Maryland Court of Special Appeals Says that ‘De Facto’ Parents Are Eligible for Same Awards of Attorney’s Fees as Biological Parents

Going through a custody dispute can be a scary thing. You may recognize that you need capable legal representation, but you may fear that you lack the financial resources to hire a skilled Maryland child custody attorney. Never let that fear stop you. Always talk to counsel first. There may be various options available to you to address your financial resource-related concerns, including getting a court order that makes your ex-spouse or partner responsible for paying your attorney’s fees.

Biological parents have long understood that, in Maryland, they have the potential to persuade a judge that the other side should pay their attorney’s fees. The law says an award of attorney’s fees is available and the judge may award any amount of “fees that are just and proper under all the circumstances,” according to the statute. You simply have to give the court evidence of your financial status, your needs, your ex’s financial status and your ex’s needs, along with proof that you had a valid justification for bringing your case.

Of course, as we all know, parenthood is something much deeper than just DNA. There are lots of people who act as a child’s parent while sharing a lesser biological tie to that child… or none at all. This can include some families with stepparents and families with LGBT parents. Fortunately, Maryland recognizes these parents’ legal status under something called ‘de facto’ parenthood. This may lead you next to wonder… can these ‘de facto’ parents, if they need to pursue a custody case in court, receive an award of attorneys’ fees? The good news is that a case from last year made it clear that the answer to this question is “Yes!”

In that case, the parents were a man and a woman who each had drug addictions and were unfit to have custody of the child. The paternal grandparents and the maternal grandmother each asked the court to grant custody. The maternal grandmother had acted as the child’s de facto parent for more than one year, but was a person of limited financial means. The trial court ruled that the maternal grandmother was entitled to sole legal custody and primary physical custody. The court also decided that the maternal grandmother was entitled to attorney’s fees and ordered the paternal grandparents to pay $57,000.

The appeals court ruled that the trial judge was correct. That court explained that being recognized by a court as a de facto parent “effectively elevates” that person “to equal footing with biological parents for the purpose of determinations of custody and visitation.” Once the court has made that finding, then that person has many of the same rights under the Maryland Family Law statutes as a biological parent or an adoptive parent. That includes potentially being eligible for an award of attorney’s fees in a custody case.

The importance of this ruling for some stepparents and LGBT parents

This is potentially very reassuring news for some gay and lesbian parents who are not biologically related to their children, but whose spouse/partner is. In the past, parents in that position might have to worry that, if the relationship between the couple failed, the other partner might take the child and shut them out of the child’s life, and that the courts would treat them as legal “strangers” with no rights whatsoever. Now, with Maryland’s de facto parent law, parents like these gay and lesbian parents can obtain legal recognition and can, when necessary, seek an award covering the attorney’s fees they racked up pursuing their right to custody or visitation.

Finding it necessary to go to court and fight for your relationship with your child is almost always a very stressful thing. There is much about it that can be intimidating. Do not let your lack of financial resources intimidate you into failing to get the quality legal help you need. There are options, including getting the other side to pay your attorney’s fees. To learn more and to get the legal help your case deserves, reach out to experienced Maryland child custody attorney Anthony A. Fatemi. Attorney Fatemi has many years helping parents just like you in working to protect your relationship with your child. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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