My soon-to-be Ex and I are Friendly: Do I Really Need a Divorce Lawyer?

AvatarCasey Florance, Principal

With the proliferation of online resources, and the ongoing pandemic, it is both more tempting and more possible than ever to craft your own Settlement Agreement from the comfort of your living room.

Online “forms” abound, and services like Legal Zoom can help you feel like the “do-it-yourself” (DIY) agreement is tailored to your particular situation. As a result, divorce lawyers frequently get asked: Do I really need a lawyer?

Although it is hard to advise people how to avoid needing my services, I typically tell potential clients that the answer really depends on the circumstances of their case and level of complexity of their custody and/or financial situation, as well as the dynamic between them and their soon-to-be Ex. There are a lot of resources and dispute resolution processes available to the self-represented person (read: divorcing person who does not have an attorney), but there are also many pitfalls.

Regardless of the chosen path and circumstances of the case, however, one thing I always tell anyone who will listen is this: you absolutely must meet with an attorney to review any Settlement Agreement BEFORE you sign it. Here’s why.

  1. It is important to be certain that the language of your Agreement actually sets forth the terms you have agreed upon.

    Just because you and your spouse/co-parent are comfortable negotiating directly and coming to agreed-upon resolutions for the issues arising out of your relationship, does not mean you are comfortable translating those agreed-upon concepts into written agreement terms.

    If your goal is to avoid Court and costly litigation while making your own decisions about your family, then your DIY Settlement Agreement will not serve its intended purpose if you have to spend money later litigating over what your agreement was supposed to say, or worse, seeking the Court’s interpretation of your agreement because you two have a dispute about what your agreement means. It is also important for you to understand your agreement so you know what you need to do once it is signed in order to comply with it moving forward.

  2. You don’t know what you don’t know.

    Many online tools for drafting DIY Settlement Agreements contain a series of options you self-select based on the categories listed. But more often than not, there are details about your custodial situation — or your finances, assets or debts — that are not represented in these pre-drafted menus. Or the options do not adequately capture your specific situation.

    The danger here is that once you sign an Agreement, you may have waived rights you didn’t even realize you had. Furthermore, by neglecting to include entire topic areas in your Agreement, you may have accidentally waived your ability to later address those topics.

  3. There is very likely “boiler plate” language embedded in the form agreement that makes certain provisions unable to be modified for any reason.

    In Maryland, there are often sections of a Settlement Agreement that are unable to be modified by a Court once the agreement is signed by both parties. For example, it is typical for agreements to state that the division of assets cannot be modified by the Court at any point in the future.

    It is also not unusual for time-bound alimony payments to be non-modifiable. As a result, it is extremely important to understand which provisions of your Settlement Agreement are able to be modified in the future, and which ones are not. Failure to understand your agreement – when you had the opportunity to review and understand it before signing it – is an unlikely basis for undoing your Agreement later if you are unhappy with it. And signing an Agreement which says that certain provisions are not able to be changed by the Court may leave you with little recourse.

  4. Ensure that the Agreement meets your goals.

    If you have attended mediation with a third-party neutral and the mediator drafted your Agreement, it remains important to have it reviewed by your own attorney before you sign it. You will want to ensure that the agreement meets your individual goals. Just as important, you want to make sure you actually understand each and every provision of your agreement. Many people don’t realize that a mediator does not represent either party’s interests and cannot provide legal advice; rather the mediator’s goal is to facilitate a resolution.

I recommend anyone going through a divorce to have an attorney guiding them through the process, explaining rights and obligations, strategizing to reach goals, and advocating for their interests. For many people, this option is not feasible for a variety of reasons. When that’s the case, it is nevertheless imperative to meet with an attorney to review your draft Settlement Agreement before you sign it.

Are You a Stay-at-Home Parent?

In a Divorce, You Should Consider These Five Tips

AvatarDonna E. Van Scoy, Principal

In the event of a divorce, the stay-at-home parent often feels the negative impact of the decision of who stays with the kids.

Marriage is hard and requires continued work to be successful. Even with hard work and commitment, not every marriage succeeds. According to Earth & World, 46% of marriages in the United States fail. If you are going to be the stay-at-home parent who becomes the financially dependent spouse, consider the following tips to protect your future (and your children’s future).

  1. Manage the family money/assets or at the very least be fully aware of the family money/assets. Communicate regularly about the finances and assets (monthly or quarterly is best).
  2. Where possible be sure all assets are joint assets with both names appearing on accounts, titles, and deeds.
    1. Find a vehicle to establish a retirement account for yourself.
    2. If your family works with a financial planner, establish at the beginning that all communication are to be sent to both you and your spouse and that you both will be involved in any meetings (including phone calls/texts).
  3. Read and fully understand your state and federal tax returns before they are submitted. If you have questions, make sure they are answered.
  4. If you have a profession, take the steps to remain relevant in your field.
  5. Maintain or create contacts outside of your spouse. Be aware of your spouse’s work world and participate where appropriate.

Being an active spouse in the financial part of your marriage helps to ensure you have the necessary knowledge to assist your attorney, allows you to contribute to settlement discussions, and ensures your ability to move forward in the event of a divorce.

Litigation vs. Negotiation – Which Path Is the Right One for You?

Chris RobertsChris Roberts, Principal

Most of us have seen one of those dramatic courtroom movies that glamourize the court process – perhaps Tom Cruise’s fiery cross-examination of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, or Gregory Peck’s moving closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird

But litigation, the contested court process by which parties resolve their differences, is nothing like the process we see in our favorite legal thrillers. It is a long, slow, and expensive process. Many people consider it the most painful, difficult process of their lives.

What does the process entail?

Unless the parties can resolve the disputed issues in advance of trial, litigation usually culminates in a bench trial, where a single judge considers the evidence and arguments presented, and issues a ruling. 

The process typically begins with a scheduling hearing, where the case is scheduled in calendar-like fashion, including deadlines for the completion of the discovery process, perhaps a date by which the parties must participate in mediation or another alternative dispute resolution process, and a trial date.

Depending on the jurisdiction, the process can take a year or longer. And it is invasive. Discovery alone can include dozens of document requests, written questions that must be answered under oath, and potentially depositions of the parties, which in Maryland can last as long as seven hours straight.

At trial, each party presents his or her evidence, including witness testimony and the introduction of documents. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge renders a ruling and, ultimately, a divorce decree.

So why would anyone subject themselves to this?

You might be thinking, “This process sounds terrible, why would anyone subject themselves to this?”

For one, it guarantees an end to the process. If your spouse or co-parent is unwilling to engage in an alternative process to resolve your issues, litigation might be your only option. The court process may be slow, but it moves predictably and inexorably to a final result, after which you can go on with your life.

In some cases, there are issues on which the parties truly cannot reach agreement. In the child custody realm, this could include child support, a parent’s relocation, mental health or substance abuse issues, or physical or psychological abuse of a child. In a financial context, there may be a dispute about alimony, a party’s actual income, the value of a party’s business, or whether a party’s trust interest or inheritance should be considered in the resolution of financial issues.

What are the alternatives?

Parties are always free to resolve their issues without resorting to a contested court process.

There are a number of alternative dispute resolution tools. Some of the more common approaches include:

  • A traditional negotiation involving attorneys, where parties develop settlement offers with the assistance of their counsel, who then negotiate on behalf of their clients to resolve the issues
  • Mediation, a voluntary process where the parties meet with each other and a neutral, third-party mediator, often with counsel present or advising them
  • Arbitration, in which a third-party decision-maker considers a presentation of evidence and argument from each party and renders a binding decision

All of these approaches are generally less expensive and quicker than the litigation process. And this is not an exhaustive list of the out-of-court approaches available to people to resolve their divorce or child custody issues.

Which process is right for me?

In almost all divorces, parties are well served in the early stages to consider an out-of-court process.

Which process will work best for you depends on a multitude of factors, including the dynamic between you and your spouse or co-parent, the substantive issues in the case, the financial issues and wherewithal of one or both parties, any external time pressures that might be involved, and the professionals assisting the parties.

Do I have to pick just one process?

No. Typically, it makes sense to stick to one out-of-court process at a time, and hopefully your first attempt at alternative dispute resolution does the trick. But if not, you can always move to another process, including litigation.

It is important to understand that you can continue in a non-litigation process at the same time a litigation is pending. In fact, courts encourage these continued efforts to resolve the issues out-of-court, even as the court process unfolds. Think of negotiation and litigation as running on parallel tracks. They are separate and distinct processes, but they are connected, and one process often can impact another, ideally in a way that benefits your position and hastens resolution.

What Happens to the Family Pets in Divorce?

AvatarErik Arena, Principal

The American Veterinary Medical Association reported that, as of 2016, about 57% of American households have a least one pet among their family. While the number, species, and breeds vary widely from home to home, most of us become quite attached to our furry, scaled, or feathered companions – so much so that we consider them family. 

So what happens to the family pet upon divorce if you and your spouse do not agree to a custody arrangement? Let’s just say the courts won’t treat Fido like a member of your family.

Pets are Treated Like Objects – Not Beings

While the laws on this topic vary widely from state to state, Maryland and the District of Columbia treat pets similarly, and not kindly. Pets are seen as property, if recognized at all, and awarded to one spouse or the other as such. This means whichever spouse is deemed the legal owner ends up with exclusive control and responsibility of and for the pet.  This also means the other spouse may never see their pet(s) again. 

How is it determined who is the legal owner?  Sometimes it can come down to something as simple as whose name is on the adoption or purchase paperwork.  Or who paid the adoption fee. 

Other states such as Alaska, Illinois, and California treat pets like beings and award custody to the pets based upon a best interests standard.  Something comparable may soon be forthcoming in the District of Columbia. Nothing comparable is on the horizon in Maryland to date. 

You Can, However, Reach Agreements Sharing Custody of Pets and Pet-Related Costs

There is no limit to the imagination you and your spouse can apply to pet agreements, if so inclined.  And once consummated, those agreements will be honored and enforced by our courts.  But not modified. 

What might such an agreement include?  It could include, among other terms:

  • Custody and access provisions (i.e., when the pets will be with which spouse and/or the children, if any)
  • What will happen to the pets if one spouse relocates
  • A right of first refusal allowing a former spouse to care for the pets if the other is unable or unavailable
  • Provisions concerning introducing and/or integrating the family pets into households with other people and/or pets (i.e. allergies, incompatible animals, animals incompatible with small children, etc.)
  • Health insurance and payment of uninsured medical costs
  • Advanced medical care planning

Again, the sky is the limit as far as what you and your spouse might deem appropriate for your pet family members. 

Given what may unfold upon divorce if you and your spouse cannot agree, some find it prudent to execute pet-nuptial agreements at the time they purchase or adopt their family pets. That way, they can provide for the types of arrangements outlined above in Section 2, to assure themselves are role in their pet’s lives beyond their own relationship.

I’ve Had It! How Soon Can I File for Absolute Divorce in Maryland?

AvatarHeather Collier, Principal

This is one of the most common questions I get from clients. In order to decide how soon you can file for divorce, we have to determine if you are eligible to seek a divorce in Maryland and, if so, on what basis. The basis for the divorce is called the “ground” for divorce. The timing for filing a divorce in Maryland depends on the answers to both questions.

To be eligible to file for divorce in Maryland, one party must live there at the time of filing. If the basis for the divorce, or the “grounds” for divorce occurred outside Maryland, then one party has to have resided in Maryland for at least 6 months before filing for divorce. 

Before the court can enter a Judgment of Absolute Divorce dissolving a couple’s marriage, the residency requirement must be met, one of the parties has to have a viable ground for absolute divorce; and all issues arising out of the parties’ marriage have to be resolved either by agreement of the parties or court order.   

Absolute Divorce Grounds

Maryland recognizes “no-fault” and “fault” grounds for absolute divorce.  Because some grounds for divorce have a waiting period, the ground (or grounds) for divorce you allege may impact when you can file.

No-fault grounds for absolute divorce are:

  • 12-month separation – the parties must live separate and apart, without cohabitation for a period of 12 months prior to filing for divorce, and continuing without interruption through the date the divorce is granted. 

    Translation:  you cannot spend the night under the same roof or have sex with your spouse for 12 months before you file for divorce and it has to stay that way after you file through the divorce.  Spending the night together under the same roof or having sex before the divorce is granted re-starts the separation clock on your 12-month separation period and will delay your ability to file under this ground.
  • Mutual Consent – this ground does not require a period of separation.  If you and your spouse have not yet separated or separated only recently, this ground may be the fastest means of filing for and obtaining a divorce.  In order to file for divorce based on Mutual Consent, you must meet the following requirements:
    • Have a signed, written agreement resolving all issues, including, alimony, property division, and the care, custody and support of any minor child or children;
    • Court approval of any agreement as to custody and support of a minor child as being in that child or children’s best interests; and
    • Neither party has filed to set aside the settlement agreement prior to the divorce hearing.

Fault grounds for divorce, with applicable waiting periods, include:

  • Adultery
  • Desertion, if desertion has continued for 12 continuous months.
  • Conviction of a felony or misdemeanor where the party has been sentenced to serve at least 3 years and has served 12 months of the sentence
  • Insanity if the spouse has been institutionalized for at least 3 years and the insanity is incurable
  • Cruelty of treatment
  • Excessively vicious conduct

Filing starts the divorce process, but the length of time for obtaining the actual Judgment of Absolute Divorce will depend on whether you settle some or all of the issues during the divorce litigation, or if you have a contested trial at the end where a judge will decide the outcome. 

Preparing to Appear Before a Court When You Are Remote

Liz EstephanLiz Estephan, Attorney

Appearing before a judge during COVID-19 when courts are taking certain precautions to avoid in-person hearings can be a source of additional stress and apprehension.

As a client or self-represented litigant, how do you prepare when you’re going to appear in court via telephone or video? The same way you would as if you were appearing in-person.

You should discuss with your attorney the specific hearing that you are attending remotely to determine your role and how much speaking you will do. For example, your attorney will do the majority of speaking during a scheduling hearing in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. However, if you are attending an uncontested divorce hearing and you are the plaintiff, you will be required to answer certain questions.

Other items to consider include:

  • If you have questions, ask your attorney in advance because you are not going to be able to pick-up on bodily cues or whisper questions to your attorney during the hearing.
  • It’s very important that if you are going to appear via video with a judge or magistrate, dress professionally. Keep in mind that you may still need to stand when the judge enters and departs the courtroom, even remotely, this means wearing at a minimum, professional clothing.
  • If an attorney represents you, you should not chime into the conversation with counsel, the judge, or magistrate unprompted. Allow your attorney to answer questions on your behalf, as you would if you were physically in court.
  • If your attorney, the judge or magistrate asks you a specific question, you are free to respond.
  • Whether you are attending a hearing by telephone or video, make sure to be in a quiet place. If you are appearing by video, make sure there is nothing inappropriate or distracting in your background.

Remember, you should prepare to appear in court by telephone or video as you would if you were appearing in-person. A more informal environment does not mean your dress or decorum should be informal as well.

Steps To Protect Your Inheritance And Gifts Received From Third Parties

Erin KopelmanErin Kopelman, Principal

Did you know that, if handled correctly, your inheritance and individual gifts from third parties are non-marital property?

Many people received inheritances and gifts from their families during their marriage. In Maryland, property received prior to marriage, by a gift from a third party or inheritance, or directly traceable to such sources is your non-marital property – meaning you keep it and it will not be divided with your spouse in divorce. 

Similarly, in DC, property received prior to marriage, by a gift or inheritance, or property in exchange therefor is your separate property – meaning you keep it and it will not be divided with your spouse in divorce.

The problem that many face is that they co-mingle, or mix, their non-marital or separate funds with marital funds. For example:

  • They deposit non-marital/separate funds into an account with marital money, or
  • In reverse they deposit marital funds into the account holding the gift or inheritance, their spouse deposits money into the account holding the gift or inheritance, they “loan” money to the marriage and pay themselves back with marital funds into the account holding the gift or inheritance, or even title the gift or inheritance in joint name.

If you have property prior to marriage, or receive property by gift or inheritance during the marriage, keep it separate!

If it’s investible assets, I suggest depositing and investing them at a new banking institution where you do not keep any other monies, and whatever you do, do not add to it.  Also, maintain all paperwork showing where the money came from along with monthly or annual statements from the date of your marriage onward in a safe place.

When in doubt, consult a divorce attorney. 

How to Manage Stress During Your Divorce

AvatarDonna E. Van Scoy, Principal

Few events in life pack a bigger emotional gut punch than separation or divorce.

Before, during, and after the legal process, you should expect to experience denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before you can move on to acceptance. These are normal emotions, and can be true even if both parties agree to the divorce. The grief surrounding a divorce and separation will be different for each person – some experience the full emotional spectrum while others only a piece of it. It is imperative during this time to educate yourself and practice self-care. It will be key to allowing you to successfully move forward with your life. 

Here are five things to remember and consider as you contemplate, begin, and complete your divorce:

1. Accept the Stress. Be honest with yourself. If you are dealing with a life event, such as divorce, stress is part of the process. An important first step is to acknowledge the stress.

2. Seek the Advice of Professionals. Securing an attorney will assist you in understanding the process and the law. Educating yourself about the process and the law will help to reduce your stress. It is important to be comfortable with your attorney. Be sure to be completely honest with your attorney. The attorney can only advise you based on the information you provide. 

An attorney is not a therapist. While they understand what you are dealing with emotionally, their job is to represent you legally. While not everyone needs a therapist during a life event, it is wise to do a check-in with a therapist to determine, with their help, whether a therapist should play a role in your stress management. Having someone to share your truths, concerns, and fears with that is not a friend or family member is often beneficial. Your attorney can help you locate a suitable therapist in your price range. 

3. Identify and Use Support. In addition to the professionals, identify a friend and family member who can and will listen to your day to day struggles. Be careful to avoid sharing the details of your divorce with everyone. Do not discuss your divorce with your children, even if they are grown. 

Speak to your therapist, family, friends, or do a computer search to find a local support group. It can be very helpful to share your story with others in the same situation. It is also useful to listen to others going through a separation and divorce.

4. Exercise Self-care. Each person has their own favorite activities or hobbies. It is important to allow time for yourself. Exercise, sleep, and eating well will be important. Go to the spa, go to the gym, or get a massage. Take a break to go fishing, golfing, or antiquing. Read a book, watch a movie or take photographs. Or try yoga. 

There are several ways to practice self-care. Caring for yourself will be critical. Set aside regular time and use it to relax in whatever way works for you.

5. There Will be Bad Days and Good Days. During this process you will experience both bad days and good days. In the beginning, the bad days will outnumber the good days. Some periods of time will be worse than others. Like the stress itself, acknowledge and accept the bad days. Using the steps above will lead to the good days starting to outnumber the bad days.

The separation process will come to an end. A resolution will occur. You will be divorced.  Most importantly, you will move forward.