Most peoples’ only interaction with the court system is when they need to go to court on a family or domestic matter. It is entirely possible you may need to go to court on family matters even though you have done nothing “wrong.” In fact, there are family law judges, called magistrates, that exist in order to adjudicate family law matters. Pending final hearing or trial.
These disputes can take on many forms. These include divorces, annulments, child support matters, child custody issues, marital property issues, and spousal support disputes, to name a few. The outcome of a case that concerns any of these areas will have a massive impact on your present and future. It is essential that you take steps to protect yourself.
Hiring a Montgomery County family lawyer may be a step in the right direction. An attorney could help to explain the laws that apply to your case, to identify realistic goals moving forward, and to fight for your rights and those of your children every step of the way.
Common Cases Handled in Montgomery County’s Family Court
A family court exists to settle disputes between married people and/or parents/grandparents and family members of children. These disputes are often unavoidable when people make certain decisions in their lives. This is especially true when a decision impacts children. Some of the most common cases handled in Montgomery County’s family court include issues of divorce, child custody, child support, spousal maintenance, or protection orders, among other things.
Perhaps the most visible type of case handled by family courts are divorces. According to Md. Code, Family Law, §7-103, a variety of circumstances can allow a spouse to file for divorce. Maryland allows for fault grounds of divorce as well as no-fault. The fault grounds include adultery, desertion, cruelty, excessively vicious conduct, or incarceration. The no fault grounds are twelve (12) month, continuous separation, and divorce by mutual consent.
A divorce must settle every portion of the litigants’ lives moving forward. Nowhere is this more essential than for the care and custody of children. A court can award custody to one or both parents as shared custody, and order a parent to pay child support, and set visitation schedules.
Child Custody and Visitation
For divorcing couples with children, the rights regarding custody and visitation are frequently the central point of contention during the divorce process. Ultimately, the court will determine not only where the children will live but how one or both parents will have a role in the important decisions surrounding their upbringing.
The judge in a divorce case has significant leeway when deciding custody and visitation. However, their decision must be made through the prism of the best interests of the children. When the court determines custody, they are technically making two separate decisions. This includes deciding not only physical custody but legal custody as well.
Physical custody determines which parent the children live with and when. Sole physical custody means they live with one parent most of the time, although the other parent may have some visitation rights and access to the children on a set schedule. Shared physical custody is the sharing of parenting time on a certain percentage basis between the two parents.
Legal custody involves the major decision-making that goes into being a parent. This includes choices about healthcare, education, and religion. Legal custody is often share between parents, even when physical custody is not.
A Montgomery County attorney can help a parent dealing with a family law issue fight for their custody or visitation rights. In some cases, an attorney could convince the courts to alter their custody or visitation order.
Parents owe certain financial obligations to their children. These obligations are mandated by law under state child support laws. This support is intended to pay for everything from food to shelter to medical care.
Maryland state law governs the calculation of child support in Montgomery County. The obligations of each parent will depend on their gross income. To ensure that these calculations are accurate, the court will require documentation to verify the income of a parent.
The method of verifying income depends on a parent’s form of employment. If a parent works for a company, income is typically verified through the use of pay stubs or other documents provided by the employer. For self-employed parents, the court will rely on at least three years of federal tax returns. The court could ask for additional documentation in cases where a parent has received a significant increase or decrease in earnings recently.
A court could also deal with the difficult question of spousal support. Under Md. Code, Family Law §11-101, either party may make a motion to ask a court to make an alimony order. A MoCo family lawyer could help people to understand the functions of family courts and to represent their interests in a family court matter.
There are a few types of spousal support under state law: spousal support pendente lite, rehabilitative alimony, and indefinite child support. Pendente lite support is a form of temporary spousal support governed by Maryland Code of Family Law Section 11-102. This type of support is often awarded by the court during the early stages of a divorce and can continue while the divorce case is pending.
Indefinite spousal support—as the name implies—is a long-term form of spousal support. If a spouse seeks continued spousal support following the dissolution of the marriage, any award from the court will qualify as indefinite spousal support. This support will remain in place until the court modifies the original order.
Not every aspect of family law is focused on the process of divorce. In cases where there are allegations of domestic abuse, a family lawyer can also help pursue a civil protection order against a current or former spouse. These orders can protect a person by erecting a legal barrier between that person and their abuser. If the abusive spouse ignores the protective order, the consequences could be steep.
There are a few stages of protective orders under state law: interim or temporary and final. When a person seeks a protective order, the court has the power to enter an interim or temporary order that protects the victim until the final hearing on the protective order. If the court ultimately determines that the person requesting the order requires qualifies for protection under the law, they can enter a final order, which can last up to one year. For this to be possible, the petitioner must show by the preponderance of the evidence that the order is warranted. The alleged abuser will also have an opportunity to defend themselves and argue against the need for an order of protection.
A final order can last up to 12 months. The court also has the power to extend the length of this order before it expires upon a motion by the protected party. A final order can prevent a person from engaging in specific conduct, including contacting the petitioner. The order could also force the abuser to take other actions like moving out of the shared home and awarding custody to the protected party.
Prenuptial vs. Postnuptial Agreements
The concept of a couple entering into a prenuptial agreement is nothing new these documents serve to protect the individual interests of each spouse in the case of a divorce. However, some couples only reach this type of agreement after the marriage has already taken place. These are known as postnuptial agreements.
These agreements share many things in common. They typically provide for the distribution of assets should a divorce occur. However, there are some important differences to understand both of these agreements.
A prenuptial agreement is a contract executed by a couple prior to their marriage. These agreements can vary dramatically in their scope. However, there are a few situations where these agreements are common. Prenuptial agreements are commonplace in marriage, with a large disparity of wealth between the two spouses. In these cases, prenuptial agreements can guarantee the parties keep the assets they brought with them into the marriage or set the amount of alimony a spouse is entitled to upon divorce.
Prenuptial agreements are also common in cases where one spouse has contractual obligations or owns a business. To prevent the disruption of those obligations or the breakup of a business, it is not unusual for the parties to reach an agreement about how these assets are treated upon divorce. Alternatively, prenuptial agreements are also common in cases where one spouse has substantially more debt than the other.
The use of prenuptial agreements is also common when one spouse is set to obtain gifts and non-marital contributions from family members or when a spouse owns property with other family members. Many soon-to-be spouses could benefit from a prenuptial agreement that makes it clear that any gifts or inheritance to them will not become part of marital assets.
Postnuptial agreements largely occur for the same reasons as a prenup, but they are executed after a couple marries. Most of the time, spouses will pursue this option when factors during the marriage change the couple’s financial relationship. For example, one spouse might want a postnuptial agreement should the other spouse accrue large amounts of debt during the course of the marriage.
A postnuptial agreement could also be helpful to protect the inheritance of children from a previous marriage. This can become an issue of contention if the new marriage produces new children.
In both prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, state courts will review these agreements like any other binding contract. If the court determines the agreement was unconscionable or obtained by fraud or duress, it is empowered to set the agreement aside.
These agreements must be in writing. Additionally, both parties must agree to the terms. If a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement is ultimately disputed, the court will consider a number of factors. First, they will determine if the agreement was freely and fairly executed, and if there was transparency at the time of the parties’ assets. They will also ensure that, as with any valid contract, there was consideration given on both sides. In other words, the court must determine that the agreement complies with Maryland law when it was executed.
The courts will also consider disclosure issues. Ultimately, a party can only agree to the terms of an agreement in good faith if they are fully aware of the other spouse’s assets. If a spouse hides or otherwise fails to disclose these assets, it could undo the agreement.
The court will also consider issues of coercion. Coercion could involve pushing a spouse into a prenuptial agreement in the days or hours before the wedding or threatening the spouse about taking certain actions if the other parent doesn’t sign the agreement. Often, this occurs in a way that may prevent the spouse’s right to seek legal counsel. Any effort to force a party to sign a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement without voluntarily waiving their right to an attorney could also invalidate the agreement. Any agreement that fails to meet these standards may end up involving the parties in extensive litigation to prove or invalidate the agreement, making the advice of legal counsel vital when drafting or executing these agreements.
Helping People to Avoid Conflict Whenever Possible
Family court cases in our area have the reputation of being lengthy and emotional. A common stereotype of divorce and child custody battles see the two people fighting over every minute detail. While a family court case can certainly involve this level of vitriol, it may be in a person’s best interest to compromise.
A Montgomery County family law attorney could help individuals who wish to remain on good terms with their other family members moving forward. To help in this process, an attorney could represent a person’s interests in all mediation sessions in an attempt to come to a fair settlement without having to fight at trial.
Attorneys could also help to draft prenuptial, postnuptial, and other marital agreements that could serve to simplify any future divorce case. These agreements could speak to the division of assets, the payment of alimony, the payment of child support, and other common sticking points in many family court cases. Using these methods, an attorney could help to simplify and shorten many complicated family law matters.
What to Look For in a Family Lawyer
Every aspect of family law is complex. From calculating spousal support to dividing assets, attorneys must have a thorough knowledge of the law in order to be effective. General practitioners are often spread across so many different types of law they do not get the depth of experience focused attorneys do.
Finding the right attorney goes beyond the claims a lawyer makes in print ads or online commercials. It is important to not only review the qualifications of a prospective lawyer but also to ask any questions you might have prior to hiring them. The following qualities are strong indicators of a skilled family law attorney.
Talk to a Montgomery County Family Attorney Today
Many cases in MoCo’s family courts are contentious and emotional. Indeed, the outcomes of these cases may impact your finances, your property rights, and even your relationship with your children. It is extremely important to take these matters seriously and to work to protect your rights at every turn.
A Montgomery County family lawyer could provide invaluable help. They can work with you to help you to understand the relevant laws, identify your goals, to navigate the often-complex court system, and to complete all necessary paperwork and appearances. Contact a MoCo family attorney today to schedule an appointment.