Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The definition of insanity

I planted my spring bulbs this past weekend.  As I live in Center City, Philadelphia, my garden plot is both tiny and tidy.  Each fall, I try to add more bulbs, because I know that I lose some bulbs every year to the neighborhood squirrels and the less than ideal soil/sun/water ratio that my courtyard provides.  Each spring, my bulb plants usually sprout early.   

I never seem to plant the bulbs deep enough, and I often wait until the ground is too cold to really be able to burrow deep into my plot.  Thus, every year, I obtain similar results: some beautiful, perfect specimens of tulips, hyacinths and daffodils, but also some early plants, some drooping over from the weight of being too close to the surface and some that never achieve the look that nature intended due to the sub-par garden conditions (and my sub-par skills as a gardener!).  

In the end, the results are okay with me, and definitely are good enough for the time and effort expended.  But imagine: what if I pushed the reset button on my gardening routine one year?  Dug up all of that old, spent soil and replaced it with a nutrient rich mix engineered specifically for my plants?  Really paid attention to the differing needs of each of my plants and the planting depth of the bulbs?  Tended to the watering needs and trimmed back some of the foliage to maximize sunlight?

No doubt my gardening results would reflect my efforts.  Changing things up almost always produces different results, and when you behave differently by following a new, and hopefully improved, pattern, then you can achieve different results. The flip side?  Do not change your path and you will reach the same destination as always.  

Therefore, if you are hoping for a better outcome in some part of your life, then it seems logical that new methods are appropriate.  After all, one definition of insanity is trying the same thing, over and over, yet expecting a different result.

Unfortunately, I find that people often attempt to manage their separations (from their spouse or from the other parent of their child) in exactly the same manner as they managed their relationship.  Yet, they are separating because the relationship failed; therefore, utilizing the same behavior to navigate the separation seems to be the very definition of insanity.  Whether it is fear, lack of clear self-perception or plain stubbornness, which I see over and over again, this pattern does not work.  In most cases, during the separation process, it is time to press the reset button on the behaviors that doomed the relationship.

One mother* that I represented spent her marriage with a man who drank too much alcohol, was overly critical and mean, bullied her and their children and lashed-out occasionally with frightening temper-tantrums.  In order to keep some semblance of peace in her life, she spent most of her time smoothing out the rough edges – keeping herself and the children out of the way during his nightly drinking binges, staying quiet through his nasty tirades knowing he would eventually tire himself out or lose interest and giving in to his whims and ways because she could not take the toxicity that resulted when she tried to change things.  She eventually found the inner strength to leave him, which was not an easy decision for someone who took her marriage vows of “until death do we part” very seriously.  Ultimately, she was catapulted into action by the negative effect that this unhealthy environment was having on her child.  Her children were not thriving at all – they had behavioral problems at school to the point where, although they were intelligent children, they simply were not learning.  One child was failing to make friends, and another was mimicking his father’s temper-tantrums and bullying.  

This young mother approached the divorce process with trepidation. Her husband reacted with his typical manipulation and toxic bullying.  He told their children that she was tearing apart the family and bankrupting him.  He told friends, family and neighbors that he was the victim and glorified his own perceived virtues while damaging her reputation.  He began to drink even more, and laid the blame for his drinking squarely on his estranged wife.  In short, if she had not left him, then he would not need the comfort of alcohol.

In turn, she fell back into her old coping mechanisms, attempting to soothe him and giving-in to him in the hopes that he would be appeased and alter his behavior.  She agreed to the custody schedule he demanded even though she thought that it was not  in her children’s best interests.  She agreed to his demands regarding how he wanted to divide the assets.  Essentially, she acted, as she always had, with the belief that maybe, if she gave him what he wanted, he would stop making her life difficult.  

Alas, his behavior grew worse.  He became more demanding, and she became the pin cushion for all of his nasty barbs.  Things were getting worse, not better, and she began to wonder why she even embarked on the divorce process.  After she began the process, her children’s suffering was increasing and the consequences more dire – one child was expelled from school and labeled as a child with serious disciplinary and behavioral problems.

Then the a-ha! moment came (with help, encouragement and badgering from me).  She had to change her course of action.  I repeated my mantra: if you want different results, do not manage your divorce the same way you managed your relationship.  Think about how you want your life to be different and think about what you need to demand in order to get there.

For this client, the process was painful and is still on-going.  However, the change was remarkable, and she was able to create a much better life for herself and her child.

She decided on what she felt would be the best custody arrangement, and she fought for it.  Her surprised ex-husband lashed out and was unpleasantly surprised when she did not change course.  She looked at the proposed asset division and re-thought what she would accept as fair and equitable.  Then she went about achieving it.  The most remarkable transformation was in how she viewed herself.  Once she stood up to her husband and turned off the constant flow of negative feedback that she received from him, then she also found the courage to finish school and begin a career that she found both fulfilling and rewarding.

The journey is far from over for this woman, but she has come a long way.  Her journey began with the realization that she needed to press reset in order to truly end the relationship and move on in a new life.  Pressing reset allowed her to change the behavior, attitude and reactions of those around her.  Although the details of this woman’s story are specific, the theme rings true in every case.  To receive the best possible results, it is vital that an individual involved in a divorce or custody case approach his or her relationship with different eyes, ears and methods.  A fresh approach to the relationship usually will yield positive results.

(*All identifying details in this example have been changed or omitted.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Finding a lost parent

I was interviewed for an article on ehow.com -- How to Find a Dead Beat Dad.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Blended families --- but not really blended?

When parents re-marry other spouses, and those spouses have children and custody arrangements of their own, the resultant household can be chaotic and crowded.

The Thursday, November 18, 2010 New York Times featured an article about step-families who chose to be separate but together.  One couple owns two apartments -- and one parent and family lives upstairs while the other lives downstairs.  Others choose to keep their separate residences while still spending most of their time together.  You can read the article here.

The engagement is called-off, now who is entitled to the engagement ring?

          According to a 2009 article in the Examiner

  • Seventy-five percent (75%) of first-time brides receive a diamond engagement ring with the average cost of the ring around $2,100,
  • Seventy percent (70%) of women claim they want their significant other to only propose once they have saved enough money to buy them the “ring of their dreams” and 
  • Twenty-eight percent (28%) of these demanding women say they would turn down a proposal if they did not like the ring.
(Engagement Ring Statistics: When bling bling equals broke broke. Http://www.examiner.com/sexual-health-in-national/engagement-ring-statistics-when-bling-bling-equals-broke-broke). 

          These are tough standards for those trying to marry the average girl.  Beware that if you are contemplating engagement to a celebrity, then you better start saving up your pennies as some recent rings have been valued at over one million dollars. Examples of recent outrageous rings values include Katie Holmes’ at $250,000.00, Hillary Duff’s at $1.0 Million and Mariah Carey’s at $2.5 Million. (http://www.celebritybrideguide.com/celebrity-engagement-rings/)  

          An issue that comes up when an engagement ends prematurely, particularly as the value of the ring increases, is who is entitled to the ring? A small, simple engagement ring may not raise much controversy between the parties; however, a ring that is worth a significant sum is much more likely to raise a disagreement. This disagreement can turn particularly ugly when an engagement is being dissolved due to misconduct or fault of one party. 

          The Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed this issue and came to what may be a surprising conclusion for some people: if the parties break-up during the engagement period, regardless of whether it was a mutual decision or one party broke-off the engagement, the party who gave the ring is entitled to have it returned. The Court reasoned that an engagement ring is given in contemplation of marriage, and if the marriage does not happen, then the ring must be returned. The Court then declined to adopt a rule that would allow the recipient of the ring to keep the jewelry if the other party caused the break-up.  The Court stated that Pennsylvania would follow a no-fault regime where the ring must be returned despite the reason for the calling off of the engagement. (Lindh v. Surman, 1999). 

          If the ring was given in conjunction with another holiday, then there is an argument to be made that the ring is associated with the event rather than the engagement. For example, if you proposed on your girlfriend’s birthday, she could argue that the ring was a birthday gift, and therefore, should not have to be returned if the engagement is called-off.  However, in most cases, the lesson learned is that an engagement ring, whether its value is $1,000.00 or $100,000.00, is only a temporary gift until the marriage actually occurs.  

Written by Elizabeth Early, law clerk with the Law Offices of Linda A. Kerns, LLC.  Edited by Elizabeth A. Bokermann, Esquire.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cleaning up your online reputation

Today's Philadelphia Inquirer featured an article on a company that specializes in cleaning up your online reputation.  Google yourself.  If you find negative, untrue information, take steps to fix it before it harms your personal and professional reputation.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Two wives -- who gets the pension?

I sometime shudder when someone calls me and says, "I just want a simple divorce --- he will keep what he has - I will keep what I have."  Why is that a concern?  Because it is sometimes not that simple.

Winding down a marriage means untangling a serious, comprehensive legal arrangement.  If you do not properly resolve all of the issues, draft the appropriate paperwork and follow through on the procedural mechanisms needed to divide assets, you can end up in a stew of expensive confusion down the road.

Just this week, a client called me because her ex-husband is not making his car payment. The car and loan is still in my client's name.   I was not her divorce attorney but if I had handled it, I would have never permitted the finalization of the divorce without removing her as a co-debtor and co-owner of his car.  Now he is not paying --- and her credit is affected.

A more serious issue that crops up post divorce involves pensions and retirement accounts.  These assets are protected by federal law -- and there are very strict rules regarding a spouse's interest.  Just this week, two women who had been married to former Eagles running back Tom Sullivan fought in court over his pension benefits.  

Turns out he never divorced wife number 2 before marrying wife number 3. Since wife number 2 was still officially the spouse -- she gets the pension.

Even when you do obtain a legal divorce --- some pension and retirement accounts may still require comprehensive waivers to remove your former spouse as a beneficiary. Therefore -- winding down a marriage can be a bit more complicated than just going your separate ways. Consult with an attorney experienced in family law matters to make sure you are truly finalizing all of the issues so that when you turn I Do's into I Don't's -- it will be a clean break.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pennsylvania Child Support Updated Website

Click here for the Pennsylvania Child Support Updated Website.

Whether you are paying or receiving child support in Pennsylvania, you can set up an account, review payments, track support amounts and arrears and obtain other useful information.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thank you to those who have served and those who are keeping us safe today

“This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.”  

-Elmer Davis

Veteran's Day 2011