Merging Property Lots in PA: What Municipalities and Landowners Should Know

A series of recent cases in Pennsylvania are highlighting the impact an enduring statutory zoning mechanism is having on some unsuspecting landowners across the Commonwealth. The following information is meant to educate Pennsylvania landowners and municipalities on Merger Doctrine basics and provides several strategies meant to avoid unwanted complications the Merger Doctrine is likely to create.

Doctrine of Merger of Lots,” or “Merger Doctrine” as it is sometimes called, is a zoning principle, rooted in a preference for municipal efficiency and land conformity, that has emerged from a group of cases interpreting local merger ordinances. The Merger Doctrine can apply where adjacent, undersized lots are, or were at some point, owned by the same person who also may have intended to merge them. In certain municipalities, the nonconforming, undersized, adjacent lots may be deemed to have merged into a single, conforming lot when certain conditions are met…even without the consent of the property owner.

General Rule:

The Merger of Lots Doctrine generally applies in Pennsylvania when the following elements are satisfied:

  1. The local governing body has adopted a merger provision;
  2. Two or more lots adjacent (adjoining) are involved;
  3. At least one of the lots is nonconforming with respect to the dimensional requirements of the applicable zoning code (i.e., undersized lots);
  4. The lots are or were commonly owned after the local government adopted a merger provision;
  5. There is a physical manifestation upon the land of the owner’s intent to merge the lots into one dimensionally conforming lot, or there is a failure on part of the landowner to manifest a clear intent to keep the lots separate.

When all the foregoing items are met, a municipality may consider the lots in question to have merged seemingly spontaneously. However, courts have found that a landowner may oppose a local government’s claim of “automatic” lot merger by negating one of these elements.

Strategies To Prevent Automatic Lot Merger:

1) "Physically" Keep the Properties Separate via trees, shrubs, or fencing – In a 1991 case, the Commonwealth Court held that mere common ownership of adjoining lots does not automatically establish a physical merger of those lots unless the common owner manifested an intent to keep the lots separate and distinct. Then, in a 1998 decision, the Commonwealth Court held that to establish a physical merger, there must be evidence of some overt, unequivocal physical manifestation thereof.

Still, courts may still act unpredictably with an evolving area of law such as the law of merger. To make clear the intent not to merge, a property owner can use physical barriers to keep the adjoining lots separate and distinct, such as trees or a fence. Abstract legal attributes, such as whether the property owner purchased the lots at the same time or whether the properties have separate deeds and separate tax identification numbers, do not suffice.

2) Look For a Merger Provision in the Local Ordinance – Consult your local ordinance to determine whether a merger provision has been adopted. Pennsylvania courts have consistently described the Merger Doctrine as being fundamentally a “creature of statute or ordinance,” not of common law, that only applies where a municipality has legislated a merger clause into the local code (e.g., Loughran v. Valley View Developers, Inc., a 2017 case). There is no merger provision in the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), so the provision must be locally enacted.

3) Look To the Timeline And Determine Whether the Lots Were Commonly Owned When the Merger Provision was Adopted – understanding the timing of ownership and the phrasing of the merger provision (if any) may be the key to preventing an automatic lot merger.

4) Check the Zoning History and Avoid Seeking Zoning Relief For a Single Property If, In Fact, Relief is Required For Multiple Lots – Courts have found past treatment of potentially merged property, including zoning applications (whether approved or denied) that refer to multiple lots as a single property, to be evidence of the owner’s intent to merge. See, e.g., in DiCicco v. City of Philadelphia. Of course, this factor would work against a landowner seeking to prove properties have not merged.

Ultimately, a real estate attorney well-versed in the law of merger of lots can provide cost-effective assistance to avoid common pitfalls so that a resolution can be reached as smoothly as possible.

Our law firm has offices in Bucks County and Montgomery County, PA. The Best Lawyers in America recognized 16 of our attorneys for 2023. So, you can count on our firm to deliver experienced representation for any legal issue.

For more information about the Merger Doctrine, contact real estate attorney Sean Livesey at (610) 275-0700.

This information is not legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.

Survivorship Rights in Pennsylvania

Married without a will in Pennsylvania?  Do you think your surviving spouse will inherit everything?  Think Again. 

For those assets that are not disposed of by Will, or by a beneficiary designation (i.e., 401(k), insurance proceeds, IRA) or by survivorship rights (i.e., tenancy by the entirety, joint tenancy with right of survivorship), Pennsylvania’s intestate law determines the person who will receives those assets.

For many married individuals, this may not be an issue because all of your assets are either titled jointly as tenancy by the entirety or joint tenancy with right of survivorship or your spouse is the primary beneficiary of your retirement benefits.  Good for you, you may not have an issue.

But, what if you are the sole owner of real estate? Or what if you own a business? Or what if you forgot to update your beneficiary designations?  Or what if you are the sole owner of bank accounts or brokerage accounts?  Ooops… without a Will your spouse may not inherit those assets.

Many states, including Pennsylvania, have laws called “intestate laws” that determine who receives your assets and the amount that those people receive.  So for example, if you are married, your surviving spouse does not receive all of your assets.  Instead, the intestate amount may be divided between your spouse and your children or your spouse and your surviving parents.  It all depends on who is living at the time of your death and their relationship to you.

Let’s take a look at the diagram below:

intestate estate chart for surviving spouse in pennsylvania

Take a look at the first branch of the chart, the entire intestate estate. If there are no surviving parents of the deceased spouse and there are no surviving descendants, then the surviving spouse will inherit the entire intestate estate.  A descendant is a person that is direct line to an ancestor, think children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and on forever.

Now let’s look at the middle branch, $30,000 + 1/2 of the intestate estate. If there are descendants that belong to both the deceased spouse and the surviving spouse, then those descendants are entitled to 1/2 of the remaining intestate estate.  The surviving spouse will receive the first $30,000 of the intestate estate and 1/2 of the balance. If there are no descendants, but there are surviving parents of the deceased spouse, then the surviving parents will receive 1/2 of the remaining intestate estate.

In the last branch, 1/2 of the intestate estate, if there are descendants and those descendants are only directly in line to the deceased spouse and not directly in line to the surviving spouse, then the surviving spouse will only receive 1/2 of the intestate estate.  The remaining intestate estate will go to those descendants of the deceased spouse.

As you can see the surviving spouse does not always take all.  This is why it is vitally important to contact an estate attorney and have a plan in place that includes a Last Will & Testament.

The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances.  The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.

Avoid These 6 Unusual Traffic Violations in PA

As a driver in Pennsylvania, it's essential to be aware of the various traffic laws and regulations to avoid being pulled over. While some violations may seem minor, they can still result in a traffic stop, potential fines, or even more serious offenses.

I've compiled a list of 6 things you may not know you can be pulled over for. In addition, it may be beneficial to touch base with a PA traffic lawyer if you need more information about your specific issue.

Six Unusual Traffic Violations in Pennsylvania

Here are the top 6 things that drivers in Pennsylvania should be aware of to avoid getting pulled over:

1. Rat Running

Rat running involves drivers seeking alternative routes to bypass traffic signals, intersections, or even stop signs. This behavior can increase traffic, noise pollution, and safety risks.

For example, some drivers may think cutting through a corner gas station or parking lot is okay to avoid waiting at a red light. However, this is illegal in Pennsylvania and can result in a traffic ticket and fines exceeding $150. Following traffic signals and waiting for the light to turn green before proceeding is essential.

2. Rearview Mirror Hangings

While it may seem harmless to hang something from your rearview mirror, it can violate Pennsylvania's traffic laws used to initiate a traffic stop. This includes things like air fresheners, parking permits, or any decoration. In addition, anything that obstructs your view of the road can result in a traffic stop and potential fines.

In 2022, Philadelphia passed the Driving Equality law that banned the practice of police pulling over motorists for this offense, along with seven other infractions in Philadelphia.

3. License Plate Obstructions

In Pennsylvania, it's illegal to obstruct your license plate with a license cover or any other type of material. This includes tinted covers, wraps, or frames partially covering the plate.

License plates must always be visible, and any obstruction can result in a traffic ticket. Police can pull over a driver if a frame covers any part of their license plate, including the edges and the URL.

With PA toll roads reducing or eliminating toll collectors, the state has doubled down on active RFID technology to keep tabs on collecting tolls. Unfortunately, having obstructions on your license plate could make it more difficult for the state to record offenders.

A recent 2022 ruling included mud, dirt, and even magnets on the list of obstructions to a license plate. Penalties for an obscured plate could exceed $100.

driver of a car using a cell phone at a red light illegally

4. Cell Phones at a Red Light

While it may seem like a good time to check your phone or send a quick text while waiting at a red light, it's important to note that this is illegal in Pennsylvania. Drivers holding a cell phone in their hand(s), in any matter, while driving or while stopped at a red light or stop sign, can be subject to fines.

Fines typically are around $50 plus additional fees. However, texting violations usually won't add demerit points to a motorist's driving record in PA.


5. Seatbelts

In Pennsylvania, it's well known that ALL drivers and passengers are required by law to wear a seatbelt. A fine of $10 plus court costs may be imposed if a seatbelt is not worn while driving in Pennsylvania.

But did you know that having passengers between the ages of 4 and 8 may face a higher penalty of $75 plus court costs? Children under four must be secured in a restraint system suitable for their height and weight. So it’s important to buckle up every time you get in the car to ensure your safety and avoid getting pulled over.


audi with illegal tinted windows in a target parking lot in pennsylvania

6. Tinted Windows

In Pennsylvania, vehicle window tinting is regulated by state law. So it’s illegal to have excessive tinting on your car windows. The Visible Light Transmission allowed on ANY window on post-1998 passenger cars is 70%. This means that 70% of the light contacting the window must pass through the window.

If a police officer pulls you over and determines that your window tint is illegal, you could face fines and penalties. The fine amount will depend on the specific circumstances of the violation, such as the extent of the window tinting and whether you have been cited for the same violation before.

Additionally, if you have modified your vehicle's windows to add tinting, you may be required to remove the tint and bring the vehicle into compliance with state law.

Have you been pulled over for one of these traffic violations?

At High Swartz LLP, we understand that being pulled over by the police can be stressful and overwhelming. If you've been charged with a traffic violation, our traffic lawyers are here to help. Contact us today to schedule a consultation and learn more about your legal options.

Shari Gelfont Williams Participates in Pro Bono Innovation Discussion

Family Law attorney and Chair of the Bucks County Bar Association Pro Bono Committee, Shari Gelfont Williams recently participated in a working session hosted by the Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania (LASP) at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. The session was held as part of a Pro Bono Innovation Fund transformation grant from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and aimed to address challenges faced by pro bono volunteers, county bar association leaders, and community partners.

members of the Legal Aid of Southeastern PA pro bono innovation group

During the session, which was guided by Gretchen Slusser, President of thredpartners, Shari and other stakeholders discussed various topics, including volunteer recognition, mentorship for new pro bono attorneys, communications, and connecting volunteers with opportunities.

photo credits: LASP