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.

 

 

In most cases, there isn’t much to write on the subject of legal custody. In Pennsylvania, it is the right to make decisions affecting the child’s welfare; in contrast to physical custody which is where kids spend their time. It rarely comes up except when couples fight over school placements or foreign travel to “unsafe” places. Under a long-standing Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, Zummo v. Zummo, courts stay out  of questions concerning religious worship unless the worship involves venomous snakes or other scary things.

But, things are changing. Beginning in 2000 scientific literature began to question the effects of concussions on the human brain. Five years later a physician performed an autopsy of the brain of former Pittsburgh center Mike Webster and asserted that the contact he experienced caused his brain to atrophy at an alarming rate.

In November 2015, 60 Minutes presented its analysis of the magnitude of the problem. This was a kind of watershed moment because parents began appearing in custody courts questioning whether sports with a propensity to cause injury were in the children’s’ best interests. This presented a true dilemma. In almost all instances, the children want to play. Football is iconic. How could the courts rule against children and football? To do so was un-American.

A new page has turned. This week the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study of more than 200 brains belonging to deceased football players. These included players whose careers ended in high school and college. The results were fairly stunning. 110 of 111 former NFL players were found to have evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). 90% of those who played football in college were also found to have CTE. And, even 21% of students who played only in high school were found to have been damaged.

This follows a 2011 study by the Center for Disease Control that elementary and high school football players had a 60% increased risk of suffering a traumatic brain injury.

The researchers in the current study note that their sample consisted of people who were both deceased and for whom there was evidence that playing high contact sports had caused some form of brain injury. So one cannot reasonably assert that 21% of high school football players will suffer CTE.

Nevertheless, that is little consolation for parents. Especially when one considers the actual amount of physical “play” in these modern sports. Data on this subject comes from professional sports and may not precisely correlate to what goes on at the local high school but if you are perceiving sports for the quality of the physical experience, here is what we can report.

Actual time of play          

Baseball               17 minutes

Football               11 minutes

Soccer                  57 minutes

Basketball            48 minutes

Hockey               60 minutes

Some judicial officers have responded that this is not a legal custody question. I cannot fault that reasoning but the Boston University study published this week may tip the ball in another direction.

 

If you have been reading the news lately, we have seen lots of electronic ink spilled over entitlement programs, especially Medicaid and its role in health care reform. Meanwhile, the report of the Trustees of the Social Security Fund issued a grim report earlier this month about the viability of the program upon which almost every American relies as an important piece of retirement income.

The short-term news is good. The Trustees see surpluses in the accounts (income exceeding benefit payments) for the next five years. But then the account starts to drain as benefit payments will exceed collections. The speed of the losses is such that by 2034 the current assets of $2.85 trillion will be exhausted unless revenue is increased.

There are two factors at work here. When the program began in 1935 a retiree who reached the age of 65 was expected to collect for 12 years. That same retiree today is expected to collect for 20 years. This was to some degree foreseeable. More troubling are the workforce statistics. In 1950 16 workers were “paying in” for each person collecting a benefit. Today, the ratio is 3.3:1 and headed toward 2:1 by the 2034 day of reckoning. 2034 sounds like a long way off but ask yourself how old you will be in 2034 and recognize as well that they can’t just let the system run to “zero” and announce to the folks now paying in: “Sorry, game over.”

As real wages are stagnant and the labor force is relatively static, the ability to balance the account with tax increases is limited. What can be done to help is to keep increasing the maximum contribution profile. That was done in 2017 as the max out for contributions rose from $117,000 to $127,000.

But, just as we have written previously about how we may someday see cuts in defined benefit retirement plans (the ones that pay monthly at retirement), future retirees may be prudent to ask if benefits will be cut or means tested, as well. These are not pleasant subjects to consider when planning retirement and especially planning a retirement after dividing the pie in divorce. Yet, they do need to be considered.

 

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)

The leading case from last year in family law was the Supreme Court’s decision in D.P. v. G.J.P. 146 A.3d 204, holding that Pennsylvania’s grandparent custody statute offended principles of privacy and was partially if not wholly unconstitutional.

This was an odd turn, in an age when it seemed as if more and more people were eligible to claim custodial time or rights related to children. But the decision earlier this month from the Superior Court in K.W. v. S.L. & M.L. v. G.G. indicates that the matter of who has standing to assert custody rights is being further limited.

K.W. and G.G. had a child out of wedlock in August, 2015. Their relationship had ended long before and it appears that K.W. was not informed of his status as a parent to be. Rather Mother contacted Bethany Christian Services in March, 2015 regarding placing the child for adoption.

When the child was born in August, G.G. relinquished the child to Bethany who placed the child with M.L. and S.L. Knowing that it would need Father’s consent for an adoption to be consummated quickly, the agency, with Mother’s cooperation attempted to contact Father. After a couple of months of reaching out to the Father through social media, Father responded in mid-September to attend a meeting. A month later, he stated clearly that he would oppose adoption.

Father’s next step was to file a custody complaint on October 30, 2015 in Centre County naming Mother alone as defendant. He also filed a demand that Bethany indicate where his child was and that produced a temporary order from Centre County giving the adoptive parents primary custody and partial to Father. Legal custody was joint. Centre County also transferred the case to Father’s home county, Lycoming, for further proceedings.

A month later the adoptive parents, S.L. & M.L. filed a custody case in their home county, York, where the child had been present since two days after birth. At the same time they filed an appeal to the Order from Centre County transferring venue to Lycoming County. This prompted Centre County to revoke its order of transfer and move the case from Lycoming to York County.

Father filed preliminary objections to the York County case asserting that the adoptive parents lacked standing. The adoptive parents asserted that they stood in loco parentis. At roughly the same time Father filed his own case in York County. The Court entered a temporary order maintaining the status quo of the Centre County order. Meanwhile Father asked for argument on his standing objections to the adoptive parents. It was held in August, 2016. The Court held a hearing and on August 8, 2016 found that the adoptive parents did have in loco parentis standing. Father promptly appealed.

The Superior Court found that the order conferring standing was an appealable collateral order under Pa. R.A.P. 313(a) citing the Supreme Court opinion in K.C. v. L.A., 128 A.2d 3d 774 (2015). That decision held that an order denying intervention in a custody case was appealable as standing in this kind of case assume a constitutional aspect.

The published panel decision of March 6 holds that orders allowing third parties to assert custodial rights “burdens the constitutional rights” of parents. Citing the Supreme Court of the United States ruling in Troxell v. Granville, the Superior Court noted that custody litigation itself disrupts family life, language echoed in Justice Baer’s opinion in D.P. v. G.J.P. The majority finds that failure to end the litigation and afford Father his custodial rights created both a financial and human burden in terms of facing continuing litigation with non-parents. Under these principles, the appellate court confirms that it must act on the collateral order appealed.

Turning to the merits of adoptive parent standing, the court notes that this is addressed on a de novo basis as it is a threshold issue. It notes that aside from parents and grandparent’s only persons in loco parentis have standing. Under T.B. v. L.R.M., the Supreme Court held that one cannot have in loco parentis statute without parental consent. In this case, Father never provided any consent to the placement antecedent to adoption proceedings. A third party cannot place himself in loco parentis without consent of the parents. Gradwell v. Strausser, 610 A.2d 999,1003 (Pa.S. 1992). In re C.M.S. was distinguished on the basis that the natural father in that case had allowed the placement to continue for more than a year before asserting his rights. 832 A.2d 457 (Pa. Super. 2003).

Parents are presumed to be fit. Hiller v. Fausey, 904 A.2d 885. The lack of fitness has its own mechanism for adjudication but those require all the elements of due process absent in what seems to be an aborted adoption proceeding. The adoption agency is taken to task for its labile approach to finding Father and pursuing his cooperation in the months before the child was born. The adoptive parents are to be dismissed from the case and it will proceed with Mother and Father as the parties in interest.

The takeaway here is that where a natural parent moves quickly to assert parental rights, third parties are going to have to stand down unless action is taken to show that the natural parent is somehow unfit. The problem in this instance is a practical one of longstanding. Adoption agencies have a child delivered. They need to make a placement and they do. Now we have an expectant family that risks loss of a child they have long awaited. If we are serious about the constitutional rights of parents, the adoptive placement should have ended after eight weeks and not more than a year. One can understand the reticence of giving a Father who has just appeared on the scene primary custody of an infant. But, it is the only intellectually honest choice given the constitutional issue involved.

K.W. v. S.L. & M.L. v. G.G   2017 Pa. Super. 56 (March 6. 2017)

This week we see a new case from a trial court on Long Island, which held that folks who adopt an open marriage that produces children might find the custody courtroom doors open when parts of the relationship have closed.

Follow along carefully. It is a bit more “complicated” than you might expect. Dawn and Michael Marano are married in 1994. In 2001, they form an intimate relationship with a neighbor Audria Garcia. The Michael/Audria relationship (yes, the extramarital one) yields a child in 2007. It appears that back in 2007 there was a common agreement among the three partners that they would raise the child together.

You can predict what happens next. Dawn files for divorce and seeks custodial rights to the child. Michael responds she has no rights because she is not a biological parent. Meanwhile, Michael and Audria are not getting along either. The Trial Court, looking at a growing body of precedent coming from the gay community where it is fairly common for one “parent” to lack a biological nexus to the child, decided that natural mother would have primary custody. Father would have weekends and Father’s wife would have weekly dinners and some summer vacation. The Court found that the child did have a relationship with all three adult parties.

The press coverage of this decision has been extensive. New York Magazine, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Slate. The women are content with the ruling. Father professes that he will appeal. One can only imagine the trauma to a ten-year-old child innocently caught in this maelstrom of parental conflict and swirling publicity. On the adult side there appears to have been a “contract” whether written or not to raise the child communally. But suppose Michael and Audria expelled Dawn from the compact and admitted another man or woman as a substitute? If that subsequent relationship disintegrated, does the most recent exile from the “pact” have standing to request custody time as well? Is there a limit to how many contestants a custody dispute can have? And so long as I am asking questions; is there a time when the confusion associated with this litigation can be deemed to outweigh the merits of fostering and then judicially monitoring multiple relationships surrounding the same child? This may be the rantings of a curmudgeon. But thirty years ago, the mere existence of one extramarital relationship could cost a parent dearly in terms of custodial rights. And while the current crop of rulings on who can seek an award of physical time with a child seem to portend greater expansion of parental rights, I wonder whether children will ultimately pay the price emotionally because the greater the number of constituent parents, the greater the opportunity for conflict that undermines stability in a child’s life.

Some might argue: “We can just ask the child…” That is true but 10 year olds are not very adept at evaluating conflict. Moreover, they do not like to say no to anyone offering love and affection. One of the principles deemed most important in determining whether to award joint custody is the ability to cooperate. This author suggests that there should be a heavy presumption that two parents are enough and that if there is a strong sense that a third parent can and will cooperate to promote stability only then should a door be opened to admit a third party. Dawn might well be the best parent of the three but Michael and Audria enter the custody ring with constitutional rights. Those rights were judicially recognized long before Dawn stood back while her husband and another woman conceived and gave birth to a child. Yes, there are cultures including Native American ones where children were considered the property of the village and not the parents. But American culture is not wired that way and childhood is confusing enough without having three or more contestants battling out your best interests while you sit in the back of the courtroom wondering what a person dressed in a robe will decide is best for you.

Dawn M. v. Michael M., 00109/2011, N.Y. Supreme (Suffolk County)

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.

 

Last Fall brought us a decision from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania holding that a grandparent did not have standing to terminate a Father’s parental rights incident to an adoption. Last week brought us a Superior Court case in which the appeal comes from a Mother and her own Father in a custody case involving a 12-year-old child.

Mother had a girlfriend. To show the seriousness of their commitment, Mother and Girlfriend decided they would adopt each other’s children. The family remained intact for 13 years until April, 2011. A few months after the split, Girlfriend filed to obtain sole legal and physical custody of her natural child (a son) and primary physical custody of Mother’s child, a daughter. Mother counterclaimed for primary custody of both children.

After some initial skirmishes in the Montgomery County courts, a consent order was formed in August, 2012. Each parent would keep primary custody of her natural child. Problems began to arise between Mother and her adopted son and a parent coordinator was appointed who thought psychiatric and psychological support was necessary. In addition, a custody evaluation was ordered at the instigation of the parent coordinator.

Matters boiled over and on May 27, 2013, Mother shot Girlfriend in the presence of both minor children. Mother was charged with attempted homicide and endangering the welfare of the children. She was sentenced to a lengthy prison term exceeding 20 years. Mother was prohibited from communicating with her adopted son and from discussing the incident with her own natural child. Mother’s assertion to this day is that she acted in self-defense.

Once the shooting took place, Girlfriend (who had been shot by Mother) filed an abuse action and emergency custody petition. Mother’s own Father (Grandfather) filed a petition to intervene, requesting that he have custody of his granddaughter, the natural child of Mother. His allegation was that Girlfriend was tolerating physical abuse of the 11-year-old girl by her adoptive brother. Girlfriend, having recovered from the gunshot, asserted that the allegations were false and that Grandfather had no standing. Grandfather amended his petition in the wake of the objections to allege other incidents of abuse and to assert a right to custody under 23 Pa.C.S. 5325(2). Ironically, that ground as a basis for custody was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court while this appeal was pending. See. D.P. v. G.J.P. 146 A.3d 204 (Pa. 2016). The Superior Court notes that Girlfriend did not preserve the standing issue at trial so that it could not be asserted on this appeal. Judge Strassburger dissents on the standing issue but let’s keep our story on track.

Eight days after the shooting, the Trial Court entered an Order granting custody of the daughter to the Grandfather. (Mother’s father). A local attorney was appointed as child advocate and it was ordered that only the advocate could discuss the incident where the girl witnessed his natural mother shoot her adoptive parent.

A two-day custody trial followed. As the Superior Court notes, Grandfather needed to show an unaddressed risk of harm to have standing under 23 Pa.C.S. 5324. The Trial Court concluded that the risk was not sufficient to afford Grandfather the standing to seek custody he had filed to obtain. Accordingly, it granted the Girlfriend’s preliminary objection and therefore, concluded that the best interest analysis set forth in 23 Pa.C.S. 5328(a) was superfluous.

While all of this was awaiting trial, there was no interim custody order. The Trial Court instructed the attorneys and the child advocate to craft some form of physical contact. After two visits totaling 36 hours, the child advocate suspended Grandfather’s access because her directives were not being followed. Shortly after this occurred Girlfriend filed for sole legal and physical custody of both children. Another hearing was held, and in October, 2014 (17 months after the shooting) Girlfriend was awarded sole physical custody of both children. Mother was to have legal custody on a “cause shown” basis if she disagreed with Girlfriend’s legal decisions. All communication between Mother and daughter were to be reviewed and edited by the child advocate.

Grandfather did not appeal but filed another petition to modify which appears to complain about his absence of access. He was afforded another hearing where he expressed concern that the son was physically dangerous to the daughter in Girlfriend’s care. Mother also filed a request for phone contact with her daughter from prison. In August 2015, both requests were denied following another hearing. Postal contact was permitted by Mother subject to control by the child advocate.

Mother and Grandfather appealed. Mother asserted there were constitutional issues at stake as she had a fundamental right to parent. While the Superior Court found her constitutional argument to be fragmented, it did find that Mother’s claims of innocence in the shooting incident should not, alone, prevent contact between parent and child. The standard found in the statute is one of whether there is a “threat” from contact. 23 Pa.C.S. 5329(a) and (d). The Superior Court found that the Trial Court had not devoted enough energy to analysis of what it terms “prison visits” under Etter v.Rose 684 A.2d 1092,1093 (Pa.Super. 1996) and D.R.C. v. J.A.Z., 31 A.3d 677 (Pa. 2011).

A second source of controversy was the level of authority afforded the child advocate. The Appellate Court characterized the advocates regulation of contact between Mother and daughter as “overreach[ing]” and “micromanaged.” The Court concludes that this level of delegation, including the management of all communication between parent and child as improper. The Court notes that the title of “advocate” is not defined and cannot be equated with that of guardian ad litem. The term advocate is found in 42 Pa.C.S. 5983 and relates to involvement of children in the criminal law system as either victims or material witnesses. The advocate is described by the opinion as a holistic approach in contrast to the specific missions of guardian ad litem under 23 Pa.C.S. 5334 or attorney for the child under 23 Pa.C.S. 5335. The Court notes that from the record it appeared that the advocate acted at times as legal counsel and, at other times more akin to guardian ad litem. She appeared as both counsel and witness in these proceedings and was cross examined while testifying. The Supreme Court had decided in an order issued in September, 2013 that the guardian ad litem statute would be suspended to the extent that it required the G.A.L. to be an attorney or permitted “best” interests analysis to be conflated with “legal interests” or permitted the G.A.L. to present witnesses and participate in the trial in any role other than as a witness. The message this rule seemed to telegraph was that if you want to participate in a trial as a lawyer, you proceed under Section 5335. Section 5334 means you will sit, listen to the trial and take the stand to express what you consider to be the best interests of your subject child. On remand, the Trial Court was directed to carefully craft its order defining the scope of the attorney-advocates role.

As for the appeal of Grandfather, it shared many of the waiver problems found in Mother’s appeal. Both were presented pro se and the Court opined that the Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) statements were not well articulated.

Here the reasoning gets somewhat muddled. Bear in mind that the majority has affirmed the Trial Court ruling that Grandfather did not attain the standard of showing that the children lacked sufficient parental authority and control. So it was motoring under the partial custody standard and doing so because Girlfriend had not asserted lack of standing to seek partial custody in response to Grandfather’s filing. The Trial Court denied partial custody because his desire to have contact with his granddaughter was not in the child’s interest because of Grandfather’s (a) animosity toward Girlfriend (b) his steadfast belief that his daughter was not guilty of a crime when she shot Girlfriend and (c) his efforts to control his granddaughter’s testimony. The Trial Court also felt that Grandfather was inclined to try to sow discontent between Girlfriend and the eleven-year-old daughter (by adoption). The Superior Court finds that there was scant evidence to support these conclusions and while it defers to Trial Courts in these types of analysis, the analysis must be borne of evidence presented rather than supposition. It also held that under Section 5328(c)(1)(iii) the Trial Court must perform the 16 factor analysis that has become a part of all custody determinations.

Specifically, while condemning Grandfather’s use of the term “Adoptive Mother” in the case, the Court did not find this so egregious as to merit suspension of contact. The Court found no record that Grandfather had attempted to discuss or persuade his granddaughter to take a side in the criminal proceeding against her natural mother. This was ascribed to a “supposition” on the part of the child advocate rather than any evidence of record. The Grandfather had attempted to arrange for the child to meet with Mother’s criminal counsel for purposes of an interview but that interview was blocked by a subsequent court order.

In the end, the appellate court expresses concern that Girlfriend is not exercising sufficient control over her son to the possible risk of her daughter. The Superior Court described some of the incidents and believed the conduct between the sibling children involved more than innocent horseplay. Thus, it reversed not only to have a full evaluation of Mother’s rights while incarcerated but Grandfather’s rights under Section 5328(a). This makes for an interesting rehearing, as the law of standing is different than it was at the last hearing.

For better or for worse, this is what “new age” custody proceedings are going to entail; an unmarried couple, who adopt and then split badly, even violently. The children involved present their own issues related to physical conflict. A grandfather tries to intervene and an advocate is criticized both for the nature of her role and for overzealousness in the protection of an 11 year old child. Bear in mind, the circumstance of an adoption is the only thing that bars to two natural fathers from appearing on the scene to add to the mele. Note as well that this action began in November, 2011. It was temporarily settled in August, 2012 but within eight months gunfire erupted, setting in motion a piece of litigation that has subsisted for more than 3.5 years and is headed back to trial. The one child affected is described as “now 12”. That would mean that she was perhaps 7 when her world fell apart.

Note Bene:   We have been longstanding critics of the business of identifying custody litigants and children by initials. The author has been told this is a losing battle. But this opinion, for those willing to endure its 45 page analysis, was a special form of suffering. For 45 pages, here is what one read:

M.G. v. L.D.; Appeal of C.B.D. 2017 Pa. Super 29 (2/8/2017)

L.D.   Mother of M.G.D.. Adoptive parent of E.G.D.

M.G.  Mother of E.G.D. Adoptive parent of M.G.D.

C.B.D. Father of L.D.; Grandfather to E.G.D. and (by adoption) E.G.D.

As I have explained plaintively to any appellate judge who grants me audience, the children in this case are the soldiers in the trenches of modern day custody wars. They are gassed with parental acrimony nearly every day. They don’t read the Atlantic Reporter and their friends don’t either. In this case, two children have lived a life of newspaper headlines and criminal trials culminating in a long-term prison sentence. The least of their concerns is whether their identity is revealed in appellate paper books and resulting opinions. Meanwhile, if called upon to explain the precedential effect of this reported case in a pending case, this lawyer would be required to emit enough letters to daze even a lifetime “bingo addict.” The addict at least has a chance at a prize.