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Putting Children First: The Maryland Parenting Plan Tool and Other New Requirements in Custody Cases

With the arrival of 2020 came a new vehicle to assist divorcing or divorced Maryland parents in meeting the needs of their children: the Maryland Parenting Plan Tool form.

Now required by Maryland Rule 9-204.1, the form requires parents to attempt to prepare an agreed-upon Parenting Plan that the parents believe is in the best interest of the minor child(ren) at issue.

As a result of the work done by the Custody Commission, it was determined that the current law focused on parents and their desires more than the children in custody disputes. Five years in the making, the new Parenting Plan rules and protocol were established to move the focus from the parents to the children, and to provide parents, mediators, attorneys, and the Court (if needed) modern factors to consider for meeting the best interests of today’s children.

What is the New Tool?

The Parenting Plan Tool is a step-by-step process to allow the parents to determine if agreement can be reached on parenting time, decision-making authority, and their parental responsibilities and rights. In addition to the form, the parents are provided a separate set of instructions, which explain the process, how to create the plan, and factors to consider when determining the best interest of their child (ren).

The parents are provided information on what steps to take if a Parenting Plan is reached and executed. Parties to a custody action will be provided with the Parenting Plan Tool, along with the instructions, at their first appearance in Court, typically the Scheduling Hearing. The overarching goal is for parents to come to agreement, whether in full or in part, as to all issues relating to their children. If full agreement is reached, then the completed Parenting Plan Tool is submitted to the Court for review, and if the Court determines that the Plan serves the children’s best interests, then it can be adopted and turned into a Court Order.

What is the Role of an Attorney?

As with any negotiated agreement, you will want to ensure that you understand your rights regarding custody and your obligations arising from the proposed Parenting Plan, as well as any ramifications the proposed Plan may have for you financially. Parties are encouraged to use the tool with a mediator as well, but remember that a mediator does not represent you or your interests and a mediator cannot provide you with legal advice. The best practice would be to have an attorney help you throughout your custody negotiation and during the preparation of the Parenting Plan Tool, but if that is not feasible, you should at a minimum meet with an attorney to review and discuss your Parenting Plan before you sign it and submit it to the Court.

What Happens if an Agreement is NOT Reached?

If the parties are unable to come to agreement regarding some or all of the topics included in the Parenting Plan Tool, then they will have to prepare another newly introduced form: the joint statement of the parties concerning decision-making authority and parenting time.

This form, which is required by newly adopted Maryland Rule 9-204.2, is directed to be jointly prepared even if the parents disagree, and must be filed with the Court in advance of the custody trial. The goal of the Joint Statement is to provide the trial court with as much information as possible about each parent’s positions with regard to what arrangements will serve the child(ren)’s best interests. Ideally, preparing the Joint Statement will also narrow the issues in dispute and allow the trial court to easily identify any areas of agreement between the parties, to avoid using valuable trial time on issues that are not in dispute.

Why Education is Important!

Recent educational web seminars with local Judges regarding these new forms and the new Rules highlight another point: custody litigants need to have the Joint Statement filed with the Court before the start of their custody trial, and if they fail to do so, the Court is likely to require the parties to sit down together on the morning of trial and prepare the Joint Statement right then and there. If one party is refusing to cooperate with preparation of the Joint Statement, then the other party can go ahead and file his or her proposed statement with the Court. The new Rule provides that if one party willfully fails to comply, then the Court can issue sanctions or another appropriate order with regard to that non-compliance.

The Parenting Plan and Joint Statement are new requirements in the world of Maryland family law. Being educated and updated on the role they will play in custody disputes, especially when your children’s lives are impacted, is invaluable.  If you have questions or concerns about either of these forms or how to best use them in your situation, you should consult with an experienced attorney.

Casey Florance and Donna Van Scoy are divorce attorneys who handle cases involving domestic relations and family law. For more information on the new requirements in Maryland custody cases, contact Casey at cwflorance@lerchearly.com or Donna at devanscoy@lerchearly.com.

This content is for your information only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorney before acting on any information contained here.

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