Articles Posted in Child Support

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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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In my November 16, 2010 blog I briefly mentioned the concept of voluntary impoverishment. Maryland law describes voluntary impoverishment as freely, or an act by choice, to reduce oneself to poverty or deprive oneself of resources with the intention of avoiding child support, John O. v. Jane O. 90 Md. App. 406 (1992). Our case law has further explained voluntary impoverishment as whenever an individual has made the free and conscious choice, not compelled by factors beyond his or her control, to render himself or herself without adequate resources or income, Gordon v. Gordon, 174 Md. App. 583, 923 A.2d 149 (2007). Income is a factor in child support matters, divorce matters involving alimony, and a factor when deciding whether or not to award a party attorney’s fees.

In order to calculate child support in a Maryland child support case both parties’ incomes are needed. Maryland Code Family Law, § 12-201(h) defines income as (1) actual income of a parent, if the parent is employed to full capacity; or (2) potential income of a parent, if the parent is voluntarily impoverished. Before a Judge can impute a party a potential income for the purpose of calculating child support they must find that the party is in fact voluntarily impoverishing themselves. Oftentimes, establishing voluntary impoverishment is not a cut and dry as it may seem. To assist the Court in making a determination if a parent is voluntarily impoverished for purposes of calculating a child support obligation, several factors as to the parent are considered, including, but not limited to: (1) his or her current physical condition; (2) his or her respective level of education; (3) the timing of any change in employment or financial circumstances relative to the divorce proceedings; (4) the relationship of the parties prior to the divorce proceedings; (5) his or her efforts to find and 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. Gordon v. Gordon, 174 Md. App. 583, 923 A.2d 149 (2007); Stull v. Stull, 144 Md. App. 237, 797 A.2d 809 (2002).
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I recently tried a custody matter in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, in which I represented the father of the minor child. The father came to our office in January 2010, after he had arranged for his minor child to reside with him upon learning that the child’s mother was not properly caring for him. The minor child had resided with his mother for nine years, but she had recently changed residences, which our client had great concerns about. Prior to January 2010, our client, who resides in a neighboring state, was visiting with the child every other weekend, when the parties were on good terms. After our client made arrangements for his son to live with him, the mother filed a Complaint for an Emergency Hearing, which was scheduled for March 2010 at the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Due to a heavy docket we were sent to mediation and a hearing was not held. We were able to negotiate a temporary schedule which granted our client temporary sole physical and legal custody and allowed the mother visitation with the minor child.

The case was then set in for a final custody hearing, which was held in November 2010. At the final hearing, both parties were seeking sole legal and physical custody of the minor child. However, after evidence was presented regarding the parties respective living situations, stability, fitness, ability to maintain relationships for the minor child, and economic status, among other factors, the Judge awarded our client sole legal and physical custody of the minor child with visitation to the mother of the child. The factors that were considered are in line with those named in our October 23, 2009 blog, which details factors considered in custody disputes.
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It is not uncommon for clients involved in child support modification cases to ask if their news spouses’ income will be considered in the new child support calculation. For instance, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (first wife) were divorced in 2000 and at that time Mr. Smith was ordered to pay $300 per month in child support. Since that time, Mr. Smith has remarried to Mrs. Smith (second wife) and has also started a job making significantly more money, so Mrs. Smith (first wife) files a Complaint for modification of child support. Does Mrs. Smith’s (second wife) income count as part of Mr. Smith’s income for the purpose or recalculating the child support? The answer should be no. As Moore v. Tseronis, 106 Md. App. 275, 284-85, 664 A.2d 427, 431-32 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1995) reports the court should not impute a new spouse’s income to the parent involved in the child support case when calculating child support. Further, the Annotated Code of Maryland, Family Law § 12-201(b) defines income as actual or potential income of a parent, not the parent’s new spouses income. This applies not only in modification cases, but also initial child support calculation cases. For basic information on child support calculations visit our September 9, 2009 blog.
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The Maryland Daily Record reported on June 28, 2010 that 81% of divorce attorneys have used Facebook as a form of evidence. It is a growing phenomenon in the family law practice and it has occurred in our practice in divorce hearings, custody hearings, and protective order hearings. The statements on a spouse or parent’s Facebook page may be just enough, and appears to have been just enough, to push the Judge in one direction or another in a case. Most Judges may not be aware of the context of a picture or statement on Facebook and with blurry evidentiary rules regarding their admission a picture that is funny to you may appear disturbing to a Judge.

Many may question why a Facebook page would be relevant in a divorce, custody or protective order matter. As explained in our February 28, 2010 blog, a fault based divorce such as adultery requires proof of both the opportunity and disposition for the adulterous relationship to be proven. A Facebook page displaying pictures or words of affection may be the key to proving the disposition element needed for adultery. As explained in our October 23, 2009 blog, in custody proceedings a significant factor that is considered is parental fitness. A Facebook page displaying irresponsible habits of a parent may question the fitness of that parent in caring for their child. As explained in our August 16, 2009 blog, the alleged abuse that is needed to enter a protective order can consist of a threat of serious imminent bodily harm. Such a threat on a Facebook page may be enough for a Judge to enter a protective order.
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The pending bill to update the Maryland Child Support Guidelines passed in the Maryland House of Representatives this past Saturday, March 27, 2010 with a vote of 114 in favor and 25 votes against. However, the House did make a few changes to the bill, which will have to be reviewed. The House changed the date the Guidelines would go into effect from October 1, 2010 to October 1, 2011. Also, the House revised the Guidelines to cap at a combined monthly income of $15,000.00 rather than $30,000.00. Currently, the Guidelines are capped at a combined monthly income of $10,000.00. Last, the House amended the bill to state that the new legislation would not qualify as a material change in circumstances for the purpose of requesting modification of child support.
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