Lifson Law: Blog

Reflections on Winter Growth

Like many of us after the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, I experience a bit of a let-down.  All of the busyness associated with the end of the year fades as we gear up to endure the long darkness and cold temperatures of the winter months.  As I write this brief note, I am sitting at my desk and feeling both uncomfortable and at peace.  I am uncomfortable because after the huge storm we encountered throughout the East Coast and clean up that followed, my telephone, television, and internet are out of order.  A snow plow inadvertently cut my line.  As a result, I feel somewhat isolated.  At the same time, I am at peace because I have found a way to remedy this temporary inconvenience to communicate with my clients appropriately (cell phones are truly a blessing) and I am also enjoying a bit of a break from the rapid pace of modern life. While I am generally not a fan of a huge drift of snow that impedes freedom of movement, I do appreciate its value.  Snow also functions as a protective blanket to cover the earth to allow it to rest and prepare for a season of growth in the spring.  So, too, can we learn from the winter season accept some of the tedium that may precede change.   A whirlwind of activity by itself does not necessarily mean productivity. In applying this lesson from nature, it is my hope to reflect thoughtfully instead of reacting immediately to any situation whether it pertains to my life or the concerns of my clients.  While occasionally emergencies...

A Blizzard of Bills

The 2016 session of the Maryland General Assembly began officially in mid-January and is now in full swing.  After Assembly’s prompt override of five bills vetoed by the Governor in 2015, we are now expecting a blizzard of new bills.  This year, following the completion in 2015 of the freshman year of many new legislators in Annapolis, we are going to see a huge bump in the number of bills that will be introduced in 2016.  New legislators, as well as the veterans, wish to make their mark on the Maryland Annotated Code.  The deadline for legislators to timely introduce their bills is rapidly approaching. As is true every year, much of the Assembly’s energy will be taken up with considering the Governor’s budget, and this year, our representatives will spend significant time dealing with the Governor’s agenda on taxes – essentially wrangling over which group should receive tax breaks under the Governor’s plan.  Some other expected hot topics will deal with reform of the criminal justice system in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore last year, end of life decisions, and changes in voting eligibility requirements. Advocates in the domestic violence arena will be seeking change in the definition of stalking.  HB 155 and SB 278, bills cross-filed in both the House and Senate, alter the definition of stalking as a course of conduct that includes approaching or pursuing another where the person intends to cause or knows or reasonably should have known that the conduct would cause serious emotional distress.  Under current law, the State must prove that the course of conduct is malicious and...

Giving Can Be a Challenge

As we close the year and prepare for the holidays, all of us are typically bombarded with messages to give, give, give. All of this is worthy, but when you stop to think about it, giving can be really hard. Thinking about the ‘perfect gift’ for a friend or family member can be exhausting. Figuring out which charity or cause to support can be daunting because there are so many people who do good work to improve our community. Fortunately for me, I have had the opportunity as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Community Foundation of Howard County to learn about philanthropy. As a member of the Foundation’s Grants Committee, I participate in the review and evaluation of multiple applications from various non-profit agencies seeking support from the Foundation. Working with other members of the Grants Committee, we evaluate each proposal in terms of its purpose, budget, and how it fits with the mission of the Foundation: to inspire lifelong giving and to connect people, places and organizations to worthy causes in Howard County. The thorough preparation by the staff of the Foundation has made this task manageable, but the effort to pick and choose among many worthy entities remains considerable. While no final decisions by the Foundation have been made for this year, I am so honored to be a part of this process. Giving can be a challenge.  Happily, the Community Foundation of Howard County simplifies this endeavor. P.S. For most people, I have noticed that chocolate is generally a winner. I hope you receive your perfect gift this holiday...

Gifting: Legal Considerations

It may seem counter-intuitive during the holiday season, but giving gifts to others may generate a tax issue.  The IRS defines a gift as any transfer to an individual where nothing is received in return (the full definition can be found here).  This transfer can be in the form of tangible personal property (stuff), real property (land or a house), or intangible personal property (cash, stocks, and bonds).  Gifts can also be in the form of a charitable donation or a necessary expense. It is important to consider how the federal government assesses these gifts in terms of estate planning. The total amount of a gift from a single individual to a single individual cannot exceed the annual gift tax exclusion for the current calendar year.  For gifting in 2015, and in the upcoming New Year, this exclusion amount is $14,000. This means that a single individual can gift up to $14,000 to one person, without having to pay the federal “gift tax.”   Spouses who choose to give jointly, a “split gift,” may give up to $28,000 to a person during the year without incurring a gift tax. There are no limitations on a donor with regard to the number of people who can receive a gift in a single year.  For example, if a parent has five children and five grandchildren, that parent/grandparent can present each child and grandchild with a gift worth up to $14,000 without having to incur the gift tax.  In this scenario, there are ten individuals who can receive a substantial gift for a hefty total of $140,000 in a single calendar year.  Over...

Notes from the Desk of Cynthia Lifson: The Unexpected Benefits of Divorce

Now that we are truly in the midst of the fall season, we can see that the initial tumult associated with back to school has somewhat subsided.  As children settle into their academic year, most of us see the value of reasonable routines and predictability. Benefits derived from the re-organization of a family while adults, along with their children, are in the midst of separation and divorce appear to be counter-intuitive.  Most people would agree that such a re-organization of the family unit is both painful and disappointing.  Many fear that the impact on children is devastating.  Why would anyone think that divorce is a good thing? I recently read an interesting article written by an adult whose parents divorced when she was a young girl.  The author was careful to emphasize that her parents engaged in a cooperative divorce, but even under these circumstances, the transition in her family required great effort to achieve a new equilibrium.  In commenting about how her parents’ divorce affected her, the author noted on several impacts on her that are rarely addressed in the public discussions about divorce.  It gave me pause and I would like to share her reflections with you. She noted that the first most obvious benefit to her was the cessation of continual conflict in her home.  When her parents separated, she experienced immediate relief from the constant tension in her home even though her parents tried very hard to refrain from arguing in front of her.  As time passed, she also noticed that because her parents were separated, she could better relate to each of them as individuals. ...

New Law on Grounds for Divorce and Domestic Violence to Go Into Effect on October 1st

In Maryland, October 1 is the date when most legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the Governor goes into effect.  In 2015, some major changes occurred in family law.  For divorcing couples who do not have minor children and who can come to agreement about property and alimony issues, there is no need to separate and wait one year before filing for an absolute (final) divorce based on the ground of mutual consent.  This development significantly eases the path for couples who seek an uncontested divorce because no one year waiting period will be required before a complaint for absolute divorce can be filed in court. Another law related to grounds for divorce will also become effective October 1.  While it may not have as much of an impact as the new ground of mutual consent for an absolute divorce, it will now be possible to apply for a limited divorce based on separation of the parties.  Previously, before filing a claim for a limited divorce based on a separation of the parties, the moving party was required to prove that the separation of the parties was the result of a voluntary agreement by both parties.   In certain difficult situations where parties cannot reach an agreement about separation, this change in the law will allow one of the parties to move from the marital home and begin a court proceeding promptly.  While it is usually desirable to resolve pending issues between unhappy members of a couple without beginning the procedure with a court filing, in certain situations, a court action is the first step...

E-Discovery: What is it?

In any lawsuit, including family law cases, it is common to engage in the process of discovery.  In essence, discovery is intended to allow each party in the litigation process to collect information which is reasonably calculated to produce admissible evidence in advance of a court hearing or trial.  Failure by a party to respond to discovery requests may result in serious sanctions by the court and may also result in an overall negative outcome for the party who does not comply with the rules of discovery. Discovery takes on a variety of forms and can be an exhausting and time consuming undertaking.  Traditionally, the discovery process is “paper-rich” and may include the preparation of and answers to questions (referred to as interrogatories), the preparation of and response to requests for the production of documents, and depositions or the taking of testimony under oath of the parties or other witnesses. As our more and more of our means of communication take place electronically, discovery also encompasses the recovery of electronically stored information (ESI).  Retrieving ESI can be a much more complicated procedure than merely copying documents and courts have been developing rules to govern this process.  Certain difficulties emerge when collecting ESI.  For example, electronic records have multiple facets, including metadata, which may be considered privileged information. Metadata, at its simplest definition, is electronically embedded details about a data file, such as the date it was created, its author, or its connection to other files or information. Connections to otherwise confidential documents could potentially make that metadata privileged and not subject to discovery.  It can be a complicated process...

Notes From the Desk of Cynthia Lifson: A Contract is a Story

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a continuing legal education seminar on contract drafting.  Now, I know that many may think that this is a totally tedious undertaking, but I remain fascinated by this particular form of writing.  Since the beginning of time, principles of exchange that are embodied in contracts have been necessary for human societies to function.  While contracts can certainly be verbal, a written instrument that articulates the elements of an agreement is usually preferred. When I first meet with a new client, it is not unusual for me to look at a document that the client has taken from a website on the internet and already signed. The client asks me to review the document and offer a legal analysis of the contract.  When I inquire about the client’s understanding of the document he or she has downloaded from the internet, the client frequently does not understand the meaning of the words in the document.  Sometimes, the client “tweaks” the language to reflect what the client believes is the intent of the parties to the contract.  In such instances, these “tweaks” may result in language that is so confusing that I need to say that absent amendment of the document, a court may need to intervene to interpret the contract. So what can a thoughtful person do to create a clear, understandable, and legally enforceable agreement?  While it may be useful to start with a template, looking at the contract as a story may help organize thinking.  I especially enjoy spending time with my clients to help them craft their “stories” when facing a...

Marriage Equality: Thinking About the Business Consequences

  On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Obergefell v. Hodges that the Fourteen Amendment of our Constitution requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex. Same-sex couples in the United States are entitled to the same right to marry as heterosexual couples. The particular state where a same-sex couple resides does not change this right. While some citizens celebrated this decision and other citizens denounced it, the change in our law will likely create a considerable impact on business. Now that there are no legal impediments to same-sex marriages, we can expect that many businesses will re-evaluate their policies regarding benefits for both spouses and domestic partners. For example, some companies had previously put in place benefits for domestic partners, or same-sex couples who could not legally wed. Some of these, such as cooperative health insurance coverage, are still in place. Yet, as The Washington Post reports, it is not clear whether these benefits will continue to be extended to long-standing couples that do not legally marry. It may no longer be a cost-effective option to offer, especially for small business owners. Similarly, with more individuals applying for spousal benefits, companies may find them too expensive to offer altogether. According to The Wall Street Journal, this is a recent trend that employers have been following to save money. Those businesses already inclined to cut these benefits will likely move forward now that the ruling has taken place. In addition, the timing of any changes in benefits offered by companies to their employees may change as a result of the...