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. 

What Does Divorce Mean for Your Vacation Home?

If you own a vacation home, odds are that you consider it a place of serenity and fond memories. When couples separate and divorce is on the horizon, the question is inevitably asked: “What happens to our vacation house?”

First, you and your spouse can always agree on what to do with your vacation home. Examples of the types of agreements you and your spouse could reach are: agreement to sell it and divide the proceeds, one spouse could buy-out the other spouse’s interest and keep the home, or perhaps the home becomes part of a bigger picture estate plan or trust so that children and grandchildren may continue to enjoy it, despite any divorce. You can agree with your spouse about the fate of your vacation home at any time during the divorce process. You don’t have to wait until the divorce is final.

If you and your spouse cannot agree and you have a contested divorce case, your trial will likely be a year or more away. The court will decide what will happen to your vacation home only at the end of the entire process – and the court is limited to two options:

  1. Order the sale of a jointly titled vacation home and the equal division of any sales proceeds; or
  2. If the vacation home is titled only in one spouse’s name, the court cannot transfer title to the other spouse. However, if the home was acquired during the marriage with marital funds, the non-titled spouse has a martial property interest in the home. The court may order the spouse who owns the home to make a monetary award payment to the other spouse in consideration of their interest in the home and as part of the overall equitable distribution of marital property. “Equitable” does not always mean equal – who gets what depends on the courts consideration of a variety factors – some of which include the duration of the marriage, each party’s age, health, financial circumstances, and contributions to the marriage and property, and the circumstances that contributed to the divorce.

If you and your spouse do not agree on what to do with your vacation home, consider that prior to the actual divorce, the court cannot:

  • Force you or your spouse to sell your home;
  • Force you or your spouse to refinance any debt associated with the home;
  • Force your or your spouse to move out of a jointly titled vacation home. The one exception to this is if a party is ordered stay-away from a vacation home being used as one or both parties’ residence incident to a domestic violence protective order;
  • Force you or your spouse to pay the mortgage or carrying costs.

Also, if you and your spouse do not agree on what to do with vacation home, and it is titled in joint name or solely in your spouse’s name, the court cannot transfer it to you.

You and your spouse can enter into an agreement to do something other than what the court can do, which is legally binding and enforceable.

Before filing in court or entering into any divorce related agreement, you should consult with a family law attorney to determine what effect this has on the other issues in your case.

The Court has more options when it comes to what can happen to your primary home in a divorce. For more information about that, see our article, “What does divorce mean for your home?

For more information, contact Heather at hscollier@lerchearly.com and Erin at elkopelman@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.

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.

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

AvatarErik Arena, Principal

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

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

Not all Dollars Should be Valued Equally in Divorce

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

Which Assets and/or Dollars are Most Valuable?

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

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

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

  • Furniture and home furnishings.
  • Automobiles.

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

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

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

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

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

Are You a Millennial Thinking about Marriage? Here’s What You Should Know about Divorce

Liz EstephanLiz Estephan, Attorney

Millennials are causing a 24% rate in decline in the divorce rate, according to Business Insider.

There are a few reasons for this statistic like waiting longer to get married, establishing careers, and paying off student loan debt. But if you are a millennial and have decided to get married or are thinking about marriage, here’s what you should know about divorce.

Accounts and Assets

If you and your soon-to-be spouse decide not to have any joint accounts, this does not mean that you do not have an interest in his or her account.

Once you are married, at least in the District of Columbia and Maryland, typically any income to either you or your soon-to-be-spouse is considered marital property. You and your spouse should have frank conversations about your financials and disclose any and all accounts to each other.

Upon divorce, marital assets and accounts are equitably divided.  If you do not know your spouse’s accounts and assets and your spouse is not forthright when you are navigating a divorce, you may have to spend more money in discovery to determine all of your spouse’s accounts and assets.

Real Property

Are you and your soon-to-be spouse thinking about buying property in Maryland or the District of Columbia? Perhaps you had better wait until you are married.

When you are married and buy property in either of these two jurisdictions, there is a presumption that you and your soon-to-be spouse will be tenants by the entirety rather than joint tenants or tenants in common. Tenants by the entirety means that each spouse has an undivided interest in the real property and there is a right of survivorship (if one of you were to pass, the survivor would assume ownership of your home). Maryland has a presumption that real property owned by a married couple is held as tenants by entirety.

If you purchase property before you are married, you could either be tenants in common or joint tenants.

Tenants in common means that you and your soon-to-be spouse have an undivided interest in the property, you are joint owner, but you each own a specific share of the property, your shares do not necessarily have to be equal. Tenants in common do not have a right of survivorship. This could become an issue if your soon-to-be spouse has children from a previous relationship or marriage as the children could inherit your soon-to-be spouse’s interest in the property, not you.

Joint tenants means that you and your soon-to-be spouse have an undivided interest in the real property with rights of survivorship. You and your spouse must intend to create a joint tenancy and the deed should reflect a joint tenancy. Maryland has a presumption against joint tenancy.

Non-marital Property

Do you have a trust, inheritance or real property that you received prior to marriage? This type of property is typically considered non-marital property. For example, if you thinking about using an inheritance to put towards a down payment on a home with your soon-to-be spouse, do not lose track of any of the documentation showing where the money originated.

If you divorce, you want to prove to your spouse and potentially a court, that you have a greater interest in the property because of your non-marital contribution. If you have significant premarital assets, you should consider a prenuptial agreement.

Steps To Protect Your Inheritance And Gifts Received From Third Parties

Erin KopelmanErin Kopelman, Principal

Did you know that, if handled correctly, your inheritance and individual gifts from third parties are non-marital property?

Many people received inheritances and gifts from their families during their marriage. In Maryland, property received prior to marriage, by a gift from a third party or inheritance, or directly traceable to such sources is your non-marital property – meaning you keep it and it will not be divided with your spouse in divorce. 

Similarly, in DC, property received prior to marriage, by a gift or inheritance, or property in exchange therefor is your separate property – meaning you keep it and it will not be divided with your spouse in divorce.

The problem that many face is that they co-mingle, or mix, their non-marital or separate funds with marital funds. For example:

  • They deposit non-marital/separate funds into an account with marital money, or
  • In reverse they deposit marital funds into the account holding the gift or inheritance, their spouse deposits money into the account holding the gift or inheritance, they “loan” money to the marriage and pay themselves back with marital funds into the account holding the gift or inheritance, or even title the gift or inheritance in joint name.

If you have property prior to marriage, or receive property by gift or inheritance during the marriage, keep it separate!

If it’s investible assets, I suggest depositing and investing them at a new banking institution where you do not keep any other monies, and whatever you do, do not add to it.  Also, maintain all paperwork showing where the money came from along with monthly or annual statements from the date of your marriage onward in a safe place.

When in doubt, consult a divorce attorney.