How does the coronavirus affect my child support in Pennsylvania?

 Many Pennsylvania child custody, child support and spousal support orders will be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.  The onset of coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced many states, including Pennsylvania, to issue stay-at-home orders, which in turn, has led businesses to shut their doors and employees to lose their jobs. Over the past two weeks, approximately 650,000 people in Pennsylvania have filed for unemployment. This number is only expected to rise as Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Wolf, declared on Monday his plan to extend the stay-at-home order to April 30, 2020.

Different life changing events can occur such as the loss of a job, a serious injury, new child, and more that require a modification of a PA child or spousal support order. The COVID-19 outbreak is one such event that our Pennsylvania family law firm believes may qualify certain individuals for a modification of child support or spousal –as parents and spouses may be experiencing financial hardships, lost wages, and as a result, may be unable to make their PA child and spousal support payments. If you are one of those individuals who has had a decrease in income because of the coronavirus, you should consider filing a petition for modification of your Pennsylvania child or spousal support order.

Who can file for a modification of a PA child or spousal support order?

Where a support order is in place, either party may file to modify a child support order at any time, when there is a material and substantial change in circumstance.

My friend filed to modify his/her child support order and the Judge denied it. Why was that? There may be many reasons why your friend’s petition to modify child support may have been denied. For instance, where a parent is ordered to pay child support, the decreased income must be involuntary. In other words, the decrease in income cannot be as a result of a decision by the obligor to quit his or her job to avoid child support payments, or willfully refusing to work. If your friend voluntarily or willfully lost his or her job, this may have been a reason for the Judge to deny the petition for modification of child support.

Due to the coronavirus, individuals who are laid off and required pursuant to a Pennsylvania court order to pay child or spousal support, may be entitled to a reduction of their PA child support and PA spousal support payments once a modification petition is filed with the Family Courts.

When should I file a modification of my PA support order?

By law, you are required to notify the Domestic Relation Office as well as the party receiving support of any material changes as soon as the change occurs. If you have recently been laid off or lost your job due to the coronavirus, you should file a petition to modify your PA support order immediately.

Why should you file immediately for a modification of your PA support order?

A request to modify a PA support order will be effective as of the day of filing even if your support modification hearing is not conducted for weeks thereafter. Therefore, failure to file for a modification, may cause you to owe for the missed child support payments, referred to as arrears, prior to your filing for modification. Our PA support lawyers can help you determine whether you have a qualifying life event that would require you to file for a modification of PA child and spousal support. We can also run PA child support calculations to determine what your new obligation might be.

 Can I agree to modify my PA support order with the other party?

While a verbal agreement to modify a PA support order might give you some temporary reprieve and seem like a short-term solution, it may cause a lot of problems down the road. If you are court ordered to make child or support payments in Pennsylvania, you are required by law to make your payments in full, unless directed otherwise by the court. This means that absent a PA court order, signed by a Judge, stating a new payment amount, you will be held accountable for the full amount you were court ordered to pay. You should be very cautious of a party verbally agreeing to accept a lesser amount as this will not absolve you accumulating an arrears balance for the full amount owed.

I am the recipient of PA child support or spousal support and I am not receiving the money owed under the order. What should I do?

Our Pennsylvania support lawyers understand that the current outbreak is posing a hardship for all, and while you may have been laid off or whether you are working from home, your bills do not stop. Some parents may be taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak to stop payments, despite their duty of support. This may require the person entitled to receive support, to file for contempt of the PA support order  If you have a support order in place, and you are not receiving your payment due to the other party’s failure to make a payment, contact our support attorneys for help.

Talk to a PA support lawyer

This post is intended to provide general information regarding the impact of COVID-19 on Pennsylvania child and spousal support orders. If you have further questions about child support in Pennsylvania, are interested in filing for child support, or if you have a child support order you would like to modify, contact our office at Lisa Marie Vari & Associates, P.C. to schedule your initial consultation by phone call our office at 412-281-9906.

Lisa Marie Vari & Associates offers free emergency legal services for victims of domestic violence during COVID-19 pandemic

domestic violence

Pennsylvania Governor Wolf’s mandate yesterday to close non-life sustaining businesses and recommendations from public health experts who have advocated for social distancing may have a greater impact upon some Pennsylvania residents than many may have considered in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Fear, anxiety, feelings of a lack of control and other emotions during the corona virus crisis can and will result in an increase in the incidents of domestic violence.  Victims who are living in fear may be less inclined to leave an abusive situation when there is a greater fear of financial instability due to the current predicament.  Others may not have an opportunity to escape because of the new reality of working from home with their abuser and social distancing from friends and family.  Potentially exacerbating the problems of domestic violence victims in Pennsylvania an order from the PA Supreme Court directing that all Pennsylvania courts must close as of the end of business on March 20th.

Domestic violence victims in Pennsylvania should be aware that help is available to them during the COVID-19 crisis.  Law enforcement will respond to domestic violence calls and provide emergency aid.  Domestic violence crisis centers will remain open and available to assist by telephone and by other means if necessary.  Further, Pennsylvania Family Court judges will be available to assist victims of domestic violence with emergency Protection from Abuse petitions.  But, with the Governor’s mandate to close all non-life sustaining businesses, many law offices have closed their doors and are not available to provide emergency legal services to victims of domestic violence.

The attorneys and staff at the Pittsburgh based family law offices of Lisa Marie Vari & Associates, P.C. want to do our part to help during the COVID-19 crisis.  Attorney Lisa Marie Vari along with her associates Tyler Foster, Melissa Lewis and Jessyca McCarl will offer free emergency legal services to victims of domestic violence in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland Counties in Pennsylvania for the period of March 20, 2020 until April 20, 2020.  After reaching out to your local police department and domestic violence crisis center, please contact our office at (412) 281-9906 or Info@VariLaw.com for additional information and emergency legal assistance.  Our attorneys and staff will be working remotely from our respective homes and will be available to assist domestic violence victims.  Our staff will be working remotely Monday through Friday from 8:30 am until 5:00 p.m.  If you have an emergency after hours or on the weekends, please call (412) 444-8608 and leave a confidential message and someone will return your call as soon as possible.

The law office of Lisa Marie Vari & Associates, P.C. is here to do our part to help during this national coronavirus emergency.

Custody and Corona Virus: What are the options?

It goes without saying that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is majorly impacting Pennsylvania’s businesses, and its resident’s day to day lives. Over the past week our firm has received multiple calls from concerned parents who want to know what their options are for exchanging custody with parents who are in a different state, or meet in public locations for supervised custody and exchanges.

There is no easy answer. Judges expect that their Orders be followed once issued, however they are also understanding of when emergencies arise that do not allow an Order to be followed. Absent an alternative visitation agreement in writing, you should make every attempt to continue following your custody order, so long as it is safe to do so. Judges will have to weigh if a parent should be in contempt if they fail to follow a custody order during the COVID-19 outbreak and requested quarantine restrictions. The reality of the situation is that even the Courts themselves has issued notices that hearing, trials and education programs are canceled, and have closed their doors for the first time in decades to any save emergency Protection from Abuse cases.

As discussed in our recent blog titled Family Courts in Allegheny County Amidst the Coronavirus, and now the surrounding counties in Pennsylvania, such as Westmoreland, Washington, Butler, Beaver, Greene and more have issued requirements for all non-essential businesses to close, and for its citizens to self-quarantine.

With so much uncertainty as to when the advisement to self-quarantine will end, there are important questions all parents with custody issues have. Here, we try to address a few:

Is the school closure considered a “school/spring break”, where I am entitled to or required to exchange custody with the other parent?

The answer is not simple, however it is our position that the current closing of school in Pennsylvania is not considered a school/ spring break in regard to custody provisions where the other parent is entitled to additional time during school breaks. If the parties can agree to extend custody time during the current closure due to the COVID-19 outbreak, they are entitled to do so. However, our position is that it is not required.

Will the Judge hold me in contempt of court if I do not follow the custody order regarding exchanges?

Judges base their decision on if a party is in contempt of a court order regarding custody if the parent withholding custody is doing so unilaterally and not in the best interest of the child, and purposeful disobeying the custody order. In light of the restrictions on large group meetings, recommendations to self-quarantine and many non-essential businesses closing, or only permitting take-out orders, a parent who chooses to keep the parties children in the home may be considered in their best interest. Pennsylvania has not yet determined if the COVID-19 virus would be considered a just reason for withholding custody. As such, the Judge would have to determine, based on the specific facts of the parties’ circumstances, whether a parent who did not send their child for an exchange should be held in contempt. A good attorney will be able to argue on your behalf why it was in the child’s best interest to remain in quarantine, and for the custody exchanges to be suspended during the COVID-19 outbreak. So long as a parent does not use the COVID019 outbreak to take advantage of the other parent, the likelihood of being held in contempt is lessened.

If I can still safely exchange custody, should I?

Yes. You have an Order or a status quo where custody exchanges are established, and should be followed. Take additional precautions, ensure that you are in communication with the other party and that you both are aware of the dangers. Establish a plan in advance in case of possible exposure, and most importantly, be reasonable as much as possible. If you typically exchange in a public place, make arrangements to do so in a secure private location, or a place that is not heavily populated to cut down on the possibility of contamination. Wash your hand before and directly after exchanges.

What other options should I suggest instead of leaving the house with the child for a custody exchange?

When you have experience representation, your attorney can negotiate with opposing counsel or the other party the options the parties have in place of leaving the house. Ideas such as daily skype/ facetime messaging and a promise of makeup time once the danger of the COVID-19 virus has passed is one option that has been suggested.

When can we anticipate our case being rescheduled?

At this time, there is no known date as to when Pennsylvania Courthouses will reschedule canceled hearing, trials or other family court matters. There has been no direction as to how these matters would be rescheduled, or how long the courts anticipate staying closed. Working with experienced attorneys will ensure that you are updated regularly. Firms such as Lisa Marie Vari & Associates has a team working round the clock to gather information regarding court closures, and updating their clients accordingly.

If you are a parent who has concerns about how the Coronavirus (COVID-19) will affect your established or pending custody, divorce child support, spousal support, adoption or other family law matters, contact the knowledgeable Pennsylvania family law attorneys at Lisa Marie Vari & Associates to schedule a no-obligation telephone consultation today. You may complete our online contact questionnaire or call our office directly at 412-281-9906.

 

Be sure to check back regularly for updates on the COVID-19 virus and how it affects your family law matters.

Family Court in Allegheny County Amidst the Coronavirus

The corona virus is a respiratory infection of the airway and lungs that has much of the world in chaos. The first case of coronavirus (COVID-19) was detected in China in December 2019. Today, over 100 countries world-wide have announced cases of COVID-19, which is caused by a new strain of coronavirus, not previously identified in humans.

 

Over the past two weeks, we have seen the widespread effect of COVID-19 sweep across nations, killing thousands along its path – many health care experts comparing it to the SARS outbreak in 2003; the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, a “public health emergency of international concern.”

 

Initially, while there were a few detected cases in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh residents waited for the dreaded moment the virus would reach its streets. According to the County Health Department, there are currently six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Allegheny County, but the County believes there could be many more cases. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and other county officials have called for non-essential businesses to close for the next two weeks effective Monday, March 16, 2020. Among the list of non-essential businesses are child care centers, gyms, nail salons, casinos, concert venues, theaters, social clubs, and more. Governor Wolf ordering a state-wide shutdown, similar to preventative measures taken in states, such as New York, New Jersey, Washington, Connecticut and California. While these measures may not prevent the widespread of COVID-19 from occurring, it may delay the spread of the virus. Clients and attorneys alike practicing in Allegheny, Washington, Greene, Beaver and Somerset County are now in limbo regarding their scheduled court hearings and the ability of the judicial system to provide appropriate safety measures amid this crisis.

 

In response to COVID-19, the Allegheny County – Family Division will be operating at a limited capacity. Effective March 16, 2020, pursuant to President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark’s Order, support conferences, custody hearings; equitable distribution hearings, where a Judge determines how marital assets will be divided; and, divorce hearings are postponed. The Generations program, which is mandatory two-step program for individuals involved in the Allegheny Family Court system, has been cancelled. Parties should expect to receive new scheduling orders for their education seminar and mediation session as they become available. If you are involved in a juvenile delinquency case, related to children between the ages of 10 and 17 years of age who have been charged with committing crimes, you should appear for all juvenile delinquency matters scheduled before the Court, unless you are notified otherwise. If you are involved in a Child Protection or Dependency case, which involves children you are or have been abused by parents, you should appear for all juvenile dependency matters, unless otherwise notified. If you believe you have a matter that needs to be addressed immediately, the Court will be hearing emergency motions.

 

Additionally, the Family Division will hold bench warrant hearings as planned. Furthermore, if you live in Pittsburgh and are in reasonable fear of immediate and serious physical harm, you may appear in Family Division, located at 440 Ross Street, Pittsburgh PA, 15219 and file for Protection from Abuse. Here at Lisa Marie Vari & Associates, we understand this may be very difficult times for victims who are quarantined with their abusers during these times, please consider reaching out to our office for assistance.

 

For individuals with Family Court matters in Greene County, all scheduled court hearings through March 23, 2020 are continued. Motions Court on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 and Monday, March 23, 2020 will take place as scheduled. Emergency proceedings will be heard on an as-needed basis.

 

For individuals with Family Court matters in Washington County, the Court will be reducing its functions over the next two (2) weeks to determine if other emergency measures are/will be necessary. Motions court will be handled by telephone or e-mail if consented to. Parties are to contact the Judge’s chambers for instructions.

 

While COVID-19 has immediate effects to our judiciary system, there are still many unknowns regarding the long-term effects of COVID-19 that we must grapple with, such as, how the loss of your job or being temporarily laid off due to COVID-19 may affect child support? Will receiving unemployment during the outbreak, permit you suspend your child support payments? Are parents expected to maintain their custody orders given the outbreak? What we do know, however, is that Family Courts will have to deal with the profound effect this virus will cause. You should anticipate that the Family Courts will be flooded when they re-open their doors for regular business. Family law clients will need to be patient with the number of cases that will need to be rescheduled. We also predict that there will be an influx of Contempt cases amid this outbreak of clients violating orders.

 

We ask that clients continue to monitor local news for further cancellations to hearings and court closures, and look forward to servicing you as best as we can.

Who gets to keep the dog after a divorce or separation in Pennsylvania?

Custody of pets in Pennsylvania after divorce or separation

Clients who are separating from their partner or spouse in Pennsylvania often ask us who gets to keep the dog after their relationship has ended.  Courts across the U.S. have increasingly been tasked with determining whether pets are property or family and whether the family courts or civil courts will help decide who gets to keep them. Approximately sixty-seven percent of U.S. households own a pet. For most, their pets are considered family members, with some people even treating them like children.

 

Prior to the 1800s, animals were considered to have very little intrinsic value being seen largely as agriculture items for sale or use on a farm. However, since the 1800s, animals have gained a great deal of recognition in the legal system largely in the criminal law context. One such example being through states enacting animal cruelty laws.

 

Over the years, animals have been welcomed in homes in the U.S. and across the world. Some pet lovers even sporting signs that say, “I work hard so my dogs can have a better life,” or “all you need is love…and a cat.” So, what happens to pets during a separation or divorce in Pennsylvania?

 

Custody agreements regarding pets are unenforceable in PA

In 2002, the Pennsylvania Superior Court determined that agreements regarding the custody of pets are unenforceable. This is better known as the “Barney Rule,” Barney being the name of the dog that was involved in a custody battle after a man sued his wife to enforce a visitation agreement they entered into. As much as some of us may love our furry companions, pets are considered personal property in Pennsylvania. Therefore, even if you enter into an agreement for your pet to have visitation with your former spouse or partner, a Pennsylvania judge will not enforce this agreement, if your former spouse withholds custody of your pet in violation of your contract.

 

Since Pennsylvania Courts will not enforce pet custody agreements, is there any other way to determine who keeps fido or fluffy?  Pennsylvania law indicates that pets are seen as tangible personal property much like a piece of furniture or a gun collection. If the pet was obtained during a marriage, Pennsylvania Family Courts can award the pet to either spouse during the process of equitable distribution of marital assets and debts. If a pet was purchased prior to the marriage, it is likely that the person who purchased the pet will be awarded the pet as a non-marital or pre-marital asset.

 

Unmarried couples must turn to civil courts to determine ownership of pets

Pennsylvania Family Courts will not assist unmarried couples in determining who should be awarded pets when their relationship breaks up.  Instead, unmarried couples must resort to Civil Courts to enforce their rights to ownership of pets.  In Pennsylvania, this often means filing a civil lawsuit with a local District Magistrate’s office and hoping that the Magistrate will order possession of the pet and not just a monetary judgment for the value of the pet.

 

Figuring out who gets to keep the beloved family pet and going through a separation or divorce in Pennsylvania can be very taxing but with our team of experienced family law attorneys we can help you navigate through the system and answer your questions. To schedule a consultation regarding your divorce matter or to discuss how your marital assets might be divided, contact our office today at 1-844-VARI-LAW or 1-844-827-4529 or by using the form provided below.