Equity and Judicial Discretion in Maryland Divorce Cases

A lot of people, when they hear the phrase “equitable” in connection with a divorce case, immediately think “50-50.” That’s not necessarily true. The law actually gives trial courts broad discretion in deciding what is (or is not) equitable, whether that means distributing assets and/or debt obligations evenly or ordering something different. Given the judge’s substantial discretionary power, it is vital to have a knowledgeable Maryland divorce lawyer on your side, you that you can be confident that the judge has all the information necessary to accurately decide was is a just outcome.

As noted above, a division is not always 50-50. As an example, there’s this divorce-related case from Brookeville.

The spouses worked out a marital settlement agreement in early 2015 that said that the wife would receive the exclusive “use and possession” of the marital home for three years. After that 36-month period elapsed (or if the wife remarried earlier,) the agreement dictated that the home would be listed for sale.

In 2018, the three-year window expired, but the wife refused to sell. Eventually, the husband went back to court and got a judicial order for the sale of the home. The court also appointed a trustee to handle the transaction and ordered the wife to pay all of the trustee’s fees.

The home sold in October 2021, netting $36,000 in proceeds — $18,000 to each spouse. Shortly thereafter, the trustee requested payment of fees totaling $22,000. That meant the wife’s $18,000 went to the trustee and the court ordered her to pay the trustee $4,000 to cover the full $22,000 fee.

The wife appealed that judgment, arguing that Maryland law doesn’t give trial courts the authority to do what the judge did in her case. She contended that, if the court chose to order a sale, the judge could only divide the proceeds between the spouses “according to the parties’ respective rights.”

According to the appeals court, the court did divide the proceeds according to the spouses’ respective rights. It gave the husband $18,000 and the wife $18,000. It simply tacked on an order obliging the wife to pay 100% of the $22,000 sum owed to the trustee, which wiped out her $18,000 and left her owing an additional $4,000. The law permitted the court to do that as part of creating an equitable result.

Judges Have Broad Discretion in Equity Matters

As the appeals court explained, proceedings seeking a judicial sale of a property under Real Property Section 14-107 are “equitable in nature.” Additionally, any proceeding adjudicating “issues related to divorce” is an equitable one, too.

What’s the significance of that? It means that the trial court has “broad discretionary authority.” The law gives judges substantial leeway in fashioning judgments that ensure justice and fairness to all parties. The law also gives trial court judges wide latitude in the factors they choose to consider in deciding what would constitute an equitable outcome.

In this couple’s case, the agreement required the wife to give up the home for sale in early 2018 but she steadfastly refused for almost three years. For several months, the husband paid half of the monthly mortgage payment, even though that payment was the wife’s obligation under the terms of the agreement. The wife continued resisting selling until the husband got a court order. Even then, the wife “continued to frustrate efforts to sell the home.” These were all things that the trial judge was entitled to consider as factors in determining what an equitable outcome should be.

What you can take away from this wife’s unsuccessful appeal is the knowledge that any court proceeding related to your divorce is an equitable one and the law gives courts deciding equity matters very broad discretion in deciding outcomes. These discretionary decisions are often difficult to overturn on appeal, which means that it is crucial to ensure you’ve put your strongest case forward when you’ve before the trial court. Part of that is retaining experienced legal counsel. The knowledgeable Maryland family law attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC are here to be that experienced, effective legal counsel for you, working to ensure that the outcome you receive is a genuinely fair one. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to schedule your consultation.

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