Fraud in Your Maryland Divorce Case and the Importance of Having Skilled Legal Representation

As family law attorneys, we see the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to divorce litigation. One unfortunate scenario that occurs regrettably often is a spouse who receives divorce papers from his/her spouse but decides to proceed with the divorce without legal counsel. This choice can have seriously damaging consequences, both financially and otherwise. Don’t make that mistake; instead, retain an experienced Maryland divorce lawyer to be the effective advocate you need.

A divorce case from Annapolis is a strong cautionary tale in this regard. The husband’s complaint alleged that both spouses mutually agreed not to seek alimony and that the spouses had “no marital property or debts that need to be decided by the court.”

At a virtual hearing in 2021, the magistrate judge asked if the spouses had resolved all their issues and distributed all their property. The spouses — neither of whom had attorneys — said yes. The magistrate explained that the spouses’ answers constituted a waiver, meaning “you cannot come back to the [c]ourt at a later date and ask the [c]ourt to grant your relief.” The magistrate asked if the spouses understood, and again both spouses said yes.

A year and a half later, the wife hired legal counsel. With the help of her lawyer, she filed a motion to reopen the case.

The law only allows spouses to reopen their finalized divorces in exceptional circumstances, including mistakes, duress/coercion, or certain types of fraud. The wife argued that she and the husband signed a written marital settlement agreement in December 2020 that covered property and other issues, and that the husband’s failure to file that agreement with the court constituted extrinsic fraud.

The trial court sided with the wife, but the appeals court reversed that ruling. The appeals court’s opinion explained that even if the spouses signed a written settlement agreement (as the wife alleged and the husband denied,) and even if the husband failed to file that document with the court or notify the court of its existence (as the wife alleged,) the conduct would not amount to extrinsic fraud under Maryland law.

Two Types of Fraud

As background, it’s important to understand that the law recognizes two types of fraud — intrinsic and extrinsic. Proof of extrinsic fraud can reopen your finalized divorce; intrinsic fraud cannot.

Extrinsic fraud happens when a party makes affirmative misrepresentations (openly lies) or conceals evidence, and that misconduct prevents a fair trial from occurring. Intrinsic fraud involves no affirmative misrepresentation or concealment. As previous rulings have explained, if “a party could have discovered the fraud, but” her failure to discover the fraud was at least partially the result of her “own neglect… in the preparation of the case”, then the fraud will be deemed intrinsic.

The fraud alleged in this couple’s case was intrinsic. One of the factors that weighed heavily against the wife was the set of representations she made during the hearing. There, the wife confirmed that she and the husband had distributed all of their property and that she was not seeking alimony, a monetary award, or retirement benefits. She also confirmed her understanding that she “could not come back to the [c]ourt at a later time and make a claim” related to those issues. At no point did the wife mention the agreement to the magistrate judge.

That meant that the trial court’s failure to “approve the settlement agreement resulted at least in part from [the wife’s] own neglect and failure to exercise… care in the preparation of the case,” meaning that the alleged fraud was intrinsic and that the wife’s divorce was not eligible for reopening.

Clearly, having representation from a competent lawyer would’ve helped, both before the trial (in terms of getting the agreement filed with the court,) and at trial (in terms of notifying the judge of the agreement’s existence and requesting its merger or incorporation into the divorce judgment.)

Your divorce case could have very high stakes in terms of financial matters, family matters, and more. There’s simply too much at stake to risk making the sort of errors that an unrepresented person might reasonably make but that a skilled and diligent attorney almost certainly would not. Look to the experienced Maryland family law attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC to provide you with the thorough and effective advocacy you and your case deserve. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to schedule your consultation.

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