Bethlehem Family Law Attorney

Prenuptial / Premarital Agreements

While no couple on the brink of getting married wants to think about what would happen to their assets in the event of death or divorce, sometimes a prenuptial agreement is necessary to protect your economic rights and ensure that you will control the disposition of your assets.  In Pennsylvania, prenuptial agreements are technically known as “premarital agreements.”  A premarital agreement is defined as “an agreement between prospective spouses made in contemplation of marriage and to be effective upon marriage.”  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, we can assist you with drafting a prenuptial or premarital agreement that complies with all legal requirements to guard against it later being invalidated in court.  Similarly, if you have been asked to sign a premarital agreement, we can help you review the agreement to make sure that your rights are protected.

If you are getting divorced, and you will be financially harmed by the enforcement of a premarital agreement that you signed prior to marriage, we can assist you in attacking the validity of that agreement.  A court will not hold a premarital agreement to be enforceable if the party seeking to set aside the agreement did not execute the agreement voluntarily.  Further, a premarital agreement will not be enforceable if the party seeking to set aside the agreement (a) was not provided a fair and reasonable disclosure of the property or financial obligations of the other party; (b) did not voluntarily and expressly waive, in writing, any right to disclosure of the property or financial obligations of the other party beyond the disclosure provided; and (c) did not have an adequate knowledge of the property or financial obligations of the other party.  The party seeking to set aside the agreement must prove the agreement’s invalidity by a heightened burden of proof standard known as “clear and convincing evidence.”  While this can be a difficult hurdle to overcome, the lawyers at Littner, Deschler & Littner are experienced in this area of law so that we can assist you in presenting your strongest case.

Likewise, if you are the party wishing to enforce the premarital agreement, we can help as well.  The best way to ensure that a premarital agreement will be enforced when attacked is by making the necessary disclosures, explained above, prior to the execution of the agreement.  If you would like a prospective spouse to sign a premarital agreement, consulting with a family law attorney to ensure that you have made the proper disclosures is the best way of protecting your rights under the agreement should the matter ever be litigated.

Negotiations involving premarital agreements can be emotional and contentious.  For parties intending to enter into a second marriage, a premarital agreement may be particularly advisable.  Consult an experienced family lawyer at Littner, Deschler & Littner to help you understand and protect your rights.

Custody Modification

Even if your present custodial arrangement is being governed by a court order, the law permits you to file a petition to modify that court order at any time.  The Custody Act states: “Upon petition, a court may modify a custody order to serve the best interest of the child.”  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, we understand that, over time, a custodial arrangement that was once acceptable, or at least tolerable, may no longer be so.  You may file a modification petition even if the other parent has not violated the present custody order and even if there has not been a substantial change in circumstances since the entry of the previous custody order.  If someone files a modification petition against you, the law allows you to file your own modification petition.  What matters to the court is whether modifying the current custody arrangement is in the best interests of the child.  Please see our section about Child Custody for additional information on how courts make awards of custody.

Modifying a custodial arrangement can be as difficult and emotionally taxing as the process of determining the original custodial arrangement, if not more so.  A parent who is content with his or her rights under the existing custodial arrangement may be reluctant to agree to any modification that would reduce the time he or she spends with the child.  Additionally, a parent who wishes to move away with the child will need to ask the Court to modify the existing custody arrangement when he or she asks the Court to approve the petition for relocation.  We provide representation to parents who wish to modify their current custody arrangement and to parents who believe that retaining the existing arrangement is in the best interests of their child.

As with any custody matter, we encourage our clients to try to amicably resolve their case with the other party, if possible.  Often, both parents will agree that a change in the custody agreement will benefit their child.  In most cases, a court will find that a child’s best interests are served by exposure to both parents.  Nevertheless, sometimes litigation is unavoidable, and the experienced family law attorneys at Littner, Deschler & Littner stand ready to take your custody case to trial to modify or preserve your existing custodial arrangement.

For parents, nothing is more important than the well-being of their child.  Every parent wants to ensure that their child’s best interests are served.  We can help.  The process of custody modification is complicated, and you will need an experienced child custody attorney to protect your rights and the rights of your child.

Protection From Abuse

If you have been abused by, or have been accused of abusing, a family or household member or a current or former sexual or intimate partner under the Protection From Abuse (PFA) Act, it is important to consult with an attorney experienced in handling PFA matters.  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, we have decades of experience representing both plaintiffs and defendants in PFA cases.  We can help you protect your rights and get the protection you need to prevent further abuse.

The PFA Act defines “abuse” as the occurrence of one or more of the following acts between family or household members, sexual or intimate partners or persons who share biological parenthood:

  • Causing or attempting to cause bodily injury, serious bodily injury, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault or incest with or without a deadly weapon.
  • Placing another in reasonable fear of imminent serious bodily injury.
  • False imprisonment.
  • Physically or sexually abusing minor children.
  • Knowingly engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts toward another person, including following the person, without proper authority, under circumstances which place the person in reasonable fear of bodily injury.

A victim of abuse may file a petition for a protective order in the court of common pleas of the county in which the plaintiff lives or where the abuse occurred.  There are no fees involved in filing a PFA petition.  In the case of an emergency, if the common pleas court is closed, an individual may file an emergency petition with his or her local district magistrate.  You may call your local police to find out how this is done.  Further, an act of abuse may give rise to criminal charges against the abuser.  You can always contact the police who may conduct an investigation to determine if criminal charges should be brought against an abuser.

A PFA defendant should know that statements made by him/her in a PFA proceeding can be used against him/her in a criminal case.  Therefore, defendants will generally want their criminal charges to be resolved before the PFA case proceeds.  An attorney experienced in handling PFA cases will understand this and can help you postpone any PFA hearing until your criminal charges are resolved.

Both victims of abuse and persons accused of abuse need to be aware of the types of relief that a court can award in a PFA case.  If the court finds that there has been abuse, it can order the defendant not to have contact with the victim and their minor children, and it can also evict the defendant from the common home and, under certain circumstances, order the defendant to relinquish any firearms.  A protection order can be kept in place for as many as three years.

Know your rights.  Whether you are a victim of abuse or the defendant in a PFA case, you should consult an attorney well-versed in handling PFA matters to ensure that you receive the very best legal representation.

Non-Marital Agreements / “Palimony” / Division of Assets

When two people are involved in a non-marital relationship, acquire property during the relationship, and then split up, certain legal issues can arise.  If the property was all titled in one of the partner’s names, does the other partner have any rights to it?  The answer depends on the nature of any agreement that governed the parties’ relationship.  For example, one party may agree to do all the household work and forgo a professional career in exchange for the other partner agreeing to provide the financial support for the household.  In that situation, the stay-at-home partner may have a claim against the other partner, even if all the property is titled in the other partner’s name.  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, we can assist individuals in non-marital relationships in drafting agreements which protect their rights and, where such an agreement has been formed, in enforcing their rights.

Even where there is no agreement between the parties, legal action may be available to protect a person’s economic rights.  Frequently, parties involved in a relationship will have jointly titled assets, such as their common home.  In such as case, a partition action can be filed to divide jointly-held property between the parties.

Individuals involved in non-marital relationships need to know that the law does not afford them the same economic rights as it does for persons who are legally married.  For example, even if all of the property a couple acquired during their marriage was titled in one spouse’s name, the other spouse will generally have economic rights to that property in the event of divorce.  For unmarried partners in a similar situation, the outcome may be quite different.  If all the assets are titled in one partner’s name, it can be very difficult for the other partner to receive a share of the assets if and when the relationship ends.

To navigate such pitfalls, you should consult a family law attorney experienced in these matters.  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, we advise individuals in non-marital relationships how to handle their assets in a way that best protects their economic rights.  We can help you determine whether it is advisable to title assets in both partners’ names.  Should a relationship end, we can assist our clients in pursuing appropriate legal action to help them obtain, if possible, their fair share of the property acquired during the relationship.  Sorting out these issues can be very complex, and you will need an experienced family law attorney on your side.  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, we stand ready to help.  Call us for a consultation today.

Grandparents’ and Great-Grandparents’ Rights

In certain situations, grandparents and even great-grandparents may have custodial rights to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, our child custody attorneys have experience representing parties in these types of cases.

If you are a grandparent or great-grandparent, the law only permits you to pursue custody of your grandchild or great-grandchild if you satisfy certain conditions.  It is critical that you know what those conditions are before filing a claim for custody.  In some situations, the law also limits the time in which you must file a custody claim.

A grandparent may seek any kind or physical or legal custody of a child if the grandparent stands “in loco parentis” to the child.  The Latin phrase “in loco parentis” refers to a person who puts oneself in the situation of a lawful parent by assuming the obligations incident to the parental relationship without going through the formality of a legal adoption.  In loco parentis standing will be found where the child has established strong psychological bonds with a person who, although not a biological parent, has lived with the child and provided care, nurture, and affection, assuming in the child’s eye a stature like that of a parent.

Additionally, a grandparent who does not stand in loco parentis to a child may still seek any form of legal or physical custody if the following three conditions are met:

  • The grandparent’s relationship with the child began either with the consent of a parent of the child or under a court order; and
  • The grandparent assumes or is willing to assume responsibility for the child; and
  • When one of the following conditions is met: (a) the child has been determined to be a dependent child; (b) the child is substantially at risk due to parental abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol abuse or incapacity; or (c) the child has, for a period of at least 12 consecutive months, resided with the grandparent, excluding brief temporary absences of the child from the home, and is removed from the home by the parents, in which case the action must be filed within six months after the removal of the child from the home.

A grandparent or great-grandparent may seek partial or supervised physical custody of a child where:

  • the parent of the child is deceased, a parent or grandparent of the deceased parent may file an action under this section;
  • the parents of the child have been separated for a period of at least six months or have commenced and continued a proceeding to dissolve their marriage; or
  • the child has, for a period of at least 12 consecutive months, resided with the grandparent or great-grandparent, excluding brief temporary absences of the child from the home, and is removed from the home by the parents, an action must be filed within six months after the removal of the child from the home.

Where a grandparent or great-grandparent seeks custody against the child’s parent, the court presumes that the parent should be awarded primary physical custody.  This presumption may be rebutted by a legal standard known as clear and convincing evidence.  For grandparents and great-grandparents, this is a high hurdle that they must be aware of when seeking custody of a child against the child’s parent.

As with any award of custody, courts are most concerned about fashioning a custodial arrangement that is in the best interests of the child. Whether you are a grandparent or great-grandparent considering seeking some form of custody of a child, or a parent concerned about your custodial rights being infringed upon, it is critical that you obtain competent legal advice from an attorney experienced in handling custody disputes involving grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ rights.  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, we have the experience, knowledge, and skill to assist you in these matters.

Paternity

Serious legal and economic rights and duties often hinge upon a determination as to the paternity of a child.  An adjudication of paternity may obligate a man to pay child support to the mother of his child and may entitle him to custody rights to the child.  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, our attorneys are experienced in handling custody and support matters for both mothers and putative fathers where paternity is disputed.

Under Pennsylvania law, a man will be held to be the father of a child, if, during the lifetime of the child, the man openly holds out the child to be his and either receives the child into his home or provides support for the child.  Likewise, where a child is born to an unmarried woman, if the mother and the putative father sign what is known as an “acknowledgment of paternity,” the man will be deemed to be the father of the child.  The acknowledgment of paternity form will generally be offered to the unmarried parents of a child by hospital staff following the birth of the child.  Even where the man is not actually the biological father of a child, if he holds out the child as his or signs an acknowledgment of paternity, he can, as a result, incur significant obligations to the child and the child can obtain significant rights to him.  It is, therefore, very important that a putative father consult an experienced paternity lawyer so that he may know his rights with respect to this complex area of the law.

For centuries in paternity law, there existed a near-unassailable presumption that a child born to a married woman was also the child of the woman’s husband, regardless of whether the husband was actually the biological father.  Those days are long gone, and today courts will generally only apply this “presumption of paternity” if the child was born in wedlock and the couple’s marriage remains intact.

Likewise, in years past, where a man or woman held the man out to be the father of the woman’s child, neither of them could later deny the man’s paternity of the child.  This doctrine is known as “paternity by estoppel.”  Today, while the doctrine of paternity by estoppel remains viable, it will only be applied to prevent a person from denying paternity if its application is in the child’s best interest.

Consequently, the law today is more interested in determining the identity of the actual father of the child.  Courts are more willing to authorize the use of genetic testing to determine the paternity of a child.  Whether you are a mother or a putative father, whether you are seeking to establish or seeking to deny paternity, a paternity determination can change your life and the life of your child.  It is crucial to consult with an experienced paternity attorney to ensure that your rights and the rights of your child are protected.

Adoption and Termination of Parental Rights

Adopting a child, or having your parental rights to your child terminated, is something that will likely change your life forever.  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, we recognize the emotional significance of these moments and can assist you in navigating the often complicated legal process involved.  Our experienced adoption attorneys can take you through the process step-by-step to ensure that you understand your rights and how best to protect them.

In the case of adoption, we can help make sure all the necessary documents and court filings are in proper order to guard against your rights as an adoptive parent being invalidated in the future.  Further, whether you are the birth parent or adoptive parent, the legal system recognizes that you may want the birth parents to continue to have contact with the child in the future.  The law permits the formation of agreements between the birth parent and adoptive parent so that the birth parent may have some form of contact with the child as he or she grows up.  Indeed, under recent amendments to Pennsylvania’s Adoption Act, an agency or anyone representing the parties in an adoption must provide notice to a prospective adoptive parent, a birth parent and a child who can be reasonably expected to understand that a prospective adoptive parent and a birth relative of a child have the option to enter into a voluntary agreement for continuing contact or communication.  A “birth relative” is defined as “[a] parent, grandparent, stepparent, sibling, uncle or aunt of the child’s birth family, whether the relationship is by blood, marriage or adoption.”  Those individuals involved in an adoption must understand that the notice requirement must be complied with.

The termination of someone’s parental rights can occur through a voluntary or involuntary process.  Pennsylvania law provides for nine separate grounds on which a parent’s rights can be involuntarily terminated.  Such grounds include:

  • The parent by conduct continuing for a period of at least six months has evidenced a settled purpose of relinquishing parental claim to a child or has refused or failed to perform parental duties.
  • Repeated abuse or neglect by parent.
  • The parent is the father of a child conceived as a result of a rape or incest.

Regardless of whether the termination process is voluntary or involuntary, it is critical that you know what your rights are so that you can protect yourself and your child.  Ignorance of the law can result in you forever losing your parental rights.  If you have questions in this area of the law, contact an experienced family law attorney at Littner, Deschler & Littner today.

Custody Disputes Involving Parents in Same-Sex Relationships

At Littner, Deschler & Littner, we can help non-traditional families navigate the complexities of a legal system that often fails to address their needs and interests.  In the past, gay or lesbian parents involved in custody disputes with a heterosexual parent bore a special burden of showing that their same-sex relationship did not adversely affect the well-being of the child whose custody was at issue.  In 2010, the Superior Court finally overruled those cases which created a presumption in favor of awarding custody to the heterosexual parent.  Now, both parents stand on an equal footing in any custody dispute, and the court’s decision, like in all custody cases, is governed by what is in the best interests of the child.  The only way that a court may consider a party’s sexuality or sexual conduct in making a custody award is when such sexuality or sexual conduct can be demonstrated to have adversely affected the child.  Thus, a court may consider evidence of parent who leaves his child locked in a car while engaging in a romantic tryst.  However, the simple fact that a parent is gay or lesbian, without more, will not be deemed to adversely affect the child’s best interests.

Even where a parent is not biologically related to his or her child, he or she may still have custodial rights.  An individual may seek any kind or physical or legal custody of a child if the individual stands “in loco parentis” to the child.  The Latin phrase “in loco parentis” refers to a person who puts oneself in the situation of a lawful parent by assuming the obligations incident to the parental relationship without going through the formality of a legal adoption.  In loco parentis standing will be found where the child has established strong psychological bonds with a person who, although not a biological parent, has lived with the child and provided care, nurture, and affection, assuming in the child’s eye a stature like that of a parent.

In cases where a child is biologically related to one of his/her gay or lesbian parents, the law presumes that the biologically-related parent should be awarded custody.  However, that presumption can be rebutted if the non-biological parent can show, by clear and convincing evidence, that it is in the best interests of the child to award custody to the non-biological parent.

The law regarding child custody in the context of same-sex relationships is a relatively new and development subject area.  If your custodial rights to your child are in jeopardy, contact a family lawyer at Littner, Deschler & Littner to ensure that your rights and the rights of your child are protected.

Enforcement of Orders

Unfortunately, even if you have a court order in your favor, sometimes the other party simply refuses to abide by the terms of the order.  In order to compel compliance of any custody order, support order or property settlement agreement, you may need to go to court and seek sanctions against the other party, including an order of contempt against the non-compliant party.  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, we will pursue aggressive action to make sure that the other party obeys the court order and that you receive the relief to which you are legally entitled.  Our attorneys assist clients with the enforcement of the following types of orders and agreements:

  • Property settlement agreements in divorce cases
  • Child custody agreements and orders
  • Orders and judgments distributing or partitioning property
  • Protective orders under the Protection from Abuse Act
  • Agreements made between non-marital partners
  • Post-adoption continuing contact agreements
  • Prenuptial agreements

When you have an order, agreement, or judgment that grants you certain rights, you are legally entitled to its enforcement.  At Littner, Deschler & Littner, our attorneys will persist in engaging all options to make sure your hard-won legal rights will be enforced.  If you believe that your rights have been or are about to be violated, call or email us today.  We can help.