Contract Basics: The Pen Actually Can Be Very Mighty

You would be hard-pressed to find an adult in the United States who never has signed a contract. You rent an apartment; you sign a contract. You enroll your children in daycare; you sign a contract. You borrow money for school; you sign a contract. You join a gym; you sign a contract. This does not include the plethora of subscription services so common these days like entertainment streaming, cell phones, music services, product delivery services and so many more. We execute many contracts without a second thought, but not all contracts are created equally. Signing on the dotted line for that hotel room or rental car does not carry the same weight as entering into an agreement to buy or sell real estate, but the legal obligation you create when doing so remains the same.

Although the law is concerned where a contract is procured through fraud, misrepresentation, or duress, the courts aim to preserve our autonomy to contract with one another freely. The law does not concern itself with whether the terms of the agreement are reasonable or whether any party possessed enough knowledge to enter the agreement. The parties to any contract can have different levels of sophistication, and bargaining power might be unequal, but each one is legally bound to know the terms of the contract entered. The stroke of that pen comes with a duty to understand the document, and that is where many fall short.

Contracts can be difficult to understand simply because of the manner in which they are drafted. The legalese in many standard provisions can seem unintelligible to most, and some contracts will contain dozens of these confusing terms. However, ignorance is no excuse under the law, particularly when an agreement contains a provision indicating that the parties agree that its terms are fair, just, and reasonable. It is customary for contracts to contain such provisions which serve to cut off future challenges to that contract by one manner or another. These can be explicit waivers of rights, such as waiving your right to a jury trial to resolve future disputes, or implicit waivers like the one above. When you agree in writing that the contract is reasonable, you waive your right to challenge its reasonableness in the future even if you did not understand what you were signing.

While most would think to enlist the help of an attorney for contract drafting or negotiating, contract review is just as important. Agreements involving large sums of money or long-term obligations are most critical. A 5-year service contract can look great today, but circumstances can change for either party over that long a period, and that must be considered. An agreement requiring a sizable non-refundable down payment could result in a great loss if the agreement falls through for a reason other than a breach. From lawn service contracts to pre-nuptial agreements, any legally binding document must be reviewed thoroughly to ensure that you understand both your obligations and your rights under it.

Whether you need a contract drafted, negotiated, or reviewed, the experienced attorneys at Cornerstone Law can help. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.

Hunting Offenses in Pennsylvania

Here are the key takeaways from this article:

  1. Your hunting privileges can be revoked for any hunting offense. Game Wardens and Judges do not have to tell you in advance about the revocation.
  2. If you are charged with a summary 1, 2 or 3 offense you really should talk to an attorney.
  3. The PA Hunting and Trapping Digest is NOT an official statement of the law. It is a summary.
  4. To be convicted of baiting, you have to know or have reason to know the bait was there and the bait has to serve as an effective lure for the area where you were hunting.
  5. If you encounter a Game Warden, you are required to identify yourself and provide your license and tags. In a few cases you are required to give other information. Do not lie to them.

I. Do NOT Blindly Plead Guilty to Hunting Offenses

In Pennsylvania there are about two dozen possible charges that a hunter could receive under the Game Code. There are about five that we see very commonly.

All Game Code offenses are given a grading and a range of penalties. The vast majority of Game Code offenses are summary offenses. Summary offenses are the least serious type of offense in Pennsylvania and are almost always punishable by a fine. There are a couple Game Code Offenses that could be misdemeanors, but those are the most serious and beyond the scope of this article.

The Game Code divides summary offenses into eight categories with summary 1 being the most serious and summary 8 being the least serious. Here are the range of fines:

  • Summary offense of the first degree: Not less than $1,000 nor more than $1,500 and may be sentenced to imprisonment up to three months.
  • Summary offense of the second degree: Not less than $400 nor more than $800 and may be sentenced to imprisonment up to one month.
  • Summary offense of the third degree: Not less than $250 nor more than $500.
  • Summary offense of the fourth degree: Not less than $150 nor more than $300.
  • Summary offense of the fifth degree: Not less than $100 nor more than $200.
  • Summary offense of the sixth degree: $75.
  • Summary offense of the seventh degree: $50.
  • Summary offense of the eighth degree: $25.

See 34 Pa. C.S.A. 925. Please note that while jail time is possible for some summary offenses, it is virtually never imposed.

Please also be aware that the Game Commission is entitled to seek replacement costs for an unlawfully taken animal. Those replacement costs are determined in advance and published in regulations. 58 Pa. Code 131.8.

Under Pennsylvania law, the Game Commission can revoke your hunting privileges for any violation of hunting requirements even if you are not convicted. 34 Pa. C.S.A. 929(a) and 2741. Typically a first offense can only result in a revocation of up to 3 years, although there are exceptions. 34 Pa. C.S.A. 2742(a).

Neither a Game Warden nor a Magisterial District Judge is required to tell you about the possible revocation. Revocations ARE NOT imposed by the Magisterial District Judge. Revocations are a separate administrative proceeding imposed by the Game Commission directors out of Harrisburg. A Game Warden CANNOT make a binding promise as to what will happen in terms of revocation. A Game Warden does get to make a recommendation to the directors in Harrisburg. The directors often follow a Game Warden’s recommendation. We have had several clients who felt that they were misled or deceived about revocations by statements from Game Wardens. A misstatement by a Game Warden is not a defense to revocation. Before you plead guilty be sure to know what you are likely facing in terms of revocation.

Revocations of hunting privileges are always for whole year periods and they always run from July 1 to June 30.

The Game Commission has an unpublished standard operating procedure that gives recommended lengths for revocation. The procedure is fairly well understood by those that deal with the Game Commission and the Game Commission does consistently follow that procedure.

Here are the standard revocation recommendations from the Game Commission:

  • Conviction of a Summary One: 3 year revocation
  • Conviction of a Summary Two: 2 year revocation
  • Conviction of a summary Three: 1 year revocation
  • Baiting activity where no animal was taken: Written warning
  • Mistake Kill where kill was properly reported and all other steps followed: No revocation

If you are only convicted of summary four or less serious offenses, it is unlikely that the Game Commission will seek a revocation. If you are not convicted (not charged or found not guilty), it is unlikely that the Game Commission will seek a revocation.

If you are charged with a summary 1, 2 or 3, and you value your hunting privileges, you should consult an attorney BEFORE you plead guilty.

II. The Hunting and Trapping Digest is Good, but Not Necessarily an Accurate Statement of law. There’s More to Baiting than the Digest Says

The Pennsylvania Hunting and Trapping Digest is an official publication of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, but it is not an official statement of the law. The Digest is a valuable publication. However, hunters need to realize that the Digest is prepared by employees of the Game Commission. The Digest DOES NOT print the actual statutes or regulations relating to hunting. It prints the Game Commission’s interpretation of the statutes. In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania General Assembly writes the laws and the Courts make official interpretations of the laws. The Game Commission can make specific regulations to flesh out certain aspects of the laws.

If there is a legal question, the law as stated by the General Assembly or the law as interpreted by the Courts wins out.

For example, here’s what the 2021-22 Digest says about baiting:

Baiting Baiting  is  allowed  conditionally  on  private  property  in  the  Southeast Special  Regulations  Area.  See  detailed  information  on  the  Special Regulations Areas page  within this digest. Elsewhere  in the state,  it is  unlawful  to  hunt  in  or  around  any  area  where  artificial  or  natural bait,  food, hay, grain, fruit, nuts, salt, chemicals or minerals, including their  residues  –  regardless  the  type  or  quantity  –  are  used,  or  have been  used  within  the past  30  days,  as  an  enticement  to  lure  game  or wildlife.  Hunters  are  responsible  for  ensuring  an  area  has  not  been baited  before they begin hunting. They should physically inspect the area  and  question  landowners,  guides  and  caretakers.  This  section does  not  pertain  to  hunting  near  areas  where  accepted  farming  or habitat-management  practices  are  taking  place  (example:  hunting near  food  plots  on  game  lands  is  legal).  The  manipulation  of  crops for  dove  hunting  is  permitted.  Any  natural  or  manmade  nonliving bait can be  used to attract coyotes for hunting or trapping.

This is not quite the law. First, Pennsylvania uses a reasonable hunter standard. Com. v. Sellinger, 763 A.2d 525 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2000). This standard means that a hunter should be aware of the area that they are hunting and whether there is bait present. Checking with landowners, guides and caretakers is a good idea, but is not actually required under the law. As a hunter, if you did not know bait was present, or did not have a reason to know bait was present, you are NOT GUILTY.

Additionally, the courts have accepted the following standard:

The extent of a ‘baited area’ is defined only by the capacity of bait placed anywhere within it to act as an effective lure for the particular hunter charged.

Com. v. Sellinger, 763 A.2d 525, 527 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2000). A hunter is only “hunting over bait” if the hunter is hunting where the bait can be an “effective lure.” There is no set distance under Pennsylvania law.

We have seen many cases in which a hunter believes that they are far enough from bait to lawfully hunt, but the Game Commission disagrees and charges the hunter. The Game Commission is not the final arbiter as to this issue—a judge is. For the hunter to be found guilty, the Game Commission would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the bait was an effective lure in the area being hunted. That’s a difficult case for the Game Commission to make when the hunter is 100 or more yards away from the bait.

It should also be pointed out that the Commonwealth Court does expect the Game Commission to mark off baited areas. See 34 Pa. C.S.A. 2308(a)(8) and Commonwealth v. Redovan, 227 A.3d 453, 458 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2020). In Redovan, the Court found that the Game Commission’s failure to mark a reasonable area around known bait was one of the reasons the charges should have been dismissed.

Unfortunately we have seen a number of cases in which a Game Warden discovers bait and, rather than mark off the area or alert the property owner, they conduct a “sting” operation and surveil that area to see who is hunting. This is questionable activity by the Game Commission and is clearly disfavored by the Commonwealth Court. There may be other court cases that will define the scope of the Game Warden’s obligations when they discover bait.

III. Interacting with the Game Commission

Hunting licenses and tags must be carried with you when hunting. 34 Pa. C.S.A. 2711(a)(1) 58 Pa. Code § 143.2. Hunters are required to produce identification to Game Wardens. 34 Pa. C.S.A. 904(b). Hunters are not required to have any other interaction other than identifying themselves, making reports of taken big game or reporting a mistake kill. 34 Pa.C.S.A. § 2323 and 58 Pa. Code § 141.41 and 34 Pa.C.S.A. § 2306(c)(3). You are not required to give a Game Warden a statement about anything else.

All PA Game Wardens (but not deputies) have now been issued body cameras. We’ve had too many cases in which the body cameras are not used or not working. We’ve also had too many cases where a Game Warden does not take notes. The lack of recording and notes often leads to substantive disputes later about what was said. If you choose to give a statement to a Game Warden, insist that they record it on their body camera. If their camera is not working, offer to provide a written statement. If you have a body camera, it is lawful to record your interactions with the Game Commission. I do recommend that you tell them they are being recorded. DO NOT give an unrecorded statement to the Game Commission.

Providing a false statement to a Game Warden is a violation. 34 Pa.C.S.A. § 906. If you are in a legally questionable situation it may be best not to make a statement to a Game Warden. You are free to tell a Game Warden that you want to interact with them through an attorney. A Game Warden should respect that.

If you are charged with a summary 1, 2, or 3 Game Code offense, review the situation with an attorney prior to entering a plea. Accepting a summary 1, 2 or 3 conviction will likely lead to a revocation of your hunting privileges. Contact Cornerstone Law Firm to review your situation before entering a plea.

Peer-to-Peer Carsharing: A Sunday Drive or a Nightmare Ride?

Not all side hustles are created equally, but they all come with serious considerations. Of course, the first consideration for most is financial. After all, the whole point is to supplement your income. The upside must be worth the investment of time and capital, if any, as well as the relevant risks. Even if all you are doing is selling homemade peanut brittle to people you know, there is a risk. What happens if your product makes someone seriously ill or even worse? Risk assessment must be part of that initial analysis, and the side hustle trends seem to get riskier every day.

Just like that mountain cabin or that spare room, many have turned to peer-to-peer car rental services to make an extra buck. These services function much the same as their property rental cousins. Vehicle owners rent their vehicles to other drivers through an app like Getaround or Turo, and the rate is typically hourly. Renters might need the car only for part of the day to run errands or make a special trip to a location devoid of access to public transportation. It seems like a great idea to make money with a car that would have sat unused while helping someone in the process. However, there are many unfortunate places where this type of arrangement could lead.

The two main concerns are damage to property and injury to individuals. When you drive your car, you rely on your insurance coverage to protect against those risks, but that coverage as written could prove worthless in a peer-to-peer car rental scenario. The Pennsylvania legislature has recognized this issue and has passed Senate bill 1222 as a result. This bill, as amended, requires carsharing companies to provide additional insurance to fill the gap when a vehicle owner’s policy excludes the peer-to-peer rental from coverage. The problem is that the coverage provided by the carsharing company might be much less than the vehicle owner enjoys under his or her own policy, meaning that an accident still could pose an unreasonable risk when compared with the relatively meager income gained from this enterprise.

When we think about lending someone a car, we might think that damage to the car is the big risk, but a dented fender or a cracked windshield really sits on the conservative side of the damage spectrum. The truth is that damage to the car might be the least significant risk you take when lending your wheels to someone else. Consider that any motor vehicle accident could result in significant damage to another’s property or the death of anyone involved. The potential litigation could be something much more than most would envision ever encountering. This is why it is important to understand fully the risks involved in these trendy ventures before handing over those keys.

Whether you are considering starting this kind of side business or any side business, or whether you already started and are in need of legal assistance, the attorneys at Cornerstone Law can help. Call us for a consultation today.

HICPA and the Hiccups of Home Repairs

Home repairs and renovations can be costly and time-consuming. While some work on your home can be a breeze to have done, other work comes with the stress of ever-changing deadlines and busted budgets. No one needs the added stress of a contractor who does not complete the work or does not complete it well. That is why Pennsylvania passed the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (HICPA) in 2009.

There are two primary litigation scenarios we see invoking HICPA. The first scenario occurs when a contractor completes the work but does not receive full payment from the client. Typically, the client withholds payment because the work was not completed to standards and is awaiting further work, or there is a disagreement over the actual contract price. The second scenario occurs when a client pays a contractor the full contract price, but the contractor does not complete the work as agreed. In both scenarios, it is important to have a written contract evidencing the precise nature of the work, the full price and a proposed completion date. Although litigation under HICPA can go both ways, we must recognize that the purpose of the statute is to protect the consumer from fraudulent business practices.

One protection provided by HICPA comes from its requirement that all contractors in the state be registered with the Bureau of Consumer Protection in the Office of Attorney General. Each registered contractor receives a unique identification number, which is to be printed on all home improvement contracts. Registration can be verified online by consumers using the contractor’s trade name, address, telephone number or registration number. By performing a registration search, homeowners can make sure they are working with legitimate contractors who have provided proof of liability insurance as required by HICPA.

HICPA also protects the consumer by requiring that all home improvement contracts include certain elements for them to be enforceable against a client. It also deems certain clauses voidable, such as any provision stating that the contractor shall be awarded attorney fees or costs if the contract becomes the subject of litigation. In fact, it is the consumer who can recover triple their damages as a result of a contractor’s violation of HICPA since a violation of the statute is deemed a violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, which allows for the recovery of treble damages. This only underlines Pennsylvania’s interest in making sure that consumers are protected from fraudulent business practices by home improvement contractors.

If you find yourself in a legal dispute over a home improvement contract, the attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm can help. Contact our office today and schedule a consultation.

Occupational Licensure Defense and Appeals

Pennsylvania requires a licensure for a number of professions including nursing, inspecting cars, running a day care, cutting hair and many more. If a government agency is threatening your license to work, you have a right to counsel to defend yourself and to fight for your right to continue working.

When the government says your license is suspended or revoked, it can feel like you are guilty until proven innocent. The process can be complicated, and it can be very difficult to get clear information from the government agencies that govern your licensure. Depending on which license you have, sometimes you face suspension or revocation before you even have the chance to attend a hearing. Pennsylvania law also permits certain licensing boards to compel a licensee to submit to mental or physical examination as part of their investigation. In some cases, your hearing might be before an administrative law judge or hearing officer who is not particularly experienced in the field in which you are licensed. Their uninformed opinion of your situation can result in a permanent black mark against you if you do not act quickly.

Fortunately, you have a right to appeal any such determination by any board in Harrisburg. These appeals can go to the Court of Common Pleas of the county in which you live or to the Commonwealth Court. Every process is a little different, but all licensure appeals processes should give you the chance to challenge the case against you. In putting on your own defense, you have the right to present evidence, to hire expert witnesses who can testify that you have met all the appropriate licensure standards, and to have an attorney examine the Commonwealth’s witnesses.

In some cases, you might be limited in your appeal to presenting the evidence you presented at your first hearing, so it is important to have an attorney involved from the outset. Furthermore, an attorney can help you determine which evidence will strengthen your case and present it in a clearer light. Depending on the type of licensing issue, you can ask the Commonwealth agency attempting to suspend or revoke your license to temporarily stay that decision so that you can work while the appeal proceeds. This is important because some appeals can take several years to be heard. Obviously, you will want to work while the appeal goes forward.

If you are facing a licensure suspension or revocation, call the attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm so that we can help defend you and protect your license.

Short-term Rentals & Long-term Headaches

Having a side hustle is becoming more and more popular by the day, and many people sure could use some extra income. This is why companies like Airbnb and VRBO have become so profitable. If you can take a current asset like your house and use it to generate extra income with little or no additional investment, why not give it try? Of course, not everyone in this rental arena is leasing a single room at a time. Some have taken this on as a larger investment opportunity, purchasing properties for the sole purpose of using them as short-term rentals. Regardless of the avenue chosen, whether the property owner is a person or a type of entity, starting a short-term rental business might not be so easy depending on zoning laws.

Before deciding to enter the short-term rental market, the first step is determining whether the municipality has an ordinance specifically addressing short-term rentals. These are not uncommon in larger cities and areas known for tourism. Even a town like State College passed its first such ordinance last year and already is considering changes to those rules based on how the industry operates practically. This kind of ordinance typically addresses:

  • limits on length of stay
  • limits on the number of nights a property can be rented in a given year
  • limits on the number of rooms which can be rented, occupancy limits
  • parking requirements

A municipality also might have different rules depending on whether an entire property is rented or just a portion of an owner’s already-occupied home, as well as a requirement to register as a landlord or obtain a rental operating license.

Where such ordinances exist, there are not too many questions to ask. The problem is when there is a lack of this kind of clear guidance, which is the case in most municipalities. In those instances, interpreting the local code and determining how it applies to your specific situation can be difficult. A number of different factors can make or break your plan to use the property as a short-term rental based on zoning requirements and prohibitions. These can include:

  • whether the property will be inhabited by the owner while also being partially rented
  • the language of related ordinances regarding other kinds of rentals
  • whether the property is owned by a person or an entity
  • how the code defines terms like “family” or “single-family dwelling”
  • whether the municipality wants to limit traffic in the zoning district

Since zoning ordinances specifically addressing short-term rentals are still generally lacking in Pennsylvania, and particularly in more rural areas, the issue has been brought to the courts on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, those cases have been decided in various ways, which only muddies the waters. Barring these specific ordinances, it is too easy and too common to enter the short-term rental market only to be slapped with a zoning code violation as a result. That is why due diligence is necessary before renting that room or that cabin for the weekend. While variances can be requested, a denial can mean that a rather large investment will not produce the intended return.

If you are considering entering the short-term rental space, your local attorneys at Cornerstone Law can help you navigate this emerging market. Give us a call to schedule a consultation today.


If you’d like to read more about rental properties, check out our post on Legal Things to Know Before Investing in Rental Properties.

The Right of Sepulchre

When a loved one passes away, there can be disputes regarding how to treat and dispose of the body. Ideally, the decedent would have included clear funeral instructions in his or her last will and testament. In some cases, those wishes might have been communicated orally or in another kind of writing to a family member. What happens when certain family members or friends want to disregard the loved one’s wishes while others wish to carry them out?

Under Pennsylvania law, each person is entitled to dictate the terms under which the body is buried or otherwise disposed of after death. This can include cremation or more modern burial innovations such as composting. If the decedent’s wishes can be shown in a will or other proven writing, these wishes must be followed. This is known as the Common Law Right of Sepulchre. Sepulchre is just a fancy old English word for burial.

Fights over how to deal with a decedent’s remains, where to have the burial, or where to keep an urn full of ashes can arise out of estate disputes in which one or more beneficiaries are trying to use the decedent’s remains as leverage. This is an awful circumstance to bear, and it is important to stand up for the decedent’s rights in court, if necessary. If a decedent’s wishes are being disregarded in this way or for any other reason, the descendants have standing to bring a challenge on that person’s behalf insisting that those wishes be followed. It is important to move quickly in such situations as some methods of laying a person to rest cannot be undone. This is why it is critical to handle these disputes correctly and with urgency.

The Right of Sepulchre also can be implicated if the family brings a wrongful death claim. These kinds of claims can require examination of the body such as an autopsy well after interment or entombment, and exhumation can conflict with the religious beliefs of the decedent. Another instance in which the Right of Sepulchre is implicated is when a graveyard is excavated. This can occur when an entity buys the land and wishes to pave over or move grave sites. In these cases, the Right of Sepulchre is an important part of defending the right of the deceased individuals to rest in peace.

Our attorneys have helped individuals defend their loved ones’ right to choose their manner of burial. If you have questions about the Right of Sepulchre or your family members’ right to dictate their wishes on these matters, contact Cornerstone Law Firm today so we can discuss your options.

Legal Things to Know Before Investing in Rental Properties

With the rise of the DIY movement and the expansion of the mobile workforce in the U.S., investors are clambering to purchase rental properties. Whether they are rehabbing and flipping properties or buying them and turning them into rentals, more investors are interested in the potential returns of real estate investment. If you have attended a seminar, read a book or listened to a podcast on real estate investing, or if you are personally interested in investing, here are some legal issues to consider as you move forward in the rental market.

Sheriff’s Sales and Tax Sales are Much More Dangerous Than You Think

It seems almost too good to be true. All of these properties are available at your county’s tax or sheriff’s sale for tens of thousands of dollars less than what they are worth, according to the best estimate you can find. Why not start your investing there? Well, although sheriff’s sales can represent an incredible opportunity to purchase a property, that purchase can bring its own difficulties. For example, a sheriff’s sale does not extinguish junior liens if those lienholders were not properly notified of the sale. Although the senior lienholder (the one trying to sell the property) is technically responsible for notifying all junior lienholders, it is the new buyer who is left with a property encumbered by liens when proper notification is not given.

Also, there are several title problems that can arise long before the sheriff’s sale. Someone who claims to own a property and even has secured a mortgage for it might not have a clean title. Purchasing a property at a sheriff’s sale does not guarantee you a clean title. In fact, it guarantees you nothing at all except that you have title against the lienholder who sold it and, in most cases, against the debtor who previously owned the property. This is not to discourage you from attending a sheriff’s sale or a tax sale. These can be great investment opportunities, but you must do a careful search of any properties you are considering purchasing to make sure that there are no legal problems or a cloudy title lurking in their past.

Form an LLC for Each Property

You should form an LLC for each property you purchase. These often are named for the street address of the property, but that is not a hard and fast rule. Forming an LLC can be relatively inexpensive once you begin to work with a real estate lawyer or business lawyer you can trust, and you should do so for each individual property. The reason you want an LLC for each property is that it protects the property in the event you have problems in other parts of the business. For example, a slip and fall at property A will limit any claims against Property A to that LLC. These claims will not affect the LLCs holding the other properties. Forming LLCs also allows you to sell off individual properties or businesses at a future time more easily, and it can help you to avoid taxes in that case. Managing properties as part of the portfolio also can be easier when you have an LLC for each property. As the ownership of an LLC in Pennsylvania is not a matter of public record, there also is additional privacy protection in this approach.

Eviction and Ejectment

If a tenant stops paying rent, the landlord’s remedy is eviction. If an occupant never had a right to be there in the first place, the remedy is ejectment. That is the basic difference between eviction and ejectment under Pennsylvania law. Unfortunately, evictions are part of being in the rental business and can take several months. In fact, they can take up to a year depending on all the circumstances involved. Even property owners who are very selective find that they occasionally must evict a tenant who stops paying rent or who damages the property. In most counties in Pennsylvania, getting before a District Justice for an eviction hearing can be done quickly, and the time to bring a case is statutorily prescribed. Nonetheless, obtaining the eviction order can be rather difficult as judges might rely on nonlegal reasons for granting a tenant an extension while they clean out the unit or find new housing. These extensions are more common during the colder months.

Anyone considering being a landlord should speak with an attorney and learn more about Pennsylvania’s Landlord and Tenant Act. Understanding landlord-tenant actions can help you avoid some of the cost and time associated with completing an eviction. Furthermore, when you purchase a property at a tax sale or a sheriff’s sale as discussed above, you might have to remove an individual who has no right to be in the property in the first place. This can be the former owner or a regular squatter, in which case an ejectment is necessary. Unfortunately, this process can take as long or even longer than an eviction.


If you are thinking of renting real estate to others, it is important to know the landscape of this area of law. Contact a real estate attorney at Cornerstone Law today to discuss your options and get to know how to better predict potential problems in the rental business.

Guardianship: When Loved Ones Cannot Care for Themselves

When someone you love is incapable of self-care physically or financially, a guardianship is often the best approach. In this article we will discuss the pros and cons of pursing guardianship, as well as what you will need to present to a court to obtain an order for care and maintenance of your loved one for the long-term.

What is the difference between a Guardianship and a Power of Attorney?

Guardianship is stronger than a power of attorney. A power of attorney document allows you to make affirmative decisions on another’s behalf. However, it does not permit you to override the decisions that person has made. For example, a power of attorney will allow you to write checks for your aging parents, but a guardianship will allow you to keep them from writing checks to others. A guardianship is a much more sweeping power and allows you to make financial and medical decisions on their behalf even over their objection. This is why the guardianship process is rather intense. It assumes that you will be able to prove total incapacity on the part of the person to be under your guardianship.

Determining whether a power of attorney designation will take care of your situation really comes down to whether your loved one has mental capacity and is cooperative with your assistance. If the person has capacity and is cooperative, a power of attorney document will solve most of your problems. If not, then a guardianship might be your only option.

Is your loved one incapacitated?

To prevail in a guardianship, you will have to show that the individual does not have the capacity to make independent decisions. This requires a doctor’s expert report. Usually, the doctor who is chosen is either a primary care physician who has known the person for many years and can write about any mental decline or a specialist in the area in which the person’s decline occurred. This might mean a neurologist or a psychiatrist. In the case of a younger person whose limitations are the result of trauma or a condition such as autism, a specialist in that area is more appropriate. Usually, these doctors do not need to testify. When required to testify, courts often allow them to “appear” remotely or by telephone. Different judges have different preferences on this point.

Many counties require that the expert complete and sign a specific form. This report form prompts the doctor to provide a medical opinion that the person is either partially or completely incapacitated and incapable of self-care.

Who is the appropriate Guardian?

After determining that someone is incapacitated, the next concern for the court to address is who the appropriate guardian would be? The law prefers the individual named in a power of attorney form, which is another reason that good estate planning documents are so important for every person to have. If the agent under a power of attorney document is either unavailable or judicially declared to be incompetent, the court will prefer a family member. However, courts often choose corporate guardians as a result of abuse by family members, neglect, or misuse of funds, among other things.

A guardian’s background must be relatively clean. This means that the person has avoided major criminal activity and also has been cleared of any bankruptcies in the recent past. Courts can overlook these factors but often look suspiciously upon those applying to be guardians who have similar blemishes in their backgrounds. Of course, it is also important for the guardian not to have participated in any neglect or abuse of the individual involved or of others.

Opposition by Other Interested Parties

In the event that a nursing home or a family member moves for a guardianship alleging incapacity, other interested parties could object. This could include a medical facility and often includes family members who believe either that the person is not incapacitated or that a different guardian should be chosen. Of course, the individual involved has the right to counsel as well. The bar for proving incapacity is fairly high under Pennsylvania law. This means that the individual who has a lawyer appointed by the court can prove capacity by a relatively low amount of mental ability. This is partly how the court safeguards that individual’s rights. Interested parties also may approach the court prior to the hearing to state their interest in the individual’s care.

Temporary or Permanent

Once the court has determined that someone needs a guardian, it can allow for either a temporary or a permanent guardianship. In some respect, every guardianship is temporary because the court can modify it later in the interest of the individual. In practice, however, permanent guardianships are granted when there is no hope of improvement in the person’s condition. In rare circumstances, such as when someone has slipped into a coma from an accident or from medical inducement, a temporary guardianship might be necessary to obtain financial authority to pay bills and care for children or other family members. In these cases, the court will set timeframes for the reassessment of the guardianship.


Walking through a guardianship can be a frightening prospect for many families, and the guardianship petition is not the end of the process. Instead, being granted guardianship is really the beginning. Reports must be filed in the court, and expenses must be issued properly to maintain access to government benefits. In some cases, special needs trusts and complex estate planning tools must be considered. If you are or a family member is considering a guardianship, contact Cornerstone Law Firm today so that we can help guide you through this very important decision.

Reaching Family Settlement Agreements in Estates

When a family member passes away, many factors can combine to create conflict over how to resolve the estate. Oral promises made by the decedent while alive, or a confusing portion of a will, or an apparent change in circumstances since the will was drafted, all can give rise to disputes over how the estate should be settled. In today’s blog, we will discuss how to reach a family settlement agreement designed to resolve the estate and avoid any dispute in court over an accounting.

Negotiating with family can be difficult. Negotiating over assets which might have changed in value can make these negotiations even more complicated. However, in a family settlement agreement, the parties agree that they will sign a document confirming the way that the estate should be settled rather than going to court. In some cases, this is done without any dispute at all. The parties each review the proposed settlement and confirm that they believe it is the appropriate way to distribute the estate assets. Additionally, they waive any claims against the executor of the estate in exchange for their share and confirm the way that all bills were paid and the way that the estate was handled.

Of course, these decisions are not always so easy and can be drawn out in more complicated situations. An executor who proposes a breakdown that the beneficiaries believe does not follow the will appropriately might face an accounting action. If a dispute arises over how to finalize the estate, several things can be done to resolve the matter outside of court. First, the parties can negotiate between counsel for the beneficiaries and the executor. The probate attorney handling the estate represents the executor only and not the beneficiaries, so they will need to retain their own counsel. In a situation with multiple executors, and one in which those executors disagree, the executors may wish to seek their own counsel.

Second, the parties can seek a mediation and go before someone who is not attached to the situation at all and who can help work out the parties’ differences. A mediator should try to find a middle ground where the case can be settled. It is often said that a mediator’s best result comes when they find a resolution that does not please any party completely but that is better than the alternative of spending a lot of money and going to court. Compromise is usually involved, and it is important to remember that a mediation might not get you everything that you want as part of your final agreement. Still, mediations are convenient because they do not force anyone into a decision. They are an effort at finding an appropriate compromise after seeing the facts in light of an outside party’s perspective.

Finally, the parties can submit a dispute to a binding arbitration. The family may be able to pick a family member who is truly neutral or ask a pastor or other community leader to help them resolve the dispute. There also are companies which can be hired to send an arbiter to hear the dispute. With today’s modern technology, these arbitrations can even happen remotely without everyone having to gather in the same place.

There are many other potential ways to reach family settlement agreements, but these are some of the most common. If you are in a probate dispute, or if you believe that your matter can be worked out amicably without going to court but still wish to seek legal guidance, contact the estate administration attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm to learn more today.