Just When You Thought It Was Over…

Some Outcomes in a Divorce Are Permanent, While Others Are Designed to Change

Chris RobertsChris Roberts, Principal

Everyone has something to protect in a divorce, and I have yet to meet a client who doesn’t feel relief when the process is over. Many of those clients, however, are surprised when an issue they thought they resolved for good resurfaces later.

In Maryland, the reality is that some issues can never be permanently resolved in an initial divorce proceeding, while others are always resolved in the first case. Stilll others are capable of being resolved in the first go-around by agreement, depending on the terms of the deal.

Property Issues are Resolved, Once and for all, at the Time of Divorce

The Court is expressly authorized to resolve disputes regarding marital property at the time of divorce, but has no authority to do so once the divorce case has concluded and the time for appeals has passed. That means that, if marital property issues are not resolved at the time of divorce, they cannot be resolved later.

It bears noting that there is a distinction between the general notion of property and the term “marital property” which is specifically defined by statute.

Orders Related to Children Are Never Permanent

Child custody and/or visitation issues are never permanently resolved.

In Maryland, the Court is guided by one overarching standard related to children, to which all other legal standards speak – the best interest of the child. At the end of the day, judges are tasked with making decisions that serve children’s best interests. That is not only true when a judge signs an order following a contested custody proceeding, but also when a judge memorializes a private agreement between the parties related to children, which is also generally incorporated into a consent order.

Though a child custody order will conclude the current dispute, the Court retains authority to modify such orders should circumstances require it to serve a child’s best interest. Things change in life, and if those changes impact a child negatively, public policy demands that courts be able to intervene for the sake of the child. The same is true for child support. If there is a material change in a parent’s income, or expenses for a child change significantly, the Court always has jurisdiction to modify an existing child support order.

For Alimony, it Depends

Alimony is typically modifiable, both in amount and duration, if circumstances and justice require a change.

If the Court determines alimony initially, the alimony will always be modifiable, as the law does not authorize the Court to make its alimony determination non-modifiable. In a private agreement, however, parties can agree that alimony be non-modifiable, both as to amount and duration. Parties can also be more creative than the Court in negotiating the terms alimony.

As examples, in a private agreement, alimony can be based on a formula that automatically accounts for a fluctuation in income, and can terminate when an alimony recipient cohabitates with another person and/or upon the arrival of a certain date. A Court is not able to craft such solutions. The language of a private agreement is important in securing the non-modifiability of alimony.

Indefinite Alimony Does NOT Mean Permanent Alimony

Case law tells us that alimony is not intended to be a lifetime pension, so there is no such thing as “permanent” alimony.

The statute provide for “indefinite” alimony, which essentially is an open-ended period of alimony. As mentioned previously, court-ordered alimony is modifiable; however, it may also be terminated if either party dies or marries, or “if the court finds that termination is necessary to avoid a harsh and inequitable result.”

What constitutes harsh and inequitable result? That is the proverbial (and in some cases literal) million dollar question, and it is a judge’s job to determine based on the facts of the case. If you are the would-be payor of alimony, this uncertainty places a premium on having an exit strategy for your alimony obligation. This can be achieved via a negotiated resolution and careful language detailing the specific circumstances when alimony will terminate.

Why Maryland’s New Augmented Estate Law Means You May Need a Prenup

You May Also Need to Revise the One You Already Have

Erin KopelmanErin Kopelman, Principal

Maryland’s new Augmented Estate Law was created to enable a surviving spouse, who was not adequately provided for by his/her deceased spouse, to elect to receive a share of substantially more of the deceased spouse’s assets than ever before.

But, it has the major, and perhaps unintended, consequence of affecting some estate plans and prenuptial and postnuptial agreements already in place.

In Maryland, if a spouse dies without adequately providing for his/her surviving spouse, then unless the surviving spouse has waived an interest in his/her deceased spouse’s estate, the surviving spouse is entitled to receive part of the deceased spouse’s estate.

This entitlement, commonly referred to as the “elective share” is one-third to one-half (depending on whether the deceased spouse has a surviving decedent) of part the deceased spouse’s estate. The purpose of this law is to protect surviving spouses from not being provided for by their spouse upon their spouse’s death.

Previously, the elective share only applied to the part of the deceased spouse’s estate that passed through probate. But, effective October 1, 2020, Maryland’s new “Augmented Estate” Law enables a surviving spouse, upon the death of his/her deceased spouse, to receive a greater share of the deceased spouse’s assets than ever before by applying the elective share to both assets that pass through probate and assets that do not pass through probate. 

Many assets do not pass through probate. Examples of assets that do not pass through probate are: Transfer on Death (TOD) accounts, accounts jointly titled with others; some trusts; and assets with beneficiary designations, such as 401K accounts and life insurance policies.

Previously, unless the deceased spouse set up his/her estate for their surviving spouse to receive assets that do not pass through probate, such as these, then the surviving spouse could not receive an elective share of them upon his/her spouse’s death. 

The new law enables a surviving spouse to receive an elective share of assets that pass through probate and assets that do not pass through probate.  The effect of this new law is that more types of assets are included in those that a surviving spouse may take an elective share of.  Therefore, surviving spouses who are not adequately provided for by their deceased spouse’s estate plans will be entitled to receive an elective share of more types of assets, which, depending on the deceased party’s holdings, likely enables to surviving party to more assets.

Similarly, spouses who did careful estate planning to exclude certain assets from passing through probate so their surviving spouse would not be able to receive an elective share of these assets will need to re-think their strategy. 

Many people want to limit what they leave their spouse upon their death, especially in the event they have children from a prior marriage who they want their assets to go to. By agreement, a spouse can waive his/her rights to make claim to an elective share or to his/her spouse’s estate.

Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements allow you to make binding and enforceable estate provisions, such as a waiver of his/her spouse’s estate or to claim an elective share, or mandate what one spouse receives in the event of their spouse’s death. If you have or want an estate plan that does not leave the majority of your assets to your spouse, you should consider getting a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.

In addition, if you have a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement that limits what you are giving your spouse in the event of your death, you should revisit that through the lenses of how, if at all, this new law may change the effect of your intentions, and consult a lawyer as to whether you need to amend your agreement accordingly, assuming your significant other is willing.

My Spouse and I Have a Verbal Agreement. What is the Quickest Way to Obtain a Divorce in Maryland?

AvatarDonna E. Van Scoy, Principal

The short answer is: it depends.

Obtaining a divorce in a short marriage with no children and few, if any, assets is very different than a long marriage with children and assets. Then there are marriages in between the short marriage and the long marriage with combinations of no children or children and a variety of assets.

A logical first step is to contact a lawyer. While you and your spouse have reached a verbal agreement and are working together, a lawyer cannot represent both parties in Maryland. No matter your level of cooperation and intentions, you and your spouse can easily have conflicts of interests in a divorce. So one or both of you should to consult with a lawyer.

Moving the Process Forward

  1. Be open to the fact that you and your spouse may not have considered every issue that needs to be addressed in your divorce. It is possible that what you agreed to with your spouse will negatively affect your rights. A lawyer will explain the law, review your agreement, and identify any issues. TIP: Do not sign any agreement with your spouse before reviewing with a lawyer.
  2. Both you and your spouse should each meet with a lawyer. While you have the right to obtain your divorce without the assistance of counsel, in my experience that can result in delay and greater expenses than securing legal advice at the beginning of the process. If your spouse does not want a lawyer, you can be the party that moves the divorce along. However, your lawyer will need to recommend to your spouse (in writing) that they obtain counsel. Your lawyer could provide two or three names of other counsel for you to share with your spouse. Then hopefully your spouse will also seek counsel, or at the very least your spouse could review the final agreement with an attorney.
  3. To assist in the evaluation of your case, come prepared to your initial consult. Write down what you believe is your agreement with your spouse. Bring a list of all your assets including current values and any debt associated with the assets. Bring a copy of your current mortgage statement, your last three years of tax returns, your last three paystubs and, if possible, your spouse’s last three paystubs. If there are children consider how you and your spouse will parent your children and what the children’s schedule will be with each parent.
  4. Once you have all the information necessary to propose a settlement to your spouse, a Separation Agreement will need to be drafted. Your spouse (and counsel) will need to review and approve the agreement. If both of you continue to cooperate with each other in the spirit of divorcing as quickly as possible, the Separation Agreement could be completed and executed as soon as your lawyer can draft the agreement and your spouse can review and approve. While it can be longer or shorter, the average completion of an agreement is 30 to 60 days.
  5. The next step is to file a complaint for an uncontested divorce. Your spouse has to be served and has up to 30 days to file an answer. The fastest ground for the divorce is a Mutual Consent. You and your spouse can speed up the answer time up by working to file the complaint and answer at the same time or together.
  6. The court will then schedule an uncontested hearing. The moving party (the one who files) and their lawyer need to be present. The other party (and their lawyer) can also be present. During COVID19 the hearing is being held remotely. While these are uncertain times, the hearing is normally scheduled in four to eight weeks. The divorced is usually finalized in within 14 days.

The information above depends on a settlement being reached and the parties truly working together. Each case is different. Contested cases can take anywhere from a year or two, or more. Again, involving a lawyer once you start considering a divorce will help you have the information you need to manage your divorce as efficiently as possible.