Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit

Maryland Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit can significantly reduce a homeowner’s property taxes, but this program is very under-utilized. There are a few reasons why. First, individuals don’t know the Credit is available, or they might be confused thinking that they’ve applied for this credit, when in reality, they filed for a different credit, called the Homestead Tax Credit. Second, they may have filed for it in the past, but aren’t aware that this Credit requires an annual application. The deadline to receive the credit is October 1st of each year, but an application can be submitted anytime between April 1st and October 1st each year. The application can be submitted online or through a paper application.  And third, a homeowner may not be eligible for the Credit because while they reside in their home, they may not be the legal owner, meaning their name isn’t on the deed to the property. In order to receive the Credit, they first need to resolve the deed issue.

MVLS’ factsheet on the Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit walks an individual through the eligibility and the application process with step-by-step instructions including how to calculate income and what documentation is required with the application. The Credit is income based and income thresholds are available on the State Department of Assessment and Taxation’s (SDAT) website.

This Credit can be essential to helping an individual avoid tax sale, foreclosure and increasing financial stabilization.  It’s important to spread the word about this potentially available Credit. Once a homeowner receives the Credit, they should be reminded every year by SDAT to reply, however, it’s a good practice for the individual to set a reminder as well, since the Credit expires every year and must be granted for the next tax year.

If you a volunteer working with a MVLS client, particularly with housing issues, please make sure the client is filing for this Credit. You can determine if they are receiving the Credit by visiting the Real Property Search on SDAT’s website and scrolling to the bottom of their property record. It will indicate there if they are receiving the Homeowners’ and Homestead Credits. Note that many individuals struggle with the Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit application and your assistance, while requiring very little time, can be a major barrier removal for them to achieving housing stability.

The MVLS Homeowners’ Property Tax Credit factsheet is available here.

What Is Ground Rent?

If you are unfamiliar with ground rent or wanting more information on the subject, you have stumbled across the right place. MVLS has just published a factsheet on Ground rent to help you understand this process. Ground rent is a situation in which you own your home, but someone else owns the land on which your home sits. This sounds rather odd, owning the house, but not the land. Essentially, ground rent is a lease agreement for the use of the land your house sits on. Like other lease agreements, you are required to make regular and timely payments of ground rent in accordance with your lease agreement.

It is important to know whether you owe ground rent. Maryland law requires that ground lease owners register ground rent leases on SDAT’s Ground Rent Registry to be legally collectible. You can search for Ground Rent Registration here: https://sdat.dat.maryland.gov/ RealProperty/Pages/default.aspx. Please check the registry to make sure your property has a ground rent lease. Failing to make the payments on a ground rent lease could result in a collections lawsuit or foreclosure on your home.

If you have decided to redeem your ground rent, the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation recently simplified the steps. First, determine if the ground rent exists and whether it is redeemable/irredeemable. Second, notify the Ground Rent Owner (via both certified mail return receipt requested and another letter by first-class mail to the last known address) that you intend to redeem the ground rent on your home through the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation. The application needed to redeem ground rent can be found here: Ground Rent (maryland.gov).

If you want assistance with redeeming your ground rent apply to MVLS for assistance.

Maryland 2023 Legislative Changes to Expungement of Cannabis

The passage of the cannabis legalization referendum last November triggered not only new laws for possession and sale of cannabis, but also some exciting changes to criminal record expungement. When adult use and possession of cannabis becomes legal on July 1st, 2023, new expungement laws will go into effect as well. 

A criminal case where a person was convicted solely of cannabis possession will become eligible for expungement if the amount of cannabis was less than 1.5 ounces. Expunging a conviction for possession of any amount of cannabis will be possible if the person successfully completes their sentence.

A conviction for possession with intent to distribute cannabis will be eligible after 3 years from the completion of sentence.

Perhaps most interesting will be the ability to expunge cannabis-related charges even if the same case contains otherwise ineligible convictions. This subverts the longstanding “unit rule” that prevents many cases from being expunged.

Finally, the courts have been directed to automatically expunge cannabis possession charges by July 1st, 2024. How exactly this will work remains unclear, and we likely won’t know more details until next year. However, those with cannabis charges on their record do not need to wait for automatic expungement. A person is able to file for expungement as soon as their case becomes eligible.

See our cannabis expungement fact sheet for more details, and contact MVLS to see if you are eligible for help with criminal record expungement. 

Maryland 2023 Legislative Changes to Housing & Consumer Law

As this year’s legislative season is wrapping up, it’s time to highlight several MVLS backed bills that successfully made it through both houses and onto the Governor’s desk! Some of these bills have been several years in the making and we are proud to finally see their positive effects throughout our community.

Senate Bill 351 establishes a program in the Maryland Legal Services Corporation that provides affordable life estates, wills, and estate planning for low-income seniors. The bill requires the Governor to appropriate $500,000 in the annual budget for the program. Eligible Maryland residents must be at least 60 years of age with a combined family income not exceeding 50% of the State median. Senate Bill 351 affords low-income Marylander’s the means to access advanced planning services, thereby aiding families in maintaining their generational wealth.

House Bill 0042 creates an automatic bank account exemption of $500 for residents facing wage garnishment in debt collection cases. Opposition to this bill was largely from banks, as the new automatic exemption disrupts the current garnishment process. Wage garnishment is one of the main concerns we hear from clients coming through the MVLS Consumer Protection Clinic in Baltimore City District Court. Many of these clients are either on fixed incomes or are supporting families with an already strained debt to income ratio. Prior to the passing of HB 0042, clients facing garnishment had little to no financial security net, the risk to these clients’ financial and housing status were severe. They will now at least have access to a secure $500 to use for familial and household needs.

House Bill 843 creates a Baltimore Regional Water Governance Task Force to look at the prospect of creating a regional water system.  MVLS, along with twenty other organizations including UB School of Law, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Food & Water Watch, signed off on a letter to officials suggesting amendments to the bill. Although the amendments were not adopted, MVLS and others are still pushing for the need for racial and economic equity impact assessments, the requirement of public hearings, and the inclusion of local labor and low-income community member representation on the task force.

House Bill 0092 sets forth a requirement for ground rent holders to register ground leases with the State Department of Assessments and Taxation. The ground leases are to be posted on the State Department’s website; lease holders who fail to register will be barred from collecting rent, late fees, interest, and any other expenses related to ground rent. This new registration provision provides transparency into a historically confusing process that was often used to take advantage of low-income Maryland residents. This bill provides an added layer of protection for some of our most vulnerable populations throughout the state.

Overall, it was quite a successful legislative season on the housing and consumer front. With the passage of the bills highlighted above, Maryland homeowners and consumers will have expanded access to estate planning services, more financial protections against garnishment, have an active voice in the regulation of their water, and have transparency when looking into properties that may have ground rent attachments. This year, the legislature listened to their constituents and the organizations that aid and assist them, and they made marked steps toward the accessibility and equity that Marylanders deserve. We still have a long way to go but these developments show that course correction efforts are underway, and we are heading in the right direction.

Maryland 2023 Legislative Changes to Divorce Law

Significant changes to Maryland Divorce Law will be finalized and will go into effect as of October 1, 2023. The new legislation repeals the entire section of the law that permits an individual to obtain a limited divorce and alters the grounds for absolute divorce in the State of Maryland.

Limited Divorce

Prior to the new legislation, Maryland recognized two types of divorce – limited divorce and absolute divorce.​ A limited divorce allowed individuals a basis for seeking temporary relief, perhaps who were unsure about permanently ending the marriage or for other reasons. A limited divorce allowed the parties access to the courts to resolve child custody and support issues, and alimony but did not make decisions on the distribution or termination of properties or assets.  Contrary to an absolute divorce, the granting of a limited divorce did not terminate the marriage and remarriage was not permitted. The parties could end the limited divorce at any time or continue indefinitely with the typical scenario of waiting out the 12 months separation, if grounds not established, and amending the limited divorce to absolute divorce to end the marriage. However, with the new legislation, this ability to obtain a limited divorce has been repealed in its entirety and is no longer available under Maryland Law, leaving absolute divorce as the only viable option.

Absolute Divorce

While absolute​ divorce remains available to those parties seeking divorce, there have been considerable changes to the grounds to absolute divorce. Prior to the new law, parties could obtain an absolute divorce under the following grounds:

  • Adultery;
  • Desertion;
  • Conviction of a felony or misdemeanor with incarceration;
  • 12-month separation;
  • Insanity; or
  • Cruelty of treatment or vicious conduct toward a spouse and/or minor child.

However, these grounds have been repealed under the new law and have been replaced with the following:

  • 6-month separation if the parties have lived separate and apart for 6 months without interruption before the filing of the application for divorce even if the parties are living under the same roof or if separation is in accordance with a court order;
  • Irreconcilable differences based on the reasons stated by the complainant for the permanent termination of the marriage. The bill specifies that parties who have pursued separate lives must be deemed to have lived separate and apart for purposes of the ground of six-month separation even if the parties reside under the same roof or the separation is in accordance with a court order; or
  • In Permanent legal incapacity of a party who permanently lacks the capacity to make decisions.

Under current law, a court may also grant an absolute divorce on the ground of mutual consent. The bill does not alter provisions regarding an absolute divorce based on this ground. In some cases, the court may also grant a divorce based on the permanent legal incapacity of a spouse to make decisions.

Please access the Fiscal and Policy note here for more information. Legislation – SB0036 (maryland.gov)

Impact of New Legislation

The new legislative will have significant impact on those who wish to obtain a divorce and those attorneys who represent them. Some advantages to the new law are as follows:

  • Obtaining a divorce is easier and quicker for the parties as the time frame required to do so is significantly lessened.
  • Parties may remain in their shared home and “live under the same roof” while awaiting the 6-month separation time to lapse provided the parties live separate and apart.
  • Conflicts and stress between the parties and the effects on the children are potentially reduced and hopefully will allow for an easier transition for families.
  • While the original grounds for absolute divorce have been repealed, those former grounds may still be considered as factors when deciding child, alimony, and other divorce related issues.

While the advantages to the legislation are quite appealing there are still some questions left to be answered such as:

  • How will the courts handle those limited and absolute divorces that have been filed before October 1, 2023, when the new law goes into effect?
  • Will clients feel disadvantaged without the “legal crutch” of the limited divorce when uncertain whether to permanently end their marriage?
  • How will define Maryland irreconcilable differences? Generally, the definition is broad in that it refers to the inability for a married couple to resolve their differences to save the marriage creating the basis for a no-fault divorce.  Will misbehavior on the part of spouse remain relevant for support and monetary determinations?
  • What guidelines will the court utilize when deciding a case based on the permanent incapacity of a party?  Health insurance decisions and financial support decisions are a few factors that must be addressed when deciding these issues.

Over the next few months, we will await the court recommendations and move forward toward what is expected to be a more efficient, expeditious, and less stressful process for obtaining a divorce for both clients and attorneys.

Court Proceedings – What to Know Before You Go

If you are anticipating a court hearing in which you are a party, you are most likely experiencing anxiety at the thought of having to go to court. However, that anxiety can be significantly reduced by following a few simple steps.

One of the most important steps you can take is to hire an attorney if you can afford one. An attorney can help you to navigate legal language and procedures and can ensure that you are fully and fairly represented in court. If you are unable to afford an attorney there are other options.

  • Find a Pro Bono Attorney: Do so as soon as possible. Public defenders handle criminal cases while volunteer attorneys represent civil matters, including family law and tax, housing, and other legal issues. 
  • Prepare: If you must represent yourself, contact the court clerk’s office in the county where your case is filed to find legal resources that will direct you through the process. These resources include self-help legal clinics where you can learn the law and receive assistance with filing required pleadings or responses. You can obtain necessary forms and other information on the Maryland court’s website at mdcourts.gov/forms and the Maryland People’s Law Library website at peoples-law.org
  • File Your Paperwork on Time: Generally, there is a time limit to file court documents. Failure to do so could result in the case being dismissed or the court entering a default order against you.  
  • Service of Process: Complete, sign and serve the required documents to the opposing party. All pleadings must be mailed to the court and the opposing party with proof that this action was taken. Court documents are often served by a sheriff, an attorney, or an adult 18 years of age or older who is not a party to the case. A private process server or certified restricted mail delivery can also be used.   

The new MVLS factsheet on Courtroom Procedures – What to Know Before You Go is a step-by-step guide to courtroom procedure and protocols to ensure that your time in the court is less stressful and that a successful outcome is more likely. 

If you are a volunteer working with a MVLS client, you may consider providing your client with a copy of these guidelines. Many individuals struggle with the apprehension associated with going to court, especially if they have never been to court. These guidelines can assist your client in becoming more comfortable with the court and its processes, creating a more relaxed and engaged client with improved outcomes.   

Birth Certificate Tips – How to Obtain or Change a Birth Certificate

There are many reasons why someone may need to request a new birth certificate. You may have lost yours, or maybe you need a new certificate to reflect a name change. Perhaps you discovered a misspelling or other error on your birth certificate. Dealing with state agencies can be intimidating, but Maryland has a procedure to address these concerns. MVLS has just published a birth certificate factsheet to help you understand these processes.

If you’ve lost your birth certificate and want a new copy, you can contact the Vital Statistics Administration at 410-764-3038 or by visiting https://health.maryland.gov/vsa/Pages/Home.aspx On this site, you can book an in-person appointment or place an online order. You also can obtain the proper form to mail a request. Only certain people may request a birth certificate: the person named on the birth certificate, a parent named on the certificate, the guardian or surviving spouse of the individual named on the certificate, the personal representative of the individual named on the certificate, or the personal representative of that individual’s court-appointed guardian.

To obtain a new birth certificate, you must submit certain required documents. A valid, government-issued photo ID such as a driver’s license, passport or state photo ID showing your current address will be sufficient. If you do not have a valid photo ID, you must submit two of the following documents: a current utility bill, car registration, rental agreement, pay stub, tax return, bank statement or letter from a government agency requesting your vital records.

If you wish to correct or update your birth certificate, there are different processes depending on your reason for doing so. Those seeking to correct mistakes such as misspellings or omissions can submit a form by mail. This form is an affidavit where you will attest to the truth of the information you provide, and you must have the document notarized. Persons seven years of age or older who seek to correct their birth certificate must provide two documents from the long list found on the form. Documents can include a voter registration card, doctor’s office records, marriage certificates and more.

Those seeking to change the sex designation on their birth certificate have their own process to go through. A form can be mailed to the Vital Statistics Administration along with the required documents. The person making this request also must present proof that one of the following is true: a health care practitioner certifies that the applicant has undergone gender-affirming treatment, a health care practitioner certifies that the applicant is intersex, or a court has issued an order for a gender change. You will need to provide a certified copy of the court order.

A $10 fee – payable by check or money order to the State of Maryland – must be paid for every copy of a birth certificate you request.

Finally, if your birth certificate contains a more unusual error not mentioned here, such as an incorrect parent’s name, you may need to obtain a court order by filing a lawsuit known as a Complaint for Writ of Mandamus. This is a legal action that must be filed in the Circuit Court for the city or county where you live. In the filing, you must detail your reasons for wanting to change your birth certificate and ask the court for an order granting your request.

Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service can help you obtain a court order granting a name change, gender change or other birth certificate correction. Visit our online intake or call 443-547-6537 between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. Monday through Thursday.