Monday, January 31, 2011

Maryland Legislature Considers Changes to Divorce Law

On January 24, 2011, a bill was introduced in the Maryland legislature to change the time requirements necessary to obtain an absolute divorce in the state on the grounds of voluntary separation and statutory (two-year) separation. Under the proposed bill, to obtain a divorce on the basis of voluntary separation, the parties would only need to be living separate and apart without cohabitation for a period of six months. Under current law, the parties must be living separate and apart for 12 months. Similarly, the proposed law would reduce the time period for obtaining a divorce on the basis of separation (when the parties do not agree that the separation is mutual and voluntary) from two years to one year.

I support the proposed bill as I believe it is more in line with the modern practicalities and economic realities of divorce and separation in the state, although I am mindful of the legislature's desire to promote marriage.

To express your position on the bill, contact your Maryland state legislator.

Friday, January 7, 2011


In a separation or property settlement agreement, many parents will often agree to pay for or split the costs of extra-curricular activities for their children without giving much thought to this provision. This seemingly innocuous agreement to split extra-curricular activity costs, however, can spell financial disaster later for the unsuspecting parent.

What most parents do not consider when they agree to pay for or share extra-curricular activity costs is the potential cost of the activities they are committing themselves to pay for. While parents may be thinking about $50.00 recreational sports fees and $100.00 Girl Scout troop fees, the actual costs of extra-curricular activities in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area may be much higher. If your children are into sports, annual travel sports team fees can exceed $5,000.00 a year. Even seemingly benign activities such as music lessons can cost thousands of dollars a year, depending upon the provider. When a parent agrees to split the cost of extra-curricular activities, they may unwittingly commit themselves to pay extraordinarily expensive fees such as these. Extra-curricular activity expenses can easily add $500.00 a month or more to a parent’s support payments. And if the provision to pay is included in a signed separation agreement, there is no way out of the commitment, even if you do not have the money to pay these additional costs.

Worse still is the fact that, notwithstanding a shared or sole payment arrangement, either parent may be able to enroll their children in these expensive activities without the consent of the other. Although parents may share joint legal custody, the decision making authority encompassed by shared legal custody generally does not include such routine decisions as what after-school activities your children may participate in, irrespective of the cost. Thus, if one parent wants a child to participate on a travel soccer team at a cost of $5,000.00 per year, the other parent may not have the power to stop it and may have to pay half the cost of the activity regardless of his or her ability to pay.

Parents also often agree to share the cost of summer camp in separation agreements without giving this provision much thought either. However, one parent’s idea of camp may be YMCA day camp and the other’s may be sleep away camp in Maine for four weeks. The parent who envisioned day camp may, however, end up paying thousands of dollars each year for his or her child to enjoy the Maine experience.

What happens if you don’t pay your share of the agreed upon expenses set out in a separation agreement? Expect a contempt motion to be filed against you by your ex-spouse alleging non-compliance with the agreement. And, to add insult to injury, you can also expect a demand for your ex-spouse’s attorney’s fees to be included in the contempt motion.

To avoid this predicament, make sure you place limits on the amount of extra-curricular expenses you agree to pay for in a separation agreement. For example, the agreement can provide that you will agree to split the cost of extra-curricular activities, but only up to a certain dollar amount per year. Or, alternatively, you can define “joint legal custody” to include decision making regarding extra-curricular activities and camp. That way neither parent can commit the other to pay for an after-school activity without the other’s consent.

Jewish parents who agree to split Bar or Bat Mitzvah costs in a separation agreement should also clearly set out what those costs will include and/or set a dollar limit for the event in the agreement. One parent may be thinking a 250 person party at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown is an appropriate celebration while the other may be envisioning a kids-only party at the Potomac Community Center. Be clear about what you are committing yourself to pay for.

The more specific you are about expenses now, the better it will serve you later.

And, you should never sign a separation agreement without it being reviewed by an attorney.

For more information about separation agreements, call our office at (301) 444-4664.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

In Maryland, Can You Force Your Spouse to Leave the Marital Home?

One of the most common questions I am asked by clients and prospective clients is whether they can force their spouse to leave the marital home. Generally, the answer is “no,” assuming that the spouse who they want to force from the home is on title to the house or the lease.

An exception to this general rule is if a protective order is issued by the Circuit or District Court that compels the spouse to vacate the property. Protective orders are commonly issued if one spouse assaults or threatens the other. A protective order forcing a party to leave the home may be issued if an assault “in any degree” has occurred. A protective order was once issued against one of my clients because he spat on his wife. That constituted assault.

Because many people know that the only way to get their spouse out of the house is by issuance of a protective order, these orders are sometimes sought and used by parties in a strategic manner. Thus, I always warn clients about this potential and counsel them not to do anything stupid. If you believe your spouse is picking a fight or is trying to induce you to do something to get you removed from your home, walk away and leave the situation. Do not verbally threaten your spouse, do not put them in fear for their safety and do not touch them in any manner. Such actions could result in issuance of a protective order and get you removed from your house. (On the flip side, if your spouse assaults or threatens to harm you, call the police immediately and, if appropriate, consider obtaining a protective order against him or her.)

Many people whose spouse will not leave the home are concerned about the effect of their leaving the house in a subsequent divorce action. They are concerned that their spouse will file for divorce on the basis of desertion or abandonment. This concern is generally unfounded and the fact that one spouse left the marital home will generally not be used as a factor against him or her in a subsequent divorce action. Judges are aware that someone typically has to leave the house in order to end a marriage in Maryland and do not hold the fact that they left the home against them. What I often have clients do who are concerned about this is write their spouse a letter, stating that they are going to move out of the house, because he or she has refused to do so.

If you want your spouse to leave the marital home, ask them to. If they refuse, you will need to consider your other options.