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.
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.
We discussed the pending same-sex marriage legislation in our February 25, 2011 blog. In our blog we touched briefly on the rights of same sex unwed couples with children and thought the topic could use a little further explanation because there are consequences to not having a legal tie to your child(ren).
Typically, when a same sex couple adopts a child, only one of them actually adopts the child from the agency, country, service, because two people without a legal tie to one another are generally not permitted to adopt a child together. Therefore, only one parent in a same sex unwed relationship is deemed to be the legally recognized parent of the child. This means only that “legal parent” can authorize medical treatments, make medical decisions, consult with therapists, obtain emergency care for the child, obtain school records for the child, make decisions regarding the child’s 504 or IEP plan, meet with teachers, etc. For example, the parent who is not legally recognized as the child’s parent cannot authorize the pediatrician to administer inoculations, tests, draw blood, or prescribe medication. This is obviously a challenge for same sex unwed parents who otherwise share in the day to day parenting responsibilities of the child and are working together as a family unit to raise the child. Some of the difficulties can be cured by subsequent adoption proceedings, powers of attorney, and adding names to birth certificates. However, the costs, time and emotion involved are substantial.
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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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While your spouse’s substance abuse issues may not affect you nearly as much since you have separated, they certainly will continue to affect your children. Unfortunately, many clients are faced with these issues. It is important to address all substance abuse concerns at the beginning of a matter, by bringing it to your attorney or the court’s attention. In many Maryland counties the Court, when requested, will order a substance abuse evaluation of the parties. Be aware that if you request an evaluation of your spouse, the Court will often order that the evaluation be performed on both parties. The evaluation will most likely consist of an interview including substance abuse history, and treatment and also in some cases urinalysis or other form of drug/alcohol screen. If a party asks, and the Court feels is it necessary, continuing drug screens of a party may be ordered. This allows for the party to gain visitation or custody with their child or children after maintaining positive results. If a custody evaluation is performed in a matter the evaluator will also utilize the information gained from drug screens or a substance abuse evaluation to assist them in making their recommendation.
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As a follow up to our June 30, 2010 and July 8, 2010 blogs on Facebook evidence in Maryland family law proceedings, we have compiled a top five do’s and don’ts for Facebook for parents in the midst of custody litigation.
1. Do disable your Facebook account. If you can’t bring yourself to do it, make your presence on Facebook as minimal as possible, and we mean minimal.
2. Do set your Facebook page to private so only those who are your friends can view your page, and while you are at it do a “spring cleaning” of your friend list, eliminating those who are unnecessary. Friends should only be those who have no connection with your ex or your ex’s family and/or friends. You never know who is viewing/printing information from your account and passing it along.
1. Well in advance of each holiday, refer to your existing Court Order, Separation Agreement, and/or Judgment of Absolute Divorce to determine what your Order and/or Agreement sets forth for each holiday.
2. Communicate to the other parent, (preferably in writing via e-mail or text), your interpretation of the existing Order and/or written Agreement. Specifically spell out who has the child(ren) on which day or part of the day, the times and where exchanges are to take place. Ask the parent to confirm that is their understanding.
3. If there is not an existing Order and/or written Agreement, again, well in advance of the holiday, contact the other parent (preferably in writing) and set forth your specific proposal and ask them for there thoughts and comments.
With the holidays approaching many clients may be facing uncertainty or conflicts as to where their child(ren) will be spending the holiday. We always advise clients to plan holidays far in advance so a schedule can be arranged that is best for the child(ren). It is important to develop a schedule that is not too overwhelming for children, so they can enjoy the holiday without exchanges at inopportune times, such as midnight on Christmas Eve, or too many exchanges in one day. It is also important to remember not to make plans for your child(ren) on the holiday until you know what the schedule will be. Lastly, for your child’s sake, explain to them how the holiday schedule will go, do not seek their input or place a guilt trip on your child(ren) for not being with you for the holiday or a portion of the holiday, and be flexible and accommodating to making the holiday work for everyone. Everyone does include the other parent and his or her family.
If you are unable to reach a holiday arrangement with your child’s parent you may turn to what many practitioners refer to as “holiday court”. Most Circuit Courts throughout the State of Maryland implement a specific protocol for what is known as “holiday court,” or the process that takes place in order to resolve these holiday access disputes. We have collected information from the nearby Circuit Courts to find out how they will be handling this year’s holiday disputes.
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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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