Tag Archive for: Custody

When separated spouses in Maryland and the District of Columbia require the aid of the court to resolve issues of support or custody they know where to file their case – in the local Circuit Court in Maryland and in Superior Court in the District of Columbia. And if they have been separated for less than the period required for an absolute divorce, they can include a request for limited divorce (legal separation in DC) in the support and/or custody suit.

Not so in Virginia. The circuit courts are the trial courts of general jurisdiction, and are the trial courts preferred by lawyers, including family lawyers. But the court with jurisdiction of minors, including custody and support of minors, and support of spouses, is the Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court (“JDR”). The Circuit Court only has concurrent jurisdiction over these matters if there is a divorce case pending. And, unlike in Maryland and DC, when the spouses have been separated for less than the required period (one year in general, six months with a written separation agreement and no minor children), a complaint for limited divorce is often not an option because in Virginia there aren’t any no fault grounds for limited divorce (called divorce from bed & board or, in Latin, a mensa et thoro ).
In this situation, the spouse needing custody or support relief faces a choice. He or she can:

1. File a petition requesting custody and/or support relief in JDR;

2. Assert fault grounds and file a complaint for divorce from bed and board and for the custody and/or support relief in Circuit Court; or

3. Wait the one year period and then file a complaint in Circuit Court for final divorce (called divorce a vincula matrimonii) on separation grounds and for the custody and/or support relief.
Each of these choices has advantages and disadvantages which I will address in my next post.

Police have ordered DNA tests to determine whether Ariel Castro is the father of Amanda Berry’s 6 year old daughter.  He is accused of kidnapping and raping Berry and two other women and holding them captive in his Cleveland home for years.

Many will find it hard to believe that a person convicted of such awful crimes would be able to assert any parental rights such as custody and visitation.

But Maryland, DC and Virginia are among the majority of jurisdictions that do not have laws terminating parental rights upon conviction of rape of the birth mother. So is Ohio.  If Castro sues for custody and visitation, the judge will have to decide based on what’s in the best interest of the child.

In 1978, Robert Swain divorced Nancy Swain because of her adultery.  She did not deny it.  In fact, she was living in an apartment with another man she intended to marry.

What Robert objected to was the order giving Nancy custody of their minor daughter.  His position was that exposure to an adulterous relationship inevitably causes detriment to the morals and welfare of a child of impressionable years.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals disagreed.  It said there are no presumptions that adultery makes you an unfit parent.  Adultery is relevant only as if it actually affects the child’s welfare.  There is no presumption of harm.  Adultery will not tip the balance against a parent in a custody case.

Swain v.  Swain, 43 Md. App. 622; 406 A.2d 680 (1979)

Someone asked today for the Maryland case that prevents a parent from relocating to another state with the minor children before a custody order is entered.

Surprise!  In Maryland, there is no case and no law against it.  Some lawyers and some judges will disapprove of this tactic, especially in the middle of a school year, but it is not illegal.

Until there is a custody order, both parties have joint legal and physical custody of their children under the common law.  That means either parent can take them anywhere.

It is then up to the parent left behind to go to court and try to get an order for their return.

Sometimes celebrities can teach us what not to do.  TMZ reports that an Atlanta family court judge has awarded Tawanna Iverson custody of her five children with NBA basketball star Allen Iverson.

The judge found that Allen “does not know how to manage the children; has little interest in learning to manage the children and has actually, at times, been a hindrance to their spiritual and emotional growth and development.  For example, he has refused to attend to an obvious and serious alcohol problem, which has caused him to do inappropriate things in the presence of the children while impaired.  He has left the children alone without supervision. He has left his young daughters in a hotel room with men who are unknown to the mother.”

The judge gave Allen visitation on the conditions that he:

  • not drink alcohol for 18 months
  • after that, not drink alcohol within 24 hours of visitation
  • engage in mental health therapy
  • attend AA meetings for a year

Guest Post By John Ellsworth, Esq

You can continue to claim your child as a dependent on your tax return if the divorce decree names you as the custodial parent. This is a very important rule for you to memorize.

If the decree is silent on that point, you would still be considered the custodial parent — and thus eligible for the exemption — if your child lived with you for a longer period of time during the year than with your ex. So if the child lives more than half the year with you, and your decree doesn’t mention who gets the exemption, then you get it.

Please keep in mind that it’s possible for the noncustodial parent to claim the exemption if the custodial parent signs a waiver pledging that he or she won’t claim it.

Father’s Rights Under “Duress”

Danny Carr, Counselor and Attorney at Law, punched the button on his phone this morning to listen to messages left last night on his voice-mail.

“I need to hire you for a custody case.  This is Ken Woodard. Call me at 301-555-5555.”

Carr hit redial, and when someone answered, he said,  “Mr. Woodard, this is Danny Carr, returning your call.”

“I was forced to give up custody and visitation by my wife’s attorney by duress,” said Woodard.

“Did he hold a gun to your head? “

“No, but he told me I would lose if I didn’t agree.”

“That’s not duress.”

“OK, well then I found out I still have to pay child support.”

“Right.  Parents are obligated to support their children.”

“But if I don’t have custody or visitation, haven’t my parental rights been terminated?”

“No.  You are still the children’s father.”

“My wife accused me of neglecting and abusing the kids.  Can I file a petition to terminate my parental rights on the basis of her saying I’m an unfit parent?”

“No.  You can’t file a complaint against yourself to terminate your own parental rights.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“I have to go now, Mr. Woodard.  Good luck with your case.”

The Reasonable Father’s Rights

I am thinking about Charlie Sheen’s custody case. If I were his lawyer, I think I would start by giving him the book “Ethics” by Aristotle (384 to 322 BC).

Aristotle catalogues and describes various virtues and vices, such as boasting or humility, and argues that the best way to behave is by finding the mean between the two.

It does not seem too different from the reasonable man test I learned in law school a couple of thousand plus years later.

I am all for “Do not be ordinary” as Robin Williams said in Dead Poet’s Society. And while I do not want my tombstone to say “Here lies a reasonable man”, I would advise Charlie Sheen that judges are more influenced by Aristotle and tend to favor the parent that seems to be the most reasonable.

“He might be cute and he might be furry, but he’s still property.” — Trial judge in a New Jersey divorce case

Reported cases may not reveal the degree to which pet disputes are part of divorce.  But consider these statistics.  Approximately one of every two marriages in the United States ends in divorce every year.  Of divorcing people, thirty percent own at least one dog and thirty-four percent own at least one cat.

Although people often consider their pets to be their children, or at least, like children, the law generally doesn’t see it that way.  When you divorce, your dog or cat is considered personal property.  Courts ordinarily will not arrange a schedule for access with a pet.  As a Pennsylvania judge stated, “Appellant is seeking an arrangement analogous, in law, to a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp.”

While this perception may be distressing—after all, our pets are sentient beings; they express love and loyalty, and we love them, too–some commentators think dealing with pets as property is less complicated and frustrating than accomplishing good outcomes by using a child custody model, which refers to the “best interest of the child,” as the standard.

Courts can determine who will own a pet, not only by considering who paid for the pet, but who has cared for it, walked and fed it, trained it and spent time with it.  And divorce courts have stated that one goal is to make sure that a family pet will be kept safe and free from abuse and abandonment.

On the other hand, a New Jersey court, while declaring that pets are not children, and adhering to the notion that there is no “best interest of the dog” standard, has ordered that a separating couple alternate possession of their dog on a regular basis. This outcome suggests that, at least in New Jersey, a court can order “shared possession” of a pet—as long as it isn’t called “custody.”

And here in Maryland, the St. Mary’s County Circuit Court ordered a husband and wife to rotate custody of their dog every six months.  But this is the exception and not the rule.

Intent to relocate with childrenSection 9-106 of the Family Law Article of the Maryland Code provides that the Court may, in any custody or visitation proceeding, include a notice provision for intent to relocate in its order. It is not automatic. You have to ask for it.

The provision is so that the non-custodial parent has a chance to go to court and seek a change in custody or visitation.

The problem up to now has been that the notice period is 45 days and that has not been enough time to obtain a hearing date.  So the move usually has already happened by the time you get in front of a judge.  The home has been sold.  The kids have been enrolled in a new school.

So Section 9-106 has been revised, effective October 1 of this year, to provide for a 90 day notice period.  And if you file a petition within 20 days of receiving notice, the court will give you an expedited hearing.