Divorce and Domestic Relations
Family law issues are complicated both legally and emotionally. When a marriage ends, the future of children is at stake, or domestic violence is involved — situations in which it can be very difficult to remain calm and objective — it is challenging to reach an outcome that is in the best interest of everyone concerned.
A trusted, knowledgeable, and completely impartial lawyer is absolutely essential to protect your rights and assets, negotiate effectively in and out of court, and facilitate a fair process that is conducive to achieving a satisfactory end result.
A family law expert will explain your legal rights and options, prepare contracts and other legal documents, and represent you in court.
Common Family Law Issues
Divorce and Alimony
Deciding to divorce, separation and annulment, property division and settlement
Child Custody and Support
Joint vs. sole custody, visitation rights, child support enforcement, tax questions
Marriage and Living Together
Eligibility requirements, money and property questions, name changes, common law marriage, prenuptial agreements
Domestic Violence and Child Abuse
Criminal charges, civil lawsuits, restraining orders, reporting of abuse or neglect
Adoption and Foster Care
Open vs. closed adoption, same-sex adoption, international adoption, qualifying as a foster parent, kinship care
Birth control, abortion, sex education in schools, state laws
Parental Liability and Child Emancipation
Responsibility for children’s actions, termination of parental rights, laws governing emancipation
Laws vary by state for the various issues which can come up in family court. Add to that the fact that familial and domestic relationships are sensitive, private, and often emotionally charged and it’s easy to understand why an experienced and empathetic lawyer is necessary to navigate the intricacies of the law and help parties reach an equitable agreement.
Most states allow for no-fault divorce, which means either party can request a divorce without showing that their partner committed some act which precipitated the end of the marriage. Pennsylvania permits parties to file for either fault or no-fault divorce (however, a spouse must reside in the county that is being filed in for at least six months prior to the filing).
Grounds for Divorce
- Malicious abandonment
- Endangering the life of an innocent spouse
- Bigamy (marriage to multiple people)
- Criminal conviction for more than two years
- Humiliation, cruelty, or other indignities
- Irreconcilable differences
- Mutual consent
- Separation for more than a year
The grounds for divorce are not relevant to who receives what property when it is divided between the parties. If negotiations or mediations are not successful in dividing up the assets, a court will attempt to achieve an “equitable distribution,” which means as fair as possible (even if it isn’t perfectly equal).
To determine what is fair, courts look at several factors, including:
- Length of the marriage
- Living standard during the marriage
- Resources and needs of each spouse
There is a common misconception that if one spouse purchases property, owns title to it in their own name, and pays all the taxes and maintenance costs associated with it, then that property cannot be considered “marital property” subject to equitable distribution. This is not the case. Property obtained during the marriage is marital property regardless of whose name is on the ownership documentation.
Like all other aspects of a divorce proceeding, the laws regarding alimony vary by state. In Pennsylvania, either spouse can request alimony payments. When deciding which spouse should pay alimony and in what amount, courts generally consider each spouse’s:
- Earning Ability
- Mental, Physical, and Emotional State
Courts will also likely give deference to a spouse who did not work but supported the educational goals and career advancement of their partner.
There are three typical types of alimony:
- Spousal Support (payments made after separation but before a petition for divorce is made)
- Alimony Pendente Lite (payments made after divorce proceedings begin but before they are finalized)
- Alimony (payments made after the divorce is finalized)
If parents are unable to come to an agreement outside of court as to the care of their children, a court will enforce a custody agreement. Considerations in custodial arrangements vary by state, but in most jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, the “best interests” of the child will be the guiding principle.
Key factors in determining what is best for the child include:
- Parenting skills
- Willingness to cooperate
- Stability for the child
- The amount of time a parent has to spend with the child
- Relationships with other family members
- Distance between the parents’ domiciles
There are two types of child custody:
- Legal Custody (the parent with the authority to make major life decisions for the child regarding their education, religion, values, etc.)
- Physical Custody (the parent who the child lives with most of the time)
There are many different types of custody arrangements and parenting plans, such as:
- Shared Custody (shared legal and physical custody)
- Partial Custody (shared legal custody, but only one parent has physical custody)
- Sole Custody (only one parent has legal and physical custody)
There was a longstanding bias against fathers in custody disputes, but that is no longer the case in most states. Mothers are no longer automatically presumed to be better caretakers of children. In fact, Pennsylvania is one of several states taking proactive steps to protect the rights of fathers by enacting laws which prohibit family courts from basing custody decisions on parental gender.
The custodial parent is entitled to request financial assistance to cover childcare costs they incur. In Pennsylvania, unlike most other states, any caregiver, even if not biologically related to the child, can request child support.
Every state has different guidelines for determining appropriate child support payments, but they primarily consider the income of the parents and the number of children. Secondary factors may include the age of the children, standards of living, and special needs. In addition to child support payments, a family court can also require one or both parents to pay for health insurance for the children.
Child support agreements typically remain in effect until the child turns 18 or graduates high school, whichever is later. Parents who disregard the terms of a child support order or fail to make child support payments can be punished with fines or even imprisonment in some states. That said, parents are entitled to request modifications to an existing child support agreement if their living circumstances change, such as if they need to relocate or they lose their job.
No one likes to contemplate the end of a marriage just as it’s about to begin, but given that 40-50% of marriages end in divorce, it’s only prudent to seriously consider having a family law expert draft an agreement which sets out in advance how the marriage will be dissolved, how assets will be divided, and who will gain custody and to what extent of any children that result from the union.
How A Family Lawyer Can Help
An experienced and knowledgeable family lawyer helps parties protect their interest in familial disputes in private negotiations, mediation settings, and, if necessary, in courtrooms. They can ensure equitable distribution of marital assets and fair child support agreements by investigating the income, earning capacity, and assets of both parties, as well as the best interests of any children.
A family lawyer can also assist with a number of other issues, including drafting prenuptial agreements, preserving the rights of grandparents to visit their grandchildren, advocating for modifications to divorce agreements (or defending against changes to them), obtaining protection from abuse orders in domestic violence situations, facilitating name changes for minors and adults, and processing adoptions.