Divorce: Who Gets the House? The Debt?

The question of how marital property is divided is the most litigated area in divorce law and generally the reason that divorce proceedings can go on for years. Equitable Distribution is the name of legal process used to divide the marital estate.

Attorney Michele L. Kluk practices Family Law

As tempting as it may be to compare your situation with the experiences of friends and family, Equitable Distribution is a complex area of the law, and is always changing and evolving. For every general rule of thumb, there are several exceptions. Legal advice on your situation should come from an attorney, not a well-meaning friend or relative. Especially when it comes to family law, under which divorce falls, a resolution depends heavily on the unique facts in a case. Therefore, your case is highly unlikely to be the same as any other and calls for professional legal guidance – not tips from friends.

An explanation of Equitable Distribution can be simplified when described in three steps. The first step is identifying what is marital and what is not marital property. The second is establishing the value of the marital property. In the third step, the equitable division of property will be determined. A divorce lawyer will help you navigate this three-step process, and his or her legal representation will allow you to offload the stress onto a professional trained to handle property distribution.

Identifying marital and non-marital property.  The general rule is that anything acquired from the date of marriage to the date of separation is considered marital property.  As stated above, however, there are always exceptions. Some property acquired during the marriage will be ineligible for division; at the same time, some non-marital property will have a marital property component. Never assume that a portion of property is marital or non-marital. You can assist your attorney in preparing for Equitable Distribution and improve your chances of a balanced distribution. Make a list of all property. Your list might look like this: home at 123 Main Street; vacation home at 345 Fun Drive; a 401(k); savings accounts; 2012 SUV; stocks; and any other property. Don’t forget to list debt as well. Just like assets, all debt will be identified as marital or non-marital. List loans, mortgages, credit card balances, and lines of credit.

Valuing the property.  This is done through a combination of the following: agreement of the parties, appraisals, statements, and documents. Once you are thinking of filing for divorce, it will save you money and time to begin collecting statements and organizing pertinent documents. The date of separation is an important date for most statements, and is a good place to start for other property. Give your attorney bank statements, credit card statements, mortgage documents, deeds, any appraisals, and any retirement statements.

Dividing the property.  Pennsylvania law requires that property be divided equitably, which is not the same as dividing it 50/50. Often, the parties can come to an agreement on a division. However, if an agreement cannot be reached, the division will be determined by a Divorce Master. In Pennsylvania, the Divorce Master is appointed by the county court. The Divorce Master considers 11 factors when making an Equitable Distribution decision. Again, you can save money by providing your attorney with a list of the property and supporting documents along with income and expenses, pay stubs, and tax returns.

Whether you are thinking of filing for divorce, or just received a divorce complaint filed by your spouse, there are complex issues to consider in dividing property. Gathering and organizing property files is important in obtaining the right legal advice for your situation. It also helps your attorney fight for the best distribution for you.

Custody and Moving – Attorney Cesare

Family Law Attorney Stephanie Cesare is tapped by Making A Way podcast to discuss custody across state lines.

Did you know that families can confront special issues with custody orders and modifications when the child’s parents live in different states? In fact, managing custody across state lines adds new legal elements to an already complex area of Family Law.

This topic is examined from a Pennsylvania perspective by Abom & Kutulakis Attorney Stephanie L. Cesare during her guest appearance in the legal podcast, Making A Way: Custody Litigation Across State Lines.

“This is a very complicated statute,” Attorney Cesare said.

Maryland attorneys and mediators Sandra Guzman Salvado and Jessica Zarrella host the podcast which provides information to parents who may want to move away from or into the state of Maryland from another state; in particular, parents who are divorced or separated and have to share children. Along with a Pennsylvania view from Attorney Cesare is a take on Virginia’s approach from guest Virginia Attorney David Marquart.

“This is a very complicated statute.”
Attorney Stephanie L. Cesare

Cesare said that a parent who moves into the state of Pennsylvania can only file certain custody actions after meeting a residency requirement. “To file in Pennsylvania… they have to be living in the Commonwealth for six months,” she said.

Each state has its own guidelines. However, there is another set of rules that applies to most states (including Pennsylvania) under the Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCEJA). They determine, among other things, which state is a child’s ‘home state.’ These rules come into play anytime parents plan to move to a new state.

A knowledgeable custody attorney will be able to supply legal advice and correctly apply the UCCEJA rules as well as individual state custody laws in cases where custody is shared across state lines.

Listen here as the attorneys discuss aspects of this issue including:

  • Determining jurisdiction
  • Meeting requirements of the home state
  • Registration of a court order
  • Courts and judges that must be involved
  • Notification of parties

This post is not intended to serve as legal advice. Consult with your attorney for guidance on your specific situation.

‘Best Law Firm’ declaration underlines our commitment to community

We have been cited as the best that Cumberland County has to offer and it is as humbling as it is satisfying.

The honor reminds us that our clients, while in the middle of quite possibly the most difficult period in their lives, take time to consider how we support them, guide them and commit ourselves to their cases.

The importance of our commitment to community cannot be understated.

We are grateful to have a team of highly-skilled and collaborative attorneys and staff. But we owe our success to the clients who consider their options and choose us to legally represent them.

Clean Slate – New Law Seals Some Records

On June 28, 2018, after strong bi-partisan support in the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives and Senate, state Gov. Tom Wolf signed the Clean Slate Bill into law.

Gov. Wolf stated that the purpose of this law was to reduce the stigma many people with past convictions face when looking for employment or housing.[1] Nearly one in three Pennsylvania adults has some sort of criminal record, and more than half could benefit from this bill.[2]

In brief, to be eligible, a person cannot have been convicted of a crime within 10 years following a conviction or final release from confinement or from supervision such as parole or probation.

The prior conviction must be a misdemeanor in the second degree, misdemeanor in the third degree, or an ungraded offense which carries a maximum penalty of no more than two years.

The Clean Slate law does not apply to certain prior misdemeanors, such as offenses involving danger to the person, firearms and other dangerous articles, and registration of sexual offenders. Finally, the court of common pleas that is responsible for sealing a prior conviction is the court where the conviction occurred, not necessarily the court where a person lives.

Based on the language of the bill, this process should be automatic. The Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts shall monthly send to Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) any case qualifying under this bill. Then, PSP has 30 days to determine if that person is eligible to have his or her conviction sealed. Once 30 days pass, and with no interjection from PSP, such relevant conviction should be sealed.

Once sealed, a person shall not be required or requested to disclose information about his or her criminal history records that have been expunged or sealed under the Clean Slate law. In addition, under many situations, a person may respond to inquiries as if the offense did not occur. Furthermore, an employer shall be immune from liability in a civil action based on damages suffered to a person or property as a result of criminal conduct of an employee whose record was sealed.

To read the full text of the bill, visit the General Assembly page on House Bill No. 1419.

[1]“Governor Wolf Signs Clean Slate Bill, Calls for More Criminal Justice Reform,” June 28, 2018 (accessed June 29, 2018), https://www.governor.pa.gov/governor-wolf-signs-clean-slate-bill-calls-for-more-criminal-justice-reform/

[2] Jan Murphy, “Gov. Tom Wolf Signs Law That Opens the Door to Giving Ex-Criminal Offenders a ‘Clean Slate,’” June 28, 2018 (accessed: June 29, 2018), https://www.pennlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2018/06/gov_tom_wolf_signs_law_that_op.html

Cell Tower Records Require a Warrant

Referring to cellphone data as an “exhaustive chronicle of location information casually collected by wireless carriers,” the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that a defendant’s cell-site location information (CSLI) is off limits to the government unless it gets a search warrant.

This significant ruling changes a common practice of prosecutors obtaining defendants’ CSLI records via court order under the Stored Communications Act. Under that Act, the government has to show it has reasonable grounds to view an individual’s CSLI records and that the records could be relevant to an ongoing investigation.

Obtaining a search warrant, on the other hand, requires the government to show probable cause.

The Court noted the significant privacy intrusion that comes from the hour-by-hour documentation of a person’s movements through their CSLI.

In its ruling, the Court wrote, “(W)hen the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.”

The Court stated further, “Moreover, the retrospective quality of the data here gives police access to a category of information otherwise unknowable. In the past, attempts to reconstruct a person’s movements were limited by a dearth of records and the frailties of recollection. With access to CSLI, the Government can now travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts, subject only to the retention polices of the wireless carriers, which currently maintain records for up to five years.”

“Whoever the suspect turns out to be, he has effectively been tailed every moment of every day for five years, and the police may—in the Government’s view—call upon the results of that surveillance without regard to the constraints of the Fourth Amendment. Only the few without cell phones could escape this tireless and absolute surveillance.”

Gathering a p[erson's cell site location information requires a search warrant.

The Court had already acknowledged that individuals have a “reasonable expectation of privacy in the whole of their physical movements,” and said that permitting the government to have CSLI records violates that expectation.

“Before compelling a wireless carrier to turn over a subscriber’s CSLI, the Government’s obligation is a familiar one—get a warrant,” the Court wrote.

Cell phone search requires a warrant, Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued a decision on cell phone searches that confirms that the devices may not be searched without a warrant. The Court found that the Fourth Amendment right of people “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” includes the expectation that their cellphones will not be searched without a warrant.

The decision, which reverses a Pennsylvania Superior Court ruling, reaffirmed rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that, while seizing a cell phone without a warrant is not a Fourth Amendment violation, searching the device is a violation.

Specifically, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted, powering on the cell phone without a warrant was “akin to opening the door to a home. It permitted police to obtain and review a host of information on the cell phone, including viewing its wallpaper, reviewing incoming text messages and calls, and accessing all of the data contained in the phone.”

The Court also stated that, “The act of navigating the menus of a cell phone to obtain the phone’s number is unquestionably a search that required a warrant.” Such evidence obtained through that warrantless search would be subject to suppression, the ruling stated.


Bail Approved in Centre County Case

Clinton County Senior Judge J. Michael Williamson approves bail in Centre County case.


CARLISLE, PA – It is with great sadness and a profound sense of loss that the law firm of Abom & Kutulakis LLC announces the death of its founding partner and senior attorney Jason P. Kutulakis. Jason died this morning at his home leaving behind his beloved wife, Joanne, and their beautiful daughter, Alexandra. The cause of death appears to have been a heart attack.

“The Carlisle legal community has lost an immensely talented and dedicated attorney,” Jay Abom, managing partner and co-founding partner of Abom & Kutulakis, said. “Jason was my partner, my friend and the best and most passionate legal advocate for the welfare of children this commonwealth has ever had. My prayers are with Joanne and Alex at this time of mourning. May we all find comfort in our memories of Jason and his legacy of achievement.”

Jason loved being a lawyer and his greatest passion was the protection of child-abuse victims. From 1999 to 2010 he served as the Solicitor for Dauphin County Children and Youth Services. In 2004, he formed the non-profit organization The Pennsylvania Children and Youth Solicitors’ Association. In 2006, The Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Children’s Rights Committee awarded Jason with The Child Advocate of the Year Award.

Jason’s vision helped to create ChildFirst PA making Pennsylvania the 17th state in the nation to offer a certified forensic interview training program for cases of child abuse. The ChildFirst PA program is specifically designed for investigative teams of law enforcement officers, social workers, prosecutors, child protective attorneys, and mandated reporters of abuse who must provide investigating professionals with essential information.

In January 2012, Jason was selected to serve on the Pennsylvania Governor’s Task Force on Child Protection. The 11 member Task Force was formed after the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State child sexual abuse scandal to review and make recommendations on how to overhaul the child abuse laws of Pennsylvania including the definition of child abuse, mandated reporter and perpetrator. On November 27, 2012, Jason participated in a public meeting where the Task Force’s Report was revealed. He served on the board of directors of Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance (PFSA) and his counsel was instrumental in helping PFSA secure a Department of Human Services’ statewide contract in 2016 to provide training to mandated reporters of child abuse in Pennsylvania.

As a founding partner of Abom & Kutulakis in 2001, Jason focused his practice on child advocacy, civil litigation, workers’ compensation, and business counseling.

Following his graduation from The Dickinson School of Law, Jason worked on the complex litigation involving Three Mile Island. In 1997, he joined the Dauphin County Public Defender’s Office where his primary responsibilities were in the Appellate and Juvenile Divisions. In 1999, Jason joined the law firm of Marshall, Smith and Haddick, P.C. That law firm focused its practice in the defense of medical malpractice, premises liability, commercial and general litigation and workers’ compensation matters. While working for Marshall, Smith & Haddick, P.C., Jason appeared before workers’ compensation judges in Williamsport, Chambersburg, Reading and Harrisburg. He also litigated premises and general liability matters in Dauphin and Cumberland County Courts of Common Pleas on behalf of major food retail stores.

Funeral arrangements are pending.


PA DHS awards PFSA multi-year deal to train professionals in Recognizing and Reporting Child Abuse
Fulfills a key recommendation of post-Sandusky PA Task Force on Child Protection

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HARRISBURG, PA – Flanked by members of the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection, district attorneys, child advocates and medical professionals, Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance (PFSA) President and CEO Angela Liddle today applauded the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ (DHS) decision to award PFSA an up to five-year, $2.5 million competitively bid contract to provide face-to-face training in recognizing and reporting child abuse to mandated reporters across Pennsylvania.

“PFSA’s selection by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services is a testament to the soundness of our approach, the depth of our curriculum, and the professionalism of our child welfare trainers and staff,” said Liddle. “PFSA is the gold standard when it comes to the training of mandated reporters in recognizing and reporting child abuse in Pennsylvania. Through this contract, we will train thousands of additional mandated reporters.”

Mandated reporters are people who are required by law to report suspected child abuse. They generally are people who come into contact with children as a part of their employment, practice of their profession and, sometimes, as volunteers in child-serving programs. The Child Protective Services Law (CPSL) was amended in 2013 and in 2014, including significant changes to the list of people who are mandated to report suspected child abuse. They make more than 75% of the calls to ChildLine, the state’s 24-hour hotline to report child abuse – 800-932-0313.

PFSA has provided DHS-approved mandated reporter training curricula since 1995. PFSA’s face-to-face training, Recognizing and Reporting Child Abuse, is one of only a few curricula approved by the Pennsylvania departments of Human Services, Education and State, is eligible for Act 48 credits, and meets the requirements for training under Acts 126 and 31.

Jason P. Kutulakis, a member of the PA Task Force on Child Protection and a founding partner of the law firm of Abom & Kutulakis LLC, said, “The Task Force on Child Protection, convened by the General Assembly and former Governor Tom Corbett after the Jerry Sandusky-PSU child sexual-abuse scandal, recommended that the state establish and support proven training programs for a wide range of mandated reporters. This contract fulfills that recommendation. I am confident that the professional trainers and staff of PFSA have the expertise and commitment to help us better protect Pennsylvania’s children.” Kutulakis also serves on the PFSA Board of Directors.

“Child abuse and neglect cases are heartbreaking. They are also preventable,” noted David Arnold, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and Lebanon County district attorney. “As a prosecutor, I’d much rather stop child abuse before it happens. Through this expanded training, more mandated reporters across the commonwealth will know exactly how to detect abuse and neglect and how to report it. Our goal should always be to intervene at the first sign of trouble so we can spare more children the physical and emotional scars of abuse.”

State Representative Julie Harhart (R-Lehigh and Northampton counties) sponsored HB 316 enacted by the General Assembly in April 2014. It provides the funding mechanism for child advocacy centers and MR training through an additional fee for copies of state Department of Health birth records. She commented, “I have been a long-time advocate of children’s issues and have fought hard to establish a reliable funding stream for child advocacy centers across the state. These centers are a critical asset to help children who have been abused by providing a place for them to go and get the help they need.
“A key element in addressing the issue of child abuse is to recognize the signs of abuse and to know the correct steps to take to help the child through this tragedy. The contract we celebrate today will do just that by enabling more state-mandated reporters to receive this vital training. I applaud the work of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance and everyone who is working so hard to ensure the safety and well-being of our children and families.”

Strengthening Training of Medically Licensed Professionals:
One of the primary purposes of the CPSL is to encourage more complete reporting of child abuse. A key change made by lawmakers to the CPSL places a training requirement on those individuals applying for initial licensure or renewal of a health-related state license (Act 31 of 2014).

PFSA has partnered with Lori Frasier, M.D., division chief of child abuse pediatrics at the Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, to develop a clinical portion that augments its approved face-to-face training. PFSA will seek approval of the new clinical-training component from the departments of Education, Human Services and State.

“It’s very important for health professionals to recognize the more subtle signs of child abuse. These often occur in infants and young children who cannot speak yet,” Dr. Frasier said. “The purpose of clinical training is to bring physicians up to the level of recognizing early-stage child abuse and feel confident in their medical judgement that this has occurred.”

Research conducted by Franklin and Marshall College on behalf of PFSA in 2014 clearly shows that when mandated reporters are trained properly, they know how to recognize and report the signs of abuse. “In fact, our research demonstrated that those mandated reporters who are well trained are five times more likely to report suspected child abuse,” noted Liddle. “Mandated reporters often are the first line of defense for kids so their proper training is the key to early intervention in a potentially abusive situation involving children.”

ABOUT PFSA: Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance provides training on recognizing and reporting suspected child abuse and neglect to schools, early childhood education centers, law enforcement agencies, religious institutions, and social service agencies. PFSA is the Pennsylvania sponsor of The Front Porch Project®, a training initiative that educates community members so they can play a vital role in child protection. PFSA also works with more than 50 affiliate agencies across Pennsylvania to provide information, educational materials, and programs that teach and support good parenting practices. Visit www.pa-fsa.org to learn more about PFSA.

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