There is a world of information on the internet.  That includes a huge number of websites professing to advise you about divorce.  And among the topics often discussed on these sites is mediation.  Not a week passes without at least one client asking whether they should mediate one or more issues arising from separation and divorce.

Mediation is non-binding negotiation without lawyers.  What could be better?  Get the job done without the expense of the lawyers.  So, it naturally follows that lawyers must be inalterably opposed to mediation.  Right?

When clients ask us about mediating their particular case it does put us in a predicament.  If we advise them to mediate, the inference arises that we add no value to their cause by our representation.  If we advise against it, it appears that our interest in earning a fee has trumped their interest in avoiding unnecessary legal expenses.  So where lays the truth?  A monograph such as this can help because our advise is generic and does not apply to any one case.

In mediation the parties sit down with a neutral person, usually trained to mediate, who listens to each party and attempts to forge common understandings about what is in controversy and how each party’s interest can be accommodated.  It is quite different in approach from litigation, which often takes on a “winner takes all” approach.  Mediators are supposed to remain absolutely neutral through the mediation process.  They are not even supposed to suggest a solution that may appear evident to them because they are then interfering rather than expediting the mediation process.  Where agreement is reached, they usually will confine their roles to creating a memorandum delineating the understanding and ask the parties to have their respective lawyers prepare an agreement to be signed.  There is no question that when a mediator is talented and the parties are motivated to resolve matters, mediation can chop through many controversial issues in quick order.

To be effective, mediation requires three elements.  The first is that both parties are motivated to settle a matter.  Everyone likes to see themselves as motivated to avoid controversy but most of us come to a controversy with the idea that because we are right, we should get what we want.  Mediation has nothing to do with what is right or fair.  It is about compromising matters with an eye towards giving each party the most he or she can get from a negotiation.  But in just about every bilateral (two-way) negotiation, what I get comes at your loss and what you get comes at mine.

The second element required in a mediated negotiation is that each party comes equally well informed.  This is where folks often overestimate their knowledge of their own assets.  If I offer to swap $100,000 in money market assets for an $100,000 IRA, is that an equal division?  The answer is that it is not, but arguments can be made that either one of the assets is more valuable than the other depending upon the facts.  Of course, if I never tell you about an asset or I fail to tell you that a stock option will incur ordinary income tax rates when exercised, I have a decided advantage in the negotiation because I have superior information which I have failed to share.  Bear in mind, the mediator is not supposed to ferret the facts.  The mediator’s role is to moderate discussions directed toward compromise.

The third and final element necessary to mediate is emotional strength.  In divorce related mediation this can often be the fatal flaw.  More often than not, men are trained and temperamentally suited to be negotiators.  Negotiation is a game at which some win and some lose.  Women tend to be motivated to avoid conflict and promote compromise.  This often spells doom in a world where the combatant finds him or herself pitted against a party predisposed to settle.  This rule is by no means fixed in a sexually stereotypical sense.  Again, it is important to note that the mediator does not have the responsibility to level the playing field.

So, having made these observations and noted that there are no hard and fast rules, is there a common sense guideline as to when to mediate and when to avoid it?  Yes, but even these rules come with qualifications.

First, custody issues are probably the most productive area to mediate.  The reasons are several.  The facts are relatively well-known or easily ascertained.  Second, custody arrangements are rarely permanent.  An arrangement negotiated and making sense today could be useless and silly four months from now.  By law, any custody arrangement reached by parents can be discarded by a Court if it later finds that the agreement is not in the child’s interest.  Moreover, one can hope, naively perhaps, that each parent has the child’s interest at heart.

When mediating economic issues such as support and property, it is imperative that you feel that you are equally well-versed as the person you aspire to mediate with.  When dividing simple assets like bank and brokerage accounts the process can be fairly straightforward.  The key is current information and an understanding of how the assets work from a management and tax liability standpoint.  If you are not clear on these points, you could be giving away the store without even recognizing it.  Some issues, such as stock options, retirement plans and closely held businesses can be so complicated that mediation almost never makes sense.

The other factor which should be kept in mind is that in classic mediation, the mediator gives no thought whatsoever to “what a court would do.”  Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware are all equitable distribution states.  This means that assets are usually not divided equally, but based upon an imprecise formula that assays how long you were married, how much you can earn, what you contributed to creating the marital estate and other such issues.  The outcomes vary from case to case and state to state.  You could form what you perceive as a “fair agreement” in mediation to discover that you would have gotten a far different result if you relied upon a court to make the division.

So, should mediation be avoided?  Absolutely not.  But it is worth knowing the benefits and detriments to the process as it relates to your case before going into the process.  Once in mediation, you are not bound by your agreements unless you choose to affirm them outside mediation.  But you don’t want to invest in this intensive process only to find yourself abandoning the agreement you said you intended to make.  The prudent course is to discuss the process, its potential and peril before actually enrolling this exercise.

 

 

We last wrote about Bitcoin in late March, 2014. The principal concern we expressed at that time was that these cryptocurrencies might form a refuge from financial disclosure in the typical divorce setting. The specifics of how these assets work is in the earlier article and available on line as part of our archive (search: bitcoin). The one thing that had to discourage this medium of investment was its volatility. People who buy a currency tend to like it to have a stable price. And in 2014 bitcoin was offering a wild ride. When first offered Bitcoins traded for pennies. But in late 2013 they rose quickly to over $1000 per unit, then plummeted to just over $400 in April 2014. From then until late Fall of last year the “coin” traded between $200 and $600. But then off to the races it went once again. Today, the once lowly bitcoin is trading for about $2600 each. Great news for those who bought at $200 but again, most people are seeking stability and not volatility in currency holdings.

Enter a new crypto with the name Ethereum, launched by a college drop-out in mid-2015. The aptly dubbed “ether” has gained adherents much more quickly than its competitor. The coin was a bit more stable trading until February of this year at under $15. But, since then, it has also become highly sought, driving prices from $20 to $380 in just a couple months. In the past few months, the New York Times reports that 100 companies have signed on with the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance including several Fortune 100 companies.

So, another form of asset for lawyers to monitor, which remains highly volatile but today, at least, is highly sought after.

We live in an age of instant information where there is constant temptation to share what one is doing and thinking. We are used to sharing our experiences and thoughts freely. The temptation becomes even greater when we are in times of stress. And, while this is a universal tendency that has always been prevalent, today we have a new means of making our thoughts known; through electronic writing.

A recent case outside the domestic relations realm informs us of the perils of this form of indulgence. The case in question involves a medical practice group that over a short period of time split into warring factions. The practice group encompassed different medical specialties and operated an acute care hospital in Greensburg, PA.

In 2010, rumors propagated that two physicians in the cardiology practice were performing surgical procedures which were not medically required or sound. The Chief Executive of the practice engaged an independent peer review group to evaluate these rumors. The preliminary report indicated that there were procedures performed that were not medically necessary.

Upon learning that their privileges were about to be suspended the two cardiologists resigned. The practice group then hired a second peer review organization to conduct a more complete study. Armed with a second report confirming that the cardiologists had performed unnecessary angioplasty, the physician group publicly announced its conclusion that there was wrongful conduct of the cardiologists.

The cardiologists subject to the report filed suit, alleging the reports to be false and the product of an effort by management to squeeze them out after the physicians had refused a buy out of their practice interests. The claims were cast as intentional interference in their relationships with their patients and defamation.

The practice group consulted with an attorney before deciding to publicly announce that the physicians had performed unnecessary surgery. The attorney shared her opinions on this subject with general counsel for the practice group. The practice group also hired a public relations firm to manage inquiries from the press and patients. General Counsel thought it provident to share the attorney’s opinion letter advising him about publicity with the public relations firm. This legal memo from attorney to client practice group was freely circulated within the public relations firm.

In 2013, the exiled physicians served the practice group they had sued with a request for “documents revealing any information related to your thoughts or plan to disclose to the media the conclusions of the independent peer evaluators.” The practice group asserted that this was an improper request for attorney-client communications. The physicians then scheduled the deposition of and subpoenaed the public relations executive in charge to bring any documents related to the public announcement made by the practice group about the physicians who were accused of improper practice.

No protective order was sought and the public relations executive was deposed. The deposition revealed that public disclosure had first been discarded as an option, but three days later those instructions were reversed and disclosure was authorized by management. The deponent had not revealed in deposition that she had been privy to the legal opinion independent counsel had provided to the employee-general counsel. That legal opinion surfaced as part of a privilege log. This prompted a renewed request for the opinion and all related correspondence. A discovery master reviewed the material in camera and decided the documents were privileged. The plaintiff physicians appealed. The Trial Court determined that transmission of the opinion letter to the public relations firm waived the privilege. The privilege is lost when protected communications are shared with third parties unless the third party is an agent of the lawyer acting in furtherance of the representation. Restatement of Law Governing Lawyers Sec. 70 (2000). In the Trial Court’s view the public relations company was providing service to the practice group, not the attorney advising that group.

The practice group appealed this order as collateral to the proceeding under Pa.R.A.P. 313. The application of privilege and work product doctrine is a question of law for which the standard of review is plenary.

The Superior Court opinion of Judge Mary Jane Bowes starts by noting that evidentiary privileges are not favored and need to be viewed to exclude evidence where there is a “public good transcending the normally predominant principle of utilizing all rational means for ascertaining the truth.” Key to this concept is that the client has not waived the privilege. Communications made in the presence of third parties or sent by the client to a third party lose their protection as privileged.

The appellate court distinguishes the facts in this case from situations where a law firm brings in experts on its own to assist in its representation of the client. If the third party is rendering advice to assist the lawyer in the representation, the communication is privileged. The third party’s access to privileged communications must be necessary or useful to the lawyer’s purpose. There was no link in this case between the opinion provided by counsel and the service that the public relations firm was engaged to provide. The deposition of the general counsel made clear that the public relations firm was not being consulted about whether to disclose the physician names or there alleged conduct.

As for claims of work product protection under Pa.R.C.P. 4003.3, the court notes that the purpose is to shield the mental processes of the attorneys so that they can prepare the case without fear that their theories of the litigation will be subject to discovery. But this rule is also subject to waiver. The Appeals Court devotes much attention to the Penn State University investigation that resulted in Bagwell v. Pennsylvania Dep’t. of Education, 103 A.3d 409 (Pa. Cmnwlth 2014). Bagwell had sought information provided to the state while he was affiliated with Penn State’s Board of Trustees. But the Bagwell court found that there had been no disclosure to a third party where the facts in this appeal show that the disclosure had been made for purposes not directly related to litigation or prospective litigation.

The takeaway is that what you give to and get from your attorney needs to remain confidential. Sharing that information with others creates the risk that the protection of that information may be waived. In this case a more thoughtful sequencing of who retained the public relations firm and when they were engaged (e.g., the independent attorney did the hiring) may have produced a different result.

Twitter, Facebook and other forms of instant messaging certainly do allow all of us to try to control the message or at least be first to relate it. But these methods have no legal protection. If you share the information you gave your lawyer or what the lawyer communicated to you, both the attorney client privilege and the work product doctrine will be jeopardized. If the matter you face merits engagement of counsel, counsel needs to be an integral part of any decisions about how the world learns your “news.”

Bousamra v. Excela Health et al.   2017 Pa. Super. 66 (March 13, 2017)

A standard provision in most written agreements establishes that no modification of the agreement shall occur unless the parties do so in writing (and usually notarized to avoid fraud). Recently, however, I confronted the issue as to whether or not a party may make a valid oral modification of a provision of an agreement.  In other words, was the “all modifications in writing” provision of the agreement as ironclad as it appeared?

The issue stemmed from the reimbursement of expenses related to the sale of property.  Over time, the reimbursable expenses grew and became substantial enough that the party responsible for reimbursing the other balked at the figure and tried in many ways to extricate themselves from the obligation.

It is common to include modification language in agreements to ensure that ad hoc revisions by the parties do not alter or create new obligations; or to avoid the chance that oral agreements are misunderstood or reneged upon by one or both parties. Interestingly, a commercial litigation case sheds light on the weakness of these clauses. The case of Crown Coal & Coke Company v. Powhatan Mid-Vol Sales LLC, 929 F.Supp.2d 460 (W.D.Pa. 2013) addresses whether a provision prohibiting modification of an agreement unless in writing precludes any modification whatsoever. The U.S. District Court, citing a variety of state and federal cases found that even where such a prohibition exists in the agreement, the parties may revise the agreement by parol (oral) negotiation: “[the] hand that pens a writing may not gag the mouths of the assenting parties.”

Modification of an agreement by parol negotiation, however, has the significant burden of being proven by clear, precise, and convincing evidence. This is a reflection of the general rationale behind written agreements: the need to eliminate ambiguity or confusion between the parties. Here, the Crown Coal court is articulating that in order to prove the validity of revised terms of the agreement, the party seeking enforcement must show that the terms are clear, unambiguous, and the evidence convincing enough to prove to the court that both parties intended to abide by the terms. Evidence along these lines includes the actions of the parties effectuating the terms.

This case reminds us that terms of an agreement are alterable by the parties so long as they satisfy the elements of being a binding contract. However, it is always advisable to work with a lawyer to make sure the revisions are in writing since the high burden of proving a modification by parol evidence – while not impossible – is difficult.

Any term of an agreement worth adhering to is best established in writing and amended to the Agreement. In the case of a Marital Settlement Agreement, it is also advisable to take the additional step to have the amendment incorporated into the Divorce Decree.  Once a MSA is entered as an Order of Court through a Divorce Decree, it really cannot be modified except by another Order of Court.  Consequently, if a revision to the terms has been made and both parties expect the other to adhere to the terms (or want the ability to compel enforcement), the best practice is to have a written amendment signed and filed for incorporation with the Divorce Decree.  This additional step might be the difference between easily enforcing the new term(s) or having to take a circuitous route to enforcement. MSA becomes a court order once incorporated into the decree and court orders can only be modified by the court.

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty.

Hopefully all of us know that Pennsylvania is an “increase in value state” meaning that under Section 3501(a) of the Divorce Code, the increase in value of non-marital assets during marriage (to final separation) is a marital asset subject to division. There are two sides to this equation in cases where a spouse brings a premarital home to the marriage. The first is the increase in value that may be brought about by market demand for real estate. In laymen’s terms, your spouse bought her house four years before marriage for $200,000. It was worth $225,000 on the day of marriage and at separation, it was worth $275,000. Voila, $50,000 increase in value that is subject to distribution.

The other side is increase in value brought about by reduction in the principal balance due on the mortgage of the non-marital home. This requires some documentary investigation but today more and more counties make copies of the mortgage instruments available on line. Obviously, the best way to show this is to have all of the mortgage documents including the note as the note specifies the interest rate. But our clients tend to either discard these documents or bury them deep in attics and garages.

If you can get a copy of the mortgage on line, there is a decent chance it might refer to the mortgage rate. It will tell you whether you are dealing with a 15 or 30-year term. If you cannot find the rate, try looking at a website called http://mortgage-x.com. It will provide national monthly averages for 1 year ARMS and 15/30 year conventional financings on a historic basis. Obviously, it does not have your particular mortgage but it is going to be reasonably close.

Armed with that information, then go to http://bankrate/com. and look for an amortization table. Plug in the mortgage amount, the term and the interest rate and it will give you an amortization table from which you can determine the balance due on the mortgage on the date of marriage and the date of separation. The tables default to an assumption that you are getting the mortgage the day you went to the website but print it out and then, by hand correct it for the actual dates relevant to your case.

Is this admissible in a formal sense? Well, to ask the question is to answer it but unless we start demanding that every mortgage company come to every courtroom where there is a claim for increase in value, it will get you pretty close to where you need to be.

 

Ours is an age where hyperbole has not only become accepted, it is almost universally embraced as a part of American culture, and among the chief advocates of hype is the financial service sector of our economy. We lived throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s in an age when one could not open a newspaper or magazine without reading the amazing returns on investment that could be achieved by investing with this fund or that. In 2008, when the stock market imploded there was some respite from this enfilade of data on returns. However, as the traditional mutual funds were beaten into retreat, they were quickly replaced by a new creature; the hedge fund. These new investment vehicles promised a faster, better, ride because they would trade with and, when right, against the market. Money fled to these funds despite some enormous loads and aggressive profit sharing demands on the part of the smart guys who established them.

2016 was a watershed. The Dow Jones index grew by 15%; the S&P 500 by 11% and the NASDAQ kept pace at 11%. Meanwhile Barclays Hedge Fund Index barely cracked 6% in a world where the “house” routinely takes 2% up front and 20% of performance. So the 6% hedge fund yield was probably closer to 4%. The three-year average for the Barclays is a measly 3%, making even Treasuries look attractive.

These are the elements of the market that get the hype. And they all have teams of public relations and advertising officials to spin the story their way. However, today’s big news comes from the seldom-heard giants of the investment industry; the defined benefit pension managers. They don’t advertise. In fact, they don’t take customer’s investments. They take public employee retirement contributions and are charged with the duty to make certain the government’s promise to pay monthly retirement payments are actuarially sound.

Today’s news is from CALPERS, the largest public employee pension fund in America. This California agency and its analogues throughout the US manage $3.7 trillion in funds. Their customers are governments that have promised retirees a specified payment every month for life. If they cannot meet their projections, they have to demand that state and local governments pony up larger tax payments to fill the gap. And those governments are already screaming at the large percentage of government budgets allocated to covering pension costs.

So what are the big boys saying? In California’s case, they expect annual returns averaging 6.2% for the next decade. Some years will be better, some worse as the projection is an average. After 10 years, they see returns moving back up towards 8%, but the lower returns in the short run will mean more stress on your local governments to increase taxes.

The Ohio Public Employees system has predictions not much different. 6.76% over the next 5-7 years but then a bounce back towards the 8% that California predicts. Canada and Europe in the past years had lowered their expected returns while the US pension plans retained more flowery predictions. The US plans did not anticipate how far and how long interest rates would crater. The long-term prognosis for higher overall rates of return is premised in large part on a gradual return to historic interest rates.

For public employees, the concern about underfunded defined benefit plans remains. Low rates of return in the past several years have a cascading effect because income projections were not met. The Rockefeller Institute reports that the likelihood of a shortfall in income to distribute is 10x what it was 30 years ago. Subpar returns mean that CALPERS pays out more in benefits today than it receives in retirement contributions. We wrote about this looming problem in May 2016. Recently we spoke with Mark Altschuler who runs Pension Analysis Consultants in Elkins Park, PA. While actuaries, like Mark can project things like present value, it is not within their customary orbit to try to evaluate whether pensions will be able to meet their contractual undertakings to pay each beneficiary the prescribed amount on time.

What does this mean for the divorce practitioner and the client? When looking at the historic rates of return on S&P stocks between 1928 and 2014 the average rate of return today is approximately 10%. Some of that return is consumed by inflation. The other factor demanding consideration is risk tolerance. In March 2000, the SP500 stood at 1,527. It did not return to that value until October 2007. It then fell by more than half and did not return to 1,527 until 2013. The only way to gird against these market fluctuations is to integrate investments in stocks with investments in less volatile bonds. This is strategy that major government pension and annuity managers must emulate. It is also a polestar for conservative money managers. The term “going for broke” can be a self-fulfilling prophecy in the world of investment. So while last year the S&P kicked out 11% and that is 1% more than the 1924-2014 historic average, it would be improvident to build a financial plan exclusively around indexed rates of return. If you choose to believe that kind of growth is sustainable on a long-term basis, we encourage you to read Robert Gordon’s Rise of American Growth (Princeton 2016). So, for the medium term, prepare for 6% returns and be thankful if you do better.

In what some may construe as an effort by the Pennsylvania Superior Court to salvage something positive out of 2016, an Opinion was issued today which effectively opens Pennsylvania’s family courts to dissolve out-of-state civil unions

The matter of Neyman v. Buckley (No. 2203 EDA 2015) arose out of Philadelphia County.  The parties were attempting to have their 2002 Vermont civil union dissolved in the Philadelphia Family Court.  The trial court, however, dismissed the divorce complaint related to the civil union on the basis that it did not have jurisdiction over the action.  The trial court based its decision on statutory language which established the court’s jurisdiction to divorce parties from the “bonds of matrimony” and, therefore, could not issue a decree or order dissolving the out-of-state civil union.

The other problem in this case, was that Pennsylvania County examined the Vermont code and saw the procedural separation between dissolving civil unions and marriages. In short, Vermont retained a legal distinction between marriages and civil unions, though they gave them the same rights and access to the family courts. It was on this basis that the Philadelphia court dismissed the complaint to dissolve the civil union and noted that the action sounded more specifically in the civil trial division (i.e. address the civil union as a contract).

Neither party was contesting the dissolution of their civil union. They entered into the union in July 2002 before same-sex marriage was legal and began living separate and apart five months later in December. Since then, they have been living in legal limbo without having residency in a state to dissolve their union or access to the court’s due to Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Many family law practitioners, myself included, have successfully dissolved civil unions in some counties, but those courts which did so in some ways hindered the clarification of this issue. Despite the decisions legalizing same-sex marriage and invalidating Pennsylvania’s DOMA, the state legislature has not updated the marriage and divorce codes to account for the new law of the land. Without legislative action, it would be the appellate courts which would shape the law and offer some precedence to clarify the question as to what types of unions can be addressed by the family courts.

Within this context, the Philadelphia court, in denying the dissolution of an uncontested, no economic issue case, did Pennsylvania law a tremendous favor: it created a test case for which the Superior Court could weigh the argument offered by the trial court and conclude that, “the legal properties of a Vermont civil union weigh in favor of recognizing such unions as the legal equivalent of marriage for purposes of dissolution under the [Pennsylvania] Divorce Code.” Citing prior case law (Himmelberger), the civil union has a distinct “odor of marriage” and that the only substantive difference between a civil union and a marriage are “sexual orientation and semantics.”

The strong Pennsylvania public policy in favor of granting comity to another state’s laws so long as they do not contradict those of the Commonwealth was also cited by the Superior Court.  Pennsylvania family courts “must recognize their Vermont civil union as the legal equivalent of a marriage for the purpose of dissolution.”

Accordingly, the Superior Court reversed the Philadelphia County dismissal of the complaint and remanded it back to the Family Court to be addressed under Pennsylvania Divorce law. Practically speaking, this decision means issuing a Decree dissolving their civil union upon application by the parties and unambiguously establishing the Family Courts as a venue for dissolving civil unions.

 

 

When this writer first began to practice matrimonial law in 1982, the period after November 1 of each year could be termed the “Quiet Time.” In those days, once Halloween had occurred people decided no matter how bad their situation, they would tough out the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas or Chanukah. They did so in order to minimize the disruption on their children, who justifiably saw the holidays as one of joy and family unity.

It is different today. In recent years we have been asked to do initial consultations even during the third and fourth weeks of December. This seems very odd but I have concluded that the arrival of year’s end and the holidays prompts people to take stock over the state of their marriages and to ask the difficult question: “Is this working?” And if that question prompts a negative reply it leads to the more difficult inquiry: “What next?”

Truth of the matter is that these are and should be very troubling questions. In 1980, when Pennsylvania became a “no fault” jurisdiction, the fear was that no fault would cause an explosion in the number of divorces and irrevocable damage to the institution of marriage. Thirty-five years of statistical data have shown that the explosion in divorce never occurred. Ironically, if there is an objective measure of how marriage was affected, it is shown in the number of people who decide to marry. The numbers tell us that divorce is down. But marriage is way down.

Meanwhile, the interviews we provide to people in November and December of each year tell us something more interesting. Most people we meet are clear that they don’t want to file for divorce or even start the process before 2017 arrives, but they are clearly troubled by where marriage has brought them and they want to know what divorce would mean for them and for their children.

They ask excellent questions. Many of these questions are economic. Those are easy because our lawyers have lots of experience with this kind of thing. But then we have lots of inquiries about their children and how they will be affected. Unlike money, children are tough to measure, especially from a distance. Obviously divorce is much more prevalent than it once was. So kids understand divorce in one sense because many of their classmates have had firsthand experience. But observing the divorce of your best friend in school is quite different than the firsthand experience of seeing your own parents dissolve the only marriage you have ever known close up.

From a distance we can say that children respond differently. Some kids seem completely unaffected by the breakup of a marriage. Others are profoundly affected. Age has little to do with it. We have witnessed eight year olds who tolerate their parents’ divorce as if it were a minor event while their seventeen-year-old brother is devastated.

In an odd twist we are also often asked by prospective clients whether they should divorce. Obviously, there is no objective test providing a definitive answer. What we do experience a fair measure of is an effort to evaluate whether personal happiness should be foregone “for the sake of the children.” In other words, should I just accept a miserable marriage for the next 10, 12, 16 years to spare the children the anguish of divorce.

This is a place where lawyers need to tread lightly just as physicians do in the world of pain management. Some of us pass out at the sign of blood. Others have survived being awake and alert during the amputation of a limb. Some people expect very little from marriage and don’t deeply experience the pain associated with a bad one. Their neighbors can become depressed to the point of self-harm by the same stimuli. So be wary of any attorney who has strong opinions either for or against your marital situation. They are not the patient in distress. You are.

Meanwhile, here are the questions you need to ponder when you feel the strong need to move on.

  1. How will each of my children be affected? If you ask a child whether he or she would want to see you separate, chances are that they will say they are against it. But then ask yourself, how much anxiety does this child experience living in a household where two parents no longer like each other. Many parents pretend that their children don’t know about the level of parental discord. Perhaps true but experience has taught me that it is the full time job of children to observe, evaluate and manipulate their parents during the 18 hours per day they are not in school. Don’t underestimate them.
  2. How will you be affected by sentencing yourself to another five, ten or fifteen years of unhappiness? For most of us, the damage of living in an unhappy marital situation is cumulative, just like smoking.
  3. Not that you care, but what is the effect on your spouse of living the “lie” for the same period you are. Perhaps you have a higher pain threshold. But when people are forced to live together while not liking each other, the effect is often more frequent and more serious “bad behavior.” Your children will witness all of this while you both tolerate it.
  4. What is the lesson the children get from a state of lasting armistice? Are you and your spouse each depriving yourselves and your children from experiencing marriage as a happy relationship? Many clients profess that they will never marry again so that the question is moot. Meanwhile our experience shows that most will move on to other relationships which provide differing degrees of satisfaction. But a question you have to grapple with is whether you would want your children to have a marital relationship similar to yours. Obviously, there is a faith element to this question. If you view marriage as a contract having divine qualities, the question may not require an answer at all. A higher being has determined that you will and should remain together and that this is required.

It is clear that the arrival of years’ end does prompt many people to evaluate the state of their marriage and its future prospects. Attorneys can provide useful answers to the worldly questions of how property division, custody and support issues work. But imbedded in these questions are far greater ones; questions for which lawyers cannot and should not pretend to have easy answers.

We live in a day when reported (i.e. precedential) decisions are rare and decisions touching upon important philosophical differences are like hen’s teeth. But on November 18 the planets aligned to give us Hanrahan v. Bakker, a 2-1 panel decision with Judges Ford Elliott and Dubow in the majority and Jenkins in dissent. The subject; how much child support is “enough” when the combined incomes exceed $15,000,000.

We have seen this before. Branch v. Jackson involved a major league baseball player. In that case there was a large support order and money deposited in an UTMA account for an unspecified “later.” This writer was troubled by support paid into trust because that really does transfigure the basic premise of the income shares approach to child support. But the result could be explained when one sees that the average career span of a baseball player in the majors is about 5.5 years. Statistics tell us that the rainy day is coming and that for professional athletes there is rarely a “second act.” Meanwhile we know that childhood is 18 years by law.

Hanrahan is different. Both parties are lawyers sharing physical custody of two children. Mother earned approximately $105-180,000. Father’s earnings as a specialist in corporate takeovers with an established Wilmington law firm ran a gamut from 1,083,000 in 2010, $4,010,000 in 2009; $2,303,000 in 2011 and $15,592,000 in 2012.

The parties divorced in 2009 after 17 years of marriage. The opinion references but does not describe income or lifestyle during the marriage. The property settlement agreement called for an annual exchange of tax returns and an annual adjustment of support based on net income and Pennsylvania guidelines. It also contained a counsel fee provision should there be a breach of the agreement.

All proceeded smoothly in 2009 which is to say the calculation was done and the support adjusted to $15,878 per month. In 2010 father’s income declined sharply but again they followed the guideline formula and support fell to $3700 a month. In 2011 Father’s income was $2,303,000 and the support was calculated as $7,851 per month.

2012 was the year the mold broke. With $15,600,000 in income and mother’s reported as $105,000 Father wrote to Mother stating that he ran the calculation but that the number was “way beyond” any realistic reasonable needs. He also generously proposed not to reduce the support below $7,851 per month. It should be noted that Father also covered about $6,000 a month in tuitions, camp, and activities in addition to the support specified by calculation.

To complicate matters Father also took $2,500,000 of the 2012 earnings and clapped it into an irrevocable trust for the children. As if that doesn’t make it complex enough, the partners of his firm agreed to fund a scholarship in honor of the law firm’s founding partner. The “contribution” to this cause for Father was $150,000 but the firm reimbursed him for the contribution.

As one might expect, $14,000 a month in support and direct payments did not seem adequate to Mother and she filed to enforce the agreement. Father filed an unspecified counterclaim and the matter was heard in January, 2015. Over Father’s objection that the income level made the guideline presumptive amount under Pa. R.C.P. 1910.16-3.1 absurdly unrealistic, the Delaware County Common Pleas Court came back with an order ranging from $52-59,000 per month from May 2013 through April 2014. But the Court simultaneously ordered Mother to deposit $30,000 per month from that sum into Uniform Transfer to Minor Act accounts for the children where she would act as custodian. It also found that Father had breached the agreement and made an award of attorneys’ fees pursuant to the agreement. Both parties appealed.

Mother’s appeal settled on the issue of putting the support money into an UTMA account. Her argument was that every other support order in Pennsylvania affords a recipient unfettered access to the support awarded. On this subject the majority agreed, noting that children should not be made to wait for child support and that UTMA is a gifting mechanism with a trust aspect in contrast to child support which is an obligation of parenthood. The UTMA statute declares that these “gifts” are not a substitution for child support. 20 Pa.C.S. 5314(c). The UTMA funds are secondary to the underlying duty to support from current resources. Sternlicht v. Sternlicht 822 A.2d 732,737 (Pa.Super, 2003) aff’d 876 A.2d 904 (Pa. 2005). That aspect of the order was reversed.

The trial court had made a downward deviation in the support amount by reason of the $2,500,000 Father had deposited into trust for the children. Mother asserted that this also was an unwarranted intrusion into the support formula. The trial court had reviewed the deviation factors under Pa.R.C.P. 1910.16-3.1(a)(3) and concluded that the trust was a “relevant factor” warranting deviation. Here the Superior Court again relied upon cases noting that the support obligation was not reduced because of the child’s own property. This contribution was made voluntarily at a time when Father knew he had a child support obligation. See Portugal v. Portugal, 798 A.2d 246 (Pa. Super, 2002)(a parent’s voluntary retirement contributions are still income available for support). The downward deviation was reversed.

On the counsel fee award, the trial court had found this to be a reasonable dispute and not a breach of the agreement. The Superior Court disagreed finding that Father covenanted to pay according to the guidelines and that his position that the guidelines were now absurd or confiscatory was without legal basis. This denial of fees was also reversed.

Father’s appeal starts with a claim that the 1994 decision in Ball v. Minnick, 648 A.2d 1192 (Pa. 1992) somehow eliminated reasonable needs as a standard for support. The Superior Court held that guidelines and the rebuttable presumption of their applicability had been part of a statutory scheme approved by Act 66 in 1985 and remained the law. The income shares model had been adopted in 1989. Ball v. Minnick had established that where the guidelines stopped (then at $10,000 combined net income) the formula of Melzer v. Witsberger, 480 A.2d A.2d 991 (Pa. 1984) would prevail. But Ball was overruled in 2010 by adoption of Pa. R.C.P. 1910-3.1 which stated that all support cases were to be first analyzed through an income shares model after which the courts could evaluate whether deviation was appropriate. Father placed his reliance upon use of the terms “reasonable needs” in the statutory framework of 23 Pa.C.S. 4322. But the Superior Court responded that the guideline formula adopted in the Rules was the formula adopted for determining reasonable needs. It further noted that reasonable needs were not a deviation factor specified in the existing rules.

Along the same lines Father asserted the deviation was appropriate because this support result was an aberration of the standard of living of the parties. Pa.R.C.P. 1910.16-5(b)(7). He also borrowed from the trial court’s reliance on “other factors” to deviate. 1910.16-5(b)(9). The trial court appears to have followed the rainy day reasoning of Branch v. Jackson. Essentially, the argument there was that funds needed to be set aside for a day when incomes were likely to be reduced. The amended trial court order referenced the children’s’ post majority needs. The analysis here seems somewhat muddled but the clear import is that post majority needs and standards of living are not part of a child support analysis.

What makes this case interesting is not so much the result but the trend. We are seeing lots of disparity in annual earnings on the part of more and more people. In this case, even Mother’s income varied markedly. The support amount (excluding the add ons) over three years varied from $3,700 to $59,000 a month. Assuming a caring, honest and intelligent recipient what is that person to do. We can hope the payee would not spend every dollar received, but we are trusting that the right thing will be done with some fairly astronomical levels of child support. If the payee took the excess over the mean level of support (roughly $8300 a month) and purchased a $500,000 home with the excess cash accumulated over the 12 months of “surplus” whose house is it when the children are emancipated.

When large sums like that in Hanrahan come into play, would it not make sense for the court to appoint a guardian ad litem to at least make some suggestions or perhaps ask some questions. Certainly this should not be an appointment to wrest control of the support from the payee but we have all heard the stories, whether apocryphal or not of fortunes wasted on cashmere socks and fast cars. As a business lawyer Mr. Hanrahan probably still has a few more seasons in the big leagues of mergers and acquisitions. But wide receiver Michael Jackson was drafted in 1991 and finished in 1998. We don’t know how Ms. Branch’s children by Mr. Jackson ended up but even the best of us certainly would be tempted to think that the father of her children might become the next Jerry Rice (20 seasons). If the money we call child support really is for the kids, some caution should be taken in circumstances where the income level is erratic and the source fleeting. A GAL would be money well spent to assure that children do not ride the road from rags to riches back to rags when that calamity could be avoided.

The dissenting opinion of Judge Jenkins would go even farther. She believed that a downward justification was warranted based upon the funding of the trust and she also approved of the notion that it was in the best interests of the children for funds to be segregated into a UTMA account.

I was researching material for this blog when courtesy of some “cookie” embedded in a website, I was treated to an opportunity to save substantially on my divorce legal fees by signing on for a service that offered me “al a carte” divorce services by law firms standing by to help me without the “unnecessary” cost associated with full service divorce representation. Sounds appealing, right? Why buy the whole car when only the tires need to be replaced?

So as the reader has probably already surmised, this piece is being written by one of those pricey full service divorce lawyers. Thus, as the Latin’s would say Caveat emptor (let the buyer or in this case the reader, beware).

The typical person in an unhappy marriage faces a myriad of issues. Custody. Division of property and the debt that accompanies it. Division of future assets like pensions or other retirement plans; child support; spousal support; alimony; health insurance; life insurance. The list goes on but you get the point.

If each of these issues was wholly independent of the other, a la carte divorce services might make more sense. But, that is usually not the case. So let’s take custody. That should be an easy topic to sever from the rest, right? Kids are not for sale and so money issues should not really tie into custody.

Well, not so fast. Do you have primary custody? Then you will probably be a head of household for tax rates and you will be able to deduct the kids on your return even though the other parent contributes more to child support than you do. Do you have shared custody? Then your tax treatment is probably going to be different. Do you have the kiddies more than 146 nights per year? Then your support is subject to adjustment. If you have primary custody of minor children that’s a reason why you should get a greater percentage of the marital estate. At least that’s what the statute says. Spousal support and alimony pendent lite (which is to say spousal support with a Latin spelling) are calculated differently if you are getting child support and you get child support because of how much custody you have of your children. The parent with primary custody will want to ask whether there is life or disability insurance should the other parent experience disability or its more lasting cousin, death.

So you hire a la carte lawyer to help you draft a custody stipulation. Is that lawyer also going to assess and advise on the issues I just described? You want to say yes but you know better.

Let’s use property division as another example. Mother keeps the house subject to the mortgage because she will have primary custody. Do you want Mother to refinance the house to get your name off the mortgage or are you OK with having an extra $200,000 in debt sitting on your Experian credit report for a house that’s now in her name? And if Mother takes up with Mr. Loser and together they decide not to pay the mortgage on that home where the kids live, do you know whose credit rating is going to be dinged and who might be liable if the house sells for less than the principal balance due in foreclosure? One guess only.

In fairy tales, everything turns out right. That’s why you don’t read a lot about lawyers in books by the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen. Lawyers came about because things go wrong. Like the parent who signed up to pay for his kids’ college in 2006 thinking that he had a solid job paying him $200,000 a year. He loved his kids and with $12,000 a month in after tax income he felt confident that he could afford it. But then came the Great Recession and it has now been eight years since he cracked $140,000 a year in income. Meanwhile his loving children all chose to go to private universities and so far they have averaged 6 years to complete a four-year program. He didn’t need a lawyer, right? So now he wanders the streets with a $250,000 judgment accruing interest at 6% that has almost no chance of being addressed in a bankruptcy. A lawyer might have suggested capitating the cost of enrollment, the length of enrollment and a failsafe provision in case he lost his job. But, this 21st century Dr. Pangloss trusted that all would be well.

Some readers will call these war stories a form of fear mongering. Bad things don’t always happen. The entire life insurance industry is built around the premise that in any given year only a small fraction of people actually die. Only a small portion of legal agreements blow up in bad ways. But when they do, they can inflict a lifetime of financial pain. The trouble with on line or over the phone legal advice is that you’ll never be able to find the lawyer or algorithm that gave it to you when it turns out badly.