff may assert either fault or no-fault grounds for the divorce. When fault grounds for divorce are asserted, the Plaintiff claims that the other spouse is at fault for the collapse of the marriage. Examples of fault grounds include desertion, adultery and indignities. However the vast majority of divorces proceed on no-fault grounds, which means that the issues are decided irrespective of who is at fault. In the absence of fault grounds, or unless the party who is the Defendant consents, a divorce cannot be granted until two years of separation have passed. If both parties consent, a divorce may be sought 90 days after the divorce complaint has been filed and served on the Defendant.
One of the most significant issues that arises under divorce proceedings is the distribution of the marital estate, known as equitable distribution. When this issue is raised, the assets and debts that make up the marital estate must be identified, valued, and distributed. Issues such as one’s entitlement to alimony and the payment of the other party’s counsel fees are also resolved at this time. If the parties can agree as to the final distribution of the marital estate, they may enter into a comprehensive settlement agreement and avoid the court system.
Custody: Custody actions may be brought by parents, grandparents, non-relatives, the State, or any combination thereof by filing an action for custody, and provided the person requesting custody has the legal right to do so. A party may be granted primary, partial, shared or sole physical custody of the children.
“Physical custody” describes where the child is physically, that is, where he or she lives. “Legal custody” is the right to make major decisions affecting the child, such as medical, educational or religious decisions. Shared custody is when both parents have custody of the child, although it does not necessarily mean that the parents have the child with him or her for exactly equal amounts of time. Sole custody is the award of both legal and physical custody to one party. This is very rarely granted. Visitation is the right to visit the child but does not entail permisssion to have physical custody of the child.
While many factors will be considered in making custody determinations, the paramount concern of the court is always the best interest of the child. In most western Pennsylvania counties, the courts require that the parties meet with a Conciliator or Hearing Officer before seeing a Judge so that the parties may attempt to reach an agreement. If the parties are unable to reach an agreement, they will likely be required to undergo custody evaluations with a psychologist, who will make a custody recommendation. If the parties are still unable to agree, a court may conduct a trial to award custody.
Support: The Domestic Relations Section (DRS) is the agency of the court that establishes and enforces Court Orders involving child support, spousal support, and alimony pendente lite. A party may file for support through this office. A conference will be held before a Hearing Officer to determine the parties’ incomes and support obligations, generally in accordance with guidelines established by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
When child support is sought, issues including who will pay for daycare, health insurance and unreimbursed medical expenses will also be addressed and incorporated into a support order. Spousal support is an obligation that arises from the marriage. Generally, spousal support or alimony pendente lite are owed by the spouse with the greater income and paid to the spouse with less income.
After entry for an order of support, either party may petition to modify the order if a substantial change in circumstances has occurred. If a support obligation is past due, the Court may enforce its order and collect what is owed. The court’s enforcement powers are broad, and one held to be in contempt can be subject to fines, suspension of licenses as well as commitment to jail.
Elder Care and Planning: When a loved one becomes ill, and in need of care or assistance, many options are available to the family. Family members may obtain a Power of Attorney, or seek guardianship. Often, advanced planning can help loved ones retain their assets despite the need for nursing home care. Family members should seek legal advice before a crisis occurs so that the family as a whole can plan for these events.
Estates: When a person dies without a will, his or her assets will be distributed based upon the Intestate laws established under the Pennsylvania law. That person is said to have passed “intestate”. When a person dies with a valid will, he or she is said to have passed “testate.” In that case, the property specified in the will passes based upon the terms of the will. Pennsylvania also requries the filing of an inheritance tax return. Generally, this return lists all of the assets, debts, and funeral-related expenses of the decedent. The tax due depends greatly on to whom the assets are passed. Assets passed from the decedent to his or her spouse are not taxed.