Toddlers and Tiaras Controversy Spills into Family Court

Toddlers and Tiaras, the popular show on TLC about young girls vying for beauty pageant glory, has been controversial from the start. From everyday viewers to Vanessa Williams, people have criticized the parents who parade their very young children around the toddler beauty pageant circuit (which is a real thing, apparently). Many argue that this type of beauty pageant teaches these young girls that beauty is the most important characteristic for a female, and some even argue that the pageants sexualize these girls at very tender ages given the provocative costumes.

The controversy has now been brought to court in a custody battle over one of the Toddlers and Tiaras stars. Bill Verst and Lindsay Jackson, parents of Madisyn “Maddy” Verst, are locked in a custody battle that centers on toddler beauty pageants. The controversy of Maddy Verst’s Dolly Parton pageant costume hit in September 2011, and now Verst claims that Jackson is sexually exploiting Maddy by dressing her so provocatively in the pageants. Jackson claims that Verst is simply using the pageants as a way to gain custody of Maddy, and has never had an issue before the custody case began.

A court-appointed psychologist is now “recommending that Bill Verst and his ex, Lindsay Jackson, share temporary custody, with Bill Verst getting primary residential custody” due to the provocative nature of Jackson’s costumes for Maddy. This case is ongoing, but for now, Maddy’s pageant career is on hold as her parents duke it out in family court.

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Brazil Holds for Maternity Leave for Gay Fathers

Until this past week, new fathers in Brazil got just five days of paid maternity leave from work to help tend for their child. This changed when the Brazilian social security agency held that Lucimar da Silva is entitled to the four months of maternity leave after he and his partner adopted a baby. The court determined that de Silva should receive the same amount of leave that a new mother would receive after giving birth.

De Silva and his partner argued that at least one of them should be granted the same amount of time for maternity leave, four months, as a new mother. The agency hearing the case agreed, as the same parental functions of caring for the new child would be performed by de Silva. An agency spokesman said “However unusual it may seem to grant maternity leave to a male person … this hypothesis is possible when the father takes care of the newborn.”

The Brazil Supreme Court in 2011 held that gay and lesbian persons are entitled to every legal right that a heterosexual person is entitled to. Under this precedent, the social security agency found it to be discriminatory to not grant maternity leave in de Silva’s case. However, the agency’s ruling is not in itself precedential. Each same-sex male couple in the future must individually petition the state to maternity leave. However, lesbian couples are already granted the four month paid maternity leave without the petition requirement.

Regardless of the legal precedential value of this decision, the social precedent is enormous. Granting a male couple maternity leave shows the social and domestic value of same-sex gay couples. It also attests to the fact that same-sex couples can, and are expected to, care for their children in the same way heterosexual couples can. Maternity leave for gay fathers will continue to add to the momentum of equal civil rights for gay and lesbian people in Brazil.


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Staying Together For the…Dog?

Are pets property or members of the family? Until recently in American history, pets have merely been property in a cute and playful package. Yes, the dog was fun to play fetch with, and the cat was adorable, but they were still just considered property. However, the recent increase of “pet custody” cases give credence to the idea that pets are more than just a purchase from the pet store. Our animals are considered to be part of the family, tagging along on road trips, sleeping in our beds, and, now, part of some custody battles in divorce cases.

The Humane Society of America estimates that 39% of U.S. households own at least one dog, and 33% of U.S. households own at least one cat. As most divorces show, people tend to fight over who gets what: who gets the car, who gets the house, who gets custody of the kids, etc. so it naturally makes sense that a divorcing couple would disagree over who can keep Spot or Ms. Kitty.

A wonderfully clarifying article on this topic was published in 2006 by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and written by Ann Hartwell Britton. According to Britton, “The party that can prove the strongest ownership rights, . . . by showing proof with receipts of purchase and veterinary care, can build a strong case for keeping the animal, whether that person has suitable housing for the animal or not.” So, the party who can show they financially provided for the pet is the party who generally gets custody.

Courts around the nation have reacted to pet custody cases in a variety of ways, from open hostility to indignity to complete understanding. Based on the jurisdiction and the individual judge, the family pet may go to the person who pays for its food and vet bills, or it may go to the person who showed it the most love and attention, or the judge may decide an alternative arrangement. Other than custody, which may or may not be ruled on by a court, pet support is often an issue in these cases. Britton goes on to explain in her article that “pet support is best negotiated in an out-of-court settlement because courts that view pets as property will not order support.”

So, ultimately, who gets the dog?  Britton opines based on her analysis of the case law that it truly depends on which jurisdiction the case is in, and who the judge is. She does go on to claim that “it is high time we recognize our pets as more than mere property and dispose of archaic thinking that a dog’s ‘plight doesn’t amount to a handful of kibble when a couple splits up.’”


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What’s in a Name? Legal Separation vs. Divorce

A common misconception when getting a divorce is that separated=divorced. That’s actually not the case. Being separated is, legally, substantially different from being divorced. And once a couple is separated, that does not necessarily mean they are legally separated. Confused? Here’s the breakdown:

  • Divorce” means that the couple is no longer legally married by order from a court. Based on the facts of the marriage, a judge has ruled that the parties are no longer married, so long as the parties have been separated “mutually and voluntarily” for at least 6 months.
  • “Separated” means that the couple is living separately with no other real implications.
  • Legally separated,” based on the DC law, means that the parties to the marriage are no longing living together or engaging in sexual relations. This is usually a step towards getting a divorce.

The main difference between a divorce and a legal separation is the amount of time the parties have been living apart with no cohabitation (cohabitation=sexual relations). For example, in DC a divorce can be granted if the parties have been mutually and voluntarily separated without cohabitation for six months. While a legal separation can be granted under the same grounds, a legal separation doesn’t have the same effect of a divorce. A divorce legally separates two people. Mr. and Mrs. Smith become Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones. Their property and debts are divided, child custody and support is determined if applicable, and a creditor cannot go after the other spouse after a divorce is granted.

Most basically, a physical separation is necessary to be considered legally separated or to be granted a divorce. Each step is part of the process to go from a legal entity as a married unit, to two separate legal persons. Each step has a different criteria, and different impacts on finances and other areas of everyday life. It is important to remember that each step on the divorce continuum is seen differently by the courts, and by the law.

Splitting Hairs: LGBT Divorce in MD

There are multiple legal complexities that come with getting married; even more for same-sex couples. Besides the taxation issues, potential employment issues, and other issues regulated by the federal government via DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), marriage for same-sex couples brings many obstacles to the table. One such obstacle is divorce. Divorce is the final separation of a legal marriage where the marital assets are divided, but if your state doesn’t recognize your marriage, how can you legally get a divorce?

Maryland is a vibrant and diverse state, so it makes sense that in February 2012 the Maryland General Assembly passed the Civil Marriage Protection Act  to legalize same-sex marriage, which was signed by Governor Martin O’Malley on March 1, 2012. The progression of the law was halted by a political challenge that landed the law via referendum on the 2012 general election ballot to be held on November 6, 2012. While the law granting same-sex marriages is in limbo until November, where do Maryland same-sex couples seeking divorce stand? What are their options? For example, if a same-sex couple is married in DC, move to Maryland, and wish to get a divorce about establishing legal residency in Maryland, do they have to wait to get that divorce until the general election? The Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled that same-sex divorces can be granted in Maryland even though same-sex marriages are not yet legal in the state.

In the May 18 ruling, the high court stated that, “A valid out-of-state same-sex marriage should be treated by Maryland courts as worthy of divorce, according to the applicable statues, reported cases, and court rules of this state.” This decision in Port v. Cowan lends tremendous support for the push to legalizing same-sex marriage. A ruling that recognizes out-of-state same-sex marriages grants rights and protections to same-sex couples that otherwise would not have existed. This is another step in the state-wide acceptance of same-sex marriage, which could culminate in the voter acceptance of the marriage equality bill this November.

Myths About Lawyers, Part 1

Most people have many misconceptions about lawyers. Unfortunately, this can hinder the client-lawyer relationship, and make a bad situation even worse. Family law issues are highly emotional, and it is important to have a trustworthy lawyer who can resolve highly contentious problems.

We compiled this list to give future clients a glimpse of what our attorneys actually do here at Luxenberg & Johnson.

1) No one can afford a lawyer in this economy.

This tough economy has forced people to tighten their belts, and most people mistakenly believe they simply can’t afford an attorney right now. In reality, attorneys are affordable even in a bad economy. Family law cases can be difficult, both emotionally and legally. The truth is, many people can’t afford to not have an attorney. Yes, you read that right. It might seem counterintuitive, but often people can save themselves money, not to mention a huge legal headache, by hiring a lawyer at the outset of their legal problem.

If your car needed a new tire, it can be dangerous and ultimately expensive to wait to replace the tire until it blows. Once your tire blows, you run the risk of ruining your rims or even getting into an accident which can lead to problems much more expensive than replacing a tire.

The tire scenario is similar to a family law case. Many people who don’t hire an attorney from the outset see problems develop in their case that later take an attorney a great deal of time to sort out. And time is money. So, the upfront cost of hiring an attorney can ultimately save money in the long run by potentially preventing major disaster in a case.

2) Lawyers are heartless.

This simply isn’t true! Yes, some lawyers can be downright nasty, but just like there are good and bad doctors, and good and bad mechanics, there are good and bad lawyers.

Many lawyers go into practice because they truly care about the issues in their field. Without that foundation of passion and keen interest, it can be tough to stay a lawyer for long without burning out.

The lawyers at Luxenberg & Johnson got into family law because they are passionate about family law issues. Our philosophy is to help our clients through their legal matters with a sense of compassion and professionalism.

3) Once I get a lawyer, I have no say in my own case.

Lawyers make their living helping clients. Lawyers work for the client, not the other way around! Legally, lawyers have to do what their clients tell them to do. The client is in charge. Good lawyers don’t simply charge forward with a case how they think it should go, especially in family law. Every family is different, and every family law issue is different.

Our firm is dedicated to empowering our clients throughout the course of our representation. We advise our clients, but ultimately decisions are made by the clients. We believe client empowerment is best so that once we are finished with the representation, our clients have a strong foundation for the next stage of their lives.

What Family Lawyers Do, Part 1

The family law attorneys at Luxenberg & Johnson, PC have strong expertise in all areas of domestic relations:

  • Divorce negotiations, settlement and litigation
  • Mediation
  • Collaborative law
  • Alimony and spousal support
  • International family cases
  • Child custody and support
  • Best interest of the children
  • Property identification, valuation and distribution
  • Pre-nuptial agreements
  • Agreements while married
  • Separation and settlement agreements
  • Domestic violence and spousal abuse


We define “FAMILY” in the broadest possible terms to include:

  • Close and extended families
  • Blood relatives
  • Couples in formal marriages, with or without children
  • Couples in civil unions, with or without children
  • Couples in common law marriages, with or without children
  • Couples living together
  • Friends choosing to live together

We help you protect your family and yourself, by providing legal services that focus on your family. This blog is dedicated to empowering our clients, and the general public, when approaching their family law matters. Whether you are getting a divorce, seeking custody of your child, trying to handle domestic violence issues, or any other domestic relations matter, we do what we do for you.