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Lifson Law: Blog

The Legal Divorce

No matter how long spouses have lived apart, no matter what the financial arrangement between spouses is, and no matter if spouses interact with one another or lead completely separate lives, a married couple cannot be legally divorced without an order from a court. At a minimum, to obtain a legal divorce, one spouse must initiate a divorce action by filing a complaint in court alleging specific facts to meet certain statutory requirements and must subsequently prove his or her case before a judicial official.

Adventures in Annapolis

At the stroke of midnight on April 10, the Maryland General Assembly concluded its work for the regular 2017 session. While the busy legislative season is officially over for the year, some legislators are suggesting that a special session may be on the horizon to address certain unfinished business dealing with obtaining licenses for medical marijuana and with terminating parental rights when children are conceived through nonconsensual sex. Calling for a special session is the prerogative of the Governor. While we can’t know if he will call for a special session, we are assured that Governor Hogan’s staff has been busily reviewing bills passed by the Maryland General Assembly to determine, among other things, that the bills meet the requirements of the United States and Maryland Constitutions. The final result of this review process will be concluded in May when we will know for sure which bills will receive the Governor’s approval, which bills will go into effect without his signature, and which bills will be vetoed. In the 2017 session, a great deal of attention was focused on earned paid sick leave, fracking, bail, and the looming presence of President Trump and the impact he may exercise in Maryland. Bi-partisanship was in evidence in terms of budget matters; the General Assembly passed a budget without a great deal of wrangling. Only a few family law bills made it through the legislative process. New definitions of child abuse and neglect and new protections for victims of sex trafficking were added to the Code. Domestic violence orders in protective order proceedings may be used as evidence to prove a ground...

The Financial Divorce

Generally speaking, there are three interrelated aspects of divorce: the emotional divorce, the financial divorce, and the legal divorce. While each phase of the divorce process has its distinct characteristics, for many people it is usually the financial aspect of divorce that provokes the greatest anxiety. Transitioning from one household of composed of two adults to two households composed of one adult in each household can be a major undertaking that may require a new evaluation of income and expenses, along with an overview of assets and liabilities. This anxiety is typically enhanced when children are involved in the re-organization of the family. It is not unusual for people to panic when facing this situation. While panic may be an understandable reaction to the prospect of divorce, cool and calm collection of information while facing a new financial situation is an effective way to reduce anxiety and prepare for a new living situation. To the extent possible, it is a good idea to become a bookkeeper and become well informed about recurring monthly expenses. Many people simply do not know with great precision where they spend their money or how to budget effectively. To become more aware of spending habits, it is very useful to do something as simple as keeping receipts in an envelope each month for each and every item that is purchased (including coffees at Starbucks!). In this way, an accurate picture can emerge. Similarly, it is important to know sources of income which can typically be determined by reviewing pay stubs, tax returns, or attachments to a tax returns such as a W-2 form or...

The Other Capital

With the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as president this January, most of our collective political energy this winter will be focused on Washington, DC.  But as we all know, January also brings us the opening of the 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly.  The Maryland General Assembly began officially on January 11, and although this is the third year of this Assembly, there are significant changes in the composition of legislators who will serve in the 2017 session.  These changes result mainly from the election of Senator Catherine Pugh as the new Mayor of Baltimore City because Mayor Pugh has engaged several of her former legislative colleagues to work with her administration.  In addition, certain legislators have resigned due to legal problems or illness. Others have been re-assigned to new committees. A new mix of members in the Assembly may prompt new approaches to legislative advocacy. One of the most important responsibilities of the Maryland General Assembly is to pass a budget, and this exercise will continue to engage the efforts of both the Assembly and Governor Hogan.  Other issues which likely will receive a good bit of attention this year include paid sick leave for Maryland workers, fracking, renewable energy, state-wide handling of rape kits, policing practices, management of transportation projects, and procedures for re-drawing Maryland’s congressional and legislative districts following the 2020 census. Advocates in the domestic violence arena will be initiating efforts to disqualify certain individuals from serving as either health care agents or surrogate decision makers for patients when these individuals are respondents in current protective order proceedings or if a divorce action has...

The Emotional Divorce

At the start of the new year it is common for many of us to face the challenge of an unknown future while reflecting on our experiences of the past.  This is especially true as we contemplate our choices about the structure of our families.  For most people, the decision to remain in a marriage or to disengage from a marital relationship is a radical change that may promote serious anxiety.  To address the anxiety that comes from this uncertainty, I have found it useful to consider three intertwined yet distinct aspects of divorce: the emotional divorce, the financial divorce, and the legal divorce. As I have come to understand it, an emotional divorce occurs when a spouse truly realizes that there is nothing more that can be done to ameliorate the unhappiness that he or she feels in relation to the marriage.  This unhappiness can be manifested in many ways: constant bickering, stony silences, or eruptions in physical violence.  Typically, at the root of this unhappiness is a profound difference in basic values held by each spouse.  An emotional divorce often – although not always – precedes a financial and legal divorce which I will discuss in future newsletter articles. Thinking about the signs of a healthy relationship may be useful in determining whether or not a spouse believes an emotional divorce is either happening or has occurred.  Here is a brief– and non-exhaustive – list of some elements that mental health professionals suggest are signs of a healthy relationship between spouses: Sensitivity to the feelings of the spouse; Respect for the spouse’s opinions and values; Acceptance of...

Child Custody – The Courts Can Do [Nearly] Anything

In evaluating child custody cases, the Maryland appellate courts give wide berth to the decisions of the trial courts.  A judicial determination associated with child custody will not be disturbed unless the trial court abuses its discretion.  This standard of review accounts for a trial court’s unique opportunity to observe the demeanor and credibility of the parties and the witnesses. What happens in situations in which parents cannot communicate with one another?  Can a trial court require parents to participate in a joint legal custodial arrangement when parents do not have the ability to come to the simplest of agreements about the issues having a long term impact on the health, education, and religious practices of their children? According to the holding in the recently decided case, Santo v. Santo, filed on July 11, 2016, the answer to this question is ‘yes’.  The Maryland Court of Appeals did not abuse its discretion when it awarded the parties joint legal custody with tie-breaking provisions over several major matters affecting the lives of their children.  Trial courts have broad discretion in how they fashion joint custody awards.  The Court further held that although the parents clearly lacked the capacity to communicate or cooperate well, this inability to communicate does not preclude the court from making an award of joint legal custody.  To elevate effective parental communication so that it becomes a prerequisite to a joint custody award would undermine the trial court’s complex task of evaluating the facts and circumstances of each case; a task that is necessary to determine the best interest of the children. The Court of Appeals further...

The Presidential Debates: Legal Lessons Learned

With the beginning of fall, we see that the days are growing shorter and that we are all collectively counting down until our elections finally take place.  Along with the millions of words written in all sorts of media, on the evening of September 26, we were able to observe both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees confront each other in real time without much filtering from either their campaign organizations or the media.  Just the two of them – Hillary and Donald – plain and simple.  I watched with fascination – not only to learn more about the candidates – but to see what I could glean to enhance my law practice. The split TV screen allowed viewers to see the differences between the candidates.  I was struck with the calm and cool expressions on Hillary’s face in comparison to the highly animated and agitated expressions on Donald’s.  It seemed as if every time Donald was challenged – either by Hillary or occasionally by moderator Lester Holt – you could see his discomfort.  His anxiety appeared also to be apparent with his frequent head shaking, wiggling eyebrows, and incessant sniffing and gulping of water.  In contrast, when Donald spoke, Hillary’s face remained smooth and unruffled.   She did not interrupt his commentary, although he often interrupted her. In lieu of eye rolls when Donald made some patently false assertions (quite notably about the issue of “stop and frisk” as an effective and legal police tool to reduce crime), Hillary did smile, but she did not appear to me to be particularly frustrated. How does all of this relate to...

New Laws Go Into Effect on October 1

The recent modification of our laws by the Maryland General Assembly demonstrates the strong connection between criminal and civil law with regard to interpersonal and family relationships.  In 2016 General Assembly passed legislation that redefines the crime of stalking.  Stalking has been defined as “malicious course of conduct that includes approaching or pursuing another, where the person intends to place–or knows or reasonably should have known the 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.”   With the passage of this new legislation, effective October 1, our Code now includes language that the person charged with stalking “intends to cause or knows or reasonably should have known that the conduct would cause serious emotional distress.” What are the kinds of anti-social behaviors experienced by victims of stalking?  The Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, prepared a special report which identified and measured seven stalking behaviors that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear. 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 acts individually may not be criminal, collectively and repetitively these behaviors may cause a victim to fear for his or her safety...

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...