Maryland Court Recently Ruled on the Attorney-Client Relationship in Family Law

This month, a Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled on Li v. Lee, a case with several family law issues. The facts are complex, but are briefly as follows.

A husband and wife met in 1977. In spite of a brief romance, they married other people. Years later, their romance was rekindled while they were still married to those people and the wife was living in Canada. Both divorced their partners. The U.S. Government was the husband’s employer and he was a naturalized U.S. citizen.

The couple wanted to change the wife’s immigration status to “lawful permanent resident” status and hired the immigration attorney Yu Gu, who was recommended by one of the wife’s friends. Gu prepared all the paperwork for the couple. The husband provided his tax return information and bank statements in order to complete the paperwork.

As a result, the wife was granted conditional permanent resident status.

Years later, after they had bought a home together and contracted to build a new house together, the wife found out the husband had had an affair. The couple decided to divorce and prepare a separation agreement such that the wife would still have a home. They retitled the new house in the wife’s name only, though the husband still contributed the same amount toward the mortgage.

The wife asked Gu to prepare an agreement and advised her husband that Gu was her representative. The husband had no in-person contact with Gu, who prepared an agreement according to what the wife wanted. That agreement included an express provision advising the husband to seek his own counsel and that Gu only represented the wife.

After executing the First Agreement, the couple got back together. In 2007, Gu prepared the paperwork to remove the conditions from the wife’s immigration status. Later that year, the wife discovered the husband had another affair and again divorce was discussed.

The wife again hired Gu to draft a separation agreement. Gu didn’t have direct contact with the husband. Several negotiations took place. The husband told the wife he thought the Second Agreement was unfair to him. After several emails, the husband agreed to sign it.

By 2009, the husband had retained his own attorney and filed a complaint for divorce that included a request to have all the prior agreements set aside as unenforceable. The wife opposed this, so the husband filed a motion to set aside, claiming that the marital settlement agreements were “unconscionable, unenforceable,” and entered into without advice by his own attorney while he and the wife had a “confidential relationship”.

In court, the wife argued that the husband had been advised to seek his own independent attorney, but had not done so. The circuit court found that the separation agreements were equitable. There was no unconscionability. It also found there was no attorney-client relationship between the husband and the wife’s attorney.

The Court of Special Appeals explained that Gu was only the husband’s attorney while they were seeking a change in the wife’s immigration status, reasoning that, “The immigration petitions and the separation agreements involve wholly different practical areas of law and issues and, therefore, are not substantially related.” Part of the court’s reasoning was that the husband was well-educated, had been through a prior divorce, and was able to read in both separation agreements that he was advised to seek independent counsel.

Divorce cases can be painful and costly. Before problems start, both spouses share one attorney. This case makes clear how important it is to obtain a separate attorney if you are separating or divorcing from your spouse. If you are dealing with Maryland family law matters, your best interests depend on hiring a qualified and knowledgeable attorney. Contact lawyer Anthony Fatemi and his legal team for a consultation. They have years of experience in Maryland family law, including matters of divorce, prenuptial agreements, separation agreements, property distribution, custody arrangements, alimony, and domestic violence.

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