Divorce, Child Custody, and Child Support Lawyers

in Erie, PA

Going through a divorce or custody dispute can be an emotionally draining process.  The dispute will likely impact your family, including your children, for years to come.  Many lawyers sell themselves as “aggressive” family law attorneys, and go out of their way to argue small details just for the sake of arguing.  Being aggressive and argumentative may certainly be appropriate in some circumstances.  Often times, however, the best interests of the parties and their children are better served by engaging with each other to reach a fair resolution.  At Williams and Jorden, we recognize that navigating the complex legal issues in your family law case is just one of your concerns.  We take the time to understand your individual situation and circumstances to help you choose the most appropriate course of action. 

 

DIVORCE 

 

In Pennsylvania, there are a few different types of divorce.  A number of factors go into determining which type of divorce is appropriate in your case.  Regardless of the type of divorce you choose to pursue, every divorce action is initiated by the filing of a Complaint with the court, and various other legal requirements must be satisfied before the divorce can be finalized. 

 

The first type of divorce is known as the “mutual agreement” or “mutual consent” divorce.  After 90 days have passed since the Complaint was filed, the spouses are permitted to submit affidavits to the court stating that the marriage is irretrievably broken and affirming their consent to the divorce.  The judge can grant the divorce upon receipt of those affidavits. 

 

The second type of divorce is a divorce based on the spouses’ one-year separation.  This type of divorce can be obtained even if one of the spouses does not consent.  After the spouses have been separated for one year, the spouse desiring the divorce can submit an affidavit stating that the spouses have in fact been separated, and that the marriage is irretrievably broken.  If the other spouse does not respond to the affidavit, the court can enter the divorce.  However, if the other spouse argues that they have not been separated for a year, or that the marriage is not irretrievably broken, the court will require additional procedures before granting a divorce. 

 

Finally, Pennsylvania is among roughly 30 states that still allow fault-based divorce.  A fault-based divorce is far and away the most time-consuming type of divorce, but may be appropriate in some circumstances.  To obtain a fault-based divorce, the spouse seeking a divorce must prove that there are “grounds” for the divorce.  There are a number of “grounds” that may permit the court to grant the divorce, including that the other spouse has committed adultery, been sentenced to a term of imprisonment of two years or more, or has physically abused the spouse seeking the divorce, among others. 

 

CHILD SUPPORT and SPOUSAL SUPPORT

 

Under Pennsylvania law, a number of forms of support may be available to spouses going through a divorce, including alimony pendente lite, spousal support, and child support. 

 

Alimony pendente lite may be available to one spouse while the divorce action proceeds.  The purpose of this form of support is to lessen the financial impact of the divorce action on a spouse who might not have as great an income as the other or who will be caring for the spouses’ children during the course of the divorce action, among other purposes.  The court may also order one spouse to keep the other on his or her health insurance plan during the pendency of the action.  Any award of alimony pendente lite will terminate once the divorce is issued. 

 

On the other hand, one spouse may be ordered to pay the other spousal support for a period of time after the spouses are divorced.  A claim for spousal support generally must be made before the divorce is finalized.  In determining whether to order spousal support – and if so, the amount of the award – the court will consider seventeen factors, including the income of each spouse, the spouses’ standard of living during the marriage, and any acts of marital misconduct, among others.  In Pennsylvania, awards of spousal support typically are not “permanent;” an award of spousal support will usually terminate at the end of a defined period of time. 

 

In Pennsylvania, child support is largely determined by guidelines published by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  The guidelines consider the combined monthly income of the parents and the number of children to be supported.  Using those figures, the guidelines calculate a monthly amount of child support, and the each of the parents must contribute to that amount in proportion to their respective shares of their combined monthly income.  In every case, the court must consider how health insurance will be provided for the child.  The court may deviate from the guidelines if the child requires special care, or if it determines that the amount indicated by the guidelines would otherwise be unjust or inappropriate. 

 

CUSTODY 

 

There are a number of steps involved in custody proceedings in Erie County, and you should strongly consider hiring a family law attorney to help you navigate them.  In Erie County, child custody actions are initiated by filing a document called a “Complaint” with the court.  The Complaint must contain specific information regarding the child and the parents. 

 

After the Complaint is filed, the case will be assigned to the Custody Conciliation Office, and the Custody Conciliation Office will schedule a conciliation conference.  The conciliation conference is a relatively informal procedure where the parents attempt to resolve the custody issues before trial.  If the parties reach an agreement regarding custody at the conciliation conference, then the conciliation officer will prepare a Consent Agreement for the parties to sign, and will draft a Consent Order containing the terms of the parties’ agreement to be signed by a judge.  The Consent Order then becomes binding on the parties and governs the custody of the child.   

 

However, if the parties do not reach an agreement at the conciliation conference, then the conciliation officer will submit a Recommended Custody Order to the judge.  The Recommended Custody Order is based on the conciliation officer’s perceptions and observations made during the conciliation conference.  If the judge considers the Recommended Custody Order appropriate, he or she will sign it and it becomes binding after it is returned to the Custody Conciliation Office and filed.  The order is then mailed to the parties. 

 

If either one of the parties disagrees with the Recommended Custody Order, they can request an “Adversarial Hearing,” or a full custody trial.  The party who desires a full custody trial must file a Request for Adversarial Hearing within twenty (20) days of the date that the Recommended Order was mailed to the parties.  Other documents must also be filed with the court before trial, including pretrial statements and a parenting plan.  At trial, the parties are allowed to present evidence, including the testimony of witnesses, to the court.  After considering all of the evidence and sixteen different factors, the court will issue a Custody Order.  The Custody Order is binding on the parties, and can only be modified in the future if there is a substantial change in the parties’ circumstances.