The Truth Will Set You Free: Why Credibility is Currency in Divorce and Custody Cases

AvatarErik Arena, Principal

Most of us have done things we are embarrassed about or ashamed of — things we would rather not share in polite company, for fear of being judged.  We omit, shade, deflect or deny for the sake of maintaining appearances. 

This tendency surfaces frequently in family law courtrooms across Maryland and the District of Columbia, where judges and magistrates are, in fact, tasked with assessing the fitness and credibility of spouses and parents every day. Spouses and parents must decide, sometimes rather quickly, whether or not to tell the unvarnished truth about themselves, or a glossier, filtered version. All too often, they choose poorly. 

Why? For two reasons:

  1. Each lie of avoidance, omission, or denial erodes your credibility with the Court, which can be very hard to overcome in totality

Of course, the goal is to put yourself in the best light. However, that is done by being honest – not be being beyond reproach. Simply put, it is better to present to the Court as an honest, flawed person, than one who is untruthful. This applies to just about everything not otherwise protected by the 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. 

Believe it or not, the Court has heard it all at one time or another. And none of us is perfect. A few lies, denials, or omissions, particularly those that are verifiably false, can be enough to taint the Court’s impression of your overall character for truthfulness and place a cloud over all of your testimony [and future testimony in future actions]. That can be far more costly than the embarrassment, humiliation, or damage done by admitting your mistakes. 

  • In family law cases, many important facts cannot be corroborated by independent testimony or documents, meaning key issues can be decided solely based on the credibility of the parties. 

Trying to wallpaper over character flaws with deceit can have grave consequences for other important factual determinations that, oftentimes, must be based solely on a party versus party credibility assessment [due to the absence of corroborating testimony or documents]. 

So, what kinds of critical fact determinations can end up being made solely based on credibility? I have listed a few examples below to illustrate their magnitude:

  • Who did the majority of the parenting during the children’s formative years;
  • Whether or not you told your spouse it was ok not to go back to work;
  • Whether or not the money you received from your spouse’s parents to buy your first home was a gift to your spouse or to you and your spouse;
  • Whether or not your or your spouse’s spending was a cause for friction during the marriage;
  • Whether or not you had an affair years ago, or even recently (for more on this, check out the blog post from my colleague Liz Estephan: “You Committed Adultery. Now Tell Your Divorce Lawyer.“;
  • Whether or not the cash you withdrew from your joint checking account was spent on family expenses or other, less beneficial purposes;
  • Whether or not the money you wired to family was discussed with your spouse prior to so doing;
  • Whether or not you drank to excess or used illicit substances;
  • Whether or not you humiliated or belittled your spouse or children in private. 

As you can see, being dishonest in some areas, or several, can call into question the credibility of the testimony you will give on other, more weighty facts critical to the Court’s determinations of property, alimony, or child custody. 

So, when faced with telling the (perhaps) ugly truth or saying what you think the Court wants to hear, there really isn’t a choice. Only by being truthful can you mitigate the damage done to the Court’s assessment of your character and, consequently, the merits of your case. The slope is far steeper and slipperier for those lacking in candor.

For more information, contact Erik at eparena@lerchearly.com or 301-657-0725.

Is the COVID Pandemic Hindering Your Child’s Chances of Future Success?

AvatarErik Arena, Principal

“…[I]t ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” – Rocky Balboa

Since roughly April 2020, the concern I’ve heard most from clients, friends, and colleagues alike – what is the pandemic doing to my child’s academic and social development? This question is causing unquantifiable angst for many, particularly with no end to the pandemic in sight.

Until our local jurisdictions return to full-time, in-person learning, and even after that happens, what are the traits and skills parents can teach their child or children to ensure he or she is still positioned for success? 

Author Paul Tough provides a refreshing take on this topic in his 2012 book, How Children Succeed. In its introduction, Tough describes the book’s mission:  “… to solve some of the most pervasive mysteries of life:  Who succeeds and who fails? Why do some children thrive while others lose their way? And what can any of us do to steer an individual child – or a whole generation of children – away from failure and toward success.” 

Tough’s approach – study those that have, and have not achieved success by academic, scholastic, or professional avenues, in similar and differing environments, to define the traits common among those who succeed. 

Tough and others, cited in his book, posit that common denominators for success are not necessarily intelligence quotient, mathematical abilities, reading or writing competence, or mastery of social or applied sciences. Rather, they are, more consistently, character or personality traits such as perseverance, grit, curiosity, social intelligence, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control. 

Viewed in the context of the COVID-pandemic, what might this mean for you and your child? Well, if Tough and his colleagues are correct, parents need not necessarily worry if their child is falling behind a bit in math or science or any particular course or courses. That might actually be the expectation, given the challenges of remote learning for many adolescents. 

Instead, parents can use the challenges of the pandemic to further their children’s perseverance, grit, curiosity, optimism, and self-control. How might one do that? 

  • Encourage them to test daily the limits of their intellectual and physical abilities and curiosities;
  • Incentivize them to exhibit a bit more perseverance and self-control each day;
  • Providing constructive encouragement and feedback to reward effort and perseverance, and foster optimism and grit, regardless of success or failure. 

For more information, contact Erik at eparena@lerchearly.com or 301-657-0725.

My Top 5 New Year’s Resolutions for Those Going Through Divorce

AvatarErik Arena, Principal

In keeping with the time-honored New Year’s tradition of reflecting on the year past and making resolutions for the coming year, I’ve put together a list of my top-five resolutions for divorcing clients for 2021.

2020 was a year unlike few others. The challenges were several. The landscape was ever-changing. But you persisted.

How can you make 2021 a little bit “jollier” for yourself.

1. Adjust Expectations and Prioritize

2020 didn’t go as planned for many. New challenges surfaced, for which easy solutions were unavailable. The crisis then persisted and persists to this day. Personal goals went unmet, but not for lack of will or desire. You expended the same effort and energy with fewer results. It was a humbling year.

Those realities should guide your-self assessment of 2020. Be forgiving in your assessment of 2020 successes and failures, and don’t view them in isolation (i.e. some of your failures might have been necessary to produce some of your greatest successes). Be realistic about what you want and intend to accomplish in 2021, and leave some latitude to account for the ongoing challenges of everyday living

2. Self-Care is Not Optional

The human body and mind need three things to function at their respective peaks: (1) adequate nutrition/diet; (2) regular exercise; and (3) adequate sleep/rest. Pre-COVID, maintaining 2 of these 3 regularly was considered an accomplishment. That thinking needs to change in 2021.

The COVID pandemic and your ongoing divorce are great sources of stress and uncertainty. They can impact your sleep and eating patterns greatly. If those disturbances persist for long enough, you will find yourself in poor physical and mental health. You cannot be at your best if you’re not up and operating at full capacity. This why self-care should be your number one priority in 2021.

You cannot always regulate your sleep. However, you can regulate your diet and exercise. These investments will yield dividends (i.e. focus, concentration, stamina) with consistency. It is sometimes counter-intuitive to take time away for these things; but they are fuel for the mind and body.

3. Be Intentional with Your Time and Energy

To subsist and thrive in the new reality of 2020, prioritizing and allocating time effectively became premium talents. Mundane tasks like commuting and having business lunches were replaced with parenting tasks and early morning grocery runs. Routines were obliterated.

The pace of information sharing and gathering quickened. We were inundated with stimuli, be they personal, professional, social, or political. It was difficult to decide where to invest your time with seemingly endless choices at your disposal. This explains the phenomenon that was “Tiger King”.

Consciousness is said to be the pause between the stimuli and the response. To be intentional with your investment(s) of time and energy means pausing to assess options before reacting to the many stimuli you will encounter. Ask yourself – what, among these options, can I do next that will advance my goals for myself? If the response does not meet those goals, move on to an endeavor that does.

4. This Too Shall Pass

World War II persisted for seven years. The Civil War dragged on for four years. Even the Ebola virus/pandemic spanned three years. In either 2021 or 2022, the COVID pandemic will be in our rear-views. As will your divorce. Whatever you may be experiencing as far as stress and angst is temporary, even though it may not feel that way at the moment. It is important to remember that and take comfort in knowing that brighter times are ahead.

In order to make those brighter times more vivid in your mind, start planning now for what you want your post-divorce and post-pandemic life to look like. You can use those images to set incremental goals for yourself in 2021, and as reference points when deciding where and how to invest your time and energy (see point 3 above).

5. Build Incrementally Toward Your Goals

Don’t rush to fill the holes you find in yourself during the divorce. Approaching them incrementally, with small, tangible, realistic steps, is the best way to build toward the future you envision for yourself.  

For example, you may envision a future in which you’re re-married to another, more suitable romantic partner. If that’s you, I would recommend against hitting the town with your friends in search of a suitable mate while you’re still enduring the trauma of the divorce. Start by processing the trauma of your separation/divorce and what that means for you as an individual. Figure out what you want to do the same and what you want to do differently in your life moving forward. Then you can start looking for mister or misses right.

The same can be said for many post-divorce goals (i.e. financial security, job security; home ownership). They often seem vast and insurmountable from where you’re standing at the moment. But, if you break them down into several, smaller, attainable steps toward your goal, the path will not seem so daunting.

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

AvatarErik Arena, Principal

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.

Not All Dollars Are Equal: Which Assets Are Most Valuable in Divorce?

AvatarErik Arena, Principal

One thing is usually certain in the aftermath of a divorce: You’ll experience a reduction in net worth and in standard of living. This is unavoidable as one household becomes two.

But just because it will happen doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to lessen the blow. By choosing wisely and unemotionally when dividing the marital assets with your spouse, you can minimize the reduction in your net worth post-divorce.

Not all Dollars Should be Valued Equally in Divorce

Although all asset transfers between spouses (incident to divorce) are tax-free events, some of those assets may later be subject to sizeable income and/or capital gains taxes that must be paid entirely by the receiving spouse, significantly diminishing their net value. It is imperative that these consequences be known and understood by you and your attorney so that you don’t end up with less than your fair share of the net assets.

Which Assets and/or Dollars are Most Valuable?

Value means many different things to many different people. When dividing assets between spouses, it is important to keep in mind the classes of assets identified below, which vary in net present value. If you and your spouse are trading assets from different classes, adjustments may need to be made to ensure you are not losing fair value.

  1. Cash is king! It is both liquid and not subject to any further taxes. It doesn’t get any better than that!
  • Cash, funds in checking and savings accounts, and the money market portion of any investment accounts.
  • Home sale proceeds. If the family home is sold as part of the divorce, those proceeds are also liquid and not subject to further tax (as any capital gains due will be paid at the time of sale, after application of your combined spousal $500,000 capital gains exclusion).

2. Other assets not subject to any further tax. Generally speaking, the replacement cost for these items exceed their private re-sale value. Retaining those items as part of your divorce will mean less dollars spent by you post-divorce to get yourself situated.

  • Furniture and home furnishings.
  • Automobiles.

3. Assets subject to capital gain but not income taxes. These assets will fluctuate in value and will be subject to capital gain taxes if you need to sell them to generate cash. The order of priority in each case will vary depending upon the tax basis of each asset or holding:

  • Stock and/or mutual fund holdings in investment accounts. These may also throw off interest and/or dividends, which, in some cases, is taxable income to you.
  • The family home. Depending upon the home’s tax basis, you may face a hefty capital gains bill if you assume ownership and then sell it later. Further, at the time of that sale, you’ll only be able to use your own $250,000 capital gains exclusion, as opposed to the combined $500,000 exclusion for spouses.
  • Other real property not used as primary residence. Any capital gains problem is compounded with these properties because there is no applicable capital gains exclusion.
  • Stock options
  • Vested restricted stock
  • Some artwork

4. Assets subject to income tax at the time of exercise or withdrawal. These assets will also fluctuate in value. However, when it comes time to withdraw from them, you’ll be taxed on those withdrawals and/or distributions at your ordinary income tax rate in the year in which you take the distributions. Accordingly, the present value of retirement assets, when compared to cash assets, must be adjusted for both present value (as cash is available to you now, whereas retirement, if drawn early, is subject to an additional 10% penalty tax) and after-tax value.

  • Most employer sponsored retirement plans (note: IMF and World Bank pensions are not taxable)
  • IRAs
  • Certain pension plans
  • Retirement annuities

Each divorce is different and there can be legitimate reasons why assets are divided a certain way. The information above is intended to inform and educate you, so you can use that knowledge to move forward in a strategic fashion.

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.

Welcome to Your Source for Divorce Law

The Divorce/Family Law Group at Lerch, Early & Brewer is proud to present our new Divorce Law Source blog.

In an age where Google searches and web browsing are the go-to for most people to find information about everything, we are thrilled to provide an easily accessible one-stop shop for all things family law and divorce.

Featuring content authored by each of our accomplished and skilled family law attorneys, we encourage you to use this forum to find the answers to commonly asked legal and practical questions our clients confront pre- and post-divorce, review explanations and analyses of pertinent legal concepts and principles, and receive updates on new practices, rules, laws, and the family court system in Maryland and D.C. We will be featuring new posts and content each week. We look forward to welcoming many regular followers and invite you to recommend desired topics for future posts. Please subscribe to the blog on the right-hand side of this page.

Lerch Early’s family law attorneys represent clients in every facet of family law including divorce, custody, child support, alimony, property division, modifications of custody, child support, and alimony, prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, litigation, divorce and custody settlement agreements and alternative dispute resolution, guardianship, and adoption. For more information, please check out our website.

We hope to see you soon on our blog!

In Health,

Heather Collier and Erik Arena
Co-chairs, Divorce/Family Law Group