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Following the ‘Wiseman’ Standard in Pa. Custody Battles Is Unwise

Although the so-called Wiseman standard, the standard by which shared custody arrangements were determined, stood for many years, the recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case of P.J.P. v. M.M., 2018 Pa. Super. 100, has officially declared the Wiseman standard obsolete and no longer applicable to Pennsylvania child custody matters.

In the matter of P.J.P., a custody case, the father appealed a decision in the trial court regarding his petition to modify a custody order that he believed was not sufficiently favorable for his custody goals.

The father and the mother are a divorced couple who obtained a child custody order in April 2016. This order granted the mother primary physical custody of the child. In January 2017, the father sought more custody, specifically shared physical custody, and filed a petition to modify.

At the trial, in August 2017, the court made many findings of facts that are directly relevant to its ultimate decision to deny granting shared custody to the father. For example, when the mother has custody she sends the father many photographs and videos and encourages the child to call the father. By contrast, the father does not want to call the mother during his custody times and sends no photographs and videos to the mother. The mother further claimed, and the father admitted, that he has insulted the mother in the presence of the child. He also admitted to telling the child to be sure to look up the instant case on Google Scholar when he is older to know what happened during the case. The mother is also conscientious in ensuring that the father has nice gifts from the child for holidays and such, while the father makes only modest efforts to reciprocate. The parties also had disagreements over the procedure and process for dropping the child off at preschool in the morning. The mother claimed the father refused to get the child ready and just dropped him off at her house, while the father claimed the mother “unilaterally” changed the procedure. Co-parenting counseling was also attempted by the parties. Unfortunately, while the mother was trying to fully invest herself in said counseling, The father refused to meaningfully participate, and the counselor believed the counseling was “not going anywhere.” Of course, the father has a different interpretation of much of the above, but the court made its findings, which favored the mother, after a complete review of the facts, testimony and evidence.

On appeal, the father challenged the denial of shared custody, arguing it was contrary to the best interests of the child. The Superior Court first noted that the trial court made certain credibility determinations that were within its discretion. The court then mentioned that child custody is governed by 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 5328, which lays out 16  factors for the court to consider when making a custody determination. Superior Court observed that the trial court analyzed each factor and noted that most were either inapplicable or weighed equally for both; however, there were four factors (namely the likelihood to encourage and permit contact with the other party, availability of extended family, attempts to turn the child against the other parent, and the level of conflict and willingness to cooperate with the other party) which weighed heavily on the mother’s side. No factor weighed heavily on the father’s side.

The father argued that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to apply the Weisman standard. In Weisman v. Wall, 718 A.2d 844 (Pa. Super.1998), the court ruled that courts must make four findings when ruling on shared custody “both parents must be fit, capable of making reasonable child rearing decisions and willing and able to provide love and care for their children; both parents must evidence a continuing desire for active involvement in the child’s life; both parents must be recognized by the child as a source of security and love; a minimal degree of cooperation between the parents must be possible.” The father further argued that since he and the mother, in his view, meet the above four factors, shared custody should be awarded.

Superior Court ruled that the father’s reliance on Weisman is misplaced. As noted above, Weisman was decided in 1998 while Section 5328 became law in 2011. The court does not believe the difference between Weisman and Section 5328 is trivial. Specifically Weisman “required the court, before awarding shared custody, ‘to make at least a minimal finding that the parties were able to cooperate before awarding shared custody” while, under Section 5328, the court “must determine the best interest of the child by considering all relevant factors, including but not limited to, ‘the level of conflict between the parties and the willingness and ability of the parties to cooperate with one another.”’

Superior Court noted that the plain language of Section 5328 contradicts Weisman. Unlike Weisman, the court is not obliged to make any specific findings before awarding shared custody. Instead, the court must consider all 16 of the relevant factors, and poor cooperation need not be dispositive. In sum, therefore, Superior Court specifically described Weisman as obsolete.

Finally, the court explained that its citing to Weisman in the recent case of R.S. v. T.T., 1133 A.3d 1254 (Pa.Super.2015) does not belie the above analysis. In R.S., the court used the Weisman factors to supplement its own analysis where it seemed Section 5328 did not appear to lead to a reasonable conclusion in light of the available evidence. Moreover, the court in R.S. never once said trial courts “must” make Weisman findings. Instead, Weismanmerely holds persuasive value as the its factors have been assimilated into Section 5328.

Upon full review of the decision, it appears that P.J.P. has hammered the final nail into the casket of the Weisman analysis. Weisman, for all intents and purposes, no longer appears to be the law for Pennsylvania child custody.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on July 5, 2018 and can be seen here.

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A LIFELINE FOR THE DISABLED

Check out Faye Cohen’s post to her blog Toughlawyerlady!

ToughLawyerLady

Although Anthony T. Hincks stated “the only disability that I have, is that I’m human”, that is not true for many people. Although I wish my readers long and healthy lives, many people find themselves at some point in their lives, through no fault of their own, partially or fully medically disabled. I beg you, as well as your family, friends, colleagues and clients, to seek the help of a lawyer when you are applying for long-term (and in some cases short-term) disability benefits, requesting leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, requesting accommodations pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or applying for Social Security disability benefits.

One should not assume that just because they have successfully completed the first level of any of the above application processes, that one is home free. The application process is just the tip of a much larger iceberg that lies below the…

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The Law Will Hunt You Down

Check out Faye Cohen’s post to her blog Toughlawyerlady!

ToughLawyerLady

Each year my Firm receives hundreds of telephone calls from people and company owners who are seeking advice or representation for their legal issues, and our lawyers spend considerable time discussing their issues and legal options with them. Yet many of those telephone calls end with the callers simply fading away, or deciding to postpone action for another day. My questions to them are “where do you think you can go where the law will not find you?” or “how is something going to happen if you don’t take some action?”

Perhaps it is human nature to procrastinate, but it is mindboggling to me that people do not undertake the legal action they should be taking in a timely fashion to protect themselves and their families from future problems.  Some examples follow of my experiences:

Real Estate: 

Husband and wife divorced 10 years ago. Wife could not afford a lawyer…

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Buyer Beware

Check out Faye Cohen’s post to her blog Toughlawyerlady!

ToughLawyerLady

The general public does not seem to be aware that purchase, transfer, ownership and/or sale of real estate are often fraught with problems which are created by people taking legal shortcuts or failing to conduct due diligence, which means investigation and assessment into the quality and validity of the purchase, transfer, ownership and/or sale of real estate. As a result, many people find themselves in real estate situations which are confusing, expensive, and, often, regrettable. This doesn’t have to be the case if certain steps are taken. As the axiom goes — “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The buyer alone bears responsibility for due diligence.    So, buyer be beware of:

Purchase, Title or Transfer Issues:

 Buyer Beware #1: Do NOT transfer title to a property into your name or into the name of an entity controlled by you without having an insured title search conducted…

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The Dirty Secrets of Sexual Harassment: A Behind-the-Scenes Perspective

Check out Faye Cohen’s post to her blog Toughlawyerlady!

ToughLawyerLady

The topic of sexual harassment has been trending in the news, prompted by the revelations made against Harvey Weinstein and many other men by women who allege harassment by these men, some of these allegations occurring many years ago. There are conflicting opinions as to whether and how to report sexual harassment, what the likely outcome of said reporting will be for the accuser, and even what is interpreted as sexual harassment by women of various ages. For example, in October, 2017, ThePhiladelphia Inquirer ran an interview with a seasoned lawyer about her experiences in handling sexual harassment cases. Although her responses appeared a little blunt, they resonated and affirmed not only my experiences but, indeed, the experiences of any seasoned employment lawyer in handling such cases.

The interview unleashed a barrage of vitriolic criticism attacking the lawyer, with many people expressing dismay at her advice and conclusions, and…

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Death, Divorce and the Division of Property and Estates

When a party dies during the pendency of a divorce matter, a question immediately arises: will the matter be resolved pursuant to the Divorce Code (i.e.: 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3323(d.1)) or the Probate Code (i.e.: 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2)? While the statutes are fairly clear, there are times where a circumstance still needs to be sorted out by the court. Such a case arose in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania matter of In re Estate of Michael J. Easterday, Deceased, 171 A.3d 911 (2017).

In the Easterday matter, the decedent, Michael Easterday, passed from this life on Sept. 21, 2014, and was survived by his two sons, a daughter and his second wife. About a year before Easterday’s death (Aug. 13, 2013), the wife filed for divorce against Easterday. In or about December 2013, Easterday and the wife entered into a postnuptial agreement in which the parties agreed to waive any and all rights to the pension and retirement plan of the other, including any and all rights possibly available as a surviving spouse or beneficiary. The agreement also specifically states that it would remain in full force and effect without regard to future reconciliation, change in marital status, and entry of divorce decree absent a future written agreement.

 In November 2013, the wife furnished Easterday with an affidavit of consent to divorce pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3301(c). Not long after, Easterday executed the aforesaid affidavit and returned it to the wife. The wife, for an unknown reason, retained the aforesaid affidavit for approximately six weeks (until mid-January 2014) before providing it to her attorney for filing. Pursuant to Pennsylvania law, an affidavit of consent must be filed within 30 days of its execution (i.e., approximately December 2013). Later in January 2014 the wife proceeded with the divorce and filed for a final decree, but Easterday died before a decree was entered. A decree in divorce was ultimately never entered as Easterday’s affidavit of consent was stale.

Critically, at the time of Easterday’s passing, the wife remained the beneficiary of his pension and life insurance policy. Upon Easterday’s death, the wife immediately withdrew the divorce matter and collected on Easterday’s pension and life insurance policy.

In response to the wife’s petition with the court seeking to compel the wife to preserve and return the pension and insurance money she received. The estate contended that the postnuptial controlled the distribution of the aforesaid funds (specifically that the wife was not entitled to receive them) and Easterday’s designation of the wife as beneficiary of his insurance policy became ineffective pursuant to 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2. In response, the wife argued that the postnuptial did not apply as the beneficiary designations were never changed, that 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2 did not apply as the affidavit of consent was “stale,” that the parties were reconciling at the time of his death, and because of those reasons, Easterday intended that the wife remain his beneficiary.

After a hearing, the trial court ruled that the estate was entitled to Easterday’s pension, as it was addressed in the postnuptial, while the wife could retain the life insurance proceeds as they were not addressed in the postnuptial. Both parties filed exceptions, which were unsuccessful, leading to appeals by both parties to Superior Court which issued the decision described herein.

23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 3323(g), which is part of the Divorce Code, states: “(g) Grounds established . . . (2)  In the case of an action for divorce under section 3301(c), both parties have filed affidavits of consent or, if the presumption in section 3301(c)(2) is established, one party has filed an affidavit of consent … (3)  In the case of an action for divorce under section 3301(d), an affidavit has been filed and no counter-affidavit has been filed or, if a counter-affidavit has been filed denying the affidavit’s averments, the court determines that the marriage is irretrievably broken and the parties have lived separate and apart for at least one year at the time of the filing of the affidavit.” In the Probate Code, 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2(a)(3)(ii) states “this section is applicable if an individual … dies during the course of divorce proceedings, no decree of divorce has been entered pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S. Section 3323 (relating to decree of court) and grounds have been established as provided in 23 Pa.C.S. Section 3323(g).” When evaluating the applicable law mentioned above, the court raised Pa.R.C.P. 1920.17 as also applicable herein. Rule 1920.17 prohibits the withdrawal of a divorce (and its economic claims) if divorce grounds have been established and the Estate does not the consent. While the aforesaid Rule directly applies to 23 Pa.C.S. Section 3323, the court opined that the Rule should also apply to 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2(a)(3)(ii) as it would be inappropriate to allow a surviving spouse the power to negate 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2(a)(3)(ii) by simply discontinuing the divorce action unilaterally.

In reviewing the underlying facts of this matter, the court took note of the fact that the affidavit of consent was not filed within thirty days of its execution. As a result, the lower court determined that divorce grounds were never established. Although the Estate argued that the lateness of the affidavit does not negate what it argued was an intent to consent to the divorce, the court, relying on public policy considerations, ruled that a strict compliance with the Divorce Code is required. In the court’s view, the integrity of the family is to be protected and the seriousness of the dissolution of marriage warrants strict compliance with the deadlines and requirements laid out in the statute. Indeed, the court pointed out, the establishment of divorce grounds takes on an added significance when, not only is the dissolution of a marriage at issue, but, in this case, it would also determine whether the Divorce Code or the Probate Code applies. Furthermore, the court observed that Easterday had an extended opportunity of several months to rectify the “stale” affidavit before his passing, but chose not to do so. Based on the above, the court ruled that a “stale” affidavit of consent is insufficient to establish divorce grounds, especially in a matter where it is, in its estimation, far from clear that the decedent possessed an intent to divorce at the time of his death.  As a result, the Probate Code controls this case.

Ultimately, the court, applying 20 Pa.C.S.A. Section 6111.2, ruled that Easterday’s beneficiary designation on his life insurance is, therefore, valid, and the wife may retain the proceeds from the same.

In opposition to the estate’s arguments, the wife asserted that Easterday made a deliberate and conscious choice to give his pension to her through an irrevocable election that she be his beneficiary. Of course, the above is in direct conflict with the postnuptial, which, by its terms described above, definitively prohibits the wife from being such a beneficiary. The estate pointed out that the postnuptial was executed after the beneficiary election was made.

In reviewing the above, the court first noted that spouses may waive their right to the pension of the other if the waiver is specific. In its estimation, the postnuptial in the instant matter was clear and unambiguous, therefore its terms, namely that the wife waived her right to Easterday’s pension without regard to reconciliation, which could only be changed by a subsequent signed agreement, applies hereto.

Perhaps the most significant legal challenge to the postnuptial was the requirements of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Pursuant to ERISA, a pension must be administered, and the proceeds therefrom distributed, according to the terms of the plan documents, and not alternative agreements, such as a postnuptial agreement. While acknowledging the applicability of ERISA to the pension in this matter, the court also indicated that, although ERISA may require the pension to be distributed to wife, the terms of the postnuptial can also apply by requiring Wife to turn over to the estate any and all sums she receives as a pension beneficiary.

In the end, the court entered a Solomonic decision to cut the pension “baby” in half: the wife can keep the life insurance policy proceeds while the estate is to receive from the wife the pension proceeds she received.

Originally published on December 26, 2017 in The Legal Intelligencer and can be found here and was reprinted in the Pennsylvania Family Lawyer for its March 2018 edition. (see here).

A Lesson Learned From Taylor Swift On the Meaning of Damages

Check out Faye Cohen’s post to her blog Toughlawyerlady!

ToughLawyerLady

The composer and singer, Taylor Swift, recently won a sexual assault lawsuit against a former radio host. He initially sued her stating that she had caused his dismissal. She countersued because she wanted the trial to serve as an “example to other women.” Swift only sought a single dollar in damages, which the jury awarded her.

Yes, Even $1.00 Award Has Implications       

The dollar awarded to Swift brings up some interesting points about how damages are calculated under the law. There are two parts to every case:

  • The first part is liability, meaning that one has to first prove their case before they are entitled to damages. Many people spend most of their energy on the facts of their case, as they are so personally involved in it.
  • Yet, once they are able to prove their case, the next step, and often the most important step, is for them to…

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A Collection of Family Law Writings by James W. Cushing, Esquire

Over the course of my career, I have written extensively on a wide variety of family law issues and legal principles.  These writings have been published in The Legal Intelligencer, Upon Further Review, and The Pennsylvania Family Lawyer as well as posted onto my blog.  I have collected these articles and blog posts and have listed them below.  Thanks for reading!

Articles:

Musings:

The United Shapes of Arithmetic: Shape Reveal

Nathan Rudolph, my friend and fellow parishioner at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, has started a comic strip which I have greatly enjoyed and appreciated.  With his permission, I will repost them here after he posts them.  I think my readers will appreciate them as much as I do as they are rather insightful with a snarky edge.  Enjoy!

https://scontent-lga3-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/23316841_1353656414740969_5904752801940424929_n.jpg?oh=b4e8615a1308819c0c86f8e932bce6ce&oe=5A9F821C

Yessource: The Word is Live

Here are my latest uploads to YesSource, my Yes rarities youtube page (about which you can read here).  This post is another addition to my series of Yes music posts and a collection of all my Yes-related posts is here.  Yes, of course, is a, if not the, premier progressive rock band, and I am an enormous fan of it.

You can see all of my Yessource uploads here.

My latest YesSource uploads can be found here

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