Lifson Law: Blog

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...

A Clean Slate vs. Open Records – Weighing and Balancing

The end of the 2016 session of the Maryland General Assembly is rapidly approaching. Spring is in the air and because of the “blizzard of bills” that has been introduced, bills are now receiving either unfavorable votes in committee or winding their way through the labyrinth of procedural steps in the General Assembly. This year, there has been significant and sustained interest in a topic that affects all of us: the balance between the opportunity for a person to start over after making bad choices and the need for the public to access court records freely. All of this interest has been intensified by our collective use of and reliance on the internet as a way to get information quickly and easily. This issue finds expression in some basic questions: To what degree should the public have unfettered access to court records? When, if ever, is it appropriate to permit a person convicted of a criminal offense to ask the court to expunge (in other words to wipe away) the public record of the conviction? Is it important to have a permanent paper record in a court file of cases filed but, at the same time, limit publication of these court cases on the internet? The General Assembly has grappled with these questions in more than a dozen bills dealing with the topic of expungement of court and police records. Proponents who favor expungement argue that criminal records that cannot ever be erased create unreasonable barriers to jobs and housing. Such barriers prevent the successful re-entry of offenders into the community after they have paid their debt to society...

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. ...