Preparing for Separation and Divorce

AvatarDonna E. Van Scoy, Principal

It is wise to meet with a divorce attorney, if possible, before your separation. If not, do so close to your separation.

Obtaining information about the process and having your questions answered helps with the stress and uncertainty. It also enables you to participate in how your divorce will proceed.

To locate an attorney communicate with your family, friends, co-workers, professional contacts, and community contacts. You can also search the internet for divorce lawyers and lawyer organizations that provide information about divorce lawyers. You will be spending a lot of time and sharing personal information with your attorney. Be sure you feel that you are being listened to and your questions are being answered. Be sure you are comfortable with your attorney.

If you have a child(ren) you will need to be prepared to discuss the legal and physical custody of the child(ren). Legal custody is the parental decision making regarding the child(ren) and their health, education and welfare. Physical custody is where and when the child(ren) will have custodial access with each parent. Child support is also a topic. As is which parent will remain in the family home or if both will relocate.

Depending on the length of the marriage and the financial picture of each party, alimony can be an issue. Review your monthly household expenses. Be prepared to discuss your family lifestyle. If you are a stay at home parent, you will need to share you educational background and work history. If you are the parent who provides the financial support for the family (or the majority of the financial support), be prepared to share each parent’s contributions and your position on the future financial contribution of the other parent. If you and your spouse are a two career family, be prepared to discuss the finances moving forward and the needs of each household.

Consider bringing three to five years of tax returns to your initial consult. Preparing a document that sets out all of you and your spouse’s assets is helpful in providing you with a complete and working picture. When preparing the document include all houses, land, vehicles, bank accounts (separate and joint), credit cards, debts, retirement accounts, investment accounts, stocks, art, jewelry, inheritance, and any others accounts or items of value. Provide all information. The attorney can help you determine what is important.

If you are not in a place to do the pre-work above, an attorney can still obtain your factual information, ask questions to fill in the blanks and share the law with you. They can assist you in putting your information together and prepare you to begin the divorce process. An attorney can also discuss the options available to secure your divorce. They will provide you information on negotiation, mediation, collaborative law, arbitration, and litigation.

For more information, contact Donna at 301-610-0110 or devanscoy@lerchearly.com.

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.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Telling Your Children Their Parents are Getting Divorced

AvatarDonna E. Van Scoy, Principal

Few couples marry with the thought that someday they will be divorced. Fewer couples have children with the thought that they will be children of divorce.

Despite parties’ intentions, divorces happen. If you have children and decide to divorce, PLEASE make every effort to work together to tell your children you are getting divorce. Your children will remember how they found out their parents were getting divorced. Your children will remember how each parent told them or if a parent did not discuss the divorce with them. Your children will remember how each parent acted during the divorce. PLEASE put your children first when telling them their parents are divorcing.

Whether your children are five, 18, or somewhere in between, you are their parent, their mom or dad. They need you to be the adult during this emotional time in their lives. You and your spouse will also be dealing with your own real and raw emotions. Every effort needs to be made to work together regarding the information your children receive so it is consistent and they do not become involved in the details of the divorce.

DON’TS:

  1. Do not race to be the first parent to tell your children that their dad or mom is leaving the family. There is no need to tell your children that their mom or dad is having an affair. There is no need to tell your children that dad or mom is unhappy and wants to go live their own life.
  2. Do not refuse to allow your children to communicate or see their parent because your spouse hurt you or they are being unreasonable in the divorce. Nothing good can come out of you refusing to allow your children to attend an important family event with their other parent because it is you “time.” Remember your children are part of each of their parent’s families. Your children love both of their parents and both sides of their family.
  3. Do not share details of the family finances with your children. Do not specifically blame the other parent as a reason they cannot have something or do something.  While better not to address, if necessary, come up with joint and consistent statements to the children about financial issues.
  4. Do not use your child(ren), no matter how old they are or how much they offer, as a sounding board to discuss the divorce. It is important during your divorce to have a support person and/or group. That person or group cannot be your child(ren). Look to organized groups, a therapist, friends, and relatives (minus the children).
  5. Do not ever share any written documents or Court documents concerning your divorce with your children. It does not matter how old your children are they are still the children and the document is still sharing information about their Mom and Dad.

DO’S:

  1. Love your children more than you dislike your spouse. You children deserve to hear that each parent loves them and that the love will not change because of the divorce. They need to hear the divorce was not their fault.
  2. If possible, tell your children together with your spouse about the divorce. For suggestions on how to talk to your children consider speaking to their pediatrician, a therapist, reading articles, and/or reading a book. Investigate the best way to communicate with your children depending on their age. Determine if you should tell all your children together or separate. If as parents you cannot tell your children together, agree on a plan of how, when, and what to tell them separately. Don’t ignore their questions and answer them in an age appropriate manner. Share with your spouse details of the discussion.
  3. Allow your children to take their possessions (including clothing, outerwear, uniforms, and shoes) between households. Respect the other parent and children by timely returning and sharing the possessions. If important to the children and possible, allow the family pet to travel with the children. Be extra patient with your children as they learn to move between homes. Both parents need to work together when items are forgotten or misplaced.
  4. Observe your children. It is possible they may need and/or benefit from seeing a therapist. If you are unsure but concerned, contact their pediatrician, teacher, and/or school counselor. Also, speak with your spouse.
  5. Spend quality time with your children. This will be a hard time for you and your children. Spending time together will help you and will help your children. Making new memories allows everyone to move forward.

For more information, contact Donna at 301-610-0110 or devanscoy@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.

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.

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.