This month, we welcome The Family Law Paralegal’s founder, Deborah Long, Pa.C.P., as a guest blogger.
No matter the practice area, paralegals undoubtedly have a database of forms that allows us to forgo recreating the wheel each and every time we file a pleading or motion. However, family law has the potential for a proliferation of form letters not so common in other fields, probably because ours is such a diversified practice that includes the general elements of litigation, discovery and contempt, as well as the specific elements of support, custody and equitable distribution. While it is true that every case is unique, the process by which each case is processed through the court is essentially the same as determined by the venue in which you are filing.
Over the years, my attorney and I have created a bank of form letters to coincide with every step of the process in each venue of our family law practice, whether in custody, support, equitable distribution, discovery or special relief. Below are a few examples for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, the primary venue where we practice.
Custody practice in Montgomery County includes requirements for parents, or other custodians, to participate in mediation and to attend a parenting seminar prior to the matter being scheduled before the Custody Master. Orders for the mediation and seminar are sent out by the Master’s office immediately following the filing of a custody complaint or petition to modify. The cover letter used to forward these orders to the client explains his or her responsibilities and requests that he or she advise the attorney once these obligations have been fulfilled. The order scheduling the custody conference will then follow, often arriving before the parties have completed the mediation and the seminar; so, our subsequent form cover letter for the custody conference may include a renewed request to provide an update on the status of those requirements.
Equitable distribution (a/k/a division of marital assets and liabilities) is another part of the litigation process that involves a number of steps which can be broken down for the client via letter. For divorces where the parties cannot agree to equitable distribution, the post-complaint process starts with requesting a “grounds order,” which is only issued once the parties have satisfied one of Pennsylvania’s eight grounds for divorce (either one of two “no-fault” grounds or one of six “fault” grounds) and the required “cooling off” period has passed (separation for 90 days by agreement or 2 years if contested). Upon receipt, we forward the grounds order to the client with an explanation as to what must be done between the time the order is issued and the time the first hearing is scheduled before the Equitable Distribution Master. Once the first hearing is scheduled, we send another letter with the notice, explaining that although the first listing is an informal conference where no testimony will be taken, we are required to prepare a prehearing statement to facilitate settlement, adding that a second hearing will be scheduled if the parties are unable to reach a comprehensive agreement. If the matter is scheduled for a second Master’s hearing, another form cover letter advises the client what to expect.
These letters are, of course, subject to modification based upon each client’s individual circumstances. Having them in place ahead of time, especially since basic information is routine, insures that the finer details are not missed in the notification process.
It takes years to build a good forms database, which must be reviewed and modified as rules and procedures change, but is well worth the effort to always have “the language” readily available so that you and your attorney can keep things moving. After all – time is money!
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