Pets and Divorce

           Once a marriage ends, the law is fairly clear about how to divide property, and factors to examine how to determine custody of children – but now on the rise is a movement to create legal status for our beloved pets.

            There are three main means of determining pet ownership at the time of divorce: property, custody, and a hybrid approach. Alaska is the first, and so far only state to give its courts power to grant custody of a pet in line with the best interests of the pet. (This is the same standard that Maryland uses for determining custody of children.) Although, other state courts, such as in Alabama and Connecticut, have simply applied the ‘best interests’ standard when determining pet ownership, without the passage of a statute.

            The majority approach views pets as  property, in which case title generally controls. This approach makes sense in theory, however, it completely ignores the emotional relationship between pet and owner.

            The hybrid approach clarifies pets as a special type of property, and may even use a standard that takes into account the ‘best interests of all’ involved living beings (which could include the pet, owners, and children, if any). It appears that Maryland’s approach will be along these lines.

            Maryland has not yet passed a law with respect to pets and divorce or annulment; however, the General Assembly is working to include pets in the existing property distribution statute. As the bill stands now, it would allow a court, during an annulment or divorce proceeding, to determine pet ownership, transfer ownership interest between parties, and award either party with access rights to the pet. (See House Bill 749).

            Although Maryland is including pets in its property division statutes, it is clarifying that pets are a special kind of property. For example, the General Assembly is including pets as part of its definition of “family use personal property” which also includes cars and household appliances. “Family use personal property” terminates after three years, meaning that the other party’s interest in the item must be bought out, or the item must be sold and the proceeds divided, etc. The General Assembly has carved out an exception for pets in this instance, in that pets are not subject to the three-year limitation. Therefore, any determination made about the ownership and/or access schedule for pets is intended to remain in place for the remainder of the pet’s life.

            In 2014, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers noted a 27% increase in attorneys reporting couples fighting over pet custody during the previous five years across the country. With this rise in pets in family disputes, it may be the right time for state legislatures to advise courts on how to address the emotional bond between pets and their humans, in the event that the humans cannot agree.

Discovery: Finding Hidden Assets in a Divorce

Ms. Markham quoted in "Discovery: Finding Hidden Assets in Divorce" on Avvo stories.

"When working through the discovery, family law attorney Jessica Markham of  takes her lead from the client. “If they feel they know where the assets are located and don’t want to turn over every stone, that’s fine with me,” she says. “If they aren’t sure what’s out there, then I conduct discovery with their input on how many years to back to look.”

Markham explains that discovery may be particularly appropriate for marriages with a culture of secrecy and mistrust, an attitude of “mine versus yours,” or a business with “not-so-neat” books. “In those cases,” says Markham, “full discovery often yields significant results.” "

Click here to view the article

Ms. Markham quoted in Forbes' "How These Millennials Plan to Use August to Position Themselves for Success"

Ms. Markham was recently quoted in a Forbes article: "How These Millennials Plan to Use August to Position Themselves for Success"

“I take care of things in August that need my attention all year long but I'm too busy to tackle at other times,” says attorney Jessica Markham. 

The full article may be found here:

Ms. Markham Featured on Student Loan Hero

Ms. Markham was featured on Student Loan Hero giving advice about how to plan for payment of college with your ex-spouse. 

“Often, the parents either commit to each save $X per month or per year, per child” toward a college account, says Jessica Markham, a Maryland-based attorney specializing in family law. Alternatively, “they will commit to funding college at a certain rate,” such as agreeing to pay the cost of an in-state public college, she adds.

Divorcing parents should enter these agreements carefully, however. They want to be able to honor those commitments later without hardship. “Most parties will be wary of committing themselves far out in the future for a figure they may not be able to afford,” Markham says.

“When a couple is divorcing, they have typically taken their household income and added the extra expense of an additional household, in many cases doubling their expenses,” Markham says.

Remarriage can also add stepchildren to the dependents for whom a divorcee is helping provide. Overall, “there is less expendable income to go around,” Markham adds.

Read the full article here:

Welcome Statement

In this current political climate, we think it is important for people to know where they can find a safe space. At the Markham Law Firm you are welcome, no matter your sexual orientation, gender, gender expression and identity, ethnicity, immigration status, religion, or country of origin.

Our owner, Jessica Markham, is the daughter of two immigrant parents.  Our firm as a whole represents several different religions and nationalities and our clients represent a wide array of wonderfully diverse people. 

In the Company of Women- Women's Bar Association

Ms. Markham was recently re-appointed to the Board of Directors of the Women's Bar Association of Montgomery County.  Ms. Miller was recently reappointed as the Treasurer and will also continue to serve on the Board of Directors in that capacity. 

Ms. Markham also recently contributed a third in a series of articles in the WBA Museletter interviewing members of the WBA about the Mission Statement.  The article can be viewed in full here:

Social Media Use in Divorce Cases

One question we are constantly asked is whether emails, text messages, voicemails, and/or social media accounts are potentially admissible as evidence.  The simple answer to this question is YES!  The E in E-mail stands for Evidence.  A majority (if not all) of our litigated cases will include text messages, emails, or social media in some form or another. 

We will ask the opposing party to produce in discovery their entire Facebook archive, text messages, and turn over all online communications between themselves and their soon to be former spouse. 

That middle of the night text that was sent after a few two many glasses of wine... 

The Facebook photo of you your friend posted and tagged you in...  

The email from your former spouse asking you to take care of your child... 

It’s all potentially “coming in” at trial and the Judge will hear and see every gory detail.  Knowing this, here is some advice:  

1.  THINK before you post on any social media account.  Even what seems like an innocent photo or post can later be used against you.  Social media accounts have been used to show evidence of adultery, proof of location, and money spending habits to name a few.

2. THINK before you hit send on any email.  Assume that every email will be admitted as evidence.  Make sure that what is put in writing is something you would want the Judge to read.

3.  Same goes for text messages.  Be clear and be short when communicating via text messages.  People are often more brazen about what they say via text. Assume that a Judge will be reading every text.

Recent changes in the law require that individuals now protect from change and destruction all electronically stored information during the pendency of a divorce case.  So make sure what’s out there paints you in the best possible light.  As the old saying goes, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all”.

In the age of technology, you should not underestimate the impact of electronically stored information on divorces.  To learn more about this newly changing and expanding topic contact the attorneys at the Markham Law Firm by calling (240) 396-4373.

Military Divorce- What's the Difference?

Getting a divorce when one or both spouses are military members or former military can present interesting challenges.  In dealing with a military divorce there are unique rules which govern the division of military retirement, impact of deployments on parenting, whether combat related special compensation is divisible, health care and other military benefits, to name a few. 


The Service Members Civil Relief Act or SCRA was designed to help deployed servicemembers stay civil proceeding that they are unable to attend.  SCRA applies to all judicial proceeding, including post-decree matters, and to administrive agencies.  SCRA covers active duty servicemembers, including reservists and mobilized members of the National Guard. The stay will generally last 90 days but can be extended. 


Child Custody.  What makes custody matters with servicemembers different?  A deployment will trigger the need to modify child custody orders.  Often the custody order will state that during a deployment, custody will transfer to the nonservice member.  However, under the Uniform Deployed Parent Custody and Visitation Act the servicemember may now delegate their parental rights to a third party.  One scenario where this often comes up is with a new spouse of a deployed servicemember.  The deployed servicemember can request that their new spouse be given their same custodial rights during deployment. 


Child Support.  When calculating child support the Court will look at base pay PLUS any housing allowance received, VA disability benefits, and any sustenance credits.    If the servicemember lives on base, the Court can impute the amount of housing allowance they would receive if they lived off base. 


Military Pension, Retirement and Benefits.  Retirement for active duty servicemembers comes after they have obtained 20 years of active duty service.  Retired pay can be calculated one of 2 ways.  If the Date of Initial Entry to Military Service (DIEMS) is before September 8, 1980 the formula will use the final base pay at the time of retirement.  If the DIEMS is after September 8, 1980, then it is a High-3 formula, which takes the average of the highest 36 months of base pay as the amount for the final base pay.  If the servicemember took a Career Status Bonus election between 14.5 and 15 years of service, this will change the pension landscape entirely.  Military pensions have unique aspects to them, very different from civilian pensions.


Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).  Servicemembers may now contribute up to 7% of their basic pay to a TSP, but with no matching funds from the federal government.  It is similar to a private sector 401(k) plan in that taxes are deferred on the contributions and appreciation until disbursement.  A Court must sign a Retirement Order to divide the TSP. 


Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP).  SBP is an annuity program that allow retired (and retirement eligible) active-duty servicemembers to provide income to SBP beneficiaries upon death of the servicemember.  It has a premium, and a payout in the form of a monthly payment from DFAS.  Without the SBP, if the retiree dies, the military retirement stops as well.  However, to protect a surviving former spouse’s share of military retirement after a divorce, a Court can require a servicemember to elect former spouse SBP coverage.  As the retiree can only have one beneficiary (except for children coverage), one effect of court-ordered SBP coverage for a former spouse is that if the service member remarries, the new spouse or children are precluded from coverage. In the event of the servicemember’s death, the former spouse receives a monthly payment of 55% of the designated base amount.  The cost for the SBP premium is typically 6.5% of the designated base amount although there are other options available for those entering service before March 1, 1990.  There is not a way to force DFAS to allocate the premium so that the full share comes from one party’s share of the pension. The cost must come "off the top". However, there exist other options to get around this.  If the former spouse gets remarried before age 55, the SBP will terminate. 


Healthcare.  A former spouse who was married to a servicemember for at least 20 years qualifies for military health benefits, or Tricare.  A former spouse will receive full benefits under the 20/20/20 Rule if they were married to the servicemember for at least 20 years, the servicemember has at least 20 years of service, and that the marriage and service overlap for at least 20 years.  If this criteria is met, the servicemember will receive Tricare for life.  For 15 years of marriage/service with 20 years of total service the former spouse will receive Tricare for one year.  Medical benefits terminate upon the former spouse’s remarriage.  If the servicemember has fewer that 20 years of service, the former spouse is NOT entitled to such benefits.


Hiring an attorney is an important decision.  If you are a servicemember or married to a servicemember, make sure your attorney has experience with military divorce issues.  If you wish to learn more, please give us a call.

Ms. Markham Quoted on Advisor News regarding QDRO Review Fees

Click here to read the full article

“QDRO review fees do not apply to every account. IRAs and government plans do not charge review fees,” noted Jessica Markham, a divorce lawyer at Markham Law Firm in Bethesda, Md. “Only some employer-sponsored plan charge review fees.”

The best way to avoid these fees is to know about them in advance, Markham explained.

“Often, the divorcing couple is equalizing many plans and distribution can be taken from a plan that does not charge such fees,” she said. “Alternatively, some plans charge lesser or no fees if you use their model QDRO. For example, some Fidelity-managed, employee-sponsored plans charge $300 to use their online automated system in, and up to $1200 if you deviate from their system.”

Most attorneys that are preparing divorce agreement and QDROs don’t find out about these charges in advance which leads to problems later, when the financial advisor figures out his or her client is taking a potential $1,200 hit.

Markham has one way to deal with a high QDRO fee: “You can negotiate which spouse pays the fee.”

Click here to read the full article

Prenuptial Agreements

Potential clients often inquire about prenuptial agreements and why it may or may not be desirable or necessary to have one signed prior to getting married.


Prenuptial agreements are most often used to protect assets in the event of a divorce, but can also include a complete waiver or a cap on alimony, and can modify legal entitlement to assets in the event of death. 


A prenuptial agreement defines "separate" assets, which are those that are to be excluded from division by the parties in the event of a divorce. The definition of "separate" can be narrowly defined or broadly defined.  Separate assets can be limited to premarital, gifts or inherited assets. Or, separate assets can be defined to include any assets held by either party, regardless of whether the asset was accrued or obtained before the marriage or after.


Prenuptial agreements are popular among the “second marriage” crowd, particularly when the parties have accrued significant assets or have children from a previous union.  In such cases, a party may want to provide for his/her child(ren) in their estate planning and ensure that their assets go to their children as opposed to their new spouse. A prenuptial agreement can be a very effective way to do this. 


Prenuptial agreements can be as unique as the couples themselves. Life insurance, titling of current or future homes, retirement benefits and death benefits can all be addressed. 


It is recommended that both parties obtain independent counsel. One attorney cannot represent both parties in the negotiation and drafting of a prenuptial agreement. The agreement is premised on full disclosure and both parties must understand what they are signing. If you wish to learn more, or wish to have a prenuptial agreement drafted for you, please give us a call. 

Ms. Markham quoted in Woman's Day Article

Ms. Markham quoted in Woman's Day Article-"15 Signs Your Marriage is Stronger Than You Think"

Health, both physical and emotional, can be a factor in whether one person in a marriage decides to call it quits. "Marriage is difficult under the best of circumstances," says Jessica Markham, attorney at law. "If one or both parties suffers from a mental health or mood disorder, including substance abuse, the normal stresses of marriage can become insurmountable. If both parties are emotionally healthy and/or treating their conditions, that's a really positive sign."

See the full article here:

Custody Evaluations: Are they Worth It?

        Custody evaluations are great tools that can be utilized in the context of a contested custody case, but they can be cost prohibitive.  The uses and benefits tend to outweigh the cost, which is why attorneys continue to request them. This article addresses "private" custody evaluations, which are privately retained by the parties, or are court-appointed based on one party’s motion or a joint motion. It is important to remember that some courts provide free custody evaluations, so in the jurisdictions that do so, they are highly sought after.


            What can custody evaluations be used for? Most simply, they are a single place to find information, and more importantly, a single report or witness to present as evidence or testimony to the judge. In terms of trial, it is much more efficient to present the evaluator and his or her report, rather than parading a child’s entire network of family, friends, and teachers through the courtroom.


            Custody evaluators also have the luxury of taking time to see how all the different pieces of information fit together, and ask follow up questions to get the full picture, and can present the information from a neutral, third party perspective. Judges, on the other hand, are forced to take the evidence as presented, and hope that the system of direct and cross examining witnesses has done enough to minimize any bias that exists in the witness.


            Custody evaluations are a full spectrum analysis, involving multiple issues, many interviews, and many hours to provide as complete an evaluation as possible. The process takes approximately fifty hours over the course of three to six months, at minimum. For cases in which the parents are farther apart in their beliefs of the child’s best interests, the process could take longer. Full custody evaluations can cost approximately $20,000 on the low end, but can easily be more costly.  The evaluation can be quite costly, but the result can often help determine the direction of the case.


            A second option for cases that have smaller, more limited questions regarding the children is a brief focused assessment, or specific issue evaluation. Topics that tend to lend themselves to a brief focused assessment include the child’s attachment level to each parent, relocation research, determining the child’s developmental level, and determining the child’s wishes. A brief focused assessment regarding the child’s wishes is a unique way to present the child’s desires without putting the child through the ordeal of testifying in court.


            These brief focused assessments can be completed in as few as four to six weeks, and cost closer to $5,000. These assessments are faster and less expensive because they are so narrowed in scope that the amount of people the evaluator must interview is significantly decreased, so the process moves much quicker. However, the brief focused assessments provide the same benefits to a judge, simply on a much more limited scale.


            Custody evaluations and brief focused assessments are performed by mental health professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed clinical marriage and family therapists or licensed certified social workers-clinical (LSCW-C).


            In sum, despite the hefty price tag, it’s safe to say that custody evaluations, in one form or another, will continue to be used in family practice. Their benefits and uses are significant, and typically justify the associated costs.

Visitation Resistance

In separated and divorcing families we will often see cases where a child refuses to visit or have contact with one parent.  There are many reasons a child will give for the refusal, ranging all the way from serious abuse to one parent allowing more freedoms than the other.  The parent whom the child refuses to see may accuse the child-aligned of "parent alienation". In the 1980’s psychiatrist Richard Gardner coined the phrase Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS).  Some debate exists about whether PAS is a syndrome in the classic term, which is capable of being diagnosed.  However, the phenomenon of parental alienation is typically defined as the psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent.  These cases can get difficult when the Court orders access between the parent and child and the child refuses to go or goes but acts out in protest while with that parent. 

In these cases, one tactic parties and the Courts have started to utilize is Reunification Therapy between the child and the alienated parent.    Reunification therapy involves both parents and the child in the therapy process.  Usually the therapist will meet with each party separately but will also have joint sessions.  Joint sessions between the child and the alienated parent focus on addressing cognitive distortions by the child, coaching the parent to interact more positively, and to avoid blaming and bashing of the other parent. 

To learn more about child visitation resistance contact the attorneys at Markham Law Firm today by calling (240) 396-4373.

Ms. Markham quoted in US News and World Reports article "6 Ways You're Wealthier Than You Realize"

Ms. Markham was quoted in US News and World Reports "6 Ways You're Wealthier Than You Realize"  The full article can be found here.

Jessica Markham, a divorce attorney in Bethesda, Maryland, says, "I'm in the business of finding assets and income. There are many, many types of assets and benefits and income that people often ignore."

Markham explains that employee benefits aren't often thought of as assets because many workers don't put much money toward them and, thus, rarely have reason to think about them. But if your employer is providing a benefit like disability insurance, Markham advises you to keep in mind that many self-employed people value them and end up having to purchase them on their own. If you don't have to do that, you have an asset many people covet.

"Another asset that people often ignore, is unvested pensions," Markham says. "In particular, young people are not concerned with pensions because retirement is so far away, and perhaps they have not reached the 10 year mandatory minimum for pensions to vest."

She adds that too many employees in their 20s don't value retirement benefits at all.

"They often have employers contributing to retirement funds on their behalf, and they simply change jobs and leave behind valuable 401(k)s. Because that was not their own money that they contributed, they believe it to be totally inaccessible, and so they don't think about it," she says.

Congratulations to Leslie Miller

Leslie Miller has just been appointed as the Treasurer of the Montgomery County Women's Bar Association.  In this role, she will also serve on the Board of Directors.

The Women’s Bar Association of Maryland (WBA) is an organization of women and men committed to the full and equal participation of women in the legal profession and in a just society. The WBA believes that a strong community of women in the legal profession is essential to the administration of justice. The mission and goals of the WBA are to: 

  • Promote and assist women to obtain positions of influence and leadership within their workplace, the legal profession, the judiciary, and the community; 
  • Raise awareness of and fight biases against women within the community at large, the legal profession, and under the law; 
  • Promote and effect diversity, equality and justice under the law and within the legal system; 
  • Support women in the legal profession in their personal and professional lives; 
  • Provide opportunities for volunteerism and advocacy on issues affecting women; 
  • Collaborate with other individuals and organizations to improve the status of women; 
  • Celebrate the individual and collective achievements of women in the legal profession; and 
  • Promote full and equal participation of women in society by eliminating all forms of discrimination.