Sunday, January 31, 2010

Take control of that deluge of mail

If you are involved in a divorce, support or custody matter, you will undoubtedly be overrun with mail, including communications from your attorney and notices from the court. Sometimes, the volume can be so overwhelming that you are tempted to simply put it aside and not open it. Out of sight, out of mind! However, that is probably the worst thing you can do for yourself.

Divorce, custody and support are legal matters which are subject to certain notice requirements and deadlines. If you miss a deadline, fail to appear at a court conference/proceeding or otherwise fail to participate fully in your case, an adverse decision could be entered against you.

In a recent case addressed by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, a Father appealed from an Order of child and spousal support entered against him in Bucks County, attempting to complain to the Appellate Court that he had not received notice of the hearing and therefore should get a “do-over” on the support calculations. However, the court found Father had received sufficient notice and the support Order was affirmed.

Notably, court notices are mailed out using old fashioned United States Mail. Make sure that your address with the court and your attorney is accurate, that you check your mailbox daily and, if you have ongoing litigation, that you occasionally check in with the court to make sure a notice did not slip by.

If you would like to read the case, in which the Superior Court was not impressed by Father’s protests of not having notice, you can click here. The case originated in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Notably, this opinion was authored by Justice Gantman, who spent many years as a family law practitioner before being elected to Superior Court.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

How a house is appraised for purposes of divorce

Hmmmm . . . how much is my home worth?

Going through the divorce process, if the parties decide not to sell the house (or houses in the case of wealthier families), then usually one person will keep it and buy out the other party. This means that the property should be valued for purposes of divorce.

In order to value a home, if the parties do not agree on a figure, they will usually have to hire a real estate appraiser. Sometimes, parties agree on a joint real estate appraiser and live with whatever value that individual recommends. Sometimes, each party hires their own appraiser and then negotiate based on the numbers obtained.

The cost of an appraisal can be anywhere from $200 to $500, depending on the property. An appraisal of a commercial property will be much higher.

Prior to obtaining an appraisal, I generally recommend that clients do some advance “homework” in order to be prepared. Sometimes, you will find it useful to ask a trusted realtor to give you an idea of the fair market value of the house. Remember that this is not a true appraisal and may not be accurate. However, it might give you at least an idea of the value so that you can plan accordingly, having a “ballpark” figure in mind.

If you do end up getting an appraisal on your house, you should time it correctly. If you obtain an appraisal too early in the process, that appraisal might become stale and you might have to go through the cost of obtaining an additional appraisal at the time you are finalizing the division of assets.

Appraisers are usually limited in the information they are able to obtain about your property. While the appraiser does take a tour of the house, he or she cannot see things that are not too obvious. Accordingly, if there are any issues that could affect the value (structural issues, heating, air conditioning or electrical issues not obvious to the naked eye, unique features and/or compelling qualities, etc.) or other subtle characteristics to your house), you may want to have a list ready for the appraiser. Additionally, it is usually good to point out work that was done or needs to be done on the property. While an appraiser is not always qualified to comment on engineering or other technical issues, a notation in the report will at least provide you with room to argue a particular point or even decide whether it is worth it to hire a structural engineer or home inspector to put a value on the deficiencies in the home.

An appraiser generally uses market comparables in order to come up with a price. Sometimes, there may not be similar properties in the area or similar properties that have sold recently, so the appraiser might have to get creative with setting a price for the home. Accordingly, you may want to do your own research to find out what properties, if any, have sold in your neighborhood and the price for which they sold. Since you will be intimately familiar with your house, you can compare your house with characteristics to the other houses to find the best comparables.

You should insist that any appraiser take photographs of the home, both inside and out, and usually the more the better. If an appraisal is ever challenged, the comprehensive documentation will be able to support the appraisal.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Thought of the Day

"Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending."

- Anonymous

Get your voicemails transcribed

Unfortunately for all involved, divorce and other types of family law cases often involve people who are bickering back and forth and exchanging passionate, highly charged communications. This could mean nasty and inappropriate voicemail, email or text messages. While it is relatively easy to obtain a printout of an email or a text message, voicemail is not always easy to save and/or transcribe.

I ran across a service that actually transcribes voicemails and then emails them in text format to you. While this service was undoubtedly set up for busy professionals who like to have a record of their calls, this type of documentation could be helpful in a family law matter. Rather than having a slew of regular audio tapes that may be cut off at inappropriate times or unclear, you can use a service like this one to keep an accurate transcription of voicemails from the other party. Additionally, if the other party is harassing or otherwise saying inappropriate things on the voicemail, and that person realizes that you are keeping transcriptions, it could deter the unpleasant behavior. You could also try this one.

Transcriptions of voicemails will not automatically be admissible in court. However, documenting unpleasant behavior will hopefully reign in any malevolent tendencies of the other side.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

CHIP covers kids

Are your children eligible? If you live in Pennsylvania, click here.

If you live in New Jersey, click here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How to designate a check

You write a check to the gas company and hope that the payment gets applied to your account. You also write a check to the mortgage company and trust that the payment will be properly applied. Similarly, you may have to write checks to the IRS, or for child support, or for some other type of debt, and you would like to think that the amount is correctly applied to your specific account.

You can save yourself a lot of time, and sometimes later aggravation or cost, by making it a habit to appropriately designate your checks.

When writing a check for payment, you should always include the account number. Sometimes, for credit card companies, it is sufficient to only include the last four numbers of your account. Since your name or address on the check may not match the name or address on the account, write the appropriate name in the memo portion.

Make sure all notations are legible. Each number and letter must be clear. Unfortunately, I have handled more than one matter wherein checks were not applied appropriately because the check writer’s handwriting was misunderstood. Do not let that happen to you.

If you are paying taxes, make sure you include your social security number (or other type of tax account number on the check) along with the type of tax, form of tax you are paying and year. For example, if you are writing a check to pay your income taxes, the memo portion should indicate 2009 Form W-2 income taxes. Likewise, if you are paying your real estate taxes the check should clearly note the year, the word real estate taxes, your account number, and address of the property.

While this advice may seem elementary, not everyone has good habits when it comes to writing out checks. If you are ever in a dispute about payment, being able to show that the check was appropriately written will assist your cause.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Monkey business

Click here to read about a Florida couple arguing over custody of a chimp -- with one of the parties reqeusting a DNA test on the $65,000 animal in order to determine whether he was born to chimps on the former couples' farm.

How to get a copy of your tax return

Divorce and support litigation requires the exchange of information. Unfortunately, not all of us have Martha Stewart style, color coded and organized files. For some people, finding last year’s tax return, or the last two or three years of tax returns, can be a daunting task. Sometimes, your spouse may hide it from you.
If you simply cannot find the document, and it is not available from your tax preparer, you can order a variety of documents from the Internal Revenue Service, some for a fee. You can find the form on the IRS website or just click here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Quote of the Day

A diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman's birthday but never remembers her age.

Robert Frost

Tax breaks that should be on your radar

Click here for an article addressing the tax breaks that may be available to you: education credit, home energy credit, home buyer credit, new vehicle purchases and jobless benefits. As always, consult with a qualified accountant in order to determine your eligibility.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

It's the little things in life . . .

I need a spa day!

Divorce is hell. . . . but it also can be a new beginning. I tell all of my clients to take care of themselves, try not to wallow in misery and look forward, not back (to the extent that is possible in what is admittedly a challenging and life altering time).

Since divorce can be financially uncertain, you may not be able to afford a spa trip, weekend away or a house remodel. There are, however, some simple, low or no cost things you can do to make life more pleasant. Click here for some excellent tips of easy changes from the design website, Apartment Therapy.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Hell hath no fury . . .

Here is a perfect story on how NOT to handle a breakup.

Take care with your passwords!

Click here for an interesting, informative article on password security.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Who claims the kids?

Can I claim my child on my tax return?

I get asked this question so many times --- a divorce lawyer with a masters degree in tax is a natural magnet for these issues.

As with almost every legal question -- the answer to "Who claims the kids on their tax return? is . . . .

It depends!

Generally, the parent with custody claims the child as a dependent. However, in today's world, with shared custody and grandparent custody and all of the other possible variations, the definition of who has custody is simply not that clear. Consult with your accountant or lawyer for specific advice related to your situation.

The Internal Revenue Service puts out an excellent publication, updated yearly: Publication 504: Divorced and Separated Individuals. Additionally, the IRS publishes a pamphlet that provides a guide to various IRS publications related to divorce: Divorce - An IRS Perspective.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pennsylvania Child Support Guidelines have been changed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Hot off the press . . .

Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued changes to the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, amending the child support guidelines.

Major highlights include a substantial change in the way we calculate support in high income cases so if the combined income in your case is more than $20,000 per month, this could affect you. Additionally, the basic child support numbers have been recalculated across the board.

You can read the new rules here.

Many of the ancillary rules have also changed. For a complete analysis of your child support, you should consult with an attorney, and make sure they are familiar with all of the facts of your case because child support calculations are much more than just plugging numbers into the system. Our guidelines include deviations, rules and assumptions that must be considered.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Pennsylvania - Definition of net income for purposes of support

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania occasionally amends the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure. The child support guidelines are part of these Rules. The Court recently issued a clarification to the definition of net income which you can read here.

We are waiting for other amendments, which we expect in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Divorce is excruciating

Anyway you look at it, divorce can be one of the most unpleasant experiences of your life, whether you are seeking the divorce, your spouse has decided to end the marriage or it is a mutual decision. Being organized, and obtaining finality on the issues surrounding the marriage, can make the process somewhat less painful.

I always advise clients to obtain a copy of their credit report at the beginning of a divorce. This document can give you a handle on not only your ability to obtain credit (if you intend to purchase a new house or lease a new place to live), but also provide you a list of all of the debts in your name. Finalizing your divorce will ideally mean closing out any joint debt accounts and removing your spouse as a user or joint debtor.

Last night I attended a presentation on divorce and Judge Platt, from Chester County, one of the speakers, noted that a great majority of the Petitions for Special Relief that she handles involves post-divorce disputes over marital debt. The cleanest, easiest way to address marital debt is to either pay it off or, if that is not possible, make sure it is no longer in joint names. This minimizes the chances that you will have disputes post divorce and end up back in court.

Credit reports are relatively easy to obtain. Below is the contact information for the three major credit reporting agencies. You may also be able to obtain a free credit report through a variety of other websites. However, paying for a complete credit report from any one or all three of these agencies may be able to provide you with more comprehensive and accurate information. Once the divorce is near finalization, you may want to obtain another credit report just to make sure everything is resolved.

Trans Union, LLC
Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92834

Equifax, Inc.
Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374

Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy 2010!

“Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”

―Christopher Reeve
Happy and healthy 2010!