Family relations sometimes lead to disputes and confrontations. Because of the central role the family plays in society, a well developed body of law regulates these situations. A court is obligated to seek to arrive at a fair and just result when family issues come before it, but numerous statutes and controlling appellate decisions can shape, limit, and determine the court's action.
Family law covers many topics. Areas of main concern include domestic violence, divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, and division of marital property.
Domestic violence refers to assaultive acts among adults in intimate sexual relationships, often living in the same residence when the act or acts occur. Persons in such relationships have the right to be free from assaultive behavior from their significant others. Maryland law provides distinct protections. A person seeking aid can appear before a Commissioner, if neither the district nor circuit court's clerk's offices are open, for an Interim Protective Order (IPO), or, during regular court hours, a Judge for a Temporary Protective Order (TPO). The individual can appear without the other party present and ask for a short duration protective order. If issued, the Order may command the abuser to refrain from 1) further abuse, 2) contacting, attempting to contact, or harassing the victim, or 3) entering the victim's residence. If the parties are living together at the time of the abuse, the Order can compel the abuser to vacate the home, grant custody of any minor child or children, or allow for temporary use and possession, among other powers. A court granting such action will schedule a new hearing where both parties are required to appear and order service to be made upon the named offender. If a Final Protective Order is issued, the Court has the power to command that the order remain in effect for up to one year.
Divorce is the process whereby a marriage is legally dissolved. In Maryland, parties may obtain either a limited divorce, one that ends the marital relationship between them but does not allow for remarrying, or an absolute divorce, one that both ends the marital relationship and leaves the parties free to remarry. A limited divorce can be obtained as a result of cruelty, excessively vicious conduct, desertion, or voluntary separation. An absolute divorce can be obtained as a result of adultery, desertion, voluntary separation for a year, conviction of a felony or misdemeanor where a sentence of at least three years is given and twelve months actually served at time of filing, separation for two years which is not voluntary on one of the parties' part, insanity, cruelty, or extremely vicious conduct.
In resolving child custody and child support issues, a Maryland Court is primarily interested in the best interests of the child.
When deciding child custody and visitation, a court has broad discretion. Still it is required to consider many enumerated factors. These include the fitness of the parties; character and reputation of the parties; the desires of the natural parents; any agreements between the parties; whether or not natural family relations can be maintained; the preferences of the child; health and sex of the child; the residences of the parties and opportunities for visitation; prior relations with the natural parents; prior abandonment or surrender; and whether or not either of the parents has abused the child, among others. Custody determinations address “legal custody,” the right and obligation to make decisions involving education, religion, discipline, medical care, and other matters of major significance; “joint legal custody,” the situation where both parents share an equal right to make the decisions; “physical custody” or “visitation,” the right or obligation to spend time with the child and make the day to day decisions that must be made while the child is with the parent; and “joint physical custody,” which signifies either shared or divided physical custody. The term “shared custody” figures in child support determinations involving Maryland's child support guidelines that are used to determine a parent's contribution based on the amount of time the child spends with each parent.
When a marriage ends, issues of alimony, that is, support due to one marital partner from the other, and the division of marital property arise.
The law governing alimony has changed substantially in recent decades. It now is controlled by statute, rather than a product of the common law. Alimony is no longer a lifetime right to a standard of living. In dealing with alimony, a court must not make gender a factor, may award temporary alimony pending the outcome of the divorce litigation, and may award either rehabilitative or indefinite alimony in its final decree, but in doing so must consider statutory factors in establishing the award. At one time alimony was a money award payable by a husband pursuant to a judicial order to a wife for so long as both parties lived or until the latter spouse remarried. The idea was that the wife was entitled to maintain the standard of living she had reached during her marriage. Today, alimony is used to ease the parties into single, self-supporting life, and not as a lifetime right. A court can grant alimony as part of a decree that grants either an annulment, or a limited divorce, or an absolute divorce. The award must be made prior to a divorce becoming final, although a court can reserve the right to reconsider alimony at a future time if conditions warrant. Rehabilitative alimony is designed to aid a spouse in improving him or herself through training, education, or gaining work experience in order to become self-supporting and is limited in duration. A court can award alimony for an indefinite time 1) if due to age, illness, infirmity, or disability a spouse cannot reasonably be expected to make substantial progress toward becoming self-supporting; or 2) if even after reasonable efforts one spouse's earning potential is such that the their comparable standards are unconscionably disparate.
The concept of marital property has also changed in recent decades. Previously, property would be divided on the basis of the manner in which it was titled. Today a court looks at when property was acquired. If it was acquired during the course of the marriage, property will be considered marital property regardless of how it is titled, unless acquired by inheritance, acquired before the marriage, obtained as a gift from a third party, or is directly traceable to one of these sources. With some notable exceptions, such as pensions and retirement funds, among others, a court cannot transfer ownership of marital property, although it can order a sale and division of proceeds for personal or real property it determines to be marital in nature. Again, there are statutory factors a court must take into account in setting any monetary award.
This brief overview of family law is meant only as an introduction to some, though not all, of its facets. Because of its complexity, a lawyer should be consulted prior to seeking legal resolution of these issues.