The Court of Special Appeals Weighs in on the Frozen Embryo Issue

AvatarCasey Florance, Principal

In my last post (Who gets the Frozen Embryos in the Divorce?), I explored how the Court might handle the disputed disposition of frozen embryos upon the divorce of the parents-to-be.

I hypothesized that the Court might view embryos as marital property, and I recommended consulting a lawyer as part of the assisted reproductive process to ensure that a clear and enforceable contract is in place regarding the disposition of any frozen embryos upon divorce or either party’s death. 

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland has since answered the question I posed, in a reported opinion issued on April 29, 2021.  In Jocelyn P. v. Joshua P. (WL 1684645), the Court held, as a matter of first impression, that frozen embryos should be given special consideration in light of their potential for human life, and in light of the fundamental and coextensive rights of the embryos’ creators to decide “whether to bear or beget a child,” and accordingly the embryos should not be treated simply as property.  The Court also clarified and set forth the process that the trial courts should follow when addressing the disputed disposition of frozen embryos, using a blended contractual/balancing-of-interests approach.

First, trial courts need to consider the parties’ preferences as set forth in any existing agreements. This may include oral agreements between the parties, and would certainly include an express agreement drafted by the parties’ attorneys.

The Court was careful to caution that trial courts should not consider, however, “boilerplate language in third-party form contracts [such as the form contracts that many fertility centers utilize] that lack expression or direction from the progenitors” because such form contracts “will not qualify as an express agreement for this purpose.” This lends further support for my prior recommendation to engage an attorney to draw up a separate agreement with your partner as part of the assisted reproduction process, so that your and your partner’s intentions and desires are clear and will therefore likely be upheld by a court in the event of a later dispute. 

If there is no express agreement regarding the disposition of the frozen embryos, then the trial courts are directed to seek to balance the competing interests of the parties using six different factors, including the intended use of the frozen pre-embryo if preserved, the parties’ original reasons for undergoing IVF, and the potential burden on the party seeking to avoid becoming a genetic parent. 

Further, the Court of Special Appeals has directed that the trial courts should specifically not consider financial or economic distinctions between the parties, the number of existing children, or whether “reasonable alternatives” such as adoption may be available to the party seeking to become a genetic parent.  

Jocelyn P. v. Joshua P. is a lengthy and interesting read for divorce lawyers, and makes clear that this area of dispute is ripe for invasive and costly litigation when parties do not agree.

So how do you avoid this quagmire if you are thinking of using assisted reproductive technology? See a lawyer and have a clear contract in place between you and your partner regarding the disposition of any fertilized embryos. It will cost time and money upfront, but could save you a boatload of both in the future. 

How to Uncover Your Assets and Financial Situation

Get your Arms Around Your Family Finances

Erin KopelmanErin Kopelman, Principal

One of the most common concerns I hear from my clients is that they do not know their family’s or spouse’s finances. This is more common than you think.  According to some statistics from last year, in 42% of relationships one partner in the relationship handles the finances, and in 46% of marriages the couples have separate bank accounts. This means almost half of married people don’t know their complete financial picture. 

If you don’t know about your family’s finances, and you’re not comfortable asking your spouse or your spouse is non-cooperative, here are eight easy self-help steps you can take to start putting the pieces together. 

  1. Make an inventory of your incomes, assets and debts – just what you know. You can start building from there.
  2. Gather copies of the pay stubs, bank account statements and credit card statements that you can. You can search shared filing cabinets, go online to shared accounts and your individual accounts, or physically to your bank.
  3. Get copies of your income tax returns. Many people don’t know what their spouse earns or where their spouse banks, but they often file joint tax returns. Joint income tax returns will show your combined incomes, and your and your spouse’s interest and dividend income, including the institutions from where it came from, so you will know where you and your spouse bank.  If you don’t have a copy of your income tax returns, you can ask your accountant, or you can request a copy of your tax transcript for several years back online from the IRS at IRs.gov.
  4. Run a credit report on yourself. This will tell you what debts are in your name.
  5. Make an appointment for you, or you and your spouse, with your financial advisor to find out what you have.
  6. Make an appointment for you and your spouse to review or create an estate plan. The first thing most estate attorneys will do is make an inventory of your assets.
  7. See if you can do a Public Records Search on your spouse. A public records search scours the internet for public records that match certain criteria of the individual you are researching and gives you a report of what it finds. There is usually a fee for this. It often shows information about the individual’s court records, social media, addresses and telephone numbers, information from credit bureaus, asset ownership, and business associations.
  8. Open your mail and save everything you get for a full three months. You can just stick it in an envelope or snap a picture of it with your phone. This isn’t helpful if your spouse gets their mail sent to them at their office or electronically. Many of my clients tell me that their spouse always gets the mail. In that case, sign up on the United States Postal Service’s website for Informed Delivery. Informed Delivery is a service that scans and sends you images of the outside of your mail. That way, even if you never tangibly have your mail, you’ll who you and your spouse are receiving mail from.

Getting your arms around your family’s finances is the first step to taking control of your financial future. 

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

The Modern Day File Cabinet: When Can You Access Your Spouse’s Electronically Stored Information?

Chris RobertsChris Roberts, Principal

Your spouse is in the shower and his or her phone lights up on the nightstand… a text message from an unknown number. You unlock the phone using the same tried and true six-digit password that has served as security for countless phones, computers, and email accounts. A string of text messages between your spouse and a lover appears. So begins a deep dive into every electronic device and email account you can get your hands on.

What’s a little snooping between spouses, you ask? Depending on what data you accessed and how, you may have violated a Federal statute punishable by incarceration for up to five years and fines of up to $10,000, per violation. That means that if you read three of your spouse’s unopened emails without his or her consent, you’re looking at a potential 15 years in the slammer and $30,000 in fines.

Don’t Access Your Spouse’s E-mails and Text Messages Without Their Consent

Electronically Stored Information, often referred to as ESI, can take many forms. One bright line distinction is whether or not the ESI is “in transit” when it is obtained. Federal law and many state statutes prohibit the interception of electronic communications without the knowledge and consent of at least one party to the communication. This means that you cannot open an unread email sitting in your spouse’s inbox unless they are aware and consent to your doing so.

This same prohibition applies to the interception of text messages, messages on social media, phone calls, or any other type of electronic communication. As a simple rule of thumb, if you have to access the information on any type of electronic device, it is probably illegal to do so.

Not only is it a crime to intercept electronic communications, generally speaking, illegally obtained evidence is not permitted to be used as evidence in court. So that smoking gun you found by rifling through your spouse’s DMs likely will do you no good in a contested hearing.

The Family Computer Is a Different Story

The same prohibitions do not apply to static data no longer in transit, which is stored on the hard drive of a desktop, laptop, or other electronic device.

Whether or not you can make use of static ESI hinges on whether you have legitimate access to the device. If data is protected by a password that only your spouse knows, in most cases you are not permitted to guess your way into the machine or otherwise hack your way into the data.

Think of a computer as a filing cabinet in the marital home. If the filling cabinet is unlocked, you have a key, or everyone in the house knows the key is somewhere in the junk drawer in your kitchen, you clearly have a right to access the files in the cabinet. If only your spouse has the key to the cabinet and it is known to be off-limits, you may not have a right access it.

Similarly, if your spouse has given you the password to a computer or other electronic device, in most cases you can access the data on the device. The same may go for a device protected by a commonly used family password. Not only can you access these devices, you may also rely on the assistance of an expert to obtain or analyze the data. This can include clandestine imaging of the device, which allows you to obtain all of the data on the device, preserving it for later use and analysis. Hard drives or other electronic storage may include financial information, family budgets, account information, estate planning, and a wealth of other information.

Other Considerations Related to ESI

If you have any reason to anticipate a dispute or court litigation with your spouse, you should never destroy data. Litigants have a duty to preserve evidence, and the destruction of evidence, also knowns as spoliation, can result in severe sanctions in a court litigation. This could include a judge dismissing your court filing and requests for relief altogether. It also may paint you as a ‘bad actor’ in the Court’s eyes, which can negatively impact your case in a number of ways.

There are many software programs with allow you to capture data from a device as it is generated, including keystroke logging software and similar programs. Keep in mind that, even though you are not actively monitoring the device, you will be held responsible for whatever the program is doing. These programs may be violating Federal or state law, which means you may be breaking those same laws.

In addition to Federal law related to the collection and use of ESI, each state has its own laws, which may differ from the Federal rules and those in other states. Consideration of efforts to collect or use ESI is heavily reliant on the specific rules and language of the applicable statutes, as well as the specific facts in each case or circumstance involving ESI.

If you have any question about the legality of your efforts to pursue ESI, you should consult with an attorney familiar with the applicable laws in your jurisdiction. In many cases, they may also suggest consultation with a forensic computer expert. Getting this advice and guidance early on may not only keep you out of trouble, but could also enable you to safely and legally capture ESI that could be invaluable later.

To Vax or Not To Vax: Co-Parents Face Tough Decision When It Comes to Vaccinating Kids

Erin KopelmanErin Kopelman, Principal

Ever since it was announced that children age 16 and older can get vaccinated against COVID-19, the phone is ringing and emails are popping from clients — many of whom I haven’t heard from in some time. The issue many of them are struggling with is that they and their co-parent disagree on whether to get their children vaccinated.

Whether your child receives a vaccination is a medical decision. Medical decisions of minor children are controlled by whomever has decision-making authority or legal custody. If you have a custody agreement or order, your agreement or order should says who has legal custody or decision making authority, and therefore who gets to determine whether your children will get a vaccination.

For those of you with joint legal custody or joint decision making authority, determining what to do may be more difficult. Joint legal custody or joint decision making authority means that you and your co-parent are supposed to discuss and make any decisions jointly. For those of you with joint legal custody or joint decision-making authority, check your custody agreement or order carefully. There may be a dispute-resolution provision requiring you to take specific steps to resolve the impasse before taking further action.

If you and your co-parent disagree about whether to vaccinate your children, take your current custody agreement or order and consult a family lawyer. There are creative solutions you perhaps haven’t explored, which have been successful in resolving legal custody decisions. In addition, they can advise you about what next options are available.

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

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.

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.

Donna Van Scoy Honored as One of Maryland’s Top 100 Women by The Daily Record

Family Law GroupFamily Law Group

Divorce attorney Donna Van Scoy has been selected as one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women by The Daily Record.

According to The Daily Record, “Maryland’s Top 100 Women recognizes high-achieving Maryland women who are making an impact through their leadership, community service and mentoring. Winners are selected by past Top 100 Women and business leaders.”

A highly regarded member of the family law bar, Donna also made this list in 2013.  Additionally, The Daily Record previously recognized Donna as a Leader in Law. 

Click here to read the full release: https://www.lerchearly.com/news/donna-van-scoy-honored-as-one-of-marylands-top-100-women-by-the-daily-record

Let’s Collaborate!

Over the first two weeks in March, we completed training to qualify us to practice Collaborative Divorce. In sharing feedback at the conclusion of the training, we both are excited about having a new option to offer our clients in terms of process.

Perhaps the most enticing part of Collaborative is the team-based approach and the transparency – it is a holistic approach that empowers clients to make informed decisions for their family’s future. Collaborative also offers a paradigm shift from the standard approach to separation and divorce; it discards the traditional, adversarial, position based approach in favor of a cooperative, interest-based approach that is often less combative and more constructive.

What is Collaborative Divorce and how does it compare in terms of process and cost to more traditional options like litigation?  Inspired after our training, we break it down for you here:

The Collaborative process represents an entirely different construct than the traditional litigation model. It forges an entirely distinctive path. Unlike mediation or even similar collaborative-style dispute resolution tools, a true collaborative process, governed by a Collaborative Participation Agreement, operates in a wholly different universe than litigation.

The Collaborative process is the definition of ‘pot committed.’ Both parties commit fully, to each other and the process, from the outset.  The process requires more than just a theoretical commitment. The parties must hire a Collaborative team, including attorneys for both parties, one or more “coaches,” a financial neutral, and perhaps other neutrals such as a child specialist, a forensic business valuator, or mental health professional. All of the professionals will have received training in the Collaborative process.

Some of the anchors of the Collaborative process are:

  • No Litigation
  • Client Self-Determination
  • Full Disclosure
  • Cross-team Communications
  • Creativity

How does the cost compare to a traditional case proceeding in a litigation model? 

Litigation: The cost of filing a complaint for divorce is relatively nominal, perhaps a couple hundred dollars, but then the case may take a life of its own as the issues grow and expand and more professionals must be involved. So, the expense starts out small and balloons in ways the parties may not have anticipated. Additionally, there are two sets of expense, for every issue and professional. 

Collaborative:  The upfront investment is larger, but the universe is well-defined. There is efficiency in hiring joint neutrals for some roles, and the parties are jointly incentivized not only to narrow the issues in their case but also the related expenses.   

As with so many aspects of separation and divorce, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing the right process for you. The circumstances of each case, including the personal dynamics between the parties are critical considerations. 

Anyone considering the Collaborative process should seek advice from a qualified and collaboratively trained divorce attorney regarding all of the potential divorce options so you can carefully choose the process that meets your need. 

For more information, contact Heather at hscollier@lerchearly.com or Chris at cwroberts@lerchearly.com.

Who gets the Frozen Embryos in the Divorce?

AvatarCasey Florance, Principal

Scrolling through the newsfeed on my Facebook page recently brought me to an article about the actress Sofía Vergara’s long legal battle with her former fiancé, Nick Loeb, over the disposition of their frozen embryos.

They had apparently planned to have children – and gone through the beginning stages of the process to do so – but then broke up before any of the embryos were brought to term. At issue in the multiple lawsuits across multiple states was the fiancé’s desire to keep the frozen embryos and bring them to term without Vergara’s consent. Vergara opposed these requests and sought court intervention to stop his unilateral actions.  

Like so many of the issues we deal with in divorce, what is supposed to be an exciting and happy time for a couple can quickly turn into an expensive and protracted dispute if the relationship sours. Compounding the issue here is that technology develops at a much faster pace than our laws do, despite many of our legislators’ best efforts. As a result, if you are considering expanding your family using assisted reproductive technology, you may want to consult with a lawyer as part of the process.  

Most fertility clinics have expansive paperwork that each hopeful parent must complete as part of any assisted reproductive technology process. Included in the many decisions the hopeful parents must make are what should happen to any fertilized embryos following the process. Will the extras be stored? Disposed of? And what should happen to them if one party wants to dispose of them but the other party does not? What about if one party were to pass away? Can the other party keep them and use them as he or she sees fit?

If the hopeful parents have elected to keep the fertilized embryos stored, and then their relationship ends, what happens to the embryos then? And can a court intervene?

What can the Courts do?

In Maryland, the court would not have jurisdiction to make a custody decision regarding frozen embryos. The court can only make custody decisions with regard to a “child” which is defined in multiple places in our Family Law statutes as an “individual under the age of 18” (with some exceptions). Frozen embryos are not children because they have not been born yet so, political/religious stances notwithstanding, a custody action is of no utility.

If the hopeful parents were married when the embryos were created, then the embryos would arguably be considered “marital property” at the time of the divorce – which is defined as property, however titled, acquired by one or both parties during the marriage. If the parties’ contract with the fertility clinic is not clear on the disposition of the embryos upon a divorce, then the court could have the power to determine ownership of the embryos under the marital property statute. Whether the court would actually do it, however, given the ethical and legal ramifications attendant to granting one parent the ability to create a life that the other parent has not consented to, remains to be seen. 

How do you avoid this possible quagmire? See a lawyer and have a clear contract in place between you and your partner regarding the disposition of any fertilized embryos. It will cost time and money upfront, but could save you a boatload of both in the future.

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