Social Security & Determination of Monetary Award

In a case of first impression, a point of law never before presented to a Maryland Court, the Court of Appeals has now provided guidance on how social security benefits shall be considered when dividing marital property in divorce cases.   In the case Jackson v. Jackson, Maryland’s highest court ruled that trial courts are now required to take into consideration the parties’ actual or anticipated social security benefits as a relevant factor under the Marital Property Act when determining whether to grant a monetary award to adjust the equities and rights of the parties in marital property. The basic facts in the Jackson case help explain the issue.  In essence, the parties wished to divide their assets equally and were able to do so with the significant exception of their retirement assets in the form of their pensions.  During the marriage, Husband was employed for the majority of his career as a federal worker and was eligible for the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) pension.  Federal workers who receive retirement benefits from the CSRS are ineligible by law to receive social security benefits.  Wife was also employed during the marriage and was eligible to receive retirement benefits and social security benefits.  The dispute between them related to the accounting of Wife’s social security benefits when calculating the division of their marital property. In form, a social security benefit is a monthly payment to a beneficiary much like any other pension payment.  Social security benefits may certainly accrue during the time of a marriage, but because social security is a federal program created by Congress, states are prohibited by the...

Who Is The Parent? – Custody & Visitation

While summer is traditionally the time for us to kick back and relax, the Maryland Court of Appeals has been quite busy in the family law arena with the release of two important decisions in July 2016. In the case Conover v. Conover, Maryland’s highest court recognized the doctrine of de facto parenthood.  A de facto parent is a person who has raised a child together with the child’s other legal parent. Recognition of the de facto parenthood doctrine will have especially important consequences for children who are born into families headed by same-sex couples.  In such families, the court has held that a de facto parent, the parent who has neither a biological nor adoptive relationship with a child, will have standing to pursue custody and visitation claims. Here are the basic facts of the case.  Michelle Conover and Brittany Conover were a couple in a committed same-sex relationship.  In 2009, before the recognition of same-sex marriages in Maryland, the couple decided to have a child together via artificial insemination.  They chose an anonymous sperm donor to resemble Michelle.  Through this procedure, Brittany gave birth to Jaxon, who was given Michelle’s last name.  A few months after Jaxon’s birth, the couple married in nearby Washington, DC.  While Michelle did not formally adopt Jaxon, she raised Jaxon with Brittany for the first two years of Jaxon’s life. Michelle and Brittany divorced and as a part of the divorce case, Michelle requested that the court award to her visitation with Jaxon.  Brittany did not agree and argued that Michelle was a “legal stranger” to Jaxon and, as such, had no...

Words Matter

As the Republicans and Democrats conclude their national conventions, we are increasingly aware of the importance of words in shaping our impression of candidates for the highest political office in our country.  We see discussions over the development of party platforms, the parsing of speeches by the candidates (and their spouses!), and the intense review of e-mails, tweets, and other forms of social media.  Words are one way – not the only way – that we human beings express our thoughts.  When we can put something into words, it is the starting point for understanding. In my work, I have noticed that many people I serve wish to achieve an “amicable” divorce.  The word amicable means friendly, affable, congenial, kindly, or sweet.  This is generally not what people are truly experiencing when confronted with the disappointment and heartache associated with the end of a relationship that was intended to be permanent.  Instead of the word “amicable” in relation to divorce, I prefer to use the word “uncontested.”  This means that parties have figured out a way to resolve any differences between them, which are typically contained in the specific words in a marital settlement agreement. Such an agreement establishes for the parties the basic framework for matters of business in the dissolution for the marriage – including the disposition of assets and liabilities – along with issues related to support and arrangements for children.  Getting to an agreement during a divorce can be difficult.  While this process is usually not characterized as “genial” or “sweet,” this transaction can be conducted in a respectful and civil fashion. With a marital...

FAQ for divorce

  Am I required to pay for my children’s college expenses? In Maryland, mothers and fathers are generally not required under the law to pay for college expenses of their children.  Child support obligations for fathers and mothers terminate when a child attains the age of 18 years or graduates high school, which ever one occurs last and child support generally will not go beyond the age of 19 years.   If parents are committed to paying for a child’s college expenses, the law will enforce a contract, usually in the form of a separation agreement.  This may later become a part of the final judgment of absolute divorce between the parents.  Of course there is nothing that prevents either parent from paying for a child’s expenses, but without a contract, a parent may not be legally obliged to do so.     If I don’t live with my children, how can I maintain a relationship with them after the divorce? When a family reorganizes, parents can decide, or if necessary courts can determine, where children live. In Maryland law, we have three general concepts that address this.  One is called sole physical custody, where a child lives primarily under the roof of one parent.  Another concept is shared physical custody which means a child lives for a minimum of one third of the year, or 128 overnights, with one parent or up to one half of the time, or approximately 182 overnights with each parent.  A third concept is known either as visitation, also known as an access schedule, which means something less than the shared physical custody.  Visitation...
Lawyer Cynthia Lifson Featured in the Daily Record

Lawyer Cynthia Lifson Featured in the Daily Record

And not just featured- on the front cover. Cynthia Lifson is featured on and in The Daily Record under the powerful words “Halting Harassment.”  A long-time advocate against domestic violence, Lifson recently testified in support of legislation that significantly broadened the definition of stalking.  This legislation received the overwhelming support of the General Assembly and was officially signed by the Governor on May 19.  The new law will go into effect on October 1. While stalking has been a crime in Maryland for a number of years, the new law will prohibit a person from engaging in a malicious course of conduct in which the person intends to cause or knows or reasonably should have known, that the conduct would cause serious emotional distress in another.  Until the passage of this new law, stalking was limited to a showing that the malicious course of conduct would place another in reasonable fear of: serious bodily injury; an assault in any degree; rape or sexual offense or attempted rape or sexual offense; false imprisonment; or death. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, identified and measured seven stalking behaviors that that would cause a reasonable person to feel serious emotional distress. These behaviors include: Making unwanted phone calls; Sending unsolicited or unwanted letters, e-mails, messages or texts; Following or spying on the victim; Showing up at places without a legitimate reason; Waiting at places for the victim; Leaving unwanted items, presents, or flowers; Posting information or spreading rumors about the victim on the internet, in a public place, or by word of mouth. While these...