Modifying Custody

If you’ve reached a custody agreement with someone, it’s not set in stone forever. Circumstances change, people change, and of course custody arrangements have to change. This is especially true if you reach a custody agreement with someone when the child is young. As the child grows older, changes will need to be made.

Custody agreements are never really final, and neither are court orders regarding custody. Either party may move at any time for a reconsideration of custody. Of course, immediately after a trial, when a judge has made a decision on the merits, changes are unlikely to be seriously considered or granted. Judges look for a change of circumstances when considering motions to modify custody.

So what sort of change of circumstances might bring about a new custody order? If a judge previously found that one of the parties was not fit to have as much custody time because of a drug problem, mental illness, or a past history of being unwilling to care for the child, then showing that one of these issues has been carefully addressed may result in a change of custody. Showing a course of rehab, having witnesses able to speak about the change of the party, or showing that the party has taken classes for anger management or other types of counseling that might help them can all be part of showing a change of circumstances. Perhaps the judge previously refused to give overnights to one party because their house was not in a good condition to live in or because they were homeless. Once a person has established residency and has an acceptable place for a child to spend overnights, the custody order can be modified.

Other examples of change in circumstances can be because the child, as they grow, needs something different from each parent. Perhaps the child is an athlete and has an opportunity by spending more time with one parent to improve their chances at an athletic scholarship. In other cases, courts have found a change of circumstances where one parent is able to help them with academic challenges that the other parent struggles with.

As you can see, there are a number of ways that a change of circumstances can be found by a court. Understanding the significance of these changes and preparing to prove them is all an important part of litigating custody matters, even after a custody order came down in a trial or other hearing. Whether you’ve reached a custody arrangement by agreement or by court order, there are ways to modify the agreement.

Of course, in all circumstances the best approach is to go to the other party and see if you can work it out as co-parents. Courts appreciate efforts that have been made to do this by co-parents and do not generally smile upon someone who comes into court without having tried to first work it out with the other parent. But when an agreement can’t be reached, going to court for a modification of custody is the next step.

If you have questions about how to approach a custody change, contact the custody attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm regarding your situation. Our family law attorneys can help you figure out the best way for you to move forward with your custody matter.

When Winning Feels Like Losing

There is nothing more important in life than your kids. Fighting over who will have custody of your kids is the most stressful thing that most people will ever go through. From the first conversation with your lawyer to the last, you will be talking about “winning.” At the end of the process, what does winning really look like?

At Cornerstone Law Firm we work hard to help parents make decisions that will help them live peacefully with their co-parent and do what is best for their child. The hallmark inquiry in a child custody battle is what is in the best interest of the child. Unfortunately, two parents fighting over their child is never in that best interest, but it is all too common.

Even when you try to de-escalate with the other parent, the frustration of dealing with someone at their worst can cause you to lash out, to make mistakes, to say things you don’t mean, and to widen the gap with the other parent. Litigation costs a lot of money for both parents, and this also causes people to get their backs up against the wall and make bad decisions. Many parents feel they don’t have any option but to make it more personal as time goes on because the other parent is being unreasonable about their demands.

But as a parent, it’s important to “play the long game” when it comes to custody. Part of “winning” in a child custody dispute means making sure that your children don’t feel caught in the middle and don’t see you and your co-parent fighting. Winning means teaching your child to respect the other parent, even when they are not at their best. Winning means making your children feel safe. It is hard sometimes to control your frustration, but it is absolutely vital to helping your child feel safe.

This is why a lot of times winning looks like compromising. It looks like reaching a resolution. It looks like going further than halfway for the other parent.

None of this means that you shouldn’t fight for your kids. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t litigate a custody dispute. But it does mean that your strategy should take into consideration building the new family arrangement that will be in place until your child reaches adulthood. At Cornerstone Law Firm, our attorneys are here to help you work through this painful process. We work hard to make sure that what we arrange is in the best interest of you and your kids and will help create a better world for them going forward.

If you’re in a custody fight, contact one of the lawyers at Cornerstone Law Firm so we can help you navigate this time in your life. Our attorneys are here to help you as you make these decisions for your children and your family.

Adopting your Stepchildren

The Brady Bunch was meant to be a humorous show about the difficulties of merging two families with kids. But 50 years after the show debuted, there isn’t really any joke about it. Merged families are the norm, and for parents working to ensure that their kids feel part of a new family unit, there can be unique challenges.

When you’re acting as a stepparent, you’re familiar with the challenges of providing parental guidance in a substitute role. If the child’s biological parent is absent or unknown, the stepparent usually feels more free to take an active role.

Many stepparents choose to go the extra mile in adopting their stepchild. The adoption process can be sticky, but here are four things to keep in mind if you choose to adopt a stepchild.

1. For estate planning purposes, the stepchild is now your child.

If your will leaves things split “between my children,” this includes both biological and adopted children. You can, of course, disinherit (or limit the inheritance of) a specific child. This means that you may still adopt a child without allowing them the same inheritance as your children. For stepparents adopting a child, this often isn’t a concern. If you want to treat them like your kids during life, you may wish to treat them like your kids after death. But you should still be aware that, absent clear language in your will, the adopted stepchild becomes your “issue” for all legal purposes. And if you don’t have a will, the adopted stepchild will inherit by default. (And if you don’t have a will—get one!).

2. Adoption will require the biological parent you’re “replacing” to terminate parental rights.

In the event that the “original” parent is still involved in the child’s life, that parent will have to terminate parental rights for you to adopt your stepchild. Your spouse’s co-parent may have good reasons to agree to terminate rights, however. For example, the co-parent who terminates their rights will not have to pay child support and will not have obligations as a parent. If the co-parent is far behind on child support to begin with, it may benefit all parties for the stepparent to adopt.

If the biological parent you are replacing has passed away or was never known, then the process is simpler. You can step into that role with the consent of the biological parent.

3. In the event of a divorce, both of you will have custody rights.

One more thing you should consider when adopting your stepchild is that you will acquire legal rights as a parent. This means you can make decisions about the child’s schooling, rearing, discipline, religious instruction and more. In the event that you and the child’s parent separate, you’re entitled to custody rights the same way a biological parent would be. An adoption is a permanent mechanism, and it doesn’t dissolve just because the parental relationship does.

4. Adopting a stepchild can help the stepchild feel part of a “real” family.

Not every child will feel the same way about being adopted by a stepparent. There can be a feeling of loss for the child who loses connection, even in an intangible way, with the “original” biological parent. And the adoption by a stepparent can change the relationship from a more “fun-loving” relationship to one that is more serious. But many children express happiness about the family situation normalizing. Some stepchildren want the opportunity to see their stepparent as their “real” parent and claim a sense of normalcy in the process.

Obviously, depending on the child’s age, it’s important to speak with the stepchild together as a family and see how he or she will feel about this step. A child’s preferences should not be disregarded lightly, and it might make sense to let the process take some time as all of you adjust to the idea of an adoption before taking the steps to formalize the relationship.

Conclusion: Adopting a stepchild is a big decision

In conclusion, adopting your stepchild can be a beautiful and loving thing to do. It also requires some effort to accomplish. Most importantly, everyone involved in the situation needs to understand that it is permanent. If you’re considering adopting a stepchild, call the family law attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm so we can help you through the process and help you consider all of the options. Our attorneys love adoptions, and we’re here to help you figure out the process.

What is the penalty for filing a false PFA in Pennsylvania?

When someone lies in a Protection from Abuse petition, an incredible amount of consequences follow for everyone involved. The person who is named as the defendant in a PFA temporarily loses access to their guns and is often evicted from their home pending the outcome of the case. Sometimes the defendant is even evicted from a home where the victim did not live. Furthermore, the defendant named in a PFA is sometimes barred from seeing his or her own children during the pendency of the PFA.

For as long as courts have existed (and longer, of course), people have lied to get what they want. In Pennsylvania, some people have learned that they can lie on a petition and wreak these consequences on a defendant. So what are the consequences to the person who filed the PFA if what they said in the PFA is a lie? Can you pursue the person who filed and seek to have them punished for what they said in the PFA?

First, it is important to win the PFA. The initial step in seeking consequences is to win the battle over the PFA. This means going to the court appearance, hiring an attorney to defend you, and having the petition for a PFA dismissed. A good family law attorney can help you with this process and it’s important not to try it alone. If the judge does not believe your side of the story, the judge can enter a three-year PFA order against you, and at that point it will be all but impossible to pursue any action against the person who filed the PFA because the judge will have found the filing to be true.

Do not underestimate the potential danger in a PFA petition. PFAs are granted everyday in Pennsylvania, in every county, and often on nothing more than the word of the alleged victim who filed the PFA. Gathering evidence, preparing your defense, and having the right attorney to defend you are vital in this step of the process.

Review any false statements in the PFA. Once you have won the PFA action, the next possible step that you can take is to review whether there are any statements in the PFA that are factually false. It’s important to note that we are referring now to factually false statements and not merely opinions. Someone who says in a PFA, “I feel very afraid of this person,” is not likely to be prosecuted for perjury or face any other consequences. This is a statement of feeling or opinion, and even if it’s not “true,” or even if it’s not based on any objective facts, the alleged victim is generally entitled to their own opinion of the situation.

But of course, statements that can be proven to be lies or which are later contradicted under oath at the hearing can be the subject of a perjury charge. PFAs are filed under oath. The person who is sworn in and said the petition was true and correct to the best of their knowledge can face criminal charges for lying in the petition where specific facts are later disproven by video, physical evidence or by contradiction by the alleged victim at a hearing.

Consider whether the PFA petition was filed to set up custody or divorce, to lay the groundwork for a separate civil law action.  Most importantly, in considering a PFA that was filed against you, you should consult with your attorney about what other moves you believe the alleged victim is going to make in this matter. For example, did they merely file a PFA in order to surprise you with a divorce or custody petition? Did they file a PFA to put a cloud over your job or bring some sort of civil action against you claiming damages? Or was it just a moment of vindictiveness after a bad breakup? Understanding what the alleged victim’s next move is will be important in preparing to defend yourself against any other actions that they may take against you. In most cases, the best offense is a good defense: it is important that you beat the PFA charges. Whether you actually want to take action against the person who filed may depend on what other actions you think they may try to take against you. Playing this chess game can be exhausting, but it is important to think through it with an attorney who can give you good advice on your specific situation.

Conclusion: seek a family law attorney today. If you have questions about a PFA that’s been filed against you, contact one of the family law attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm to discuss your case. Our attorneys have experience defeating PFAs, walking people through custody and divorce actions, and more. Call us today!

Family Law Tip of the Week – Good Manners Win

Welcome to Family Law Tip of the Week, a regular series on our blog where we offer tips on how to go through divorce and custody disputes in an amicable way. Divorce should always be a last case resort but if you are going through it, we want to provide some tips on how to survive it.

It might be hard to believe, but the party who behaves better while interacting with the other side in a family law case often will win. When it comes to trial, those who behave well will look better in front of the judge. They tend to help deescalate situations even when the other party is trying to escalate them. They also often end up having better relationships with their children, co-parent, and other people at the end of the case. For these reasons, we cannot recommend strongly enough that you do your best to behave with dignity and class in your interactions, in your preparations, and in the way you handle yourself generally during your case.

Nevertheless, this is easier said than done. Sometimes the other party actively tries to get under your skin, provoke certain reactions, and make you look bad to other people. This only compounds the emotional component of a family law case. Having to negotiate custody and determine how to divide your assets is serious, and this can be a very painful process. Still, the way you treat the other people involved in the case, including in-laws and even your former spouse’s paramour, will impact your result at the end.

We have discussed tips for deescalating conflicts in other posts. One of the easiest to execute is making sure that you communicate in writing when you are angry. If a phone call does not go well, tell the person you need some space, and write your thoughts in an email. This gives you the opportunity to revise those thoughts, cool off, and say things in a more civil manner. Of course, people fire off angry emails as well, which is why you should think carefully about what you have written before sending it.

We hope that this tip is helpful as you navigate your divorce or custody action. As always, if you have specific questions, call Cornerstone Law Firm to schedule a consultation with one of our family law attorneys.

Family Law Tip of the Week – Setting Realistic Expectations

Welcome to Family Law Tip of the Week, a regular series on our blog where we offer tips on how to go through divorce and custody disputes in an amicable way. Divorce should always be a last case resort but if you are going through it, we want to provide some tips on how to survive it.

Today we will discuss how to establish realistic expectations for the outcome of your family law case. These kinds of cases are the most emotional cases we handle and are almost always distressing to our clients. Even if the case is being worked out amicably between the parties, there can be a great degree of stress and pain as the former spouses or co-parents iron out what will be their new “normal.”

One thing that particularly contributes to stress in this context is determining what should be the appropriate expectations. The first thing you should discuss with your lawyer is the range of potential outcomes in your case. Although it is not necessary to know every possible outcome, it is better to know the best-case and worst-case scenarios than only to understand that there could be a broad range of outcomes between those extremes.

One way to develop realistic expectations about your case is to consider seriously whether you cannot live without certain things or certain terms. For example, you might be emotionally attached to the family house, but the question is whether it is in your best interest to keep that house. Is the house affordable for you? Can you live without the house, or is that an absolute deal-breaker? Other considerations include the amount of alimony to request and how long you want to be tied financially to the other party. Understanding the best and worst results of your case and honestly assessing the potential financial outcomes will help you to set reasonable expectations and avoid making decisions motivated by vengeance or spite.

Keeping these considerations in mind can help save you emotional pain, trouble and money over the course of your case. The people who are best adjusted often tend to get the best results, and that adjustment starts from the beginning of your case.

If you are in need of assistance during your family law case, contact the attorneys here at Cornerstone Law Firm.

What is a Power of Attorney in Pennsylvania?

Power of Attorney is a document granting one person the ability to make decisions regarding property and possessions on behalf of another. The power of attorney document (POA) is named this because the agent can act in many ways as an attorney can. Of course, this does not mean that your agent can represent you in court or perform legal work for you, but it does mean that he or she can appear on your behalf before any private party as if you yourself were present.

The POA only lasts while you are living. After you pass, your agent will no longer have the power to make decisions on your behalf regarding property, possessions, or anything else. After death, the executor named in your will takes over and opens a probate estate.

POAs are not only for the elderly, incapacitated or infirm. A POA allows you and your spouse to have unfettered access to each other’s financial affairs, even as it relates to work-related documents such as 401K or other retirement plans. POAs also can provide for business succession or allow someone to be appointed for business purposes in the event that you are disabled temporarily or permanently. POAs also are used when a person plans to go overseas and needs someone in the United States to help children or other dependents gain access to bank accounts during that time.

Guardianship

In the event that someone seeks a guardianship over you, the POA also names the person to be your guardian. The courts are bound by statute to honor this choice in a POA unless clear grounds to set aside the named agent are demonstrated.

Duties of the Agent Under a POA

If you have been named as an agent under a POA, what are your duties to the principal? Generally, you have duties:

  • of care
  • of confidence
  • of diligence
  • of loyalty
  • to keep funds separate
  • to keep records of transactions
  • to act in the best interest of the principal

This means that you cannot take the principal’s money and run off to Vegas. It also means that you cannot take all the principal’s money and invest it in a single stock or make other risky investment decisions. The POA creates an important responsibility because it allows the agent to help the principal make sound financial decisions, but the agent is also liable for poor decisions made on the principal’s behalf.

Revoking a POA

Unfortunately, POAs are sometimes abused. In the case of abuse, you can revoke the power you have given to your agent. You can do so with or without cause and at any time, but it is important to note that every action the agent has taken on your behalf will be considered ratified by you. In other words, you cannot claim that you did not authorize a specific action taken on your behalf by your agent while the POA was in effect. The POA grants that power even if it has been abused. Of course, you can sue the agent who has acted improperly under the POA; however, third parties are entitled to rely upon the POA. This is part of what makes it so powerful. No one other than you and your agent can question the validity of the document.

So why won’t the bank let me get into a bank account?

A common question we receive concerning POAs is why a bank or other financial institution would not honor the document. In most cases, this occurs because the principal has died, and the agent is attempting to access the bank account of the deceased principal. This is a common mistake and is easily solved. The executor named in the will, or the administrator if there is no will, must open a probate estate to obtain access to bank accounts and other financial assets of the deceased principal.

Conclusion

If you are interested in learning more about POAs or need one for yourself or someone else, contact Cornerstone Law Firm. Our experienced estate planning attorneys can help you and your loved ones determine whether a POA is right for you.

Family Law Tip of the Week – Establishing Healthy Communications During a Custody Dispute

Welcome to Family Law Tip of the Week, a regular series on our blog where we offer tips on how to go through divorce and custody disputes in an amicable way. Divorce should always be a last case resort but if you are going through it, we want to provide some tips on how to survive it.

When you are in the midst of a custody fight, often the last thing you want to do is talk to your co-parent. However, the first step to good co-parenting is good communication. Today we will discuss how to establish healthy and intelligent communications with your co-parent during a custody dispute.

The court’s primary goal in overseeing and resolving custody disputes is to ensure that both parties are doing what is in the best interest of the child. High on that list is communicating with one another. This includes communication regarding practical concerns like the child’s transportation to and from school. It also includes sharing new things that one parent has learned about the child like diet changes, changing physical needs, or problems in school. If one parent discovers new information about the child, it is important for that parent to communicate the information to the other parent. This sounds simple enough, but what do you do if your communications begin to turn hostile?

Here are several things you can consider. First, you can limit your communications to a written format. Written communication takes more time to compose and send, but it also requires the writer to spend time carefully thinking through the words used and how they will affect the recipient. While communication in person can sometimes become heated, written communication allows the opportunity for one to take time, calm down, and reflect. Additionally, this written record will allow a judge to see where any breakdowns in communication have occurred. If you believe you are communicating well but the other person is not, this is a good way to build record evidence to support that belief.

While there is such a thing as over communicating, it is fairly difficult to do. In fact, the most common mistake that we see litigants make is not communicating enough with their co-parents. Even small pieces of information can be important for both parents to know, and sharing them shows a genuine good faith effort at trying to keep communication open and peaceful. Accordingly, a weekly update with all the information that you have learned or things you have seen can be effective. Of course, it is important to write this email in a tone that is not condescending or lecturing. Doing so usually will only exacerbate any conflicts between the parties.

Of course, some co-parents have no problem communicating well with one another, even in person and by phone. If that is you, keep up the good work and continue developing this necessary channel between you and your co-parent. Custody is hard, but it is hardest of all on the children involved. You owe it to your co-parent and your children to work hard to establish and maintain healthy patterns of communication during this time.

If you are in need of assistance during your custody dispute, contact the attorneys here at Cornerstone Law Firm.

 

Family Law Tip of the Week: Do We Need a Divorce Lawyer if We Don’t Have Anything?

Welcome to Family Law Tip of the Week, a regular series on our blog where we offer tips on how to go through divorce and custody disputes in an amicable way. Divorce should always be a last case resort but if you are going through it, we want to provide some tips on how to survive it.

A common question our divorce attorneys hear is: “Do we need an attorney if we don’t have anything to split?” Here are a few reasons you probably still need an attorney for your divorce matter even if there are not a lot of assets between the two of you.

First, a divorce lawyer or mediation firm will help to ensure that even meager assets are split and retitled appropriately. Unfortunately, we have become aware of situations where people tried to handle their own divorces and did not retitle all of the assets, leading to disputes many years later.

Second, it is important to have new estate planning documents drawn up, including wills and powers of attorney. This will clarify who should inherit your possessions when you pass away. Wills also dictate things like who would bring a wrongful death action if you were to pass away suddenly in a car accident or due to other injury. Redrafting your will ensures clarity about who has that right now that you are no longer married.

Third, although it may sound silly, attorneys help to ensure that the divorce is properly filed and finalized. Divorces in Pennsylvania require a number of steps, a state-required cooling off period, and more. It is important to ensure that both parties have properly complied with those steps and that the divorce is actually processed and finalized.

Fourth, if you have children between the two of you, an attorney should help you work out a written custody agreement. Even if you are going to attempt to keep custody 50/50, or if you think you have an agreement, there are still important matters upon which to decide. Attorneys can help to ensure that the custody agreement is drafted in contract form, and that the parties have considered whether or not to submit it to a judge for consideration and an appropriate order.

Feel free to reach out to our offices with any specific questions you may have in your divorce or custody action.

Family Law Tip of the Week: When to File for Child Support

Welcome to Family Law Tip of the Week, a regular series on our blog where we offer tips on how to go through divorce and custody disputes in an amicable way. Divorce should always be a last case resort but if you are going through it, we want to provide some tips on how to survive it.

When should I file for Child Support?

Today’s tip: when should you file for child support? Filing for child support begins the process of asking a court to set the amount that a child’s parent has to pay to support the custodial parent’s work in raising the child. The state has provided guidelines to help determine the set amount. The general range of appropriate child support can be figured out ahead of time. Parents who are splitting up begin discussions on how to do child support and the question arises: Should I file for child support anyway?

It’s always best to work things out away from the Court, but if negotiations are lagging, it is important to go ahead and file in court. You can always reach an agreement with the other parent later and inform the court that a hearing is no longer needed. But because hearings can take 45 to 60 days to have scheduled, it is important to get the clock started quickly.

Another reason that it is important to file for child support is that the date of your filing is when the obligation to pay arises. In other words, if you’re negotiating throughout February of a given year and you file on March 1st because you’re not reaching an agreement and the other party refuses to pay, the court will only award child support back to the filing date of March 1st, not for the month of February, for which you were negotiating. For this reason, there is almost no reason to not go ahead with filing for a child support claim, unless you are sure that you are going to work it out with the other person very quickly and you trust them to make payments.

Finally, once you have worked it out with the other side, it’s important to reduce it all to a written contract that can be provided to the Court later, for proof of nonpayment. Relying on text messages or oral agreements is a recipe for confusion and for a judge to say they won’t enforce a previous agreement or create a new one going forward.

All of these are just an overview of some of the things to think about with child support. If you have a question about your specific situation, call Cornerstone Law Firm to talk to one of our Family Law attorneys.