Obermayer Family Law Practice
Working in the best interests of childre
by Sharen Nocella

You are considering separating from your spouse and/or significant other, but down the hall there is a five-year-old child that loves both of you. What happens to him or her? The focus of any child custody case is simple: “What is in the best interest of the child?”

In 2011, Pennsylvania child custody laws changed significantly and have affected how child custody disputes are being determined. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that Pennsylvania still approaches custody decisions based on what is in the best interest of the child. 

“I advise clients that, if at all possible, try to resolve custody without court intervention,” says Philadelphia-based family law attorney Robert Whitelaw of the firm Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP. “Custody litigation is lengthy, expensive, and very tough on the children, particularly if they have to testify, and tough on their emotions. Parents need to know the custody case usually is not about what they want but what is in the best interests of their children. The court is now required to consider 16 factors.”

Along with David A. Ladov, Whitelaw co-chairs Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP’s family law practice. Thanks to their leadership and initiative, Obermayer has become one of the region’s preeminent family law practices and has one of Pennsylvania’s largest family law practices.  Notably, members of Obermayer’s 13-attorney family law practice played an instrumental role in crafting and implementing the new child custody law changes. 

Couples separating or divorcing often don’t realize that the definition for shared physical custody has changed and the definitions for shared legal custody, primary physical custody and sole physical custody are new, among other definitions. “It used to be that mothers, particularly stay-at-home mothers, usually got primary physical custody,” explains Ladov. “However, today the pendulum has swung and both parents now tend to get shared custody in a 50/50 arrangement. Going forward, however, the pendulum may swing back. The courts are going to analyze these decisions to determine whether or not they are in the best interests of the children.”

Ladov, who practices out of his Conshohocken office, is chair of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Domestic Relations Procedural Rules Committee, which oversees the implementation of all new legislation affecting family law issues including the new Pennsylvania Child Custody Act.  Obermayer’s Ann G. Verber is also a member of the committee. Beyond the standard-issue support and custody cases he handles, Ladov has taken on those unprecedented cases involving surrogacy, same-sex unions and modern custody fights, all reflecting the changing social landscape.

When he first meets with his clients, Obermayer family law attorney Michael E. Bertin spends a lot of time dispelling myths they believe about child custody. “For example, clients often think that if they move out of the home, they will not get custody. This simply isn’t true,” Bertin says. “The new statute also provides more guidance and predictability of what the court will consider when making custody decisions.”

Through his work with the Legislative Committee of the Family Law Section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, Bertin made substantial contributions to the drafting of the new Pennsylvania child custody law. He also co-wrote "Pennsylvania Child Custody Law, Practice, and Procedure," which consists of carefully condensed law and forms that keeps attorneys and the courts current on all areas of Pennsylvania child custody law. The book is used by most Pennsylvania family law attorneys and judges, and it is also a staple in Pennsylvania law libraries. For his efforts, he received the 2011 Pennsylvania Bar Association Special Achievement Award for his contributions and work with the PBA Family Law Section to enact new custody legislation.

Another important change in the new custody law is that it now has a very strict relocation provision that impacts many divorced couples.

“The parent who wants to move must now, in writing, notify the other parent,” says Whitelaw. “There’s a very specific provision as to the information the spouse wishing to move must give. Then, the parent who is not moving has to respond. Years ago, we would always ask a client, ‘Well, do you think the other side is going to object? And how much are they going to object?’ and then caution them accordingly. Today, however, in Pennsylvania a parent cannot move unless the other parent agrees or the court gives him or her permission to go.”

Bertin, known for his strong representation in the courtroom, is also very sensitive to the difficulties his clients are experiencing. “Raising your children after a separation is even harder than doing it while your family is together,” he says. He advises his clients to put up a unified front when telling their kids they are separating. If necessary, they should get the help of a family counselor and take measures to ensure that they do not air their “dirty laundry” in front of their children. “Let’s be honest: Kids are resilient, but living on a back-and-forth schedule isn’t easy,” he adds. “I feel for them. I know most adults couldn’t do it.”

Like Bertin, all the family law attorneys at Obermayer subscribe to the same philosophy. Obermayer’s Family Law Group consists of a team of attorneys, including Whitelaw, Ladov and Bertin, as well as Teleicia J.R. Dambreville, Samantha J. Evian, Amanda W. Figland, Margaret E. Juliano, Scott A. Matison, Amy L. Rokuson, Shari B. Veisblatt, Ann G. Verber, Maris J. Weiner and Stephanie H. Winegrad. Their clients primarily reside throughout eastern Pennsylvania, including Montgomery County, Chester County, Berks County, Bucks County and Delaware County, as well as New Jersey and Delaware.

The group produces a weekly blog, Obermayer Family Matters, available at www.obermayerfamilymatters.com, which is an online resource covering timely news and information about all issues relating to divorce and custody issues. The blog has gotten national recognition.

“Dealing with child custody issues is usually very trying,” says Ladov. “However, attorneys who are experienced at handling custody cases through the courts can help you through this process and coming to compromises and resolution or, if necessary, litigation through the court. 

“Our goal is for our clients to come out the other side of this with their families intact,” he continues. “We really do care about them and always act in the best interest of the children.” 

Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP
www.obermayer.com for more information.

Photograph by Jeff Anderson