Separation and divorce is often difficult and overwhelming, and when kids are involved, parents can become riddled with stress and anxiety over how to break the news. When, how, and what you tell your children can have a long lasting impact on them. The following provides parents with some guidance.
When Should We Tell The Children?
It is best to tell the children only after you and your spouse are certain a separation will happen. Once you and your spouse have decided that a separation will occur, telling the kids a few weeks prior to the separation allows them to digest and understand what is going to happen and perhaps lessen the upset when one parent moves out. While it may be tempting to tell older children before telling younger ones, keeping this secret can place a lot of stress on the older child, and telling them together allows the children to offer each other support. Consider what the kids and you have scheduled before you tell them. Breaking the news at a quiet time on a weekend allows parents to be available should the kids have questions or want to talk.
How Should We Tell The Children?
It is best if both parents tell the children together as a united front. If you cannot tell them together then the next best process would be for each parent to talk to the children separately but sequentially one right after the other. When both parents deliver the message together, the children are less likely to feel they need to choose “sides”. Be sure to reinforce that both parents love the children and the children can and should still love both parents. Because divorce is so emotional, prepare before talking to the kids. One suggestion is to write down what you will each say and determine if there are any topics that are off-limit for discussion. By reviewing how and what you will tell the children in advance, both parents are more likely to remain calm and avoid becoming upset or angry with one another.
What Should We Tell The Children?
When telling the children, you need to balance providing enough information without telling them too much. Avoid placing blame on one parent as it does not benefit the kids and is not in their best interests. Disparaging a parent in front of the children causes more harm than good down the road. If you know the plan, even if it is temporary, share it with them. You don’t need a lot of details, simply letting them know who is staying in the house, where the other parent will be living, and how often they will be with each parent. Reassure the children, but don’t promise something you can’t deliver. For younger children, reminding them of the plan every so often is helpful. Let the kids know that you are available if they have questions or if they want to talk.
Once You Have Told the Children:
Have a support system in place. For example, let teachers, babysitters, daycare providers, coaches, and/or friends’ parents know what is happening. Ask them to let you know if they observe any unusual behavior from your children. It is okay to ask for help. If you are feeling overwhelmed or the kids appear to be having a difficult time dealing with the divorce, contact a therapist who can offer advice and guidance for you and your children.
For more detail and information I suggest reading the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers online publication "What Should We Tell the Children? ....A Parents' Guide for Talk About Separation and Divorce." Geraldine Welikson Hess, Esq. of Hess Family Law is a Fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
Penny is getting divorced and she wants to know the value of the marital home for purposes of dividing or equalizing assets. She wonders how to go about doing this and whether one method is better than another.
A licensed home appraiser is the most reliable method of valuing the marital home. However, home appraisal is not an exact science and different appraisers will likely have different results for the value of the home. An appraisal does provide a defensible and carefully documented written opinion of value and is performed by a licensed, certified professional whose business is to value properties. While a licensed appraiser will likely provide the most reliable home value, this type of appraisal can cost several hundred dollars.
Comparative Market Analysis (CMA):
An option that will cost less than an appraisal is to request a CMA from a real estate professional. A CMA involves comparing Penny’s home with other homes that have sold or have been listed for sale in the area and placing a value on her home based on this evaluation. While providing a reasonable basis for value, a CMA does not take into consideration condition or uniqueness of the property. While reliable, a CMA is not as solid as an actual appraisal.
Online Research Tools:
If Penny does not want to involve a third party, she can utilize online research tools, such as Zillow.com, to estimate the value of her home. While this method may be the easiest and least costly, it is also the least reliable. Penny may be reluctant to spend money on a licensed appraiser or on a CMA; however, having a sense of her home’s true value can be invaluable when negotiating a settlement or presenting evidence at trial, especially if her husband does not agree with her value.
If Penny’s case goes to trial, since she owns the home, she can testify to the value based on her knowledge gained from sources such as the CMA or online research she has done. However, the actual CMA or research documents are unlikely to be admitted as evidence and therefore won’t be viewed by the judge. If Penny has a formal appraisal, the appraisal report can come into evidence if stipulated to by both parties, and if her husband does not agree, the appraiser can testify in court. It is not unusual for parties in divorce to disagree regarding the value of the marital home. If the case is being negotiated or litigated and two different values are presented, a formal appraisal will carry more weight than a CMA or value determined by a party based on his/her research.
My divorce is final, does that mean I am done? This is a question divorce lawyers often hear. While every divorce is different, generally there is still work to be done post-divorce. The following recommendations should help alleviate some post-divorce stress. Your specific Agreement or Judgment will guide you as to what needs to be done in your particular case.
Review your Agreement or Judgment as soon as possible:
Review your Agreement or Judgment and make a list of all tasks that need to be done and if there is a deadline, note that too. Making a list can ease any stress or overwhelm you are feeling and will help keep you organized.
If you will divide a pension and/or 401K plan, a court must order a Qualified Domestic Relations Order, commonly abbreviated as QDRO. (Note: A QDRO is not necessary to divide an IRA or a SEP. Also, military pensions, federal, state, county and city retirement plans have their own rules regarding division during divorce-be sure to consult your attorney with regard to specific plans.) Often times your divorce lawyer will refer clients to an attorney who specializes in retirement asset division orders. Confirm with your attorney whether or not he/she will be preparing the necessary paperwork or whether you will need to retain an attorney who specializes in this area of the law. Your divorce settlement agreement or Judgment will not necessarily preserve your rights if the proper orders are not signed by the court and submitted to the plan administrator. Follow up with your attorney or QDRO preparer to make sure the plan administrator has pre-approved the Order, the Order has been submitted to the Court for signature, and the Court signed and entered Order has been served on the plan administrator.
Unless you are required to maintain your spouse as beneficiary, update your beneficiary designation on all retirement accounts. If you fail to do this, your former spouse could end up inheriting your retirement upon your death. Also, be sure to check bank, investment, bonds, and other assets that may have beneficiary designations and determine whether those need to be updated.
Update Insurance Policies:
Depending on the terms of your Agreement or Judgment, you may need to update insurance policies:
Health insurance: Revise health insurance coverage for spouse and/or dependents. If insurance is not available through an employer begin COBRA coverage or open a new individual policy.
Life Insurance: Unless you are required to maintain your spouse as beneficiary, change the beneficiary on all life insurance policies.
Other Insurance: Obtain new insurance policies for auto, home, etc. Pay attention to the list of assets scheduled on your homeowner’s policy and confirm that you still own those items.
Review your will and estate documents:
Work with your estate attorney to review, update, and/or create your will, power of attorney for healthcare and finances, a living will, and other documents. If you have any trusts, be sure to review those as well.
If your name changed, update documents:
Contact agencies such as motor vehicle association, social security office, financial institutions, your employer, and any other government agencies to determine what documents you will need to provide in order to change your name or resume your maiden name.
Contact your Accountant:
Review your Judgment or Agreement with an accountant. You may need to change your withholding, pay more or less estimated taxes, and/or change your investment strategy.
Practice Self Care:
While it is important to practice self care during the divorce process, once you are divorced, self care is still very important. Take time to do something that makes you feel good, replenishes your energy, and allows you to tackle issues with a clear head.
In a recent Maryland Court of Appeals case, Rose v. Rose, the parties entered into a Separation Agreement which resolved all of their outstanding issues, including alimony. The Agreement provided that Jonathan would pay non-modifiable alimony for a term of eight years beginning January 1, 2012, and ending December 31, 2019. The Agreement further provided that Jonathan’s alimony obligation would terminate “upon the earlier of (a) Jonathan’s death; (b) Andrea’s death; (c) Andrea’s remarriage; (d) Andrea’s cohabitation (as defined by Gordon v. Gordon, 675 A.2d 540 (1996)), or [(e)] December 31, 2019.” On December 14, 2011, a Judgment of Absolute Divorce was entered which incorporated but did not merge the parties Agreement.
In 2016, Jonathan filed a Motion to Terminate Alimony based on the terms of the parties’ Agreement alleging that Andrea was cohabitating with a man as defined by Gordon and therefore alimony should terminate. Both sides presented evidence as to the factors courts may consider as established in Gordon 342 Md. at 308-09:
1. establishment of a common residence;
2. long-term intimate or romantic involvement;
3. shared assets or common bank accounts;
4. joint contribution to household expenses; and
5. recognition of the relationship by the community.
The Gordon court emphasized that the list was non-exhaustive and that no one factor should serve as an absolute prerequisite for finding cohabitation exists. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court determined that the evidence was insufficient to establish cohabitation and denied Jonathan’s request to terminate alimony.
On appeal, the Court considered the fact that the trial court noted that the parties expressly incorporated Gordon’s definition of cohabitation as one of the terminating events for the payment of alimony and that the trial court considered each of those factors. The trial court found evidence as to the first two factors; establishment of a common residence and a long term intimate relationship. However, the trial court also found that there were no shared assets, common bank accounts, or joint contributions to the household. Additionally, there was no evidence as to how the two were recognized by the community. The trial court judge stated that “I’m not convinced that there was cohabitation” as defined in Gordon and “I just don’t believe that there was a de facto marriage here.” The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court’s factual findings were not clearly erroneous or arbitrary and affirmed the decision denying Jonathan’s request to terminate alimony.
Because the parties agreed to the definition of cohabitation as defined by Gordon, the court had no option but to apply the factors as set forth therein. If the Agreement did not tie the definition to the Gordon case, the end result may have been different. This is why details matter. It is important to have an experienced attorney such as Geraldine Hess and Hess Family Law when negotiating a settlement so you can make sure you fully understand the terms of your Agreement.
In the case of Huntley v. Huntley, Charles Huntley discovered just how costly it can be if you fail to affirmatively request relief in your pleadings.
After twenty-eight years of marriage Lydia Huntley filed for divorce. In Lydia’s Complaint she requested, among other things, a monetary award, alimony, a portion of the marital share of Charles’s retirement benefits, and attorney’s fees. Charles filed an Answer in which he denied Lydia’s entitlement to a monetary award and asked the court to deny Lydia an award of alimony. Charles did not request any affirmative relief aside from the grant of a divorce nor did he file a Counter-Complaint. Although Charles subsequently requested a portion of Lydia’s retirement benefits at trial, because Charles did not include such a request in his pleadings, the trial court denied his request.
On appeal, Charles argued that the trial court erred in refusing to divide Lydia’s retirement benefits. He also contended that Lydia was not prejudiced by his failure to request an equitable division of her retirement benefits because they were included on the parties’ Rule 9-207 form as marital property. The Court of Appeals disagreed finding that the only relief Charles requested in his Answer was that the trial court “grant him a Divorce, and deny [Lydia] alimony.” Charles never filed a Counter-Complaint or an Amended Answer requesting that the court make an equitable division of Lydia’s retirement benefits.
The Court noted that although Lydia listed her retirement assets on form 9-207, the facts stated on this form are “admissions by the parties in a judicial proceeding” and admissions are not the same as pleadings. Lydia’s request for a portion of Charles’s retirement benefits did not automatically put her on notice that Charles would request a portion of her retirement benefits. The only way Lydia would be aware of this request would be if Charles indicated such in his pleadings. Charles could have amended his pleadings up until fifteen days prior to trial, but he did not. If Lydia had known that Charles was requesting a portion of her retirement benefits she may have used a different trial strategy and/or requested alternative relief.
The lesson learned from this case is that it is essential to put the other side on notice by including any and all relief you want in your pleadings. If you are considering filing for divorce, and/or have been served with divorce papers and need to file an Answer and possibly a Counter-Complaint, Hess Family Law can provide strategic advice based on your particular situation and goals.
What is parental alienation? Parental alienation is when a parent uses psychological manipulation of a child to damage his or her view of the other parent, often by speaking negatively about the other parent, keeping the child from seeing the other parent, and/or continually questioning the child about the personal life of the other parent. Because of these behaviors, the child often allies him or herself with one parent and rejects a relationship with the other parent without legitimate justification. While not always, parental alienation occurs in high conflict divorces when a parent cannot separate conflict in the marriage from the well-being of the child.
For some divorcing or separating couples, parental alienation is a concern. In an article for DivorceMagazine.com, Russell J. Frank, Esq. discusses how to recognize parental alienation. Behaviors such as listening in on a child’s phone conversation with the other parent, excluding or withholding information about the child from the other parent, using the child as a spy, and refusing to grant reasonable requests to a change in the custody schedule, may lead to parental alienation. These behaviors create a moral dilemma for the child as they struggle to remain loyal to both parents.
Sharing inappropriate or misleading information with the child about the divorce and/or the other parent is another red flag. Allowing the child to determine whether or not they see the other parent, despite having a timesharing schedule also leads to alienation. These behaviors can be emotionally and psychologically damaging to the child. If allowed to continue, the child may become physically, emotionally, and psychologically, separated from the other parent.
If you suspect that your spouse is alienating the children, it is important to seek professional advice from a licensed therapist and/or a family law attorney such as Hess Family Law to discuss your specific case and concerns.
Are you thinking about divorce? If so, you are not alone. While January has been dubbed divorce month, the first three months of the year are often the busiest with filings beginning to rise in January and continuing to increase through March. Several experts speculate that the reason divorce filings increase during this time period is because most people want to get through the holidays with their family intact. According to Kathryn Smerling, a New York City psychotherapist, “for couples with kids, it can be especially important to “hold things together” during the holidays.” Once the holidays are over, people begin to gather information and decide whether divorce is the path they want to take.
Due to the changes in the tax code, 2018 may prove to be an even busier time for divorce. Under the new bill, alimony paid by one spouse to the other will not be tax deductible, and the spouse receiving the alimony no longer has to pay taxes on it. However, the change won’t take effect until 2019, setting up 2018 for a potential increase in divorce filings.
If you are considering divorce, Hess Family Law can provide advice based on your particular situation and goals. More information can be read on the Hess Family Law Blog Post Are You Surprised Divorce Filings Rise In January and Contemplating Divorce? Three Things You Should Do Now.
Did you know that in Montgomery County, Maryland the testimony and evidence needed to receive a recommendation for an uncontested divorce have changed? There are now fewer requirements so it is easier than ever before to present the uncontested divorce testimony.
You no longer need a corroborating witness to testify about the grounds for divorce in Montgomery County, Maryland. You no longer need to ask a parent, sibling, neighbor, co-worker to come to court to testify to corroborate that you satisfy the grounds for divorce.
You no longer need to prove the marriage that you are trying to end actually took place. You no longer need a witness who attended the wedding ceremony to testify as to the marriage. You no longer need to produce a copy of the marriage certificate as an exhibit.
The only witness that needs to testify is the Plaintiff party requesting the divorce. The Plaintiff's testimony still needs to prove that the grounds for divorce, and all other requirements for divorce are satisfied. And, if the Defendant wishes to be restored to the use of a former name then the Defendant will need to testify.
Despite these changes that make it easier to be successful at the uncontested divorce hearing, it is still helpful to have a lawyer represent you at the uncontested divorce hearing, especially if there are any child support, alimony or division of retirement assets issues.
If you are considering divorce, Hess Family Law can provide advice based on your situation and/or goals.
You may have heard of dating apps, now there are apps that help couples split up. Technology and apps are an integral part of our lives and it is no surprise that apps and online sites are attempting to help couples navigate the divorce process.
However, divorce is rarely simple or easy. If couples have issues involving alimony, child support, custody, retirement, and/or property, using a divorce app does not make a lot of sense. Additionally, the laws vary in different states and couples that use online apps to help them divorce may not be receiving sound legal advice.
Mistakes that may be made in a "do it yourself" divorce can't always be fixed, and/or the fix may be much more expensive than it would have been if an attorney was hired and it was completed correctly from the outset. In the article "Up next: Swipe right for a divorce" the pros and cons of divorce apps are explored.
If you are considering divorce, Hess Family Law can provide advice based on your particular situation and goals.
If you are contemplating a separation and divorce there are four things that every spouse should do before they separate:
Obtain copies of your credit report
You are entitled to a free credit report every 12 months from the three credit reporting companies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Click here to request a report from all three companies. Consider requesting a report from only one of the companies. Once you have the report, carefully review the report. If anything looks worrisome go ahead and request a report from one of the two remaining companies to see if they report the same worrisome item. Determine which accounts are held in your name and which you are a joint holder. Sometimes a spouse opens an account listing you as a joint or authorized user without your knowledge, which is why it is important to review your credit report. Be mindful of any accounts and debt for which you are the primary account holder as you are legally liable for those debts and failure to pay those debts timely will negatively impact your credit. You still have one or two free credit report requests remaining and should request another free report a few months later to see if your credit has changed.
Establish Credit Independently
If you do not have your own credit, start small and build up ideally before you separate from your spouse as you may need to rely on credit during your separation. Apply for a credit card that has a small credit limit, such as one from a local department store or financial institution. Once you have the credit card, make sure you use the credit but always pay your bills in full and on time so you can build an excellent credit history. After several months of paying on time, you can apply for another card and continue paying those bills on time as well. Eventually, you will establish excellent credit in your own name. However, don’t spend more than you can pay, otherwise you will tarnish the good credit you are trying to build.
Have your own bank account
Opening a bank account in your sole name is a good step toward establishing good credit. When you open a separate bank account, consider using a different bank from your spouse. Mistakes can be made if you continue to use the same bank, for example, accounts can be linked or statements misdirected.
Make copies of important documents
Copy your three most recent tax returns and all the documents that support the assets and liabilities that you and your spouse have, including life insurance policies. If you have a claim related to non-marital or separate property, take all the documents that support that claim with you. If there are bills that are in your name, make a copy so you can monitor the account to be sure that it gets paid in the future. Finally, if there are any documents or photos that are irreplaceable bring them with you.
For additional information on maintaining good credit read Maintaining Good Credit During and After Divorce on the Hess Family Law Blog.