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Lifson Law: Blog

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...

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...

The Costs and Benefits of “Do It Yourself”

It is not a big revelation to notice that the widespread use of the internet has hugely changed the way all of us operate.  With easy access to information through the world wide web, we can readily learn new things and become quite self-sufficient in managing our lives.  As we evaluate how to allocate our resources – both time and funds – one of the things to be considered is whether or not we will engage in “do it yourself” or engage in hiring someone to assist us with important transactions. In thinking about this basic question, I have come to conclude that the “do it yourself” approach is appropriate in many situations.  As I see it, if something ultimately does not have a serious impact on health, finances, or children, I will choose to undertake the research and do the work myself to accomplish what needs to be done. I will also frequently recommend that clients do the same. But in situations where the impact of an intervention or the lack of an intervention may involve long-lasting consequences, I approach the internet as a starting point to gather information and then engage expert assistance. In my professional life, I have had the experience of guiding clients through difficult times when their families are in transition.  It is my job to know and understand and explain how the law might affect my clients and how a judge in the City or in any one of the counties where I practice – Howard,  Montgomery, Frederick, Anne Arundel, Baltimore or Prince George’s –  may view the case.  I have repeatedly observed...

Governor Hogan Signs Bills Passed in 2016

Managing in the Digital Age & Modernizing Divorce Law Over the past few weeks, Governor Hogan’s staff has been busily reviewing bills passed by the Maryland General Assembly at the close of the 2016 session to ensure, among other things, that the bills meet the requirements of the United States and Maryland Constitutions.  Then, in what is truly a joyous celebration of democracy, legislators and citizens gather in the Governor’s ceremonial chamber in Annapolis to witness the signing of various bills that will shortly be added to the Maryland Code. One of the more interesting bills passed by the Maryland General Assembly this year is the Maryland Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act.  This new law empowers us to appoint fiduciaries, typically agents, personal representatives, or trustees, to manage our digital assets.  Such assets in the form of computer files, e-mails, text messages, along with photos, videos, music and game files can be accessed not only by a person who created these assets but by another who is properly designated, consistent with the new statute.  Such access will eliminate the uncomfortable and painful continuation of digital assets long after death.  For example, it is not unheard of to get a LinkedIn notice five years after a person’s death about the person’s work anniversary.  With this new statute, such messages can be stopped. The ability to appoint another to act on one’s behalf through the appointment of a fiduciary is not a new legal concept, but as we all know, the march of technology and its widespread uses has changed the way we do business.  The opportunity to update estate...

Frequently Asked Questions

Where should I file for divorce? Divorces are handled through the Circuit Court System in Maryland, which is divided into individual counties and Baltimore City. Maryland has twenty- three counties and Baltimore City as jurisdictions for Circuit Court proceedings. As a general matter, a complaint for divorce in Maryland is filed in the jurisdiction where the parties reside. If the spouses live in different jurisdictions, then the initiating party, the plaintiff, may file either in plaintiff’s jurisdiction or in the jurisdiction where responding party, the defendant, either resides or works. Special rules may apply when dealing with children. How long will the divorce take? The time it takes to obtain a final divorce in Maryland, which is referred to as an absolute divorce, depends on the facts and circumstances of the case. In general, if spouses can arrive at an agreement about their marital issues in advance of filing a complaint for absolute divorce, the time it takes for a judge to sign the order for absolute divorce is less than if parties engage in protracted conflict. Maryland courts have put in place a system of organization called differentiated case management. In most jurisdictions (counties and Baltimore City), a trial date in a contested divorce case will be scheduled within one year of the filing date of the complaint for absolute divorce. For uncontested divorces, a hearing on the divorce may typically be scheduled within ninety days of the initial filing date. What can I do to reduce the attorney’s fees? One of the most important actions that you can take to reduce the cost of the attorney in...

Always Updating: Mediation Training

In the same way we must pay attention to changes in the law made by the legislature and by the judiciary, for me it is also imperative to keep learning, to refresh my base of knowledge, and to be open to new approaches to help clients resolve their disputes. On March 3rd of this year, I received a Certificate of Completion for Mediator Training through the Maryland State Bar Association. Mediators who accept court appointments must update their training annually. I find that such training also enhances my work as a mediator for all clients, but most especially in the area of divorce and custody. During mediation, parties sit down with an impartial mediator. A trained mediator facilitates discussions between the parties with the goal of having them reach a mutually acceptable agreement. This form of dispute resolution enables parties to avoid having solutions imposed on them by the court system through the litigation process. While mediation is not easy, it may provide a quicker result and a less expensive path to resolution than litigation through the courts. At the start of the training, participants were challenged with a series of hypothetical problems to test our understanding of the Maryland Standard of Conduct for Mediators. Some of the subtle differences between legal information – which may be appropriate for the mediator to discuss – and legal advice- which is never appropriate for the mediator to disclose – were addressed. At the end of the training, I felt that my time was well spent. Not only did training provide time for reflection, but it affirmed my philosophy that mediation and...