You’ve Decided to Mediate Your Divorce. Should You Bring a Lawyer?

Deborah ReiserDeborah Reiser

You’ve decided to mediate your divorce case. You wisely decided to avoid the expense, acrimony, and uncertainty of a contested court proceeding in favor of a negotiated resolution with the assistance of a neutral third party. You’ve selected a mediator, and now are faced with the choice of whether you should go to mediation with or without your lawyer.

There are pros and cons to both approaches, and the decision deserves thoughtful consideration.

When You May Not Want an Attorney

Obviously, mediating without two additional lawyers present is, at first, less expensive. The math is easy — you are paying two fewer professionals for the real time of mediation. If you and your spouse are able to communicate civilly, if the issues are not mired in complexity, if positions are not hardened in concrete, and if both sides recognize the wisdom of compromise — then, by all means, consider meeting with the mediator alone.

When You Should Consider Bringing an Attorney

On the other hand, what if one spouse holds all the advantages, financially and otherwise?

  • What if one spouse is unable to appreciate the value of achieving a resolution even if imperfect?
  • What if the complexities of resolution are outside your comfort zone?
  • What if there are issues which require specific expertise, such as identifying and valuing business interests? Or dividing retirements and pensions?

Having your lawyer present in real time can make the difference between success and disaster.

Remember: The mediator is a neutral. S/he cannot offer legal advice to either party; rather, the mediator’s job is to get the parties to agreement. There may well be issues where you need actual advice about the wisdom of your position, about the risks and exposure you face with different choices, or about whether your negotiating strategy is even prudent or smart.

As a neutral, a mediator should not say to you “You would be unwise to do this, this is a mistake for you.” If your lawyer is present, you can address strengths and advantages, pitfalls and risks in real time. Otherwise, stopping the mediation to consult with your lawyer and then re-grouping not only slows progress; actually, the fits and starts can easily cost more money over the long run.

Similarly, suppose you reach a tentative agreement in mediation. The mediator should advise you to consult with your own attorney before signing what will be a binding contract. Suppose further that on consultation with your lawyer you become aware of a major issue you failed to address, or worse, resolved in a manner that can actually cause you harm. Then you have to return to the negotiating table. You’ve lost time, money and quite possibly have created a more intransigent bargaining position on the other side.

At the very least, you should consult with your own lawyer In advance of mediation in order to become educated as to your rights and obligations under the divorce law, to think through your goals and areas of potential compromise, and to “game-plan” your negotiating strategy. Discuss with your lawyer whether to have him/her accompany you to the actual mediation. Then, and only then, decide what course is best for you.

Robert A. Gordon Joins Lerch Early Leading New Bankruptcy/Financial Restructuring Practice

Robert A. Gordon has joined Lerch Early as a principal after 14 years as a judge on the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland. Lerch Early is now better-positioned to advocate for our domestic clients in this important area that will become even more important in the wake of the pandemic, which will likely lead to an avalanche of bankruptcy filings.

Before coming to the bench, Robert represented clients in every aspect of insolvency law, in both federal and state courts, with extensive experience in bankruptcy cases that involved the enforcement of domestic, or family law, claims.

Family law issues are treated with specially designed care in bankruptcy, and Robert has managed those issues with thoughtfulness and resolve, whether they concern the impact of the Bankruptcy Code’s automatic stay upon ongoing domestic cases, the exclusion of debts and obligations from the bankruptcy discharge that arise from divorce proceedings, or the outright dismissal of a bankruptcy case due to its bad faith interference with an pending domestic case.

While a sitting judge, he ruled in numerous cases involving domestic disputes with a virtually perfect record of affirmance of matters appealed from his decisions. We welcome Robert and his skill at representing spousal interests in bankruptcy cases as the leader of our new Bankruptcy and Insolvency Group.

We’re pleased to welcome Robert to the firm. Please reach out to your Lerch Early family law attorney for more information on how Robert can help your business. You can learn more about him on his web bio: https://www.lerchearly.com/people/robert-a-gordon

What You Need to Know About Maryland’s Revised Child Support Guidelines

Maryland’s Child Support Guidelines, which are used by the Courts to establish and set child support in most cases in Maryland, had not been substantively adjusted in 10 years. The new law, which updates the prior Maryland Child Support Guidelines statute, is effective for all cases filed after October 1, 2020.

There are two noteworthy updates to the Maryland Child Support Guidelines statute – one, intended to address the “cliff effect” (i.e. a substantial decrease in child support) that occurs once the non-custodial parent reaches “shared physical custody”, which was formerly 128 overnights per year or more (or 35% of the overnights or more). The other – extending the presumptive application of the Guidelines to families earning up to $30,000 per month, thus doubling the former threshold.

1. Increasing the Threshold for Application of Guidelines

Prior to October 1, 2020, the Courts, unless they found sufficient reason(s) to deviate therefrom, were required to apply the result of the Maryland Child Support Guidelines calculator in all cases in which the combined adjusted actual income of the family was $15,000 per month (or $180,000 per year) or less. Now, the Maryland Child Support Guidelines calculator result is the presumptively correct amount for all families earning a combined adjusted actual income of $30,000 per month (or $360,000 per year).

This should provide more prompt and predictable results for families earning between $180,000-$360,000 per year. Above $30,000 per month or $360,000 per year, the Court has discretion in determining the level of child support.

2. Addressing the “Cliff Effect” in Shared Custody Situations

Under the former Maryland Child Support Guidelines, a family transitioned from using the “sole custody” calculation method to the “shared custody” calculation method once the non-custodial parent had the child or children in his or her care 35% or more overnights per year. That transition produced a “cliff effect” – a large drop in child support for the custodial parent once the 35% threshold was met. Not only was the “cliff effect” hard to understand for parents and courts alike – it also led to custody and access disputes motivated, in part, to manipulate child support.

The new Maryland Child Support Guidelines define shared custody as the non-custodial parent having the children for at least 25% of the overnights or more, with incremental adjustments in child support when a parent has between 25% and 50% overnights, to lessen the impact of the former “cliff effect” at 35% overnights. This means non-custodial parents who have their child or children 25% of the overnights or more should see their child support obligations decrease under the new guidelines from what they would have been under the former guidelines.

As to how a non-custodial parent who has their child 25% or more of the overnights will see their child support obligations decrease, take as an example a family where both parents of one child earn adjusted actual incomes of $12,000 per month ($24,000 combined). If Parent A has the child 75% of the overnights and Parent B has the child 25% of the overnights, under the former guidelines, Parent B would pay child support of $1,554 per month, but under the new guidelines, Parent B pays child support of $1,330 per month. If in that situation Parent A has the child 66% of the overnights and Parent B has the child 34% of the overnights, under the former guidelines, Parent B would pay child support of $1,554 per month, but under the new guidelines, Parent B pays child support of $746 per month.

For cases filed after October 1, 2020, the new child support guidelines will be used to establish initial child support orders, both pendente lite (pending trial) and permanently, as well as to establish the level of child support in cases involving modifications of existing child support orders.

Existing child support orders can be modified based only on a material change of circumstances. Courts have found a material change of circumstances in numerous instances, including but not limited to loss of a job, medical issues, retirement, education issues, changes in the needs of the child, etc. However, the adoption of the new child support guidelines is not, in and of itself, a material change of circumstances for purposes of modification of child support.

If you have minor children, adult destitute or adult disabled children, you should consult a family law attorney about how the new guidelines may affect your child support obligation or award.

Chris Roberts Admitted to Fellowship in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers

AvatarDonna E. Van Scoy, Principal

Divorce attorney Chris Roberts has been admitted to fellowship in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML).

One of only 34 Fellows throughout Maryland, Chris is now among those generally recognized by lawyers and judges as preeminent family law practitioners with the highest level of knowledge, skill, and integrity.

For more information, see the AAML website: https://aaml.org/page/WhyAAML.

Chris Roberts is a family law and divorce attorney who represents clients in all aspects of family law, including separation, divorce, custody, property, support, post-judgment issues, and domestic violence matters in Maryland. 

Why You and Your Divorce Attorney Should Develop a Personal Relationship

Chris RobertsChris Roberts, Principal

I’ve always enjoyed the movie Jerry Maguire. Jerry is a sports agent representing Rod Tidwell, a bombastic, energetic, life-loving NFL wide receiver. Part of the appeal of the movie is the relationship between Rod and Jerry. Rod leaves no doubt about his professional goals (SHOW ME THE MONEY JERRY!!!!), but he has to navigate personal and professional challenges to make them happen. Rod is Jerry’s client, but his relationship with Jerry seems more than that. Throughout the film, Rod must rely on his relationship with Jerry to lead him to the promised land.

I’m not here to tell you that all of our clients are going to cry, yell at, and hug their divorce attorney, nor am I suggesting your attorney should model him or herself after Jerry Maguire. In many ways, however, a successful attorney-client relationship may look more like Rod and Jerry’s than many of your other professional relationships. Here’s how.

You need a personal relationship with your attorney

Speaking for myself and I am sure many others in my profession, we do this work because we actually want to help people. Yes, we are professionals, and we focus intensely on protecting the things our clients value most. But our jobs also often requires us to know the most intimate details of our client’s lives, facts that they may not share with anyone one else, ever.

Our clients come to trust and rely on us, not only to keep their confidence, but also to help manage the most difficult and valuable parts of their lives. A relationship like this doesn’t come into existence overnight, and it requires a personal investment, from the attorney and the client. The relationship takes time to build, through meetings, phone calls, emails, Zoom chats, court hearings, and more. Regardless of how you build it, a successful relationship requires effort, time, mutual understanding, and respect.

Trust and honesty are critical to a successful attorney-client relationship

Divorces are usually among the most difficult experiences of a person’s life, and they can sometimes take months or longer to complete. There is often a high degree of conflict, there are frequently multiple and simultaneous dispute resolution processes at work, and there are always unwanted or unexpected developments.

The twists and turns that occur don’t have to be disastrous for the outcome of a person’s divorce, but they will undoubtedly require trust and teamwork to overcome. The client should expect his or her attorney to be up front and honest about unwanted or unexpected developments, mistakes, delays, or bad results. These things happen in life in the best circumstances, and they happen in divorces too. It is critical to identify issues as they arise, communicate them openly and directly, and come up with a plan.

Good attorneys excel in these moments and clients should trust and rely on them to help move things forward in a constructive and positive manner.

Allow your attorney to help you define and pursue your goals

A divorce shouldn’t define you, but it is a milestone, and hopefully one that allows you to redefine your life direction and goals so that you can become the best possible version of you.

In order to move constructively through the divorce process and confidently on to a better life, it is essential to develop your life goals and objectives for the mid- and long-term. Without this direction, it is all too easy to become stuck in the morass of the divorce process, and to forget that divorce should be an event that you put in your rearview mirror as soon as possible. Maintaining focus on your goals will allow you to make the compromises in your divorce that are necessary to end that chapter of your life and move forward to the life that awaits.

Spend some time early in the divorce process discussing your goals with your attorney, and identify the key components you believe are necessary to accomplish your goals. Once you’ve done this, don’t allow yourself to lose track of your goals. Revisit them, and talk with your lawyer to assess your progress, and whether your goals remain viable and attainable. Don’t be afraid to adapt and adjust your goals as you go.

If you have developed the sort of attorney-client relationship I’ve suggested, you will find that your lawyer will be a valuable resource in helping you stay on the path to the life you want to live.