Friday, February 27, 2009

Things to Consider Including in a Marital Settlement Agreement: Part I - Car Insurance

When you are going through the divorce process, one of the things that often gets the most attention (and often litigation) is who gets what. Who gets the house, the car, the retirement plans, the antique dresser, the cat, and the Christmas lights. In other words, who gets what "stuff." The other thing that gets the most attention is child custody and child support. In Pennsylvania, a basic child support obligation is determined by the guidelines and is based on incomes. Generally, the non-custodial parent will owe some amount of support to the custodial parent. Because the support amount is set by the guidelines, an individual's actual expenses are not usually considered (although there are certain times a deviation is warranted). Therefore, when negotiating a marital settlement agreement you should look into your crystal ball and try to think of future expenses that you want to contractually assign responsibility for above and beyond child support. For instance, car insurance. According to Laurie Salkin, personal lines client manager and director of the Preventing Teen Fatalities Behind the Wheel program at William A. Smith & Sons Insurance Agency, your car insurance rates could increase $100 to $400 per month or more just to add your teen(s). When your kids are five and eight you are not likely thinking about this expense. But, you should. Teens do the craziest stuff and sometimes it negatively affects their car insurance rates. Let me tell you a story...

Many moons ago my dad bought me a Mustang hatchback because I had earned a partial scholarship to college. A week after getting the car, my parents allowed me to take it to college (freshman year), but I was not to take any road trips. (Yeah, right!) So, the first weekend back to school my friend and I took a road trip about four hours or so to visit the cute guy who had delivered our pizza during winter break. (Ah, the craziness of youth). The guy turned out to be not as cute and charming as we had recalled from our brief meeting, so we turned around and left. Traveling up and down mountains we would emerge into these little valley towns. At some point we smelled a funny burning smell, but decided that since no gauges were lit up on the dashboard that the smell must be emanating from the little towns or from the tractor trailers in front of us. (What did we know about cars!) As we headed up yet another mountain, one lane up, one lane down, we drove into a massive snow/ice storm. My little rear wheel drive Mustang was no match for the weather. I had it in 2nd gear, traveling slowly, still smelling the funny burning smell, but concentrating exclusively on the road ahead. Then, for some reason I glanced into the rearview mirror and much to my horror the entire back of the car was filled with black swirling smoke up to the backs of our heads!

I pulled over and turned off the car. We got out, locking the doors behind us (after all, our purses were in there) and went to the back and opened the hatch. After the smoke poured out I put the rear seat down and lo and behold, flickering out from the bend/division in the carpeting was a small flame! Well, we thought AAACCKKK! Flame, gas tank, too close for comfort, RUN! So we slammed the hatch back down and ran (slipping and falling in the ice and snow) about 100 feet from the car. We turned around and the back of the car was engulfed in flames, ten feet high! We tried to stop the traffic, but the rubber necking opportunities were just too much for the other drivers to pass up. There we were, two teenage girls jumping up and down trying to stop people and still stay on our feet in the slippery ice/snow storm. We were pretty much ignored. (I could just imagine the other drivers saying, "Oh look, Marge, a car engulfed in flames. We don't get to see that every day, let's drive closer to watch it explode.) Craziness!Well, anyway, eventually traffic was stopped in both directions, and the fire and police people arrived. They took a hatchet to my car while I stood there with keys in hand thinking perhaps I could be more useful. We were directed to sit in the ambulance. Now, hysteria had gotten the best of us at this point and we were in tears - laughing and jabbering about wanting marshmallows.

Eventually, a fireman joined us in the ambulance and handed us two paper bags - "here's your purses, ladies." There was nothing but charred remnants of wallets. The car was burned to a crisp. The seats and steering wheel looked like wire coat hangers. A policeman met with us and wanted to call my dad to have him come get us. ---- Uh, nope, not a good idea officer, you see, we are on a road trip that we're not supposed to be on, and we are, like, three hours from home. And I'm not so sure how to explain that I burned up the car that I just got last week...Maybe I should call my dad instead of you. --- So, he drove us to the police station, chains on car, still slipping and sliding. I called my dad and immediately burst into tears. "Daddy, you know that car you just got me, well it, uh, burned up...sob sob..." Well, my dad talked to the policeman and they made the executive decision that because there was no way that my dad could get there to pick us up in the storm the policeman should take us to the nearest hotel for the night.

The next morning my dad showed up and as we were waiting to check out it occurred to me that the trip back to school was going to be really long one and that I was in alot of trouble. Strangely, all my dad said as we walked out of the hotel was "Pretty traumatic experience, huh?" He drove us all the way back to college (three hours or so) and never said another word about it. A few months later I said, "Dad, I wish I knew why the car caught on fire. I get nervous whenever I smell that smell, and truck exhaust kinda smells like it."

His response (and I suppose the reason I didn't get in trouble for ANY of it) was: "Well, when I got the car (it was used and he bought it at an auction) I was checking it out to make sure it was safe. I saw some paper like stuff near the floor boards in the back. It didn't seem to have a purpose so I took it out. It may have been a heat barrier to protect the floor boards from catching on fire." HELLO!

The moral of the story is that although at the time I burned up the car I was over 18 and responsible for my own car insurance payments they did increase. Given the high cost of insurance even for teen drivers who don't take forbidden road trips, divorcing parents may want to consider and come to agreement regarding which parent, if either, will take responsibility for paying for a child's future car insurance payments.

Audrey Buglione is a family law attorney and single mom who lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with her three children. Luckily, none of them are driving... yet. Her office is located in Dauphin County. She assists clients seeking divorce, child custody, child support, spousal support and alimony pendente lite in Dauphin, Cumberland, Lancaster, York, Perry, and Lebanon counties. Audrey also handles select animal law cases! Contact
Audrey for a no-obligation confidential consultation.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lesbian Couples' Custody Battle Ends

Visitation awarded; Gay custody battle had dragged on for two years

By Matt Snyder
Herald Staff Writer
February 23, 2009


After two years of court battle, Lisa Lewis will get to spend time with the girl she helped to raise for five years.

In granting the Sharon woman visitation with the 7-year-old, Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher J. St. John ruled that Jeanette Rowan, the child’s biological mother and Ms. Lewis’ former partner of 11 years, has been a good parent but also ’controlling and manipulative’ in keeping the girl from Ms. Lewis.


After seeing the girl at the request of Ms. Rowan and her attorney, the judge said he found no reason Ms. Lewis could not also care for the child and awarded Ms. Lewis one hour of supervised visitation a week in March, to be expanded to at least two hours a week in April.

Ms. Lewis said Monday that she would have liked more time with the child, but she’s looking forward to seeing her daughter. ’It’s a start,’ she said. Ms. Lewis has been with the girl just three hours in two years.


She [Ms. Rowan] ’used the PFA proceedings to stop the visitations by (Ms. Lewis) with the minor child and is now acting in bad faith in failing to set up visitations between (Ms. Lewis) and the minor child,’ St. John said.

St. John’s findings also mention Ms. Rowan’s letters, in which she expressed the need for the former lovers to put aside their ill feelings and be parents to the girl. She also suggested in the letters they work out the custody issue with Ms. Lewis’ psychologist.


The judge also said Ms. Rowan manipulated Ms. Lewis into contributing substantial money toward a home, then convinced her to pull her name from the property without removing her name from the mortgage. He also said she used a subsequent girlfriend to get her mortgage up-to-date and avoid foreclosure, then broke up with that woman too.

As further evidence of Ms. Rowan’s manipulation, St. John accused her of using Jeremy Archer to get pregnant and then immediately evicting him from her home.

Archer, who is Ms. Lewis’ nephew, is serving a life sentence for the 2005 slaying of Kristen Truchan of Shenango Township. He was convicted after the girl was born and has had no part in raising her.

The custody battle dragged on, in part, because Pennsylvania does not provide for gay marriage or civil unions and therefore, has no guidelines for custody and visitation if the relationship dissolves.

Read the whole article here.

Audrey Buglione is a family law attorney and single mom who lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with her three children. Her office is located in Dauphin County. She assists clients seeking divorce, child custody, child support, spousal support and alimony pendente lite in Dauphin, Cumberland, Lancaster, York, Perry, and Lebanon counties. Contact a Audrey Buglione for a no-obligation confidential consultation.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Child Support and Child Custody - Intertwined but Separate.

In Pennsylvania, child custody determinations are made using a Best Interest of the Child standard. However, child support is calculated using a standardized guidelines calculation. What's the difference? In child custody cases the court looks at the facts of each individual case to make a determination. In child support cases, the court simply applies the incomes of each parent to a formulaic analysis to determine how much support the non-custodial parent owes the custodial parent. The support award determined by the guidelines is a rebuttable presumption and the court must consider the "special needs and obligations of the parties." This means that there is room for some deviation in child support based upon the facts of a specific case. For instance, adjustments to support include allocation of child care expenses, health insurance premiums, unreimbursed medical expenses, private school tuition and summer camp. In addition, the parent occupying the marital residence may be entitled to assistance from the other parent for up to 50% of the mortgage payment, real estate taxes, and homeowners' insurance. The child support guidelines also allow for adjustments based upon substantial or shared physical custody (when the children spend 40% or more of their time with the non-custodial parent) and divided or split physical custody (when one or more of the children reside with each party).

But the guidelines don't specifically provide for additional support when a non-custodial parent spends less than a certain percentage of time with the children or fails to spend the designated time with the children. The underlying theory behind the refusal to penalize a non-custodial parent for failing to exercise his or her right to custody is that it is not in the best interest of the children to force a disinterested parent to choose between spending time with the children or paying what, in essence, would be a "fine" in the form of additional support for not spending time with the children. In the broad application of the law, it makes sense. There are certainly parents out there who would take the children for the weekend simply to avoid having to pay additional money, yet spend no real time with their kids and perhaps even mentally or physically abuse the children out of anger for being inconvenienced by them.

But what of the non-custodial parent who exercises (or fail to exercise) custody as a means of controlling the custodial parent? The parent who is or wants to be a good and decent parent to the children, but who has not yet lost the anger or hatred toward the ex-spouse and wants to punish the ex-spouse somehow. For example, let's say Mom has been awarded primary custody of the children and Dad has rights of partial custody. On a weekend that is Dad's weekend, Mom must provide Dad access to the kids or risk being in contempt of a custody order. But what if Dad finds out that Mom has big plans that weekend and he wants to stop her from having fun. If Dad decides that he doesn't want to see the children, he can choose not to exercise his right to partial custody, generally without penalty. Without a doubt, Dad's actions will have a negative impact on the children who surely will be disappointed having looked forward to seeing Dad. If Mom had plans that weekend and she must get a babysitter to tend to the children or cancel her plans. Who should pay the babysitter? Dad - because it was his weekend and the sitter is essentially covering for Dad. Or Mom - because she is the custodial parent? No matter who pays the children are harmed by a non-custodial parent's failure to exercise custody because there is very likely going to be more animosity between the parents and more fighting.

Too often parents use custody as a means to get even with the other parent, but fail to realize that the people harmed the most by these types of games are the children.

Audrey Buglione is a family law attorney and single mom who lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with her three children. Her office is located in Dauphin County. She assists clients seeking divorce, child custody, child support, spousal support and alimony pendente lite in Dauphin, Cumberland, Lancaster, York, Perry, and Lebanon counties. Contact a Audrey Buglione for a no-obligation confidential consultation.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Children Are Not Pawns in the Game of Divorce

According to Georgia Witkin, Ph.D. in her book KidStress, University of Missouri researchers found that children who lived with both parents had lower stress levels than children living with a single parent. Children living with a single parent living with relatives had the same stress level as children who live with both parents.

Does that mean you should stay in a bad, unloving marriage for the sake of the kids? There are many varied and different opinions on this. But if you decide that ending your marriage is the right decision, you should consider how the process of divorce will affect your children. In Pennsylvania, you are not required to have a formal custody agreement regarding the children. If you and your spouse are able to amicably work out a schedule for custodial time with your children, and not put the kids in a tug of war, you will have done the best thing possible to protect your children from the ugliness of divorce. You may wish to have the agreement memorialized in writing so that no misunderstandings arise.

However, if you are unable to come to a satisfactory custody arrangement and need the assistance of the court, you will have to file a petition requesting custody. In many counties, the first step is a meeting before a custody conciliator or custody master. This person is appointed by the court to help parents come to an agreement regarding custody. It is generally an informal process involving only the parents, their attorneys (if a party is represented by counsel), and the custody conciliator. In rare occasions the children will be asked to be available for consult, but will not be involved in the actual meeting. If the parents are able to come to agreement regarding custody the conciliator will enter the agreement as a binding order of court. However, if no agreement regarding custody of the children is reached, the conciliator may enter a temporary order based on his or her independent assessment. Either parent may then request a hearing before a judge in order to modify the temporary order. The court will either list the case for a hearing or, in some circumstances, order a second conciliation to see if the issue can be resolved without a hearing.

Regardless of whether you are able to amicably decide custody or you take the matter through the court system, I urge you to consider the well-being of your children. Children are entitled to their own feelings and thoughts regarding each of their parents. Bad mouthing the other parent, putting the child down for talking about the other parent, or restricting access to the other parent (barring any concerns of abuse) are detrimental to the child. Custody battles are extremely emotional for parents and understandably put the parents at odds with each other, but children are not pawns in a chess game and should not be treated as such. The less stress children experience as a result of divorce the happier you will all be as a family apart in the years to come.

As you start your life as a single parent, remember that engaging extended family members and relatives in your children's lives will not only ease the emotional and physical burden of being a single parent, it will also enrich your children's lives and ease their stress. If you don't have nearby family, reach out to local divorce support groups and single parent programs. You are not alone.

Audrey Buglione is a family law attorney and single mom who lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with her three children. Her office is located in Dauphin County. She assists clients seeking divorce, child custody, child support, spousal support and alimony pendente lite in Dauphin, Cumberland, Lancaster, York, Perry, and Lebanon counties. Contact Audrey for a no-obligation confidential consultation.