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.

There was a time not so long ago when clients would unload their domestic troubles on lawyers like a cord of rotted wood. They might take care in shopping for the right fit in terms of who would represent them. But once the selection was made, the answer was “Let the lawyer do it.” That’s what they get paid for, right?

True enough, but as the quantity and quality of on line resources have proliferated, legal advice has started to be viewed as an indulgence. Anyone can tell you it’s expensive, and it is. And, there is a huge array of free information on the internet (like this blog) calibrated to be useful.

Millennials, in particular, like to do it themselves. In domestic affairs, they see this as their relationship and they should be able to regulate how it ends. They may grudgingly tolerate advice from others but they see that as a plot to abridge their right and their power to manage their own affairs. Their parents tend to be more practical at least in their own view. “For what I pay a lawyer, I could go to Disney, replace a car or some other entirely useful thing.” All true. Until it bites you in the backside.

In the past couple of weeks here are some of the internet myths we have had to detonate for true believers in the power of the web. Divorces are granted automatically in Pennsylvania after two years. Custody courts automatically impose shared physical (50/50) custody arrangements. The person paying the child support always gets to deduct the children. There is no alimony in Pennsylvania. Every child over 10 gets to decide where he will reside. Courts can’t divide pensions because they belong only to the employed spouses who earned them. All of these myths contain a kernel of truth but are more wrong than right. Not any of the websites we have seen actually misrepresent the law. But none of us relies exclusively on the net for information. We dose it with the information we get from the yoga instructor, the bartender at the favorite restaurant or the well- meaning advice of great uncle Ellwood who left his horrible first wife in 1978 to marry your not so great aunt.

So, does this mean forego Disney, the new car, or the 72” flat screen? Perhaps yes. But if you are doing a divorce where money matters or it is going to affect whether your kid spends two non-consecutive weeks or half the summer with his dope smoking mother, some legal counsel may be in order. There are times when we actually do advise clients that the battle is not worth the personal or economic price. But we had people come to us with agreements they have signed or court orders they never appealed that promise them a lifetime of pain. Like the spouse who assumed that lifetime alimony meant “until he retired”. Or the parent who thought that if she just let father relocate to San Diego with the child, she could always go back to her local court to undo it later. This has become more true over time. We now commonly see executives who once could easily afford the college commitment they signed up for in 2005. Ten years later, their child has been admitted to a college with tuition that consumed more than half of their downsized net income.

Lawyers are not retailers devoted to crafting a “happy” shopping experience. Like physicians we sometimes have to report unhappy results. But the results you get will be directed toward your assets, your children, your experience and not some well-crafted avatar which might seem to be similar to your life experience, but really does not.  Your domestic affairs are about your skin and, like it or not your skin is a custom made suit, not something you found on line or at Kohl’s or Boscov. If you must do it yourself, at least find out whether  it needs to be done, and how best to do it.

 

Recently the Superior Court considered a case in which a party died during the pendency of a support action. In the divorce case for Moser v. Ronald R. Renninger, et al., No. 1065 MDA 2014, the husband and wife were separated with the wife having filed for divorce and sought spousal support against the husband, receiving an interim support order of $394.10 per month plus arrears in an unspecified amount.

As an interim order, this matter was scheduled for an evidentiary hearing and designated complex which allowed the parties to conduct discovery (typically “simple” support cases do not permit discovery). Approximately two months after the interim order was entered, the husband died and, without having established grounds for the divorce, the divorce action and the husband’s estate filed a motion to terminate the support action and Support Order on the basis that without a divorce action, alimony pendente lite is not available to the wife.

While the wife agreed that the support obligation terminated upon the husband’s death, she argued that it is appropriate to apply a support order to the estate for the purposes of paying the accumulated arrearages. Basically, wife argues that she is a creditor to the estate.

At trial, the court found that wife could proceed with an arrearage-only spousal support case. On appeal, the estate asked the Superior Court to consider: 1) whether the failure to dismiss the support case is an error of law and an abuse of discretion; 2) that the record does not support finding that wife is entitled to receive spousal support; 3) error of law and abuse of discretion were committed in miscalculating (husband’s) income.

Though acknowledging that she was no longer eligible for APL, wife pursued her claim for a separately filed spousal support action and disputed that such action necessarily abates with husband’s death.  The Superior Court followed the reasoning of the trial court in finding that while a support order cannot be entered post-death, the interim order was valid and wife could continue her support action on the basis that a surviving spouse can collect unpaid support from the estate of the deceased spouse.

For the second issue, the estate attempts to argue that the husband had a defense to spousal support. Unlike APL which is a statutory entitlement to the dependent spouse, the payor in the spousal support case can offer defenses to the payee’s entitlement to spousal support. In this case, the estate points to trial court’s failure – in their opinion – to adequately consider a protection from abuse petition filed by husband and that wife voluntarily deserted husband.  The trial court, however, noted these events and cited that both parties filed PFA’s and both voluntarily withdrew them. Mutual allegations of abuse, the trial court reasoned, are inadequate defenses to a duty of support.  The Superior Court again sided with the trial court’s reasoning.

The final issue involves the calculation of husband’s income. The estate contends that the trial court improperly allowed evidence which was not authenticated and failed to consider the husband’s 2011 tax return. Basically, the estate objected to the introduction of PACSES records generated as part of the support conference on the basis that it is hearsay requiring authentication by the custodian of records. The support master found the information provided to be maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and reliable.

The trial court acknowledged the problem of authentication and that the record did not fall within an exception to hearsay evidence.  The Superior Court agreed with the trial court, however, they also cite the trial court’s reliance on corroborating evidence which established husband’s income and supported the records offered at the master’s hearing. So while an authentication and hearsay issued existed, it was not enough to justify remanding the case back to the trial court.

While the support case terminated, the wife remained a creditor to the estate. This case highlights a few issues, but the more important being that the death of a party without grounds having been established may not justify stopping all the actions in the case. Careful consideration must be made of what can abate and what requires the court’s review.

 

Facebook continues its march towards recognition as a stable and reliable mode of legal publication and evidentiary source with a recent decision by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Matthew Cooper’s ruling that an estranged wife’s attorney may serve divorce papers to her husband through Facebook’s direct messenger system. That this decision occurred is not surprising since Facebook is being increasingly utilized as sources of evidence and, as of last year, a way to send legal notice to a person.

While this decision is making headlines, it is not as groundbreaking as it may seem: service by publication is a time-tested and acceptable method for serving legal notice of a lawsuit. Of course, notice by publication currently involves the use of newspapers which are plagued by declining circulation and commonly perceived to be a dying medium…or at least a medium where the average person is not perusing the legal notice section to see if they’ve been sued today.

Justice Cooper did not arbitrarily allow for this method of service by wife. Many courts do not allow service by publication until the litigant has shown they exhausted all other options for service, so this recent order should not be viewed as overly permissive, but as a reasonable and logical accommodation to a very specific, difficult situation. In this case, the husband had no discernible physical address and after what is described as an exhaustive search using a private investigator and search of public records, the wife appealed to the Court to grant her the ability to serve her husband at the one place he could be reliably found: logged onto Facebook.

Despite this order from the court, do not expect to see Facebook replace the standard modes of legal service. Typical legal process requires that a plaintiff serves a defendant personally with legal papers. Whether it is a divorce or a civil action, a plaintiff has the obligation to make sure the defendant is personally served with the legal documents; otherwise they cannot proceed with their case. This general rule is not without exceptions such as serving a competent adult at the person’s residence or having the defendant pick up a certified letter at the post office. All those other examples, however, rely upon having knowledge of where to find the defendant.

The reality of this case is that Justice Cooper’s order makes sense. If the point of legal service is to ensure that the defendant knows he’s being sued and can raise a defense, what is the point of the wife paying to post an ad in a newspaper which almost surely never be read by the husband when three emails over three weeks will accomplish the same thing?

This is not a drastic shift in how our legal system will work; this is merely an acknowledgement of a newer, more effective, and more specific service tool at the court’s disposal. Publishing ads in newspapers did not become the sole method for service, so I doubt service by Facebook will ever be the first option for legal service, but it absolutely has a role as an alternative method for service where the circumstances warrant it.

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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.

In most instances, people who take the time to visit a website like this are either enmeshed in domestic relations problems or trying to be supportive of those who are.  No one likes being in this position but statisticians tells us that this is a pretty common event in modern society.

Folks in the “system” are often frustrated.  Very few people want their relationships to fail or to fight over how they will allocate their income, their assets or how and when they will see their children.  But that is what occurs when relationships fail.

When these sad events occur, people tend to want advice.  Of course there is lots of free advice from friends, family, co-workers, and people at the gym who passed a bar exam in Indiana ten years ago and worked briefly for a law firm doing securities work in Indianapolis.  Divorce lawyers who really do this work charge what some would call an unfair amount of money undoing the damage of free advice.  “No, you are not automatically divorced after ninety days or two years or whenever.”  “No you are not entitled to live the frivolous lifestyle you and your spouse had for the last three years of your marriage.” “No, you don’t always get one year of alimony for every three years you were married.” Of course, you were getting much better free answers from your friends who “only want to help.”  In 2008 when your financial adviser told you that Citigroup was a buy at $60 a share, he wasn’t out to ruin you.  He just didn’t know better.

Almost like the sixth sense, people will reach out for free advice when intuitively they know that “professional” advice won’t be what they want to hear.  What does a client want to hear?  They are entitled to live the lifestyle they enjoyed during the marriage.  They want to hear that a father who has left a mother for another won’t get an overnight visit with his child.  The person who wants the divorce must pay the other spouse’s legal fees.   So, check with mother, sis or your brother in Istanbul first before checking with your lawyer.

Anyone involved in the divorce process can tell you it is frustrating, time consuming and expensive.  For most, this is absolutely true.  But part of the reason it is frustrating, time consuming and expensive is because clients (a) don’t like what their counsel is telling them and (b) tend to ignore advice they don’t like because they are getting free advice they do like.

This leads to today’s topic; the unasked question.  It comes out of an experience last week where a client’s former spouse sued him to increase the child support.  While we did not know her income (and the payee’s income has very little to do with the child support amount), our initial analysis was not only that support would not increase, it would most probably decrease.  At the support conference on the modification we exchanged data and the hearing officer came back with a recommendation that did involve a five percentage increase.  We reported all of this to our out-of-state client.  And while we reported that we did not agree with the conference officer’s analysis, the recommendation was not completely off base and merited consideration particularly if one looked at the cost of the next stage of litigation.  The client saw the point and wrote back that much as he loved his lawyer, he did not feel impelled to fight over principle given the dollars involved and that he knew that such a fight was only going to adversely affect their shared child, who would be caught in the middle.

It’s not always that easy.  But what is frustrating to lawyers is that their clients will often tell them things like: “He/She will never get overnight visits given what has happened.” Or “She will have to pay child support based on her last year’s reported earnings” even though she was part of Merck’s recent reduction of 9,000 employees.

The great unasked question is: “What is the likely income if we litigate?”  That is often a complex question with many moving parts.  But it is a question best posed to your own lawyer with the companion question of: “What is the estimated cost to litigate.”  Today, in many instances, the uncertainty of “winning” coupled with the relative certainty of investing in litigation make the question vitally important, and thus, well worth asking.

Facebook reutersTo the best of my knowledge, using Facebook as a way to serve legal papers or proving notice of a lawsuit or other legal issue has not been addressed by Pennsylvania courts, but that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. Recently, two different states took two different approaches to the use of Facebook as a method of legal notice.

This month, a court in Oklahoma ruled that a woman could not use Facebook to notify the father of her child that she was pregnant in advance of putting that child up for adoption. The basic facts are that the couple had a brief sexual relationship resulting in a pregnancy. Though they had little contact with each other after the encounter, the mother sent the father a Facebook message informing him of her pregnancy. Though he claims to have never seen the message, he learned of the child’s existence shortly after its birth and visited the baby for several months. He later had his parental rights terminated and the child was adopted with the mother’s consent.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Facebook message was insufficient for providing notice to the father of the pregnancy because it is not “reasonably certain to inform those affected.” There is a strong dissent which basically states that the Court is being naive that Facebook is less reliable than other forms of communication and that other forms of notice (face-to-face; mail) can just as easily be ignored.

It is worth noting that Oklahoma is also where a major adoption case arose involving a Native American child and was ultimately adjudicated before the U.S. Supreme Court.Perhaps that case has made Oklahoma’s courts particularly sensitive to issues of verifiable notice for legal actions?

The second case in which Facebook was recognized as a valid form of notice and service was in New York where a father placed his child’s mother on notice of his intent to have child support ended since his child had turned 21 years old.

The New York father had no address for his child’s mother; mailed documents were returned without a forwarding address. However, the father was aware of the mother’s activity on social media, including her “liking” photos on his wife’s page. The judge ruled that serving the mother personally had proven “impracticable” and that the Facebook message was a viable way of contacting the other party.

These are two cases with two significantly different perspectives on the reliability of social media to effectuate notice of a legal action. How this issue will be addressed in Pennsylvania will remain to be seen, but it will clearly need to be only after exhaustive attempts to serve under the traditional methods have been taken.

(Photo Credit: Reuters)

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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.

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My colleague and long-suffering Mets fan, Robert Epstein, in our Roseland office wrote a blog post in July about an interesting New Jersey case. A litigant to a divorce case tried to have his daughter appear in court on his behalf through an executed Power of Attorney. It is a very interesting attempt at circumventing the Court’s requirement that litigants appear in court. As Bob points out, there are a host of issues which are impacted by using an appointed “attorney-in-fact” in a divorce case: the certification of discovery; being subject to cross-examination, and; lack of personal knowledge of the facts relevant to the case.

The New Jersey decision, Marsico v. Marsico, which is linked on Bob’s blog entry, goes into great detail about the rationale behind denying someone the opportunity to appoint an attorney-in-fact. While the question may be posed as to whether there is any real difference between what a licensed attorney can do on behalf of a client and the powers of an “attorney-in fact,” the reality is that the family court’s often rely upon the parties’ testimony and direct participation in order to assess elements such as credibility or in their reaching a finding of fact. Even attorneys require their client’s to verify pleadings, so it stands to reason that the court would decline to strictly follow an appointed attorney-in-fact and will, instead – and absent exigent circumstances – require direct participation of the parties.

Bob’s blog post gives more detail and is definitely worth taking the time to read.

(Photo Credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_andreypopov’>andreypopov / 123RF Stock Photo</a>)

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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.

The Instruments of Embarrassment
The Instruments of Embarrassment

A recent story through ABC’s Good Morning America website highlighted the evolution of the prenuptial agreement in the social media age. Divorce lawyers are reporting an increasing amount of requests for language in prenuptial agreements – if not stand-alone agreements – addressing social media usage.

It makes a lot of sense. In an age where nothing ever really seems to be removed from the internet, protecting one’s privacy or “personal brand” on social media is a major personal and professional priority. People have been fired from their jobs due to content someone posted about them online; personal and professional reputations have been tarnished over embarrassing photos.

The concept of this clause does raise some intriguing legal issues. First, your ex-wife posting an embarrassing photo of you is not going to be defamation per se; after all, it is difficult to assert she is lying when the photographic evidence speaks for itself. Secondly, how can financial damages even be measured for someone posting on social media? Unless a job is lost or there is a concrete connection between the posted content and the outcome, I think a person calling “foul” over their ex-spouse posting photos will have a difficult time proving they lost income.

The way to give such an agreement “teeth,” therefore, is to provide for a defined financial sanction against the posting party. One attorney in the story suggests that the sanction should be relative to the earning power of the violating party and apply to each incident in which barred information was published. Practically speaking, the sanction has to be great enough that neither party will feel that the personal satisfaction of humiliating their former spouse outweighs the financial penalty.

I would think such an agreement, however, would need to carve out an exception for trial evidence or at least be narrowly tailored to the dissemination of information through social media platforms. Pictures and video acquired during the marriage can be a valuable resource for the corroborating behavior or actions of a party; it can provide important, admissible evidence. A blanket prohibition of the dissemination of pictures or video could undermine their application at trial and would certainly be subject to a discovery motion as to whether the agreement precluded the use of information at trial or, merely, the use of such information on social media. I would be surprised if people – particularly if they plan to have children – would want to prospectively preclude the introduction of certain types of evidence which may be relevant at a custody trial. An exception for the use of such media evidence at trial or, possibly, an agreement that such evidence would be viewed by the judge “in camera” (i.e. not in open court) could also help address the sensitive nature of the evidence.

It is axiomatic that technology changes faster than the court system can keep up. Private agreements, however, can mirror the shifting landscape of technology and privacy. Expect to see greater creativity in prenuptial and post-nuptial agreements dealing with this and other technologically based issues.

(picture credit: celeritystaffing.com)

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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

Good luck pulling that off, pal.
Good luck pulling that off, pal.

Until something changes regarding same-sex marriage, Pennsylvania generally has a few pretty simply criteria for getting married: be over eighteen years of age; be of “sound mind;” be sober (at least at the time the license is issued); don’t marry your first cousin (or sister, or uncle, or mom – there are fourteen different iterations in the code), and; don’t be married to anybody else.

That last factor, believe it or not, is actually not listed in 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 1302 which identifies the restrictions on issuing marriage licenses. Instead, it can be found in § 1702 which addresses marriages during the existence of a former marriage. Under Pennsylvania’s law, being a “bigamist” (which is against the law) will not actually immediately invalidate a marriage. Section 1702 offers a wordy, if not pretty simple, analysis on how to handle that situation. It assumes the “bigamous” a marriage was entered into in good faith and if it turns out someone was currently married, but mistakenly thought that they were unmarried due to death, annulment, or termination of the marriage, the the subsequent marriage will be valid effective the date that prior marriage is officially terminated.

Basically, the accidental bigamist has an opportunity to cure the defect – maybe they need to have a decree entered; maybe their former spouse faked their death or they were so estranged for so long that they thought they were dead. Whatever the case, if the couple involved wants to remain married, they will have an opportunity to address the prior marriage.

On the other hand, bigamy is justification to annul a marriage under § 3304. The effect of an annulment is to treat the marriage as though it never existed. This could have major ramifications to the determination of a marital estate (i.e. there is not one). Not unlike situations we have seen with common law marriages, where a marriage is determined to be null and void, the protections a marriage affords people instantly dissolves: people own property as “joint tenants” rather than by the “entirety”; the appreciation on an asset is simply the titled party’s asset without any right by the other to the value through marriage. In short, the marital estate ceases to exist and titled ownership dictates who retains what. For a long marriage, this could leave the “dependent spouse” with little or no assets and property rights. A civil lawsuit might be the only option to recover any financial interest.

Such is the potential for Florida Congressman Alan Grayson. Congressman Grayson is in a bitter divorce with his wife and recently filed an answer to her divorce petition seeking to have the marriage annulled on the grounds that she never divorced her first husband. If successful, Congressman Grayson would have a twenty-four year marriage immediately voided. Since there would not be equitable distribution without a marriage, he is seeking civil damages against his wife in the form of ‘”all of the money and property she has received” during their “purported” marriage.’ He is also seeking custody of their five children.

Even under Pennsylvania law, if Mrs. Grayson were to cure the defect to the marriage, because there is no intent to remain married it is unlikely she would be able to establish her marriage to Congressman Grayson as valid. Moreover, even if she were successful on that point, there would be no marital estate because the establishment of the valid marriage would be superseded by the date of separation.

Photo Credit: The Bigamist

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a resident of 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

In a case decided by the Pennsylvania Superior Court on January 7 of this year, we have a new wrinkle in the world of what constitutes abuse under the Protection from Abuse statute.  23 Pa. C.S. 6102. The statute defines abuse to include knowing and/or recklessly causing rape, sexual assault or indecent assault. All of these offenses can be found in the Crimes Code, and no sensible person would argue that they do not constitute abuse. 

Strange facts make for strange laws, however. In Boykai v. Young, a Bucks County court was confronted with a situation where husband and wife differed over how often they should have sex. 2014 Pa. Super. 4 (2014).  The couple had married in November 2011 and by January 2013 the wife came to court seeking an award of support from husband although they still resided together. When she told the file clerk the facts she was referred to Legal Aid and that organization filed the PFA on her behalf. 

The case includes findings by the trial court that at times husband would physically overpower wife in order to have sex.  The couple had a child in April 2012 and wife testified that on at least one occasion, husband insisted they have sex despite a physician’s proscription against such activity for a period of six weeks. Husband testified that after the child was born he and wife only had sexual relations when she agreed. 

The hearing was held almost a year after the child was born. At that time wife offered that she had sought support because husband was withholding support unless she agreed to have sex on a daily basis. The opinion from the trial court then stated that “Husband still tried to force himself on her.” Unfortunately, it is entirely unclear what form this “force” took but it appears to have been a kind of economic coercion.  

The Superior Court affirmed a finding of abuse and exclusion of the husband from the household for a period of one year.  The Court paid particular attention to the “forcible compulsion” definition found at Section 3101 of the Crimes Code (title 18). There, forcible compulsion goes far beyond physical acts and includes “intellectual, moral, emotional or psychological force, either express or implied.” By this definition one could be guilty of a first degree felony premised upon conduct that a Court found to be implied moral force.  

Complicating this further were the facts forming the foundation for the “force”. According to the Superior Court opinion, the critical testimony was: “He stopped supporting me. He stopped paying my bills. Because he wanted to have sex seven days a week and I said, no, three days a week, And he said, no.“ The trial court opinion goes on to observe that husband perceived that his role as breadwinner entitled him to decide and that he would not permit his wife to work. 

While the parties to this case were both recent immigrants from West Africa, the issue is a source of marital disagreement throughout the world.  The Superior Court equated husband’s conduct in withholding money unless he secured sex on his terms to “intellectual or psychological force” as referenced in 18 Pa.C.S. 3101.  In a word,  both the trial court and the Superior Court here find that husband’s conduct constituted sexual assault as defined in 18 Pa. C.S. 3124.1.

This is a sad case; a fascinating case and a troubling one. The clear message is that any form of coercion, even moral coercion (if such a thing exists) constitutes a red zone of proscribed conduct. Both the public and the legal community need to understand that.  

Further recommended reading:  Com. v. Eckrote, 12 A.3d 383, 387 (Pa. Super. 2010) which is cited by this opinion for the proposition that threatening suicide amounts to the psychological force necessary to sustain a rape conviction. A reading of Eckrote shows it to have facts far more compelling than the conduct described in Boykai.