I contact a divorce or family lawyer?
You should seek legal advice before separating from your spouse or significant other. Obtaining a preliminary legal opinion helps you with your “exit planning,” and gives you a basis to avoid taking actions that can substantially prejudice your rights to property and custody of your children. There are often protective measures that can be taken to preserve assets, avoid harm to your credit, and avoid undue emotional harm to your children. You should also be advised as to the amount of child and/or spousal support you may be entitled to receive or may be required to pay, as this can significantly impact upon your ability to survive economically while your case is ongoing. Other considerations include the availability and cost of medical insurance, daycare, and services that may be available to you to facilitate your transition.
As every case is different, and determinations as to property distribution, support and child custody are fact specific, I strongly caution against relying upon advice received from caring and supportive friends and family members who have been through the process. What happens in one case may be drastically different from what happens in another, due to varying issues and circumstances.
If you are unable to seek preliminary legal advice before separating, you should contact a family lawyer immediately after separating, or immediately upon being served with legal papers, whichever occurs sooner.
Do I have to hire a lawyer?
No, you don’t have to. But remember the old adage, "He who chooses to represent himself has a fool for a lawyer." Litigation requires studied knowledge of the law and court procedures, and seasoned experience as to how the factual circumstances of a particular case may affect the outcome, based on legal precedent and statutory authority. The court doesn’t help you represent yourself. You are expected to know how to proceed. Often, an individual is unable to separate emotions from the realities of litigation, and might not know that a position he or she wishes to take might appear unreasonable or even ridiculous to the Court. An experienced attorney will know what arguments to make on your behalf, and, equally importantly, what arguments not to make. Unrepresented (pro se) parties are at a disadvantage, no matter how intelligent or articulate they may be.
Even if you and your spouse or opposing party want to settle your case out of court, you should not sign any legal documents without having an experienced lawyer review the circumstances of your case and the proposed documents with you. This will ensure you have an accurate understanding of your legal rights and obligations, all remedies available to you, and the legal implications of the documents that have been presented to you.
How much child and/or spousal support can I expect to receive or pay? How long can I receive support or alimony/how long can I be expected to pay?
In Pennsylvania, child support is calculated under the Pennsylvania Support Guidelines, and is based on the incomes and/or earning capacities of both parties. However, many cases require deviations from the basic guideline figures, to take into account the costs of daycare, private school tuition, the cost of medical insurance, unusually high mortgage payments or other fixed obligations, support of multiple families, tax implications, and a host of other concerns. Where a party is self-employed, or is the owner, officer and/or employee of a closely held corporation, ascertaining that party’s net income for support calculation purposes often requires skilled legal and financial analysis. Additionally, high-income cases that fall outside of the guidelines are calculated using a special formula. We recommend you discuss the potential support obligation with an attorney, as a simple online calculation may be inaccurate under the circumstances of your case.
Child support is payable until your children attain 18 years of age and graduate high school or are emancipated. Generally spousal support, when entitled, is payable so long as spouses are separated and a divorce has not been concluded. In divorce actions, alimony pendente lite may be paid in lieu of spousal support, throughout the duration of the litigation. After the entry of a divorce decree, alimony may also be required. The determination as to whether alimony will be required, the amount and duration, requires a consideration of several statutory factors under the Divorce Code, which are separate and distinct from the Pennsylvania support guidelines. This requires a fact specific inquiry, and the amount and duration will vary on a case by case basis. Your attorney can give you an idea of the potential alimony obligation and duration after receiving case specific information from you.
How much property will I be entitled to receive?
Pennsylvania is an equitable distribution state. This means, in divorce proceedings, when marital property is being divided between the parties, the court considers several factors to determine who gets what percentage of the marital estate, and who gets which assets and liabilities. Some of these factors include, but are not limited to, the ages of the parties, the parties’ education, incomes and earning capacities, the health of the parties, whether a party has been a homemaker and/or will be the custodian of a minor child or children, the values of assets available for equitable distribution, the contribution of both parties toward the acquisition of marital assets, tax implications, etc. Every case is different, and it cannot be presumed that all marital property will be divided equally. In some, if not many cases, a 50-50 split is appropriate. However, often the equities of a case call for a disproportionate distribution in favor of one spouse or the other. Your attorney will require case-specific information from you, in order to advise you as to the range of possible outcomes.
How long will it take to complete my divorce?
Every case is different. Pennsylvania is a no-fault state. This means you do not have to prove someone was at fault in order to get divorced. There are two no-fault ways to divorce in Pennsylvania: (1) There has been an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, and after 90 days has elapsed from the date of filing and service of the divorce complaint, the parties can file affidavits of consent to divorce and request the entry of a divorce decree; or (2) There has been an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, and the parties have resided separate and apart for a period of one year or more. In either case, divorce does not occur automatically at the end of the 90 day or one year waiting period. In both scenarios, the parties’ economic claims must be resolved, and certain steps must be taken in court to finalize the divorce action. In cases where the parties are willing to cooperate, exchange financial information, and resolve their economic claims promptly and without litigation, it is fair to say that you can conclude your divorce in a period of approximately 100 days or more. However, cases that involve complex financial and/or legal issues, difficult economic concerns, extensive litigation, uncooperative or recalcitrant parties, and appeals, can take two or more years to finalize.
How much will my divorce or custody case cost?
Again, every case is different. Your legal fees and costs will be directly proportional to the amount of work required. Legal work is billed at an hourly rate, and you are expected to advance any out-of-pocket costs associated with your case, such as process servers, appraisers, accountants, investigators, custody evaluators, court reporter/transcript fees, etc. We can estimate your expenditures at our initial meeting. This estimate will be based on information you provide as to the complexity of your case, the level of cooperation expected of both parties and opposing counsel, and the anticipated amount of litigation. A reasonable estimate cannot be provided without this information. At the time of your initial office consultation, you will be advised as to our attorney retainer requirements, hourly rates, and estimated costs.
What information should I be prepared to assemble as my case proceeds?
For divorce cases, it is helpful if you can provide a “snapshot” of your overall financial picture. The following information is recommended:
- In the event you have a pending case, provide copies of any orders entered, and any legal papers served upon you, including any hearing notices
- Copies of any prenuptial and/or postnuptial agreement(s)
- Federal income tax returns for the past 2-3 years, along with W-2, 1099 and any K-1 forms
- Your and your spouse’s past 6 months’ pay stubs, or the most recent stubs providing year-to-date payroll information, if available. If your or your spouse’s income fluctuates throughout the year, the past 12 month’s stubs would be helpful
- In the event either you or your spouse is receiving unemployment compensation, social security, social security disability or other disability payments, public assistance or other welfare benefits, provide copies of the benefits determination letters
- In the event you and/or your spouse own shares in any corporations or partnerships, the corporate or partnership tax returns for the past 2-3 years
- Current statements for all savings, checking, investment, retirement, IRA, 401(k), certificate of deposit and other accounts (these should include statements for all accounts, regardless of whether they are in your name, your spouse’s name, or both names, or in the name of you or your spouse and any other person
- Statements from any life insurance policies, along with declaration pages
- Information as to any stocks, bonds, or other investments that don’t appear on monthly statements
- Benefits estimates as to any pension plans
- Payoff statements for any mortgages, home equity loans, automobile loans or other types of loans
- Any appraisals, for real estate, businesses, or other assets, if available
- Current credit card statements for any and all credit cards in either your or your spouse’s name, or in both names
- A copy of your credit report, and that of your spouse, if possible
- In the event there are any trusts, copies of the trust documents, if available
- A copy of your and your spouse’s will, if you have one
- Information about any serious medical conditions
The above information is a starting point, so that your attorney may give
you a preliminary opinion as to the possible outcomes in your case. If you
cannot locate all of the information suggested above, we can still conduct
your consultation. More information will likely be required as your case
For child custody and child support cases, provide the following information:
- The names and dates of birth of all children
- Copies of any previous orders entered for custody or child support
- In the event you are subject to a support order for any children from any other relationships, provide copies of those orders, if available
- Copies of all legal papers that have been served upon you, including hearing notices
- The names, addresses and telephone numbers of both parents
- Where the children have resided during the past five (5) years, and with whom
- Your work and/or school schedule
- Your employer’s name, address and phone number
- The name, address and phone number of the other parent’s employer, if available
- The other parent’s work/school schedule and income information, if available
- Your most recent pay stub, and your most recent Federal tax return
- Any activities in which the children participate, and activity schedules
- Any special services the children require (therapies, tutoring, etc.), and the cost
- If your children go to private school or daycare, any information on the cost of daycare, private school and/or activities
- Medical, dental and/or vision insurance cards
- Any unreimbursed medical expenses and/or medical, dental, or vision expenses not covered by insurance, including orthodonture and prescription drugs.
The above information is a starting point, so that your attorney may give you a preliminary opinion as to the possible outcomes in your case. If you cannot locate all of the information suggested above, we can still conduct your consultation. More information will likely be required as your case progresses.
What is Collaborative Law?
Collaborative law is a process by which the parties agree not to go to court, to provide an honest and open exchange of information, and to resolve their case by way of four-way settlement conferences between both parties and their attorneys, taking into account the highest priorities of both spouses and their children. Both parties sign a collaborative law participation agreement and are represented by lawyers trained in collaborative law, who agree not to represent the parties in any litigation related to the matter, and not to threaten litigation at any time in the negotiation process. The focus is on cooperative problem solving to attain a result that is fair and just for both parties, rather than on positioning.
This method enables the parties to achieve mutually beneficial results that might be unlikely in litigation, at a lower cost, while at the same time maintaining their privacy and dignity, without the emotional casualties that frequently accompany litigation. In the event that either of the parties elects to terminate the collaborative law process and proceed with litigation, both collaborative attorneys must withdraw from representation, and the parties proceed with or without trial counsel.
The advantages of the collaborative law process are many:
- You and your spouse control the decisions that are to be made in your case, rather than having a judge or master decide for you.
- There is better control of the timing. Court backlog often causes parties to wait months and even years on end to finalize their case, and court hearings don’t always occur at convenient times. The collaborative law process allows the parties and their attorneys to schedule meetings that are more convenient for the parties and to move the case forward at the pace desired by the parties.
- Cost savings. You and your spouse can use mutually agreed upon professionals, such as accountants, investment advisors and appraisers, to value marital assets and arrive at understandings regarding the financial implications of proposed settlement alternatives. In litigation, each party usually hires his and her own experts, which escalates the overall cost of the case.
- Wealth preservation. The litigation process can be financially draining. The team approach used in collaborative law gives parties the opportunity to identify creative solutions to their financial issues, which may be mutually beneficial.
- Other professionals which may be involved include child specialists and mental health professionals, to help parties find constructive solutions to custody issues. This helps parties achieve a compassionate ending to their relationship, without destroying vital family bonds for the children.
- The process encourages mutual respect, provides for open communication, uses a problem-solving approach, identifies and addresses the concerns of both parties, and emphasizes the needs of children.
- Privacy. Court filings are limited to the bare essentials to finalize the case. Since court filings in divorce and custody cases are public record, collaborative law lets you avoid public access to private matters and financial information.
Additional information about collaborative law is available at our office.