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Lifson Law: Blog

Post Divorce Estate Planning

TYING UP LOOSE ENDS After the dissolution of a marriage, the last thing most people want to do is think about estate planning. With all the ups and downs associated with separation and divorce, it certainly is not a fun thing to plan for the distribution of property after one’s death. And yet, viewed from a different perspective, this fundamental life changing event can be a particularly good time to reflect on what is important to each of us and how we would like to be remembered by those who follow us. With some thoughtful preparation, recently divorced people can use the immediate post-divorce period to draft some basic estate planning documents consistent with their new legal status. The severing of the legal relationship between spouses has a major impact on estate planning. In Maryland, following a final divorce, the provisions made by the writer of a will regarding his or her former spouse are revoked by operation of law, unless there are alternative provisions in his or her will or there is language in the final divorce order to the contrary. While this affords us some measure of protection, as one might expect, relying solely on the legal default mechanism contained in the Estates and Trusts Article of the Maryland Code is likely not sufficient. Single people with minor children may have special concerns about the management of funds on behalf of their minor children. And as a general matter, because property is not exclusively passed through a will, it is essential to pay careful attention to titling of assets and forms designating beneficiaries for certain property such...

Estate Planning: Choosing Your Personal Representative

In thinking about those who are to receive our possessions after we pass from this earth, many of us weigh and balance this decision carefully. For example, it is not uncommon during the estate planning process for people to create extensive lists of their tangible personal property – including jewelry, tools, art, furniture, and other important items – and designate specific items to many different individuals. It is also not uncommon to name various individuals or charities to receive sums of money specified in a will. While deciding how to distribute our property is a key decision in preparing a will, it is equally important to think through the choice of a personal representative. A personal representative, who may also be called an executor, is the individual who is responsible for paying the final bills and taxes of the decedent, distributing the property of the decedent in accordance with his or her wishes, and generally interfacing with appropriate governmental agencies to ensure that all the business affairs of the decedent are conducted appropriately. It is important to remember that a personal representative is a type of fiduciary. When acting as a fiduciary a special relationship is established. One party places trust, confidence, and reliance in another. A fiduciary has a duty to act for the benefit of the party who nominated or appointed him or her. In the context of estate planning, at its most basic, a personal representative must be able to account for every dollar that flows into the estate and every dollar that flows out of the estate. The goal of the personal representative is to...

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. While a legal divorce requires certain action by the court, the manner in which divorce litigation proceeds is greatly influenced by the behavior of the parties. Most people seek an “amicable” divorce, but the legal way of framing this procedure is either as a “contested” or an “uncontested” divorce. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of family law cases settle before a judge has to make a decision. In cases with protracted litigation, a judge’s decision may be the only way a case can resolve. With this in mind, it is important to understand how the “emotional divorce” and the “financial divorce” affect the “legal divorce.” The likelihood of a procedurally simple legal divorce is greatly enhanced if parties make the effort to work through emotional and financial issues ahead of a formal filing with the court. In particular, a comprehensive and clearly written marital settlement agreement that is reached by the parties can serve as a map to remind the parties of their obligations to one another and to their children. While it may be confusing to enter the realm of contracts and courts, depending...

Transferring your vehicle after death: Life has been made a little simpler

While it is true that government is not always the easiest entity to deal with, this year in Annapolis, the General Assembly passed HB 492, a bill that modifies Maryland’s Transportation Article. This new legislation should make tending to estate planning a little bit easier. Beginning October 1, 2017, a sole owner of a motor vehicle may designate a beneficiary of the motor vehicle to a specified beneficiary by noting the beneficiary on the title of the motor vehicle. This designation of a beneficiary may be shown by the words “transfer-on-death” or the abbreviation TOD. On the death of the owner of the motor vehicle, the ownership of the motor vehicle passes to the beneficiary if the beneficiary survives the owner. Such a motor vehicle passes outside of the decedent’s probate estate. Of course, if the designated beneficiary does not survive the death of the owner, then the motor vehicle is part of the estate of the deceased owner and will be subject to a probate action. This new legislation also calls for the adoption of regulations to implement the purpose of the bill. We can expect to see new forms – likely available on-line – to assist the owner of a motor vehicle in the process of directly designating a beneficiary. Many people already know to whom they wish to give their tangible personal property after they pass on, including their vehicles. Procedurally, this new law will give owners of motor vehicles a new option to dispose of an important asset. We can thank the General Assembly this year for this initiative, and most especially the chief sponsor...

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...