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grandparentsAn important emerging issue in Maryland and other states in recent years involves situations in which grandparents have gone to court to seek legal custody of their grandchildren. Recently, the Maryland Court of Appeals faced a first-of-its-kind case:  a matter in which the courts had to adjudicate parental unfitness within the parameters of a third-party custody request case. While the Court of Appeals ruled against the grandparents in this instance, the case nevertheless provides useful guidance about third-party custody actions and reminds us of the importance of working with a knowledgeable Maryland grandparent rights lawyer who is up-to-date on all of the newest changes in the law.

The home situation for the child at the center of the case was a turbulent one. The parents, Natasha and Mark, married in 2006 and had a son in 2008. From 2009 to 2012, the parents were two-thirds of a three-member polyamorous relationship that also included another woman. The three also used illegal drugs. By 2013, the father allegedly became violent, and the mother obtained a restraining order. The father moved out, and the mother filed for divorce. A consent agreement that was part of the divorce litigation required both parents to undergo drug testing. The father passed all of his tests, but the mother tested positive for marijuana in 2014.

Later that year, the paternal grandparents filed a request with the court, seeking to intervene in the child custody case. They argued that the court was permitted to, and should, award them custody of the child. They contended that they had been closely involved in the child’s life since birth, both emotionally (including caring for the child while the parents used drugs) and financially (including providing money that the parents used to purchase the marital home). In light of the parents’ illegal drug use, the custody of the child should go to them, they argued.

figure with moneyMost areas of the law, including family law, are evolving and changing constantly, to one degree or another. Ensuring that you give yourself a good chance of success means working with a knowledgeable Maryland divorce attorney who is up-to-date on all of the new changes in the law. These changes can occur through a variety of means, whether it is a new ruling from the Maryland Court of Appeals, a new law enacted by the legislature, or, as was the case in one couple’s military pension dispute, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively upturned several decades of Maryland caselaw.

The spouses in the case, Walter and Verdena, were married from 1972 to 2004. During the marriage, the husband served in the Army National Guard from 1985 to 1987. (He previously served before the marriage from 1969 to 1971.) During his four years in the National Guard, the husband suffered three injuries. The husband retired from the National Guard in 1998 and filed for retirement at that time.

The couple’s 2004 divorce judgment stated that the wife was to receive one-third of the marital portion of the husband’s military pension benefits. In 2009, though, the husband sought a re-evaluation of his disability status. The government increased the husband’s disability rating, which meant that he was entitled to receive 30 percent of his compensation as disability benefits, instead of the previous 10 percent.

large houseIn many circumstances, a divorced spouse may experience a change in employment and, with it, a sizable change in income. When that happens, the law may allow a spouse who owes alimony to seek a modification of that alimony obligation. If, however, the supporting spouse has intentionally reduced or ended his earnings, the law allows the court to “impute income” to the supporting spouse, which means viewing his support obligations in light of the salary he was capable of earning, rather than what he actually took in. For one Montgomery County divorced couple, that rule meant imputing significant income to an ex-husband who, according to the courts, spent extravagantly on everything except making his alimony payments.

The case involved the prolonged Maryland divorce litigation of Dennis and Sheri, who divorced in 2010. Even after the final divorce decree, the couple continued to litigate financial issues. One of those issues was alimony. The original arrangement called for the husband to pay the wife $9,000 per month in alimony. At that time, the husband earned a salary bringing in several hundred thousand dollars per year.

A few years later, the husband asked the court to modify his alimony obligation. He argued that he had incurred a significant reduction in income and that this reduction necessitated a reduction in his alimony payments. The trial court ruled against the husband. Instead, the court agreed with the wife that the husband was voluntarily impoverished, and, based upon that voluntary impoverishment, the court was entitled to impute income, which it did to an amount in excess of $300,000. With the husband’s imputed income standing at more than $300,000 per year, the husband lacked a sufficient change of circumstances needed to trigger a modification of his alimony obligation.

gavelWhen you are faced with a family law dispute and the potential need to go to court to contest an issue like child custody and visitation, it may be tempting to try to handle your case, or your appeal, on your own. This choice is often ill-fated. Experienced Maryland child custody attorneys understand many things that may not be in the “knowledge base” of even a knowledgeable lay person. This includes not only the law but also the details of court procedural rules, in addition to the types of arguments and presentations that are most likely to persuade judges and juries. The case of a self-represented mother, whose appeal document relied heavily upon relatively broad and imprecise constitutional claims, provides just such an example.

The Court of Special Appeals’ involvement in this dispute followed a long-running and sometimes messy custody battle. The child was born in June 2015. Within just a few months, the parents’ relationship had deteriorated, and the mother had opened a custody case in California. The court concluded that Maryland was the child’s legal “home state.” The court in Maryland entered an order on custody and visitation. In May 2016, the father attempted to discuss a visitation handoff of the child, but the mother did not return his calls. Eventually, with the mother still unreachable, the court modified custody to give the father sole custody and issued a child abduction warrant for the mother. Three months later, in September, authorities tracked down the mother and child, who were in Seattle.

After this incident, the mother filed multiple requests for visitation. The trial court rejected them, refusing to give the mother any kind of visitation until she underwent a psychological evaluation.

wallet moneyA popular science fiction movie contained an oft-quoted line that admonished against being someone who “deals in absolutes.” This is often good advice when it comes to many types of legal matters, including alimony cases. It is also why the answer you may get from your Maryland divorce attorney to your alimony question is, “It depends.” For example, many cases in which a supporting spouse qualifies for a modification of spousal support also involve the imposition of a retroactive modification, but not always. In one recent case, the husband qualified for a suspension of his spousal support obligation but not for a retroactive modification because his spending habits after his job ended belied an inability to meet his obligations.

Robert and Mary Ann were a Montgomery County couple who had divorced. As part of their divorce case, they had reached a marital settlement agreement in 2014. That agreement stated that the husband would pay the wife alimony for a limited duration of time.

In most situations, you can file a petition with a court to seek a modification of your alimony. In order to be eligible for a modification, you have to show the judge that you’ve experienced a substantial and material change in your circumstances. The law gives you, as two divorcing spouses, the right to include in your marital settlement agreement terms that state when, if ever, a supporting spouse is eligible to go to court and seek a modification.

birth certificateThe great English poet and playwright William Shakespeare asked, in his play Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” While The Bard’s implication is that a name, by itself, means very little, it can be a very important thing in some family law cases. Whether you are involved in a name change contest or some other family law matter, you have certain rights, which your Maryland family law attorney can help you protect. In a recent case offering an example, a mother was able to get an order changing her son’s name reversed because the trial court didn’t follow the proper procedure.

Anne Marie gave birth to a son on Oct. 25, 2011. Anne Marie was not married. The father was not present at the birth, and no father was listed on the birth certificate. By December, Anne Marie filed a court action seeking genetic testing to establish paternity. Paternity was established the following May, and issues of custody, visitation, and child support were worked out.

In January 2014, the father asked the trial court to alter the child’s name. The son’s last name was that of the mother. The father requested that the court change the child’s last name from that of the mother to his last name. The trial court did not immediately rule on the request.

100 Dollar BillsIn a recent case from Montgomery County, the Court of Special Appeals was presented with a husband’s appeal of an alimony award that granted his ex-wife an indefinite award of five-figure-per-month alimony, even though the wife had a steady six-figure income. The alimony award survived the appeal because, even though the wife had a substantial and steady income, the disparity between the spouses’ respective incomes was so large that, without the award, the disparity would be “unconscionable.”

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sickThere are lots of things that could affect your child custody case. They could involve procedural issues, evidentiary issues, or complexities related to the law. Or they could involve finding yourself sick and unable to travel on the morning of your custody hearing. For one father who was in that position, and whose trial court judge opted to conduct the custody hearing without the father or counsel representing him, he was able to get that trial court’s order overturned on appeal. Under those exceptional circumstances, the father was entitled to a continuance postponing his case, according to a Court of Special Appeals ruling.

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calendarAs we have discussed in this blog before, succeeding in your family law case is about more than just the facts, the evidence, and the law. Having all of these things on your side won’t help you at all if you are not in compliance with rules of procedure. One recent example of this was a case originally from Montgomery County, where a husband received a very unfavorable outcome in his divorce case. Since the husband waited too long to file his appeal challenging the trial judge’s decisions, he lost without the Court of Special Appeals ever even considering the merits of his arguments.

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gavelOne of the many goals of family law cases is to create a degree of stability and finality in the decisions made by the courts. To this end, the law seeks to discourage parents or spouses from using different jurisdictions to re-litigate the same issues repeatedly. This was an issue in one recent Maryland case, in which the Court of Special Appeals upheld a trial court’s decision not to hear a visitation modification case because, according to the lower court, the issue had already been litigated completely elsewhere.

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