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.

You Committed Adultery. Now Tell Your Divorce Lawyer.

Liz EstephanLiz Estephan, Attorney

You and your spouse are on the cusp of getting a divorce or are already in the midst of the divorce process. You’ve been unfaithful, but are unsure if your spouse is aware. Do you admit you committed adultery? When do you admit you committed adultery? Should you tell your lawyer? When do you tell your lawyer?

These are all valid questions and concerns. You should be upfront and honest with your lawyer about past transgressions.

Your lawyer cannot properly defend or protect you if you are not honest with him or her. Be straightforward, do not try and sugarcoat what you did or did not do. You didn’t hire a lawyer to judge you and he or she should not — it’s not his or her job. Your lawyer’s job is to zealously advocate on your behalf.

However, your lawyer cannot do so if he or she is unaware of all the facts of your case. If your lawyer is aware of your transgressions, he or she is able to better control the narrative and will decide if or when there is a proper time to divulge the information to your spouse.

If you are not upfront with your lawyer, you could make strategic mistakes that have repercussions in litigation. For example, your answer to your spouse’s Complaint and Answers to Interrogatories must be signed under penalty of perjury. If you deny outright that you committed adultery under oath, you committed perjury.

Also, your spouse may have evidence that demonstrates you did indeed commit adultery and could use it against you at trial or another evidentiary hearing. If so, your credibility will be severely undermined in front of a judge and in turn, could have a detrimental effect on your case.

Don’t hide the truth about adultery from your lawyer. Being honest with your lawyer is to your benefit.

For more information, contact Liz at 301-907-2811 or erestephan@lerchearly.com.

Should I Borrow or Accept Money from Family While Getting Divorced?

Erin KopelmanErin Kopelman, Principal

Cash flow is a common concern for most people going through separation or divorce. Many clients ask me if they can accept or borrow money from family.

While accepting or borrowing money from family may seem like an economical option because it often does not require a loan agreement, interest, penalties or preapproval, it can actually have unintended and potentially harmful consequences on the remaining aspects of your divorce.

Gifts from Family

Two issues that arise when you receive gifts from your family to pay expenses if you are divorcing are: (1) those gifts can be considered income to you; and (2) that gift, had you not spent it, would be yours to keep in divorce and not divided with your spouse.

First, gifts from your family received during the marriage, especially if given routinely, can be included and counted as your income in divorce.  The gifts can increase your income for purposes of determining alimony and child support, with the potential effect of requiring you to pay more or receive less alimony and/or child support. Also, the gifts can be considered in the equitable division of marital property. Therefore, receiving gifts from family may have a negative impact on you in the outcome of your divorce as it relates to alimony, child support and the equitable division of marital property.

Second, gifts from your family to you individually during the marriage are your sole, separate and non-marital property. Generally, if you can prove the source of the gift is from your family and that it is not comingled with marital property, then you keep gift, and it does not get divided between you and your spouse in divorce. If you receive gifts from your family, you should not spend them. You should instead keep them and not comingle them with marital property. For steps on how to protect gifts from family, check out this article on Steps to Protect Your Inheritance and Gifts Received from Third Parties.

Assume that you’re getting divorced, there is $50,000 in marital funds, you need to pay bills of $20,000, and your parents give you $20,000. You have two options. In Option A, you spend the $20,000 gift from your parents. In divorce, you and your spouse will equitably divide the remaining marital funds of $50,000, so you and your spouse will each get approximately $25,000 in marital funds. In Option B, you preserve the $20,000 gift from your parents and do not comingle it with marital funds, and you pay the $20,000 in bills from marital funds. In divorce, you and your spouse will equitably divide the remaining marital funds of $30,000, so you and your spouse will each get approximately $15,000 in marital funds, and you will keep $20,000 from your parents. So, while your spouse ends up with $15,000, you end up with $35,000. You are better off with Option B.  Therefore, if you need money, spend marital money first, rather than gifts from family.  Preserve and do not spend the gifts from your family.

Loans from Family

Two issues that arise if you receive loans from your family to pay expenses in divorce are: (1) you may be left solely responsible for those loans; and (2) loans from family may not be given as much weight as other debts.

First, you are likely to be left solely responsible for the debts you incur in your sole name.

Maryland Courts cannot allocate debts, so after divorce you will be solely responsible for the debts in your name. D.C. Courts can distribute debts accumulated during the marriage, but there are no guarantees in court. If you are getting divorce and individually borrow money from your family to pay bills, the remaining and unspent marital property will be equitably divided. While debt is considered in the equitable division of marital property, in Maryland you will be left responsible for the debts in your individual name, and in D.C. you could be. So, when possible, it is better to spend marital property rather than taking a loan.

Assume that you’re getting divorced in Maryland, there is $50,000 in marital funds, and you need $20,000 to pay bills. You have two options. In Option A, you take a loan for $20,000. In this situation, at the time of divorce you and your spouse will each equitably divide the remaining marital funds of $50,000, so in divorce you and your spouse will each likely get $25,000 each, but you have a $20,000 loan that you are solely responsible for. In actuality, this leaves you with only $5,000 net and your spouse with $25,000 net. In Option B, you pay the $20,000 from the $50,000 marital funds. This leaves $30,000 remaining in marital funds, so in the divorce you and your spouse will each likely get $15,000 each. You are better off with Option B. Therefore, if you need money, spend marital money first before you take a loan.

Second, if you are taking a loan, it is up to the Court how much to weigh the evidence in their ultimate decision when equitably dividing the marital property (and in D.C. when also equitably dividing the debts accumulated during the marriage). Courts may be less likely to heavily weigh debts from family, as opposed to debts from banks or on credit cards. Therefore, if incurring a debt is necessary, then consider getting a debt from a bank or putting it on a credit card. If you choose to get a loan from family, then you should at a minimum sign a note or other loan document confirming the money is a loan and the repayment terms.

In summary, you are likely better off spending marital assets, as opposed to spending money from family, whether gifts or loans because whatever marital assets are left will be divided between you and your spouse. If you do need money and cannot access marital funds, then I suggest you take a loan, rather than spending gift money, and check out my article Should I Get a Loan While Getting Divorced? 

Each case is different, so if you find yourself needing money, you should consult a family law attorney. At Lerch, Early & Brewer, we guide our clients through the day-to-day decisions they have to make in the divorce process so that they make decisions that are in their best interests. 

For more information, contact Erin at 301-347-1261 or elkopelman@lerchearly.com.

Visualizing Your Life: Achieving Your Post-Divorce Goals

Chris RobertsChris Roberts, Principal

I have found that an effective way to face divorce is to visualize your future post-divorce life, then work backwards (so to speak) from that end goal to take the steps necessary to achieve it. This strategy can help you shape the positions you take during the divorce and create a light at the end of the tunnel.

I discuss this concept in detail above. Please don’t hesitate to follow up with me at cwroberts@lerchearly.com and check out my bio for more on my practice and background: https://www.lerchearly.com/people/christopher-w-roberts.

You May Need These Other Professionals During Your Divorce

AvatarCasey Florance, Principal

Going through a divorce is an extremely stressful time.  There are so many decisions you will need to make, and having the advice and wisdom of a trusted divorce attorney may just be the starting point.  Here is a primer on some of the other professionals you may need during your divorce process, depending on the issues you are facing.

Therapist/Counselor.  Most people in the middle of a divorce would be well-served to have their own therapist or counselor for extra support during the process. Divorce lawyers are not therapists and we don’t take insurance. Get a mental health professional on your side to help make sure you are focused on and able to pursue your own best interests throughout the divorce.  It will be important for you to be able to make confident decisions as you move forward, and having an individual therapist/counselor may be key.    

Real Estate Agent/Appraiser/Mortgage Broker.  If there is a family home (or any other real estate) at issue in your case, you will likely need to know the home’s value, or what kind of work would need to be done in order to maximize the sales price, or even whether you might qualify to re-finance an existing mortgage.  You may also need assistance in locating a new home and figuring out exactly what you can afford to buy or rent after the divorce.  

CPA/Tax Attorney/Financial Adviser.  Many married couples share an accountant and/or a financial planner. For joint assets, joint tax filings, and joint financial goals this may make sense.  During a divorce, however, I encourage my clients to identify and hire their own accountant and/or financial planner, so that their individualized goals are addressed and met, both during the divorce process and thereafter.  There may be decisions about tax filing status, deductions, and other tax matters; as well as how and whether investments can or should be divided during the divorce.  And if the IRS is or may become involved, a solid tax controversy attorney may become necessary.  Having trusted professionals who are solely focused on your needs will help you gather the information you need to make the best decisions now and for your future.    

Other Attorneys: Bankruptcy, Estate Planning, Immigration, Criminal Defense, etc.  Your case may involve any number of legal issues that a divorce attorney is not an expert in, but you will still need advice on those topics in order to make the best decisions possible during your divorce process.  Having more than one lawyer may become important, depending on your case.  And you will be best served to get your estate plan updated once your divorce is complete.   

Private Investigator.  Whether you suspect your spouse is cheating or you want proof of what your co-parent is really up to when he or she has parenting time with your kids, you may find yourself in need of a private investigator during your divorce. 

At Lerch Early, we are well-versed in, and well-connected to, the additional resources that our clients will need to achieve their goals during a divorce.  We want our clients to be able to make informed, intelligent decisions at every step.  And our goal is always for our clients to be able to move forward with their lives in a positive and productive way.  

For more information, contact Casey at 301-657-0162 or cwflorance@lerchearly.com.

Can You Really Get Divorced From Your Couch?

Erin KopelmanErin Kopelman, Principal

Who would have imagined years ago that in 2020 you would be able get divorced from your living room sofa? It is as if it were predicted in the movie “Back to the Future,” like video phones or hoverboards (sort of).

However, this change allowing people to get divorced from their own homes is not the result of some creative Hollywood writer, but because the COVID-19 pandemic occurred during a time when the technology was ripe to go virtual.

The pandemic has caused hardships to many individuals and business. It has forced people to work and do business differently, including our court systems. While the pandemic has been strenuous on our court systems, causing a re-shuffling and backlog of cases, it has also forced our legal system into the digital age.

Our Court system had to quickly adapt to working remotely. Hearings and trials that were almost exclusively in person were converted in a short period of time to occurring virtually over Zoom and WebEx. While no system is perfect and glitches need to be worked out, it is now possible for a person to decide to divorce, find and retain a lawyer and go through their entire divorce process, even if it consists of a full trial, in their own home.

Many hearings are happening quicker and more efficiently. Pre-pandemic it was customary for Courts to schedule multiple hearings at the same time, so when scheduled to be in Court, a client is paying their lawyer to travel, and while in Court there is often significant time spent waiting for your case to be heard. All of this has significantly been reduced when cases are heard virtually, which can be a big financial savings for clients.

While the ability to take care of everything without going anywhere is logistically easier and may have a financial savings, it is important to keep in mind that it does not necessarily make divorce easier emotionally.

For many, divorcing during the pandemic is more difficult. The lack of a personal connection and human touch with their lawyers may be stressful. Moreover, the inability to be surrounded by an in-person emotional support network of family and friends except through virtual and social distancing interactions may be harder not just on those going through divorce, but also on their children.

At Lerch Early, we are highly cognizant of the emotional and financial stresses of divorce on our clients and keep that in mind as we guide them through their divorces.

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.