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.

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.

Four steps to take when you’re served with a false Protection from Abuse Order

Four steps to take when you’re served with a false Protection from Abuse Order

Protection from Abuse Orders, or PFAs, are the mechanism that Pennsylvania uses to protect someone claiming to be the victim of domestic violence. Some states refer to this as a “restraining order,” but in Pennsylvania, the concept is strictly limited to former or current sexual partners or members of the same household. Furthermore, to obtain a PFA, someone has to show that they are afraid of imminent harm at the hands of the defendant. If you’ve been served with a PFA Order and told not to contact someone, here are four things you need to consider immediately in preparing to defend yourself.

  1. Do not contact the person who filed the PFA

First, it is important for you to know that a Protection From Abuse Order is first entered against you “ex parte.” This means it is ordered by a judge without you present or knowing about it. Under Pennyslvania law, you will almost always first hear about someone’s allegations that you abused them from a Sheriff serving you with an order. Shockingly to most defendants, this Order is entered by a Court before you ever have a chance to defend yourself. It is vital that you not contact the person alleging abuse, as this is illegal pursuant to the Court Order. Unfortunately, many PFA defendants make that their first course of action. It’s natural to think this is a misunderstanding that can be cleared up, or to confront the person about what’s in the PFA. It’s natural—but it’s also illegal, and will land you in hot water. This is true even if the victim contacts you and says it was a mistake to file against you. Don’t respond to them: call an attorney.

Until your hearing, you are legally prohibited from contacting the person who filed the PFA against you and doing so is a criminal offense. You can be charged with an Indirect Criminal Contempt, which is a misdemeanor, and which can come with jail time. In other words, you can end up in jail for violating a PFA based on false facts. Your violation of the PFA is an independent crime known as Indirect Criminal Contempt in Pennsylvania. Your first call should be to a PFA attorney—not to the alleged victim.

  1. Determine your goals—and the other person’s—in formulating a response.

PFAs are usually not filed in a vacuum. They often precede a divorce or custody action. Is the person filing the PFA against you doing so out of spite or are they hoping to get you out of a house so they can change the locks? Do they really believe you’ve been emotionally abusive, or is this a cynical ploy on their part? Is the goal to make it hard for you to move forward with custody? Understanding what the other side is attempting to do in filing a PFA is vital to determining your next steps.

As discussed below, a PFA can be consented to in some situations, meaning you might wish to agree to the entry of an order prohibiting you from contacting this person. This is especially true if basic agreements in a parallel criminal case or custody action can be resolved as part of such an agreement. In other situations, consenting to a PFA would be disastrous. The goals of the parties are a major piece to determining your next step.

  1. Gather your evidence

A challenge to defending against false PFAs is in the very nature of the charge. It usually comes down to “he said, she said” in court, and it requires showing that the person claiming abuse is lying or grossly exaggerating. What evidence can you produce to show this is false? Was the argument legally caught on video in the house? Sometimes surveillance footage from a doorbell or security system is available. Did the alleged victim text you about the argument later? In some cases, an alleged victim has written a narrative about what happened for a third party, clearly stating there was no physical abuse. This can be important as well.

Of course, sometimes, there is no “hard” evidence about the alleged assault. It really is one person’s story against another. Having an experienced trial attorney on your side becomes even more important in these cases. Poking holes in a story without hard evidence is a challenge, but it can be done.

  1. What do you get if you “win” or “lose?”

Perhaps the most important issue is understanding the legal standard required of someone requesting a PFA and understanding what you get when you “win” or “lose.” If you prevail in defending against a PFA, no one is required to reimburse you for legal costs, and the PFA petition is dismissed. It can be refiled upon a showing of a new instance of abuse—but not for the matters in the original PFA.

“Losing” on a PFA is more serious in that it results in the entry of an order against you to prohibit you from contacting the alleged victim. It can also have a negative impact on your custody case, if one is ongoing, and potentially can be factored into a divorce decree in certain circumstances.

But PFAs can also be entered by agreement, and usually do not carry similar penalties. A PFA can be entered without a judge finding wrongdoing where both parties agree that they don’t object to an order prohibiting one person from contacting the other. In some cases, both parties consent to PFAs between each other. Sometimes PFAs are a mechanism to ensure that both parties feel that they can move on with their lives without constantly fighting over whether their communications cross the line.

But this doesn’t mean that consenting to a PFA is a good idea. Depending on your divorce, custody and financial situations, PFAs can have profoundly negative impacts on your life. A good PFA lawyer can help you decide whether consenting to a PFA with certain agreements can be better than fighting over the PFA, or whether it is a bad idea.

Conclusion: Consult with an experienced PFA lawyer

Having a PFA entered against you can be a serious problem, and can create issues for you and your family. Understanding what your options are in defending a PFA can put you and your family in a position to ensure that you aren’t harmed by the entry of a Protection From Abuse Order. If you’re local here in Berks County, call the attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm to discuss your Protection From Abuse Order and how we can help you.