Lifson Law: Blog

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...

Cyberstalking: New Form of Old Behaviors

  The crime of harassment has been on the books for a very long time. And of course, the obnoxious and often frightening behaviors associated with harassment have been a part of human existence since the beginning of time. One form of harassment is stalking: a crime that calls to mind the hunter and the prey, a crime of intimidation and psychological terror that often escalates into violence against its victims. Now, as we continue to develop new and immediate ways of communicating with one another, we see forms of stalking through electronic media. The relentless pursuit of a victim through the internet can be disruptive, cause enormous fear, and foreshadow undesirable contact “in real life.” This form of stalking through electronic communication devices is often referred to as “cyberstalking.” The federal government and all fifty states, including Maryland, have statutes to address stalking. However, the law has not kept pace with rapid changes in technology. Currently, Maryland law defines stalking in this way. It is a malicious course of conduct that includes approaching or pursing another where the person intends to place or knows or reasonably should have known that the conduct would place another in reasonable fear of the following: serious bodily injury, of an assault in any degree, of rape or sexual offense or attempted rape or sexual offense in any degree, false imprisonment or death. Notice that the term “approaching” is ambiguous. Does this mean approaching in the actual physical environment, or does it refer to approaching through electronic media? The June 1, 2015 decision by the Supreme Court in the case Elonis v. United...