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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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