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Archive for the tag “visitation”

NBI Seminar: Child Custody and Visitation Rights: A Petition for Visitation and/or Custody

As I have posted recently (see here), I  had the great opportunity to lead (perhaps “teach”) a continuing legal education seminar hosted by the National Business Institute (a.k.a. NBI, see here).  The subject was “Family Law From A to Z” and I had opportunity to speak on two main topics in particular: Custody and Ethics.  I was joined by four other capable attorneys who each had their own topics to present.

Although NBI published the materials, I retain the ownership of the portions I wrote, which I will post here in this blog.

Copied below are the materials I wrote for the section entitled “Child Custody and Visitation Rights: A Petition for Visitation and/or Custody.”

Thanks!

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CHILD CUSTODY AND VISITATION RIGHTS

  1. A. Petition for Visitation and/or Custody

Like nearly any other court case, all custody actions – regardless of how much custody is being sought (e.g.: primary, partial, or visitation, etc) – begin with the filing a complaint.  The Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure provide for a standard form for a complaint, which can be found in Pa.R.C.P. Rule 1915.15 and 1915.16.

The various county courts in the Philadelphia area offer forms for custody complaints, and they can be found at the following websites:

 

  • Elements of a Complaint

As one can see from reviewing the forms mentioned above, a standard complaint for custody is to include, more or less, the following information:

Unlike a civil complaint, very little additional information or advocacy needs to be included in the complaint for custody.  The opportunity to advance additional information and/or advocacy is when interacting with the opposing party or attorney and/or at a hearing scheduled pursuant to the filing of the Complaint.  The purpose of the custody complaint is merely to get the most basic information before the court: who the case involves, what the Plaintiff wants, and an assertion that no other court has jurisdiction.

When requesting relief in the complaint, it is important to use the proper language which best describes why the Plaintiff is seeking.  23 Pa.C.S.A. §5322 lays out the terms and their definitions.  Pursuant 23 Pa.C.S.A. §5322, the relevant terms are as follows (as quoted directly from the statute):

  • legal custody: the right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, including, but not limited to, medical, religious and educational decisions.
  • sole legal custody: the right of one individual to exclusive legal custody of the child.
  • shared legal custody: the right of more than one individual to legal custody of the child.
  • physical custody: the actual physical possession and control of a child.
  • sole physical custody: the right of one individual to exclusive physical custody of the child.
  • primary physical custody: the right to assume physical custody of the child for the majority of time.
  • shared physical custody: the right of more than one individual to assume physical custody of the child, each having significant periods of physical custodial time with the child.
  • partial physical custody: the right to assume physical custody of the child for less than a majority of the time.
  • supervised physical custody: custodial time during which an agency or an adult designated by the court or agreed upon by the parties monitors the interaction between the child and the individual with those rights.
  • In a statutory provision other than in this chapter, when the term “visitation” is often used in reference to child custody, and may be construed to mean:

(1) partial physical custody;

(2) shared physical custody; or

(3) supervised physical custody.

In the vast majority of case, the only issue in dispute is physical custody as, unless there is unusual and/or extenuating custody (e.g.: incarceration, absence, abuse), the parents of a child are both presumed to have a right to shared legal custody.  As defined above, physical custody is when a parent actually has a child personally with him.  By contrast, legal custody is the right of a parent to have access to, and make decisions regarding, important parenting and lifestyle issues.

It is also important to observe the fact that the specific definitions of/for the terms above do not always coincide with popular or colloquial usage.  It is very common for a client, when consulting with his attorney, to use one or more of the terms above without reference to its technical, legal, definition; therefore, it is important to discern precisely what a client is seeking instead of assuming even a vague familiarity, much less a fluency, with the terms mentioned above.  For example, many clients, when consulting with their attorney or filing a custody petition on a pro se basis, frequently indicate they are seeking “full custody” of their children, despite the fact that no such designation exists; similarly, they often refer to “sole custody” in the same way.  In addition, it is not uncommon for someone to use the term “visitation” when he really means “partial custody.”  So, it is important to discern what the client actually means sometimes despite the precise words being used.

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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.

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).

Vacant Property is Irredeemable after Sheriff Sale, Commonwealth Court Rules

If one wishes to take advantage of his right to redeem a piece of real estate subsequent to a sheriff’s sale, it is critical to act in a timely manner, otherwise one may miss the opportunity to do so.

53 P.S. Section 7293 lays out the time line to take action in redeeming a property; however, there was some ambiguity in precisely interpreting just when the deadlines occur. The Court, in the recent matter, and case of first impression, Brentwood Borough School District v. HSBC Bank USA, 111 A.3d 807, helped clarify some of the aforesaid ambiguity.

In Brentwood, Defendant HSBC is the mortgagee on a property which was sold at sheriff’s sale to a third party called Grove Properties, Inc. due to delinquent taxes. Within about five months, HSBC filed to redeem the property pursuant to 53 P.S. Section 7293(a). According to 53 P.S. Section 7293(a), a party must file to redeem a property within nine months from the date of the acknowledgment of the Sheriff’s Deed which conveys a property following a sheriff’s sale.  The trial court ruled against HSBC on this issue, asserting that HSBC only had ninety days to file to redeem, however on appeal the Commonwealth Court realized the trial court mistakenly applied the time line laid out in 53 P.S. Sections 27101-27605, and reversed the ruling of the trial court and confirmed the nine month time period.

The primary issue the Court focused upon was whether the property was vacant pursuant to 53 P.S. Section 7293(c), which made the case one of first impression. Section 7293(c) states that “there shall be no right of redemption of vacant property by any person after the date of the acknowledgment of the sheriff’s deed therefor.” Defendant argued that the property was not vacant because the occupant of the property at issue only temporarily stayed at her friends’ house to save money. She also left her belongings at the subject property. Based on the above, the Defendant asserted that, at most, the occupant of the property was only temporarily absent from it, which does not constitute its vacancy, as a property cannot be vacant if its occupant intends to return. In support of its argument, Defendant cited to how the term “occupied” is used in other cases and statutes.

The Court ruled that the term “occupied” must first be interpreted in the context of the Municipal Claims and Tax Liens statute (i.e.: 53 P.S. Section 7101 et seq). Pursuant to that statute the occupancy must be as a residence and not as a storage unit. Per the Court, the purpose of the statute is to increase the collection of taxes and to free land to bear its share of the tax burden. As a result, the Court reasoned, the statute must be interpreted to take consideration of the ability of the municipality to convert a house sold at sheriff’s sale back to productive use as quickly as possible.  Therefore, the Court deduced that the legislature intended the redemption period should be brief which, in this case, is nine months’ time.

The Court observed that “occupied” is a factual determination to be made and applied on a case-by-case basis. The factors to consider in looking at a case include: “whether anyone was habitually physically present at the property, i.e., regularly sleeping and eating there and using it as a place to dwell; whether any lack of physical presence was due to temporary illness, travel or renovation; whether the property was unsecured, damaged or uninhabitable; and whether the basic and necessary utilities such as water, electric and gas were operational.” The instant matter revealed a property which had no person habitually present in it before the sale. It had no running hot water or gas and, therefore, no means to bathe or cook, essentially making it uninhabitable.  Further, it also revealed that the occupant simply could not afford to reside at the property any longer. As a result, the Court resolved that the property was unoccupied. As the property was unoccupied, Defendant could not redeem the property after the date of the acknowledgment of the sheriff’s deed under the statute.

In light of the above, Defendant argued that disallowing them from redeeming the property was unjust as it “could not reasonably be deemed to be on notice that while [the occupant] kept all her belongings at the Property and frequently returned to the Property that she would later claim that she did not reside there anymore, and Defendant would suddenly be precluded from redeeming its interest in the Property.” The Court was not convinced. The Court was satisfied that the Defendant received all required statutory notices under the applicable law.

In sum, the Court ruled that the statute at issue is designed for a speedy and efficient process to return a property sold at sheriff’s sale to productive use and a property with no working utilities and no one physically inhabiting the property is vacant (or unoccupied) despite the occupant’s intention to move back in or leaving her belongings in the property.

Originally published on October 3, 2017 in Upon Further Review and can be viewed here.

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

Enforcing Marital Agreements According to the Law of the Case

In the matter of Bienert v. Bienert, 2017 Pa.Super. 255, Case No. 17-1288 (Pa. Super. Aug. 7, 2017), the Superior Court of Pennsylvania has clarified the enforceability of marital property agreements (MSA) executed prior to the filing of a divorce but entered into while the husband and wife were separated.

As mentioned above, while the MSA was executed by the parties while they were separated, it contained rather precise language as to how their marital property is to be divided in the event of a divorce. Specifically, the MSA indicates that it “settles all rights of the parties” and, indeed, “is not contingent upon either party of both parties being granted a divorce,” but would be “made part thereof” in the event of a divorce.

After the husband filed for divorce, the wife filed a petition for alimony pendene lite and was represented by counsel when she did so. The husband opposed the aforesaid petition, arguing that the MSA was a complete and final settlement of all obligations and, as it does not allow for alimony pendente lite, the wife should not be allowed to collect it. In response, the wife argued that as the MSA does not specifically refer to alimony pendente lite, she is able to collect it. Notably, the wife did not argue that the MSA was invalid for any reason, she merely advanced an interpretation of its language. Ultimately the trial court denied the wife’s petition on the basis that the MSA is a complete and final settlement of all claims, including alimony pendente lite and no provision allowed for its collection. The trial court pointed out that “absent fraud, misrepresentation, or duress, spouses should be bound by the terms of their agreements.”

After failing to receive alimony pendente lite, the wife’s attorney withdrew his appearance on her behalf, which led to the wife filing multiple petitions to enforce the MSA regarding various provisions of property division. The Superior Court observed that all of the wife’s various petitions “were premised on the view that the Agreement was valid and enforceable.”

Separately, the husband eventually filed a petition to hold the wife in contempt for violating the terms of the MSA. In response to the husband’s petition, the wife raised defenses claiming that she executed the MSA under duress as the husband requested the wife to execute the MSA immediately after the wife had been sentenced in court for three felonies and charged with a misdemeanor and was “in rehab.” This was the wife’s first mention of duress, despite her efforts to enforce the MSA previously as described above. Indeed, even when arguing duress, she made no argument that the MSA was invalid. A short time after the husband’s filing of the contempt petition, and the wife’s filing of defenses, as described above, the wife filed a contempt petition asking for the enforcement of the MSA.

At the hearing for the above petitions, the wife raised arguments to avoid the terms of the MSA on the grounds of mistake, misrepresentation or duress. She now further claimed that she did not know the MSA applied to her divorce, allegedly believing it only applied to her separation. The trial court ruled against the wife. Thereafter, the wife hired a new attorney who filed a new petition to void the MSA for the reasons set forth above. The court subsequently denied the wife’s petition and went ahead and entered a decree in divorce. In response, the wife appealed, which led to the opinion described herein by Superior Court.

On appeal, the wife again argued that she executed the MSA against her will and that a mutual mistake of fact existed, both of which warrant the voiding of the MSA. Furthermore, as an aisde, the trial court did not hold an evidentiary hearing on her last petition which, the wife argued, was unfair as it did not give her a full opportunity to litigate her economic claims. Superior Court affirmed the trial court. In ruling against the wife, Superior Court relied on the law of the case doctrine and equitable estoppel.

The law of the case doctrine is one that “expresses the practice of courts generally to refuse to reopen what has been decided … in order to protect the settled expectations of the parties; to ensure uniformity of decisions; to maintain consistency during the course of a single case; to effectuate the proper and streamlined administration of justice; and to bring litigation to an end.” In addition, the doctrine applies, for the most part, specifically with respect to a court adhering to prior decisions within the same case. In other words, although multiple petitions may be filed in a given case, they are essentially cumulative and are not evaluated in isolation from the rest of the case. While the doctrine does not disallow a court from reconsidering prior decisions within case, it is certainly within its appropriate discretion to refuse to do so in order to maintain consistency and uniformity.

Equitable estoppel functions very similarly to the law of the case doctrine. Pursuant to estoppel, “a party to an action is estopped from assuming a position inconsistent with his or her assertion in a previous action, if his or her contention was successfully maintained.”

In applying the principles above, the court noted that the wife has taken inconsistent positions regarding the MSA throughout the litigation of the divorce matter. Sometimes she sought enforcement of it and, indeed, did so successfully at times. Other times she filed for husband’s alleged contempt of it. Still, at other times, she argued it should be void or unenforceable or was the result of mistake or duress. The case was litigated for a year and a half before the wife began questioning the validity of the MSA despite the fact that multiple other petitions were filed and argued assuming its validity. As she attempted to enforce the MSA, without questioning its validity, and the court ruled on the same, she cannot now, suddenly and late in the litigation, change course and argue that the MAS is somehow unenforceable. Not only have prior court rulings been made on the good faith of the wife’s arguments, her suddenly raising directly inconsistent arguments undermines the legitimacy of her prior arguments and the rulings thereon. Furthermore, it puts the husband into an untenable position of committing to arguments against the wife that he may not have advanced in light of the wife’s sudden reversal. It was clear the wife raised her new arguments due to her lack of success with her prior arguments.

Ultimately, then, it is vitally important for litigants and practitioners to settle on a theory of a case and adhere to it throughout as, otherwise, the court, and certainly the other party, will take notice of a party raising inconsistent and mutually exclusive arguments later in the litigation of a case as compared to its beginning. Obviously while new information is typically learned and discovered during litigation which can legitimately result in modifying one’s arguments, the position or posture of a party to an essential and known element of case, say the enforceability of a marital agreement, is something that needs to be established early on, and there is limited ability to change or reverse course once a party commits to one.

Originally published on October 3, 2017 in The Legal Intelligencer and can be found here and reprinted in the Pennsylvania Family Lawyer for its October 2017 edition (Volume 39, No. 3) (see here).

Redemption Available Immediately After a Sheriff’s Sale

In the recent matter of City of Philadelphia v. F.A. Realty Investors Corp., 95 A.3d 377 (Pa.Cmwlth.2014), the Court had the opportunity to tackle a matter of first impression when interpreting 53 P.S. Section 7293 with regard to when a property owner may redeem his property after a sheriff’s sale.

In F.A., the piece of real estate at issue (“the Property”) was subject to a tax delinquency which led to an order by the trial court to sell the Property at a sheriff’s sale in order to satisfy the aforesaid tax delinquency. Not long after the order was entered, the Property was sold at sheriff’s sale. Immediately after the sale, Defendant filed to redeem the Property, but its petition to do so was dismissed by the trial court.

According to 53 P.S. 7293, a property owner may redeem a property sold at sheriff’s sale “at any time within nine months from the date of the acknowledgment of the sheriff’s deed therefore, upon payment of the amount bid at such sale.” The City of Philadelphia argued that Defendant’s immediate action to redeem the Property was premature as it acted prior to the acknowledgment of the deed. The trial court agreed with the City’s interpretation and application of the statute when it dismissed Defendant’s petition.

When interpreting the statute cited above, the Court first noted that, per 1 Pa.C.S. Sections 1921 and 1922, and the cases decided thereunder, statutory construction ought not lead to an absurd result, and when there is ambiguity in the language of a statute, the court may look to the intent of the legislature to help provide interpretive guidance. The Court also explained that the redemption statute is to be liberally construed in order to effect justice, pointing out that the purpose of sheriffs’ sales is not to strip a property owner of his real estate, but simply to collect on municipal claims.

Defendant argued that making them wait until the sheriff’s deed is acknowledged would likely, and unjustly, lead to unnecessary additional fees, costs, taxes, and/or interest and, therefore, its prompt action could avoid these costs.

The Court observed that the applicable statute has at least two interpretations. The first being that the phrase “at any time” literally means at any time, without regard to when the acknowledgment occurs, as long as it is within the nine month time frame. The second interpretation begins the nine month period for redemption at the time of acknowledgment.

As the language is, in the Court’s view, ambiguous, it looked to legislative intent and, on that basis concluded that the legislature would not try and increase a property owner’s difficulty to redeem property. Indeed, a property owner may retain possession of a house sold at sheriff’s sale until the sale is completed by the acknowledgment and delivery of the deed obtained at the sale. As a result, the Court believed it would be an absurd result to disallow a property owner from redeeming his property while he is in possession of it simply because the deed had technically not been acknowledged.

Finally, Pennsylvania law prohibits the redemption of a vacant property after the date of acknowledgment. In light of the above, namely that absurd results are to be avoided and that the purpose of sheriffs’ sales is not to strip someone of his property but merely to ensure municipal claims are satisfied, it would seem that the City of Philadelphia’s arguments would disallow someone from redeeming a vacant property at all. In other words, if a property is vacant, an owner cannot redeem it after acknowledgment and, if the City’s interpretation of 53 P.S. 7293 is correct, he would not be able to redeem it before either, and this would be an absurd result, not to mention an unjust one, preventing an owner from redeeming his property.

So, in sum, in light of the above, and after review of the applicable statutes, the Court ruled that a property owner can redeem his property sold at sheriff’s sale at any time up to nine months after acknowledgment of the sale.

Originally published in Upon Further Review on June 7, 2017 and can be found here.

The United Shapes of Arithmetic: An American Flag

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!

Here are the links to the previously posted strips:

Here is the latest strip:

https://scontent-lga3-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/22366786_1327520117354599_8274247563828994579_n.jpg?oh=36d6386cb8d3789943e6b20517d9e95f&oe=5A41D371

Ali v. McClinton, PICS Case No. 17-0997 (E.D. Pa. June 14, 2017) McHugh, J.

My firm, the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C., represents the Plaintiff in the case captioned as Ali v. McClinton, (ED PA, June 14, 2017).  On July 7, 2017 the Ali case was featured in The Legal Intelligencer and can be found here.

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