Trials and court hearings, in some ways, can be like sporting competitions. Both litigation and sports have their own sets of rules. Some of these rules may seem excessively technical and unnecessary, but they are the rules, and you overlook them at your peril. For example, the rules of civil cases say that generally, if you want the judge to order a particular outcome, you must expressly ask for it in your court pleading documents (meaning your complaint if you are the petitioner or your answer or counter-complaint if you are the respondent.) In the case of one Maryland husband, his failure to follow this rule cost him the opportunity to obtain his part of the marital portion of his wife’s retirement benefits, according to Court of Special Appeals decision.
The case began with the wife’s filing of a divorce petition after 28 years of marriage. In her petition, the wife asked the court, among other things, to order her husband to pay alimony to her and to award her one-half of the marital portion of the husband’s retirement accounts. The husband filed a response in opposition to the wife’s claims, asserting that she wasn’t entitled to an award of alimony.
When you go through a divorce, you and your spouse can choose not to contest the ownership status of certain of property if those assets’ status is not in dispute. The parties are required to submit to the trial court a Rule 9-207 form stating which assets you agree are marital, which assets you agree are non-marital and which assets’ ownership is in dispute. In this couple’s case, they submitted a Rule 9-207 form and, on their form, they listed each spouse’s retirement accounts as marital property.
When the case went to trial, the husband asked the judge for one-half of the marital portion of the wife’s retirement. Prior to making this request in the couple’s final divorce hearing, the husband had not previously made any requests relating to the wife’s retirement.
The court awarded the wife no alimony, but did award her the portion of the husband’s retirement that she sought, along with an award of attorneys’ fees. The husband received nothing from the wife’s retirement. The husband appealed. Despite the fact that the wife’s retirement was listed on the Rule 9-207 form as an asset both spouses agreed to be marital property, and even though the husband had never made any statements that he was waiving his right to receive his part of the marital portion of the wife’s retirement, the appeals court still ruled against him, upholding the trial court’s decision.
So, why did the husband lose even when the asset in question seemed clearly to be a marital one? It came down to the rules. As noted above, if you want the judge to grant you a certain award, you must expressly ask for it in either a counter-complaint filing or in your answer to your opponent’s petition. This rule exists to make sure that each side knows exactly what issues will be litigated at trial and to prevent a party from unfairly “sandbagging” the other side by raising an issue at the last moment that the other side had not been notified about and, therefore, was not prepared to contest.
In this couple’s case, the husband never explicitly asked for his part of the marital portion of the wife’s retirement. The husband’s documents that he filed with the trial court asked for exactly two things: granting the divorce and denying the wife an alimony award. The statements in the Rule 9-207 form constituted a valid admission by the wife that her retirement was a marital asset, but an admission by the wife is not the same as a request for relief by the husband in a properly filed pleading. Simply because the wife made an admission about her retirement did not mean that she was on notice that division of that asset would be an issue at the final divorce hearing.
All this, of course, comes down to making sure that, in preparation for your divorce case, you not only have your factual evidence properly prepared, but you are also ready in terms of procedural side of things. Maryland family law attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has helped many divorcing spouses in Maryland as they navigate the legal process from petition or answer all the way to a final judgment. With experienced legal counsel on your side, you can make sure that you are ready to present your strongest factual and legal case possible. To find out how this office can assist you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
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