The rules and guidelines for divorce in Maryland are about to change in a big way this fall. Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation that will remove limited divorce as an option and bring additional changes to residency requirements and the grounds for filing a divorce in the state. With Maryland Governor Wes Moore signing the bill into law back in May, these changes are set to take effect on October 1st, 2023.
This is going to fundamentally alter certain aspects of obtaining a divorce in Maryland, and if you or a loved one are considering filing a divorce, you need to be aware of these new guidelines to ensure that you’re maneuvering the process in the correct way, while protecting your own best interests.
In today’s blog, we’ll explain these changes in greater detail and how they’ll apply to someone filing for divorce after October 1st, 2023. JC Law’s Domestic Department Director, Abigail Beichler, Esq. summarizes the upcoming changes in this short video.
Limited Divorce is Being Repealed
As of right now, there are two primary types of divorce in Maryland, a limited divorce and an absolute divorce. While an absolute divorce represents a more traditional, complete termination of a marriage, a limited divorce has served as a viable option for couples who are unsure of whether they want to fully split up and formally end their marriage (or can’t for religious reasons). This essentially made limited divorce the Maryland equivalent to a “legal separation,” which isn’t currently recognized as an option in the State.
Although beholden to the same grounds for filing (more on those later) as an absolute divorce, it was entirely possible for a couple to get back together after their limited divorce had expired. Until then, the couple had the opportunity to negotiate child custody, child support, and anything else outside of the formal distribution of assets or properties (which is only allowed in an absolute divorce proceeding).
As of October 1st, all of that goes out the window, and limited divorce is removed as an option in Maryland. With no provision for legal separation either, that leaves an absolute divorce as the only “type” of divorce available in the State of Maryland.
Changes to the Grounds for Divorce
While the elimination of limited divorce in Maryland is no small matter, the changes coming to the grounds for divorce are even more consequential. Right now, these are the existing grounds for divorce in the State:
- Excessively vicious or cruel conduct
- 12-Month Separation
- Mutual consent (AKA an “uncontested divorce.”)
As laid out in the Fiscal and Policy notes that summarize the legislation, the majority of those grounds are being eliminated, and the new grounds for divorce as of October 1st will be as follows:
- Mutual consent
- Six months spent living separate and apart
- Irreconcilable differences
It’s important to note that “living separate and apart” is defined differently in the new bill than in the previous grounds. The Fiscal and Policy notes explain this in greater detail:
…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.
Basically, this means that a married couple, so long as they meet the other requirements for a divorce, can live in the same home and still file after a six-month period.
What This Means for You
For Maryland residents who are considering a divorce, the entire process is going to become a lot quicker and a lot simpler in October.
Part of what makes contested divorce litigation so complicated under current law is that many people need to prove their grounds for divorce (i.e., proving that their partner cheated, abused them, etc.) before they can even successfully obtain one, or they otherwise must wait through the full 12-month separation period. That’s without considering property distribution, child custody/support, alimony, and everything else that needs to be established prior to the conclusion of a divorce.
Now, it’ll only take a six-month separation period or a claim of “irreconcilable differences” to successfully file, even in highly contested cases. This means that the parties involved can spend less time proving to the court why they should be getting divorced in the first place, and more time focusing on things like their children’s living arrangements or their marital property.
This simplification of the grounds for divorce may also greatly benefit victims of domestic violence. We’ve worked with many clients in the past who’ve struggled with the lengthy time constraints and rigid divorce guidelines while trying to get out of abusive relationships, and the inclusion of the provision for “irreconcilable differences” could speed up the process and remove them from a dangerous situation much sooner.
However, while the new legislation can lead to speedier divorces and less preliminary work, this simplification of the law is not without its potential issues, namely having to do with the elimination of limited divorces. Going forward, couples won’t have the option to formally separate without legally terminating their marriage, and those going through a period of marital issues may face an “all-or-nothing” proposition of sticking it out with their partner or filing for an absolute divorce.
At the end of the day, our number one priority as a Firm is working to achieve the best possible outcome for our clients, and as such we think there’s serious upside to the changes coming with this new legislation. Moving forward, these simplified grounds and the reduced separation timeline will give far more Marylanders the opportunity to file for a divorce, and greatly simplify the process of obtaining one.
However, there are still many factors to consider when exploring a divorce; contested vs. mutual consent, obtaining an MSA, child custody, the equitable distribution of property, etc. The list goes on and on, and in any case, it’s always best to contact an attorney to discuss your specific situation in more detail, before trying to navigate these complicated legal proceedings on your own.
At JC Law, we’ve assembled one of the largest teams of family law experts in the State of Maryland, and we’re prepared to guide you through a stressful legal process towards your best possible outcome. If you can’t attend our webinar on September 27th, or wish to speak with an attorney sooner, then you can schedule a free consultation with a member of our Domestic Department to discuss your case in detail, either over the phone, in a video call, or in-person at our office in Linthicum, MD.
Thank you reading, and remember: At JC Law, we aren’t just attorneys, we’re your legal ally.