Sunday, November 29, 2009

Are you eligible for your spouse's (or ex-spouse's) Social Security benefits?

The Social Security Administration provides excellent resources on this topic.

Click here for a checklist to determine eligibility for a spouse's benefit.

Click here to review SSA Publication No. 05-10127: What Every Woman Should Know. (The title of this publication is misleading as much of the information applies to both men and women.)

You can also obtain a copy of your Social Security Statement which provides your estimated beenfits, earnings record and other useful information.

You can also read information specific to Marriage, Divorce and Name Changes.
Gathering this information can help you prepare for divorce as soscial security benefits may be relevant when deciding on a division of assets.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Wishing you a Thanksgiving full of peace, joy and love.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Broken marriage, broken business

First comes love. Then comes marriage. Unfortunately, when happily is not ever after, the next step can sometimes be bitter and adversarial divorce litigation that can affect both parties’ finances for a long time.

How do you protect yourself? The process of divorce is unique among legal disputes because, in cases without a Prenuptial Agreement (which are the majority of cases), you are dividing assets and debts without the benefit of looking at a contract to see what the parties intended. Saying “I do” starts the marriage. However, the breakup involves much more.

A divorce is like a small business breaking up, if that small business did not have a Partnership Agreement, Shareholder Agreement, or other definite boundaries and guidelines as to each owner’s interest. Accordingly, divorcing couples must negotiate based on the guidance provided by the statutes and case law. Unfortunately, the financial makeup of every couple does not lend itself easily to that framework. When marital assets include a business interest, the questions become more complex as the parties must value the business and calculate the income, which may or may not match the numbers on the return.

Divorce can be especially devastating to small business owners, both if one of the owners is actually going through a divorce and also if a key employee’s marriage crumbles. Divorce distracts people with emotional turmoil, court dates, conferences and meetings with lawyers, tension over the future and, sometimes, bitter or even violent arguments. All of this creates quite the toxic working environment.

If a business owner is involved in a divorce, it can sometimes mean the end of a business. If one party must purchase the other party’s interest, sometimes sufficient cash or equity does not exist for the division and the only way to split the business is to sell it and split the proceeds. Divorce can also bring to light poor or even illegal business practices, such as unreported income and lack of adequate records. Because divorce can be so emotionally devastating, it is sometimes difficult for the people involved to put aside their differences to preserve the business.

In order to protect themselves, small business owners should develop business plans that include provisions such as Shareholder Agreements and Buy-Sell Agreements, in the event that one of the owners dies, wants to leave the business or is involved in a divorce. Additionally, small business owners can require each other to obtain Prenuptial Agreements to limit the effect of any future marital split on the ongoing business operation. Unfortunately, all small firms do not have the foresight to plan for these types of events. However, outlining interests, duties and roles ahead of time can make for a much clearer and organized environment. Understanding each other’s expectations as to the overall business, and individual contribution of each owner, gives each owner the guidance inherently necessary in making good business decisions. Then, if divorce does become part of the picture, at least a plan exists, designed to minimize the damage.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Look at this as a new beginning, rather than a bitter end

Divorce, even in amicable cases, can be hell. A marriage is ending. A family breaks up. If the divorce includes custody and support issues of children, their lives become upended.

Sometimes, rather than focusing on the bad, turn the energy into focusing on the positives. After all, the implosion of the marriage usually indicates that it was not necessarily a happy one. So, look forward to a new beginning, a new life and what you can change and make better.

Click here for an excellent article from on titled 10 Ways to Embrace Change. The tips range from comforting (mother yourself a little) to practical (be skeptical of common wisdom). Remember, even though divorce can be a toxic, anxiety-ridden time, you may be able to make it just a little easier on yourself, and those around you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

That's right, in Pennsylvania, absent agreement, we cannot compel payment of college tuition

In Pennsylvania, unlike in New Jersey, court ordered child support terminates at a set emancipation date, which, absent unforeseen circumstances, occurs when the child turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever date is later. For quite some time now, Pennsylvania law has declined to obligate parents to provide for secondary education and support after completion of high school.

Recently, the Appellate Court of Pennsylvania addressed the college tuition payment issue. In this particular case, the couple had married in 1988 and had four children. They separated in 2005. At the time, Father was essentially a stay-at-home caregiver for the children and Mother was the breadwinner. It appears from the case, however, that when the parties separated, Father went to live in Florida without the children. The divorce became final in 2006.

In May of 2008, Mother filed a “Petition to Enforce Agreement to Pay College Expenses.” Father responded with a “Petition to Modify Child Support.” After hearing, the trial court reduced the child support from $1,094 per month down to $810 per month, apparently finding that Father’s income had been reduced. However, the court refused to compel Father to pay college tuition.

Mother premised her petition to enforce the payment of college expenses on an apparent oral agreement that the parties had discussed back in October of 2004 (notably, prior to the filing of the divorce complaint). At that time, the parties discussed at their dinner table that Mother would work for a few more years and then retire so that Father could return to the work force and earn an income suitable to pay for the children’s college educations. However, this agreement was never reduced to writing and certainly not made a part of the divorce decree. In fact, the discussion took place while they were still an intact family.

The trial court refused to find the October 2004 discussions formed a legally binding and enforceable contract. While perhaps Mother felt Father had a moral obligation to pay for college, she simply did not present enough support to the court to show an enforceable agreement. Additionally, unfortunately for Mother, the two daughters who testified did nothing to advance Mother’s position. Both girls appeared to not remember or have firsthand knowledge of the alleged agreement to pay college support.

The compelling part of this story appears to be that it made its way to the Appellate Court. An appeal to the Appellate Court (the Superior Court of Pennsylvania) can be quite costly, considering the basic costs such as filing fees and the reproduction of the record, and the attorney’s fees involved in preparing comprehensive briefs. Pennsylvania law remains clear regarding the payment for secondary education: courts simply cannot compel support after the age of 18 absent an agreement by the parties. Here, Mother hinged her argument on an oral agreement. Unfortunately, even if the court accepted all of the evidence that Mother presented as true, she simply did not provide enough proof that the parties had an unambiguous, enforceable agreement that Father would contribute to college. Rather, the testimony showed that the parties had a conversation about their finances, in the fall before their spring separation. The evidence showed that the conversation involved an overall, generalized plan as to working, saving and pooling assets, rather than a specific and comprehensive enforceable strategy defining each parent’s financial obligations.

As litigation and subsequent appeals can be quite expensive, one wonders if it would not have been cheaper for both Mother and Father to simply either come to an agreement, or, refuse to litigate the issue, instead spending the money saved on attorney’s fees and court costs, directly on the children’s college expenses.

The Opinion goes on to address a vocational expert testifying regarding Father’s employment capabilities and earning capacity. Unfortunately for Mother, the court also rejected her arguments on Father’s income and earning capacity and the lower court’s order both regarding the denial of college expenses and the lowering of support, was affirmed by the Superior Court.

You can read this case in its entirety here.

What is COBRA?

COBRA is the abbreviation for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, a law which provides employees an opportunity to continue health insurance benefits for themselves, and for their dependents, in certain circumstances and for a limited time period. For an indepth look at how COBRA works, please visit the US Department of Labor website.

If you are going through a divorce, you may be eligible to continue your health benefits under your spouse's plan. Visit the website noted above so you have a basic understanding of how the program works so that you can plan appropriately.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Are underemployed or unemployed fathers the new winners in custody wars?

Courts make custody decisions based on the best interests of the children. Accordingly, the spouse, who works less or not at all, and is therefore more available for the children, may be considered the primary caregiver. That role could provide an advantage in a custody battle.

Working Mother magazine published a comprehensive article on this issue from a Mother's point of view: Custody Lost. You can also read about a Dad's perspective: Custody Battle: Dad's Story.
If you are concerned about your own custody situation, consult with an attorney, familiar with the laws in your state, as well as your local court.

Child support online

For online child support services in New Jersey, visit:

For online child support services in Pennsylvania, visit:

Monday, November 16, 2009

I could not have said it better myself

Click here for an excellent article from this weekend's New York Times addressing health insurance and other important issues in divorce.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thank you for your service

Gratitude to all Veterans who serve this country so honorably and bravely.