Articles Posted in Child Support

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Now that the same-sex marriage legislation has been approved by the voters of the State of Maryland, we thought it would be a good idea to re-visit the issues surrounding the children of same-sex couples. If you are a frequent reader of our blogs, you may recall on February 28, 2011 we wrote about the current legal status of those children of same-sex couples. The passage of the same-sex marriage legislation in Maryland does not change the legal status of those children. The passage of the current legislation will, however change the legal status of children adopted or born during the course of the marriage of a same-sex couple.

In the State of Maryland, “a child born or conceived during a marriage is presumed to be the legitimate child of both spouses” in accordance with Section 1-206 of the Estates and Trusts Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland. The Code further states that “a child conceived by artificial insemination of a married woman with the consent of her husband is the legitimate child of both of them for all purposes”. It is my belief that it would follow that that those children born or conceived during a same-sex marriage are the legitimate children of both parents, not only the spouse who gave birth to the child.
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As the Baltimore Sun reports, Thursday night, February 23, 2012, the Maryland Senate passed Govern Martin O’Malleys’ bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. We blogged on June 28, 2011 that New York had passed the law allowing same sex couples to wed, making it the 6th state to do so. Maryland is now the 8th state to approve same sex marriages. While it is a victory for supporters of the bill, many believe that the law will likely be up to the voters in November. If the law is passed by the voters, it will be effective in January 2013.

As expected the church has voiced their disapproval of the bill’s passing. The Maryland Daily Record reports that Baltimore’s Cardinal O’Brien states that the bill “threatens families.” He has pledged that the Baltimore Archdiocese will work to overturn the law and likely will be a key proponent in making sure the voters have a say in November.

We discussed the potential of this bill passing last February and discussed the changes we may see in the area of family law as a result of the law. . As stated in the blog, the law will affect custody and visitation law, as now same-sex couples who marry and adopt a child will both be the legal parents of the child; pre-nuptial agreements; and same sex divorces.
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Many times in cases where I represent the Father in a Maryland custody case, child support is often an issue where perhaps some believe the man is treated somewhat inequitably. While I do not necessarily agree that is always the case, I have heard many Father’s say “If I were a woman, child support would not even be an issue, I would get what I am supposed to get.” Well for all those Dad’s out there, I am happy to report that I recently successfully argued a ‘voluntary impoverishment’ case. In this case, the non-custodial parent (who happens to be a Mother) is being forced to pay child support based upon what she has the ability to earn because the Court determined she was not doing so at the time of the hearing.

Voluntary Impoverishment cases are difficult cases to prove unless the non-custodial parent basically admits s/he not working to avoid paying child support. In Maryland, for the purposes of child support guidelines, a parent shall be considered “voluntarily impoverished” whenever the parent has made the free and conscious choice, not compelled by factors beyond his or her control, to render himself or herself without adequate resources. The factors a Court will consider in making such a determination as to whether a parent is a voluntary impoverished are: (1) his or her current physical condition; (2) his or her respective level of education; (3) the timing of any change in employment or other financial circumstances relative to the divorce proceedings; (4) the relationship between the parties prior to the initiation of divorce proceedings; (5) his or her efforts to find an retain employment; (6) his or her efforts to secure retraining if that is needed; (7) whether he or she has ever withheld support; (8) his or her past work history; (9) the area in which the parties live and the status of the job market there; and (10) any other considerations presented by either party.

In the particular case, after considering all of the above factors the key factor for the Court was (5) her efforts to find and retain employment. At the first hearing, the Court actually ordered the Mother to make a certain number of applications each week of which a certain number had to be in person interviews, not just on-line applications. When we returned for the second hearing, the Mother had a stack of unorganized computer print outs, which although requested to be provided prior to the second hearing date, were not provided until we were in Court that day. After a review of the documents and a cross examination that revealed the Mother was limiting her availability for potential employers; turned down a job because she didn’t want to start when they offered; and was not wearing appropriate interview attire, the Court found that the Mother was voluntarily impoverishing herself. As a result the Court imputed her an income equivalent to that which she had the ability to earn. The icing on the cake for my client was that the Court also imposed monetary sanctions for the Mother’s failure to timely provide the documents brought to Court on the date of the second and final hearing. At the end of the day, this particular Dad is finally receiving a decent amount of child support based on what the Mother has the ability to earn and is really a victory for all custodial parents, whether you happen to be Mom or Dad.
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Most family law matters, such as divorce proceedings, and custody proceedings, do not involve the Maryland criminal system, or involve any imminent punishment such as jail time. However, when a non-paying child support obligor (parent who is supposed to be paying child support) is brought to court after the child support obligee (parent who is supposed to be receiving child support) files a Petition for Contempt, that obligor may be sentenced to jail time. Because this obligor faces jail time at this contempt proceeding, the proceeding, while civil in nature borderlines a criminal proceeding because of the punishment that can be imposed. While criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney have the option of obtaining a public defender, civil defendants in most cases do not. Therefore, it has often been a question whether these non paying child support obligors are entitled to an attorney due to the threat and/or possibility of incarceration?

On Monday, June 20, 2011 the Supreme Court of the United States issued an Opinion on this very question. As the New York Times reports, “The Supreme Court on Monday gave a complicated answer to the simple question of whether poor people facing jail time for failing to pay child support are entitled to court-appointed lawyers.” The Supreme Court case, Turner v. Rogers, involved in a man who had been sent to jail numerous times after civil contempt proceedings for his failure to pay child support. He was not represented by an attorney at these hearings. The Supreme Court ruled that there is not an automatic right to counsel in these civil contempt proceedings, however cautioned that if the opposing side (the obligee) has an attorney then it may be a different story. The Court cautioned that courts should warn those facing civil contempt that their non payment is a “critical issue.”

Many would argue that the Maryland courts are already meeting this standard by issuing a show cause order to those facing contempt prior to the hearing and in many counties affording those facing contempt a public defender. It has been my experience that the Judges in Maryland will not usually impose jail sentences to child support obligors at the first contempt proceedings and instead, will give them a set amount to pay (a purge amount)and/ or a new date to come back again and appear before the Judge. Many argue that jail time does not remedy the situation as those who owe child support cannot work while in jail. However, in cases of “repeat offenders” and high arrearages jail sentences may be and are imposed. Typically Judges will set a bail amount, that when it is paid will go directly to the child support that is owed.

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As a family law practitioner I have represented a number of petitioners and respondents in protective order hearings throughout the state of Maryland. Unfortunately, the purpose and intent of a protective order is often misinterpreted and misused by the litigants. The purpose of the domestic violence statute as defined by Maryland case law is to protect and aid victims of domestic violence by providing a quick and effective remedy and to prevent further harm to the victim. It is not intended to produce pendente lite orders relating to custody, support, and marital property that are effective for the duration of the Protective Order. Oftentimes, Petitioners attempt to use this necessary and important statute to do just what it was not meant to do – obtain custody of a child in common with the respondent.

I recently represented a respondent in a Final Protective Order hearing , in which the petitioner used the staute to attept to gain custody of their chid. In that case the petitioner alleged an assault upon him by the respondent that resulted in their infant child being bounced off the bed, where she was laying at the time, and landing on the floor. The police were called to the residence three times over the course of less than 24 hours and no one was arrested or left the residence. Ironically, the respondent fled the state the next day with the assistance of a domestic violence program due to continuing abuse by the petitioner upon her. Nevertheless, the petitioner filed a Temporary Protective Order, which was granted and awarded him custody of the parties infant child. My client was already out of the state (with the child) and once she was served with the Order did appear for the Final Protective Order Hearing. Once the Petitioner put on his case, the evidence in my opinion, was abundantly clear that even in the light most favorable to the petitioner, that there had been at most a mutual scuffle which was instigated by the petitioner and that petitioner’s only motivation in filing the protective order was to obtain custody of the child. This is a complete misuse of the domestic violence statute, i.e. protective order statute. At the conclusion of the petitioner’s case I made a Motion to Dismiss the Petitioner’s Protective Order as he had not met his burden of proof establishing by clear and convincing evidence that abuse had occurred. The Court agreed that even in the light most favorable to the petitioner, he had not met his burden and dismissed the Protective Order without the need for my client to put on her case. In this particular situation, the Court was keenly aware of the purpose and intent of the domestic violence statute and did not grant the Final Order.
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I recently defended a modification of child support case (the father was seeking a decrease) in the Circuit Court for Howard County and after a hearing the Court determined there was not a material change in circumstance to warrant a modification of the child support currently being paid to my client.

I believe the concept of a ‘material change in circumstance’ can often be misinterpreted to mean ANY change in circumstance, and that is not the case. In this particular situation the parties divorced late 2009, and child support and non-modifiable alimony were calculated and agreed upon. At the time of divorce, the parties agreed to leave the alimony payment outside of the child support calculation and agreed to a slightly higher amount of child support as they believed it was in the children’s best interest. Less than a year later, the father (ex-husband) filed to modify child support, seeking a lower amount, alleging that he changed jobs and was earning less (about 5% less), his ex-wife was earning a small income, and alimony should now be incorporated into the child support guideline worksheet.
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The legislation pending to allow same-sex couples to marry is scheduled for a final vote this Friday, March 11, 2011 in the Maryland House of Delegates as reported by the Baltimore Sun. The legislation has already passed the Maryland Senate and the House Judiciary Committee. The passage of the bill, if signed by the Governor, would allow same-sex couples to marry in the State of Maryland. The passage of this bill would not afford same-sex couples who chose to marry more rights than those of their heterosexual counterparts. The bill would solely extend the civil protections already afforded to married couples to same-sex couples who chose to marry.

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The same sex marriage bill passed at the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, March 4, 2011 by a 12-10 vote as the Baltimore Sun reports. This means that the bill will move to the full House of Delegates for debate, which is scheduled to start as early as this Tuesday, March 8, 2011. As we previously blogged, on February 25, 2011 the bill if passed into law would allow same sex couples to wed. Delegates who had previously opposed the bill have expressed that they will vote to pass the bill as they believe it should ultimately be up to the voters to decide. As the Sun reports, if the bill passes in the House of Delegates, “Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk. Opponents could then gather the roughly 55,000 signatures needed to petition the new law to referendum, where voters in the 2012 presidential election will decide whether to repeal it or leave it on the books.

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As the Baltimore Sun reports, the Maryland Senate approved the Civil Marriage Protection Act on Thursday, February 25, 2011, which would allow same-sex couples to wed. Although the House of Delegates still needs to pass the Act, the Senate’s passage is still “historic.” We have previously blogged about the issues that surround the recognition of same-sex marriages in Maryland, specifically the Attorney General’s support of recognizing same sex marriages created validly in other states maryland and Maryland lawmakers attempt to block gay marriages. With this Act being passed by the Senate, it is time for us to prepare for changes we may see in our divorce and family law practice with the allowance of same-sex marriage.

The potential changes are vast but include the changes that we will see in custody and visitation law. Often same-sex couples adopt a child, however when couples are not married, only one partner is usually the legally recognized adopted parent. When these relationships end, the child is left with one legal parent and one who is presently recognized as a third party (not a parent) in the State of Maryland. For more information on the third party status that same sex parents currently face see our November 27, 2009 blog. With the passage of this legislation, same-sex couples who marry and adopt a child will both be the legal parents of the child and will be recognized as same should the marital relationship end in separation and/or divorce.
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When meeting with clients initially and discussing the general course of litigation, I will advise them that discovery is part of that process, which usually prompts many questions. First and foremost is what is discovery? Discovery is a litigation tool used to gather and exchange relevant information and potential evidence from and with the opposing side prior to a trial. In a divorce matter it most frequently consists of Interrogatories, Request for Production of Documents, and Depositions of parties and witnesses. However, discovery may also involve Request for Admission of Facts, Notice of Records Depositions, and/oror Mental or physical Examinations of parties. Interrogatories are a list of a maximum of thirty questions usually involving employment history, lifestyle, assets, marital and non-marital property, child rearing responsibilities, and reasons for the dissolution of the marriage. Request for Production of Documents are a list of requests asking for documents from a party. These usually consist of financial documents, employment records, documents regarding the children, documentation of communications with the other party, documentation of expenses/debt and documents regarding the parties’ assets.

Many clients question why these documents need to be exchanged as they feel it is an invasion of their privacy. The theory of broad rights of discovery is that all parties will go to trial with as much knowledge as possible and that neither party should be able to keep secrets or have withheld discoverable information from the other. Further, client’s must know that if you or the opposing party makes a request or raises a particular issue in a matter, then the issue must be explored. The old adage “what is good for the goose is good for the gander”, often applies in these situations. If a document is requested that is particularly confidential in nature or for some reason should not be turned over to opposing counsel, clients can seek protection of that document by filing a motion with the court. If the opposing side is not turning over their documents and answers in a timely fashion then one may file a motion with the court asking them to compel these documents or to prohibit that party from entering any evidence regarding same at trial. If a party tries to introduce a document at trial that was not turned over to the other side prior to the hearing then the Judge may prohibit it from being entered into evidence. The discovery process is governed by the Maryland Rules commencing with Rule 2-401. Clients should also understand that while all pleadings in a matter are filed with the court, the discovery requests and responses are not. The court will not see the Answers to Interrogatories or Responses to Request for Production of Documents unless they are admitted in evidence at a trial.
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