In custody and divorce matters, it is common for attorneys to advise clients to keep detailed notes and/or diaries of conversations that may be relevant to their case. These notes and diaries are useful to review prior to a hearing or other court appearance as a way to refresh a client’s memory about the specifics of significant conversations between the client and ex-spouse or ex-partner. Of course, your notes and diary entries may not capture the emotion of the conversations, and it can often be difficult to convey through testimony the disrespectful tone or attitude of indifference expressed by the other party. I have been asked: Would it not be easier to simply record conversations with an ex-spouse or ex-partner, with the intent of introducing the recordings as evidence in custody or divorce litigation? My response: Proceed with caution.
The Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act (Wiretap Act) creates civil and criminal penalties for anyone who “intentionally intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures any other person to intercept or endeavor to intercept any wire, electronic or oral communication[.]” There are also penalties for anyone who “intentionally discloses or endeavors to disclose to any other person the contents of any wire, electronic or oral communication, or evidence derived therefrom, knowing or having reason to know that the information was obtained through the interception of a wire, electronic or oral communication[.]”
In general terms, this means that you place yourself at risk for civil and criminal penalties if you make an audio recording of your ex-spouse or ex-partner (or anyone else) when that person had a reasonable expectation of privacy at the time of your conversation and when that person does not have knowledge and does not consent to the recording. In many circumstances, the recording of cell phone conversations and the recording of conversations in the home will violate the PA Wiretap Act when the audio recordings are done without the other person’s consent. It would also be a violation of the Pennsylvania Wiretap Act to then disclose those recordings to third parties and/or the Court during custody and divorce hearings.
It is important to remember that the presentation of testimony and evidence in custody and divorce matters can be complex. It is also important to be sure that you gather evidence and prepare for litigation in an appropriate manner. If you have questions regarding custody or divorce matters, or if you have questions about the Pennsylvania Wiretap Act, please contact us at 717.299.7342 to speak with one of our attorneys. Our Firm handles both domestic and criminal matters and we have attorneys that handle each area of the law.
~Jeffrey C. Murse, Esquire
Children with qualifying disabilities are entitled to receive SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits so long as their household resources are under a limit set by the Social Security Administration.
Many people are familiar with the concept of Social Security benefits for adults, but are you aware that disability benefits are available to children as well? The Social Security Administration offers multiple benefits to students, including benefits available to students whose parent is deceased, or even college students who became disabled before age 22 and whose parent is deceased or collecting benefits. These benefits are based on the parent’s status, and do not necessarily have a limit for financial resources available to the student’s family. For today’s purposes, though, we would like to talk with you about benefits available to disabled children in low-income households.
Who qualifies as a disabled child? For Social Security purposes, a “child” is one who is under age 18 (or under age 22 and a student regularly attending school). When the child turns 18, though, the Social Security Administration will evaluate the disability according to the adult disability standards. A child may be eligible for SSI benefits as early as birth; there is no minimum age requirement. “Disability” means that the child has physical and/or mental impairment(s) which result(s) in marked and severe functional limitations and has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months or be expected to result in death. There are special definitions for disability if a child is blind (it is the same standard as for blind adults), and there is no duration requirement for SSI blindness benefits.
Essentially, the Administration is looking to see if the child’s disability limits his or her ability to function in school and initiate and sustain activities in daily life. In most cases, the Administration looks at six “domains” to determine whether an impairment is limiting enough to meet the definition of disability. The medical and school records must demonstrate a “marked” limitation in two (2) domains or an “extreme” limitation in one (1) domain. These domains are:
1. Acquiring and using information;
2. Attending and completing tasks;
3. Interacting and relating with others;
4. Moving about and manipulating objects;
5. Caring for yourself; and,
6. Health and physical well-being.
The Social Security Administration does have a “Compassionate Allowances” list. The conditions on this list meet the standards for disability benefits and so, the evaluation process is shortened.
What income or resources does the Administration consider? Generally speaking, the Administration will look at the income of the parent(s) with whom the child lives, including stepparents. A portion of the parents’ income and resources will be considered available to the child. Deductions are made for other children living in the home, and the remaining amount is considered to determine whether the child meets the income and resource requirements.
What about medical benefits? In most states, including Pennsylvania, if a child receives SSI benefits he or she will also be eligible for Medicaid. For more information about Medicaid, you can look on the Internet on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services webpage at https://www.medicaid.gov/. Children living overseas with an active duty military parent are not eligible for Medicaid, but may still receive SSI benefits.
What this means for you: At Pyfer Reese, we know that parents are fighting hard to ensure their children receive the education and benefits they deserve. We want to team with you to make sure your child receives the best benefits possible. If you have a question about your student’s entitlement to Social Security benefits, we can help. Attorney Gabriella H. Farhat is an authorized representative with the Social Security Administration, meaning they can advocate for you or your child to receive benefits.
Make Pyfer Reese your choice! Call 717.299.7342 to schedule a consultation regarding your education law and or social security needs.
There are three main documents that encompass an estate plan: A Will, a Power of Attorney, and a Health Care Directive or Living Will. In addition, certain situations merit creating a Trust or retitling real estate. Estate planning documents should be reviewed every few years and revised as life changes (or the law) require. Some examples of life events that may prompt a review of your estate plan include marriage, separation or divorce, birth of a child, death of a family member, acquisition or sale of significant assets, receiving an inheritance, moving into Pennsylvania from another State or Country, retirement from employment, eldercare situations, and changes to existing tax laws.
It is important to have an estate plan, even if you have limited assets. If you have minor children or a dependent adult child for whom you provide care, appointing a Guardian through your Power of Attorney to care for the children on a temporary or emergency basis in the event of an accident or illness can give you peace of mind. By naming a Guardian of minors or dependent adult children in your Will, you can be assured your loved ones will be cared for in the event of your passing.
Determining beneficiaries of assets that pass outside of a Will, such as life insurance, retirement accounts, pension, investment and brokerage accounts, also warrants careful consideration. Do not overlook updating the beneficiary forms for those assets as your life circumstances change.
In addition, despite the elimination of Estate Tax concerns for most individuals and families, Pennsylvania is one of the few states which continues to assess Inheritance Tax on asset transfers upon an individual’s passing. We can help you plan to reduce this tax obligation.
Pyfer Reese Straub Gray & Farhat PC is here to assist you in all of your estate planning needs. Our experienced attorneys* can provide you with an individualized plan pertaining to your specific situation. We can assist you in developing an estate plan for any stage of life, whether you are a single person, a newly married couple, a young family, empty-nesters, or in need of eldercare advice. Contact us today at 717.299.7342 for a convenient appointment, including home visits (if needed), to discuss the appropriate estate plan for your current life situation. *Attorneys Sandra Edwards Gray, Christopher C. Straub, John F. Pyfer, Jr. or Albert J. Meier will be happy to assist you.
Is your child unable to manage his or her own life independently? Generally speaking, when a child turns 18 they will be able to make legal, financial, and other decisions for themselves. But what happens if they lack the mental capacity or the reasoning skills necessary to make these decisions in their own best interests? A guardianship may be the answer.
In Pennsylvania, courts will grant a guardianship if an individual is “incapacitated.” This means the individual’s “ability to receive and evaluate information effectively and communicate decisions in any way is impaired to such a significant extent that he is partially or totally unable to manage his financial resources or to meet essential requirements for his physical health and safety.” (20 Pa.C.S. § 5501) Pennsylvania law specifies that the courts should be looking for the “least restrictive” method of ensuring that an incapacitated person’s needs are met. An alternative to guardianship may be a Power of Attorney for property or healthcare, for example. If a guardianship is the least restrictive method, then the court wants to ensure that an appropriate guardian is named – someone who will genuinely be acting for the best interests of the individual.
In order to establish a guardianship, a person who is interested in the well-being of the incapacitated person must file a petition and go to a hearing. The petitioner does not need to be the person who wishes to be appointed the guardian, but it must be a person who is looking out for the welfare of the incapacitated person. (The court may dismiss the proceeding if the petition is not complete, or if the court finds that the proceeding was not truly started for the purpose of benefitting the incapacitated person.) At the hearing, the petitioner needs to establish by “clear and convincing evidence” that the individual is incapacitated and a guardian should be appointed. This evidence often includes testimony/reports from medical and/or mental health professionals.
After a hearing, if the court appoints a guardian, the court can appoint a guardian with either limited or plenary (full) guardianship, depending on the degree of incapacity. A guardian has a duty to make decisions that are in the best interests of the incapacitated person. He or she will be responsible for providing a report to the Court regarding the status (personal and/or financial) of the incapacitated person.
What this means for you: The guardianship process can be complex, with many possible pitfalls and outcomes. If you have questions about guardianship, we can help you. We are available to discuss the advantages or disadvantages that exist in your unique case and can help you obtain a guardianship. Our team of education law attorneys consists of Gabriella H. Farhat, Jeffrey C. Murse, Gerryanne P. Cauler and Lauren E. Martin.
Make Pyfer Reese your choice! Call 717.299.7342 to schedule a consultation regarding your education law needs.
According to the federal government, bullying “is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” Bullying can occur during school hours or after, such as on the school bus or on the Internet. Bullying can take three forms: verbal, social, and physical. Any child can be bullied. Children who are perceived as being different from their peers can be at an increased risk of being bullied. A perceived difference could be physical appearance, social skills, clothing, mental health conditions, or more.
If your child or student is being bullied, this can harm his or her physical and emotional safety at school as well as the child’s ability to learn well. It is important to contact the school – including the student’s teacher, guidance counselor, principal, and/or superintendent. In severe cases, or cases where the school is not responding appropriately, it may be necessary to contact the State Department of Education. School staff should be trained in recognizing and preventing bullying, and the school should have clear policies and rules regarding bullying.
Your student’s school may need to teach students and/or staff about bullying prevention and the harms of bullying. This might involve presentations or class discussions, but it is important that the school is implementing program that is designed to be effective and clearly communicated. There are many evidence-based evaluated programs available to schools that address bullying, and often are designed for use in elementary or middle school settings. Staff training might include meetings, one-day training sessions, or a combination of options.
For more information about bullying and bullying prevention, visit https://www.stopbullying.gov/.
What this means for you: If you have questions about your student’s rights or if your student’s school is not taking adequate steps to prevent bullying or harassment, we can help you. Our team of education law attorneys, Jeffrey C. Murse, Gerryanne P. Cauler, Gabriella Hashem Farhat and Lauren E. Martin, will advocate for your student’s needs and for the proper accommodations in a school setting. We can ensure the proper individuals and entities have been notified of the bullying and can advocate for the school to implement effective anti-bullying measures.
Make Pyfer Reese your choice! Call 717.299.7342 to schedule a consultation regarding your education law needs.
Despite medical cannabis laws in 46 states, cannabis is still illegal under federal law.
The federal government regulates drugs through the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) (21 U.S.C. § 811), which does not recognize the difference between medical and recreational use of cannabis. These laws are generally applied only against persons who possess, cultivate, or distribute large quantities of cannabis.
Under federal law, cannabis is treated like every other controlled substance, such as cocaine and heroin. The federal government places every controlled substance in a schedule, in principle according to its relative potential for abuse and medicinal value. Under the CSA, cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug, which means that the federal government views cannabis as highly addictive and having no medical value. Doctors may not “prescribe” cannabis for medical use under federal law, though they can “recommend” its use under the First Amendment.
In Pennsylvania, on April 12, 2016, Senate Bill 3 was approved by the Senate, and by the House on April 13, 2016, and was signed into law on April 17, 2016, effectively removing all state-level criminal penalties on the use and possession of medical marijuana by patients who possess a signed recommendation from an approved physician stating that medical marijuana “may mitigate” his/her debilitating medical symptoms.
Patients in Pennsylvania diagnosed with one of the following severe, debilitating, or life-threatening medical conditions, are afforded legal protection under the Pennsylvania medical marijuana law, as per Senate Bill 3— “The Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Program”:
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity
Inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn’s Disease & Ulcerative Colitis)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Sickle cell anemia
Severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain in which conventional therapeutic intervention or opiate therapy is contraindicated or ineffective
Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy
Terminally ill, where a medical prognosis of life expectancy of approximately one year or less if the illness runs its normal course
Effective August 2, 2016, ulcerative colitis has been added as a qualifying medical condition for the therapeutic use of cannabis. This is the result of the passage of HB 1453 (Chapter 173:1 of the Laws of 2016).
Therefore, a patient in Pennsylvania with a qualifying diagnosis and a prescription from a qualified physician is eligible to receive and use medical marijuana. However, the individual and his or her caregivers must be mindful of the conflict between federal and state law. If you have questions please contact one of our offices today to have your circumstances evaluated.
Please note: This post presents information only regarding medical marijuana, not legal advice. As a reminder, federal law applies throughout the United States (not just in D.C. or on federal property). Under federal law, all cannabis use is illegal; there is no differentiation for medical marijuana.
Q: Do you have any general questions about Medical Marijuana? State Law? Federal? Potential Criminal Charges?
A: Contact Attorneys Heather Adams or Chris Patterson
Q: Does your question about Medical Marijuana relate to your treatment for a Workers’ Compensation case, your Social Security case, your Personal Injury case?
A: Contact Attorneys Gabriella H. Farhat and Lauren Martin in our office.
Studies ave shown that students with special needs, particularly students with mental health conditions, are at a higher risk for involvement with the juvenile justice system than their nondisabled peers. Some factors that make this risk worse include:
*Inadequate training for educators;
*Zero-tolerance discipline policies in school;
*Lack of behavior interventions and supports; and
*Undiagnosed or mis-diagnosed mental health conditions.
At Pyfer Reese, we recognize the important work teachers and educators do, and we want to make sure they are equipped to properly address and meet the needs of your student. Because we also recognize that sometimes the needs of a student are not being met, and that is where we can advocate for you.
Schools have a legal obligation to provide Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and services so that each student has access to a Free Appropriate Public Education. If you are concerned about your child’s behaviors, you may request a special education evaluation. You may also want to ask your child and the appropriate educators whether any harassment or bullying is contributing to his or her behavior. Federal law requires schools to determine whether truant or suspension-worthy behavior is a manifestation of a disability. They must also evaluate whether the school failed to provide appropriate services and accommodations for the student.
What can you do, though, when your student does become involved in the juvenile justice system? The juvenile justice system is designed to offer “Balanced and Restorative Justice.” An attorney advocate can work with the court to ensure that your child is treated fairly, that the cause of any behavioral problems is addressed, and that your child receives the help he or she needs. Juvenile Justice programming offers community services, attempts to meet educational needs, implements treatment for mental and physical needs, and provides training for employment or life skills. The goal is to provide the juvenile with the help he or she needs in the least restrictive way possible. For more information on the juvenile justice system, readers can visit the Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission at www.jcjc.pa.gov.
But what about students who turn 18, or who leave the education system and continue into adulthood with needs that have not been addressed? In Lancaster County, we have a Mental Health Court. This is a specialty court program designed for criminal offenders who have been diagnosed with a “serious mental illness.” Individuals may apply to the Mental Health Court, and a coordinator will review the application to determine if initial eligibility criteria is met. The application then needs approval from the Lancaster County MH/MR office and the District Attorney’s Office to determine whether to refer the individual to Mental Health Court. These offices will consider the individual’s criminal history, input from the victim, and input from the arresting or prosecuting police officer.
After a referral is made, the Mental Health Court Treatment Team will evaluate the suitability of the referral. If accepted, participation in Mental Health Court is voluntary, and the individual must comply with the treatment goals and expectations in order to remain in the program. The individual will be provided a case manager and a specialized mental health probation officer. Mental Health Court program completion takes approximately 12 to 18 months, in four phases. After a successful completion of each phase, the next phase requires fewer court appearances and less intense monitoring – but the treatment services remain in place.
You should also be aware of PFA and PSVI actions, which stem from criminal behavior but are processed through the civil justice system. A Protection From Abuse (“PFA”) action is designed to offer protection to victims of violence or intimidation who have a family or household member relationship with the offender. A victim may seek a temporary PFA order, and the alleged offender will not be present. However, a hearing must be held within ten (10) days, and the alleged offender must be given notice and should be present at that hearing to represent himself or herself. This is a civil hearing, so the “burden of proof” is not as high as it would be to convict in a criminal proceeding.
The Protection of Victims of Sexual Violence or Intimidation Act (“PSVI”) operates in a very similar manner to PFAs, except it is designed to protect victims of sexual violence or intimidation who do not have a family or household member relationship with the alleged offender. If you are served with notice of a PFA or PSVI hearing, we recommend contacting an attorney to review your rights and restrictions. If there is a temporary protective order, you will want to be very careful not to violate any of its provisions.
What this means for you: If you have questions about your student’s education rights or if your pending criminal charges are related to a mental health condition, we can help you. For students, this may involve our team of education law attorneys, advocating for the student’s needs and for the proper accommodations in a school setting. Or, it may require an attorney advocating for balanced and restorative justice in the juvenile justice system. For adults, this may involve an application to the mental health court and an attorney advocating for your acceptance into the program and guiding you through the program phases. Or if you need representation in a PFA or PSVI action, our experienced team of attorneys can provide the guidance and advocacy you need.
Make Pyfer Reese your choice – call 717.299.7342 to schedule a consultation regarding your education law needs or criminal charges.
Everyone is aware that the Lancaster County Children and Youth Social Service Agency (CYA) can and does intercede to take custody of children that are subject to abuse and neglect, but did you know that parents can voluntarily place children with the CYA as a way of getting the child necessary services to deal with issues that may face the child?
It is never a pleasant situation. Perhaps a child deals with mental health issues and is becoming aggressive with other, in particular younger, family members. Or, often a child seems incorrigible, staying out at all hours of the night, engaging in drug use, and refusing to attend school or follow any direction from his or her parents.
The Children and Youth Agency has resources to offer help to a family with a child that needs medical, mental health, or substance abuse services. The Agency has at its disposal medical and mental health professionals that can evaluate your child and recommend counseling, various programs, or in patient treatment at a wide variety of facilities. CYA can frequently obtain a diagnosis and appropriate treatment in a relatively short span of time.
In order to have been placed in CYA custody, a child must be found by the court to be a “dependent child,” which is basically defined by the law as being “without proper parental care or control, subsistence, education as required by law, or other care or control necessary for his physical, mental, or emotional health, or morals.” Check out the full definition of dependent child, which can be found at 42 Pa.C.S. Section 6302. The Pennsylvania General Assembly has given the courts an extremely broad definition to use in determining whether a child is dependent. You may be a fit and attentive parent, but your child can be found to be dependent based upon his or her actions alone
There are pitfalls to voluntarily placing your child with the Children and Youth Agency. One problem is that when a parent voluntarily places a child with CYA, then the CYA assumes legal and physical custody of the child. Under law, this gives CYA the right to file for child support against each parent.
Being in the custody of CYA often serves as a wakeup call for the child. It is not uncommon for a child that has been placed with the Agency to express a new-found willingness to attend school and follow rules. Or, in other situations it may be the parent that has a change of heart.
It is important to realize that placing custody of your child with the Children and Youth Agency will place your child in the juvenile justice system. It can be difficult for parents to regain custody of a child, at least in the short term. The court will have appointed a guardian ad litem for your child. The guardian ad litem is an attorney charged with conveying to the court what he or she believes is in the best interests of the child, which is often not what the child wants. Usually, the court, the guardian ad litem, and CYA must be convinced that the child’s issues have been resolved such that a return home is safe and appropriate.
Judicial hearings to review the appropriateness of the child’s placement occur every five months. Parents typically will need to hire a private attorney to petition the court to shorten that legal process.
So, the system offers help, but maybe what I describe above has raised more questions for you.
What this means for you: If you have questions about this issue or your Children and Youth case, we can help you. Make Pyfer Reese your choice – visit www.pyferreese.com or call (717) 299-7342 to schedule a consultation with Attorney Albert J. Meier.
~Albert J. Meier, Esquire
Can you imagine being unable to access your doctor’s office or grocery store? Or being told that even though it has been illegal for 28 years for that business to deny you access, you need to formally complain and then wait six months or for that business to begin allowing you access? Participation in society should not depend on businesses getting around to complying with the law after the affected person complains. And the person being denied access should not have to bear the costs of forcing the business to comply.
On February 15, the United States House of Representatives voted 225-192 to dismantle protections afforded by the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The did this by approving “The ADA Education and Reform Act,” also called H.R. 620. This bill will not become law, however, unless approved by the Senate. There is still time to contact your Senator and urge him or her to vote against the ADA Education and Reform Act.
H.R. 620 removes incentives for businesses to comply with the law, and places the burden for ensuring business compliance on the person being denied access. The ADA has been the law for almost 28 years, and already takes the needs of businesses into account. H.R. 620 is being advertised as an attempt to give businesses more education on how to comply with the ADA, but it does not provide any specific guidance about what that education should be. It is worth noting that free (and extensive) educational resources are already available to businesses.
The scary part of this bill is that is attempts to take the burden for ADA compliance off businesses and place it onto individuals with disabilities. The bill’s sponsors are saying this is to prevent frivolous lawsuits, but in reality, the ADA does not allow monetary damages for suits filed under Title II of the ADA. Some states allow monetary damages, but changing federal law with this bill would not eliminate those state allowances.
Importantly, the ADA has been law for 28 years. Businesses, schools, and the likes have had ample time and notice to comply with the law. But now, supporters of this bill are suggesting that business be given even more time – they only have to comply with the ADA if someone formally complains. And even after a complaint, the business would have six months to begin making progress towards accessibility. And if – after a formal complaint and the lengthy waiting period – the business does finally comply with the ADA, no lawyers’ fees would be available. So the individual(s) being denied access would have to fund their fight for accessibility out of their own pockets.
What this means for you: Do you or a loved one rely on the protections of the ADA to gain reasonable accommodations, access, and entry in places like doctors’ offices, grocery stores, and while going about your daily life? Do you worry about the burden of ADA compliance being placed on individuals with disabilities, rather than on the businesses and schools that should be creating accessible environments? If so, contact your state Senator and urge him or her to vote against the ADA Education and Reform Act. You can look up your Senator and his/her contact information here: https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm.
For more information and resources regarding H.R. 620, visit the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund: https://dredf.org/hr620/.
~Lauren E. Martin, Esquire
Did you know that Pennsylvania has an online docket system accessible to the public? The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania (UJS) is an online website https://ujsportal.pacourts.us/ which allows the public to search and view individual court case information in any of the sixty- seven Pennsylvania counties. There is no charge to search the UJS website. Information that can be obtained includes:
Criminal cases – including summary offenses
All public information is available by searching a person’s criminal docket, such as: criminal charges, court dates, plea and sentence information. Don’t know the person’s docket number? You can search by name and a combination of county or docket type: meaning civil, criminal etc. This website proves useful whether you need information about your own case, or simply want to find out more about that neighbor down the street.
Have a traffic ticket or costs of court to pay?
You can also use UJS to pay fines, costs and restitution to the Magisterial District courts and the Court of Common Pleas. Use this link https://ujsportal.pacourts.us/bail/Default.aspx to pay the aforementioned costs by Visa, Mastercard, Discover, American Express or ATM card. A $2.75 service charge is added per transaction. You can search by citation number, payment plan number, docket number, name of person or organization.
What this means for you: If you have questions about your record or a pending criminal matter, we can help you. Make Pyfer Reese your choice – visit www.pyferreese.com or call 717.299.7342 to schedule a consultation with Attorney Heather Adams.
~Heather L. Adams, Esquire