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.

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!

August 2022 Review

This month the attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm have been busy with:

  • landlord/tenant actions all over the state
  • personal injury cases that are settling and going to court
  • insurance disputes
  • contractor fights
  • a trade secrets and corporate freeze-out trial

Attorney Stephanie Rauch-Mannino has spent much of her month working out final custody arrangements for families that are splitting up, challenging a post nuptial agreement for unfairness, litigating the proper amount of child support to be paid to a single mom and working on a final distribution of assets in several divorces.

Attorney Tony Distasio has been handling landlord/tenant work for Section 8 clients, where evictions are based on everything from unpaid rent to allegations of criminal misconduct and violence. Attorney Distasio has been everywhere from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia this month as part of hearings on these issues.

Attorney Carl Carrero has been writing briefs and motions and has been to court to handle a request for a delay of a sheriff sale. As sheriff sales pickup and foreclosures continue, Attorney Carrero and the Cornerstone Law Firm team are expecting to see more last-minute litigation over attempts to sell houses after foreclosure.

Attorney Joel Ready began the month handling a 2-week trial on a claim regarding trade secrets and a fight over corporate ownership of a large company. From there, he has handled several contract disputes. He has also been finalizing a few guilty plea agreements in the last 2 weeks to ensure the best possible deal for individuals facing criminal charges.

Finally, the whole staff at Cornerstone Law Firm has been working to ensure that clients’ wills are being drafted, contracts are getting signed, deeds are being drawn up and filed, and that clients are getting quick responses to their concerns. If you have a question about your legal issue, call Cornerstone Law Firm today so we can help you.

Lions and Tigers and…Gerbils? — Pet Custody in Pennsylvania

The divorce process is a difficult one no matter the circumstances. Most issues related to this process carry an emotional component. While we would expect emotions to run high when the parties are deciding issues such as custody and the disposition of the family home, emotional attachments to certain property also can give rise to disputes. Artwork, photographs or irreplaceable keepsakes can be quite meaningful to either party, and the process becomes more than just dividing up things. Although it is clear to most the difference between determining the fate of a chair shared by the parties and that of their child, it might not be so clear when pets are involved.

It should not surprise us that a common question received by family law practitioners is how the divorce process impacts pet ownership. The bond between an owner and an animal can be very strong, and the reciprocal emotional attachment often experienced cannot be replicated. Determining who gets to keep Fifi can be a big battle when dogs or cats are viewed more like children and when both parties have developed an emotional attachment. The issue is that, unless you reside in a select few states, Fifi will be viewed no differently than a TV or a sofa.

While the parties might come to an agreement regarding custody or visitation of pets, and while they might memorialize their intentions in writing, it just might not matter. Outside of Indiana, Alaska, and California, pet custody is not a legal concept. In Pennsylvania, the Superior Court upheld the view that the disposition of pets during the divorce process is akin to the disposition of property (Desanctis v. Pritchard). Specifically, the Court declined to give any credence to an agreement granting an ex-husband visitation rights to the family dog when the dog had been granted to the ex-wife through their property settlement agreement. The Court viewed this no differently than granting a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp, which it never would entertain. There might be some hope on the horizon for pet-lovers after all.

PA House Bill 1432 introduced in 2019 currently sits before the House Judiciary Committee, and rumor has it that the bill has enjoyed bipartisan support. The bill seeks to establish a set of factors for the court to follow in determining the best result for companion animals. If passed, the proposed legislation would add another avenue for the court to aid in resolving the sensitive issues faced during divorce. Until then, the fate of Fido will be determined like every other car or couch shared by the parties.

If you are going through a divorce and in need of some help, contact Cornerstone Law Firm. You can also read our Family Law Tips on when to file for child support, if you need a divorce lawyer, establishing healthy lines of communication, and more.

Who Gets the House After Our Break-up?

When you live with someone but are not married, this can create a host of legal issues, particularly when one moves out after a break-up. Who gets the house? If one person owned the house and the other simply lived there, and if that person made improvements to the house while living there, is he or she entitled to payment for any of those improvements? What happens if the two of them purchased a home together, but one person paid all the bills for the house? Does that person have a claim to reimbursement for payment of those bills?

First, under Pennsylvania law, unmarried cohabitants have no property rights in one another’s property simply because they live together. Even if you lived with someone for thirty or forty years, you have no legal right to what is essentially a divorce settlement upon separation. Neither party is required to pay spousal support, alimony, or anything of the kind (child support is a separate issue). However, if you purchased a home together, the two of you do have a right to share in the proceeds of the home once it is sold. In most cases, we are able to help the parties negotiate a resolution where one side buys out the other’s interest in the property. This can be a little complicated, especially when the market is very high or very low. The parties have to reach an agreement on what is the fair market value of the property. If they cannot agree, then one party can go to court and ask for what is called a partition. We have covered partitions in other articles, but this is when the property is sold and the money divided between the two.

What happens if only one person owns the property, but the other person has made improvements? In most cases, this will be difficult to prove because the party will have to show that the improvements increased the market value of the property. Claiming that the improvement made the kitchen look nicer, the floors look better, or that it was some other type of cosmetic change is insufficient. Most types of improvements that people discuss making are cosmetic in nature. Even an improvement with a clear function like a deck fits into this category. To prove that these improvements increase the market value of a property is always difficult.

If you are going through a break-up and you feel that you need legal help, our attorneys have experience in this area and can assist you. Call us today and set up an appointment so we can discuss your rights in the property and how to make it a clean break.

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.

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.