This is actually about executive compensation.  Not just any executive but senior, senior executives. If you have not noticed, we live in a brave new world where many public companies are seeing large blocks of their stock being acquired by private equity companies like Blackstone, Carlyle Group, KKR or Bain Capital.  To discourage these often hostile takeovers, many businesses have developed plans to make the takeover financially unattractive.

The one we have observed in recent years that should be evaluated in a divorce setting is an employment agreement that contains special “change in control provisions.”  Many large companies have various forms of equity and pseudo equity arrangements like stock options, restricted stock, performance stock and phantom stock awards.  The goal of these plans is to retain senior managers and incent them to drive profits and stock price higher in the hope that if they remain with the employer they will share in advances in stock price.  Most of these plans have graduated vesting of the incentive equity over three years. To ward off hostile investors bent on takeover, the employer writes into the agreement that, should there be a change in control of the company, all unvested grants vest automatically and must be paid out to the employee.  Thus, if a takeover target is “acquired”  the acquiring company has to cash out not only what is vested in employee equity but the unvested piece as well.  That can crimp the cash position of any business but in recent years private equity investors have not been much deterred by these disincentives.

So, many of us review employment agreements and often they contain obtuse references to things like “change in control.”  Don’t skip over those clauses too quickly, because you could find, as I have in two recent cases, that a buyout of the employer vests all options or other contingent arrangements and makes the employee eligible for an immediate payout of what was a form of deferred compensation.  Note as well, that some emoluments like pensions, non-qualified retirement plans and other forms of benefits may be “supersized” by the acquisition experience.  The pension that was $3,000 a month, might magically become $6,000 without the employee spouse doing more than being on payroll when the magical event occurs.  Even if these blessed events occur after separation, they commonly arise under the terms of agreements or awards made before separation.  They are enhancements coming about not because of post separation labor or contributions but simply, “because” the employer was targeted for a buyout.

So back to Roy Rogers and his famous steed.  A single “Trigger” acceleration occurs when one event triggers the acceleration of vesting, allowing an equity owner to receive the full or partial value of his or her stock.  Typically, they are related to the sale, merger or restructuring of a company.

These arrangements have evolved over time. In olden days, no business wanted to be “acquired.”  But over time some companies have not been so opposed to corporate courtship.  They realize that many employees would take the enhancements and walk out the door for other pastures and that this was a pronounced “negative” to potential corporate suitors.  So they developed the “double trigger” enhancement.  Double trigger requires two events before enhancements and automatic investing occur.  The first is the acquisition, just as before.  The second is the termination of the employee without “cause.”

Single trigger acceleration is unpopular with investors who generally want to position the company for acquisition.  One of the first things that acquirers review as part of their due diligence is vesting acceleration rights.  This is because they largely want to ensure continuity of the talent and operations that made the company prosperous in the first place.  If a key employee has a vesting acceleration right upon the company’s sale, then the buyer is at risk of losing the talent that built a successful organization.

For this reason, single trigger acceleration of vesting that’s conditioned on an ownership change is unpopular.  It means that if the new owners want to retain these employees, they’ll need to sweeten the pot to incentivize the original employees to continue with the new organization, driving up the cost of the transaction.  On the other hand, vesting acceleration clauses can lead to a lower acquisition price to offset buyout costs.  The result is diluted stock value for shareholders and investors.

A double acceleration clause requires two events to trigger vesting acceleration.  One event is the sale or merger of the company, and the other is usually termination of the employee without cause.  These are more attractive to potential buyers since they tend to promote mutual benefits to both the key employee with the acceleration rights, as well as the acquiring entity.  Rather than triggering automatic acceleration upon the event of a company’s acquisition, another event is required in order to trigger vesting acceleration; the employee’s termination. Many acquiring companies want to keep the acquired management and or sales force in place.  Those are the geese that laid the eggs the acquiring company wants to keep producing.  So the employment agreements for these individuals don’t make the special vesting occur until the employee is terminated.  The acquiring business would rather keep its powder dry to pay retention bonuses or provide other incentives as part of the acquisition.  These, alas, are probably post separation enhancements. But if the employee is released without cause within a defined period (typically 24 months) after closing on the merger or acquisition, that severed head is going to vest in many different forms of deferred compensation based on the original employment agreement.

Every case with an important executive merits a request for all agreements between employer and employee-spouse. Those agreements merit attention for the reasons we have specified above. Because many employees may someday be invited to waddle over to the Fixins bar for a heapin’ helpin’ of vested options and benefits.   A non-employee spouse or former spouse may be entitled to a share of the fixins.

The holidays are not upon us but they are not far away either.  If you are separated and your holiday plans for sharing custody are not, “set” it is well-nigh time to begin the discussion because November is not a good time to start Thanksgiving discussions and December is going to follow immediately.

If this has been your “separation” year for good or for bad, you need to understand that when it comes to old holiday traditions, all bets may be off.  Yes, your family has always spent Christmas Eve preparing the seven fishes at grandma’s house.  But this year, one of the fish is not being invited and that fish may put up a stink about it. Typically,  Courts divide holidays and alternate major ones so that both parents have a crack at Christmas morning or the first Seder.  One parent will get the odd years and another the even ones.

But, this short essay has another consideration too, and it is one courts do not customarily address.  If you separated this year, it is not unlikely that the separation brought a new person into the family picture.  Perhaps you were the one who fell in love with someone at the gym or on Facebook.  Perhaps, your spouse returned from his or her high school reunion with an old romance rekindled.  As most of us recall, new romance offers a special thrill.  For most, it is exhilarating. If you have ever been the person who was “dumped,” the feeling is not quite the same.

Typically, exhilaration prompts a desire for celebration.  Get a promotion at work and you want the whole family to celebrate, just as you would when a child completes an achievement, whether finishing kindergarten or graduating school.  But, romance is a lot trickier when family is “involved.”

Rarely do two spouses fall into new relationships at the same time.  So usually, when a separation occurs, one-person steps into a new relationship while another is left without any.  Imagine being a child, of any age, and encountering your first holiday with one parent ecstatic about his or her new love and another mourning the failure of a marriage.  One parent is telling you where they went and what they did with their new love interest, while the other is visibly in pain from the same separation.

If you are the parent in the “new” relationship, for the sake of your kids “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  They are in an incredibly awkward position.  They will be celebrating the holidays with two parents, one wanting to fete a new relationship to a degree that becomes nauseating, the other mourning the loss of one.  For children of all ages, whether their parents had a good marriage or a bad one, it is the only marriage they knew growing up.  Separation signals the death of their parents’ relationship and that is a death that they are trying to cope with.  They may actually like your new best friend or perceive merit in your marital decision.  Even when parents separate based on common understandings, if one parent has a date on New Years’ Eve and the other does not, the one “without” will feel inferior and “judged”.

Oh, and lest the point be missed, do not assume that your children will share the same attraction to your new friend that you do.  They will often judge that person harshly as the catalyst of their family’s break up whether the fact is true or not.  They certainly will be curious to meet the new Mr. or Ms. Right, but they will also be suspicious.  Since the Middle Ages, we have lived in a world where marriage has been viewed as a “forever event”.  A lot has changed in the past century but even the most cynical of us view marriage as more important than who provides your cable contract or cleans your furnace. If you are happily separated, enjoy your joy quietly, and, don’t delude yourself into thinking that your joy is shared by your kids, no matter what their age.

The September 7 issue of TIME Magazine features our obsession with childhood sports.  The statistics tell the story.  In 2005, school age children played sports at a combined cost of about $8 billion per annum.  Today that number is about $15 billion, almost double. And, during this same period there was no increase in the population of American children.  About 73 million, then and now.  So, how about household income over the same period?  Nominally, it went from an average of $45,000 to $50,000, but if you adjust for inflation, it actually declined a little bit.

This writer’s conclusion?  Americans are spending money they don’t have on something they want and enjoy but do not need.  The cost of team sports for children is itself frightening.  Time reports these as average costs including enrollment, uniforms and lots of travel:

Lacrosse                $8,000

Ice Hockey            $7,000

Baseball/Softball  $4,000

Football                 $2,700

Soccer                    $1,500

Basketball              $1,150

This is not a sport economics blog but we see this every day in our divorce practices.  Parents fight over the logistics of these sport activities. They fight over who will pay.  They fight over whether the child belongs in the sport and, as we recently noted, whether the risk of injury exceeds the benefit.

As the cost of college rises, we also see many parents eyeing their children’s athletic skills as something they can capitalize upon in the form of athletic scholarships.  Putting money in a 529 plan is a tedious way to prepare for college.  But travel with the child’s team to Baltimore or Richmond to watch 72 hours of continuous soccer is now viewed as an “investment.”  Curiously, as time has passed, emphasis is now focusing on athletic performance at younger ages.  Time reports of colleges following “star” athletes at ages as young as 10.  Middle school is now where the talent is first evaluated.  This means, the sport and the child must be nurtured for seven years before the scholarship is awarded.  And, children are seeing repetitive motion injuries crop up more frequently because many of these sports are now scheduled “year round.”  A gifted basketball player cannot afford to risk his future by playing another sport where he could be injured, or worse-yet, his shooting and passing skills are allowed to wither.

In May, I testified before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives about some possible changes in support guidelines.  The witness before me was a Father who, together with his wife, invested heavily in a child’s future as a competitive snowboarder.  Much of this investment was borrowed using husband’s credit cards.  Shortly after it became clear that son’s snowboarding career did not have much promise, wife departed leaving husband with massive credit obligations.  Then she had the temerity to sue him for support.  He wanted relief from the support guidelines because a lot of his income was paying credit card debt associated with promoting their child’s sport.

I must confess, I did not have much sympathy for either parent.  But, as the Time article observes, modern day parents have difficulty saying “no” to their need driven kids.  What child would not want to go to Baltimore, stay in a hotel and hang with his friends while assembled to play back to back softball games on gorgeous college campuses?  Unfortunately, the psychological community is warning that in addition to premature serious sports injuries, many children and their families are starting to experience competitive sports burnout. Especially where scholarships are involved, many competitions and tournaments are mandatory because that’s where the college coaches and scouts are going to be found.  I spoke recently with a fellow lawyer whose child is still reeling from seeing that her son finished both college and his baseball driven career with nowhere to go.  His persona and all of his goals were erected around his athletic talent and now that talent no longer had value.

This is a bad cycle and one that often robs the children of their physical and emotional well-being while robbing their parents’ purse with little chance of return.  Each year about 400-500,000 high school kids play baseball, soccer and basketball.  Another 1.1 million play football.  The likelihood they will take this skill to the professional world is frighteningly small.  Baseball: 1 in 760; Football: 1 in 600; Soccer: 1 in 800; and, basketball: 1 in 1,860.  Sports have much merit. But all good things must come in moderation.

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.