Significant changes to Maryland divorce law went into effect 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.
Prior to the new legislation, Maryland recognized two types of divorce – limited and absolute. A limited divorce provided a basis for temporary relief for persons unsure about permanently ending their marriage. It also allowed parties access to the courts to resolve alimony, child custody and support issues. However, decisions on the distribution or termination of properties or assets could not be made. Contrary to an absolute divorce, the granting of a limited divorce did not terminate the marriage. Therefore, remarriage was not permitted.
The parties could amend the limited divorce at any time to an absolute divorce to end the marriage or continue indefinitely with waiting out the 12 months of separation under the limited divorce if grounds were not established.
With the new legislation, the ability to obtain a limited divorce is repealed in its entirety and will no longer be available under Maryland law, leaving absolute divorce as the only viable option.
While absolute divorce remains available to couples seeking a divorce, there have been considerable changes. Prior to the new law, parties could obtain an absolute divorce based on the following grounds:
- Conviction of a felony or misdemeanor with incarceration
- 12-month separation
- Cruelty or vicious conduct toward a spouse and/or minor child
These grounds have now been repealed under the new law and replaced with the following:
- Six-month separation: If the parties have lived separate and apart for six 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: These are based on 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 six-month separation even if the parties reside under the same roof or the separation is in accordance with a court order.
- Permanent legal incapacity: If a party permanently lacks the capacity to make decisions.
Previously, a court could grant an absolute divorce on the grounds of mutual consent. The new law does not alter provisions regarding an absolute divorce based on this ground. In some cases, the court even may grant a divorce based on the permanent legal incapacity of a spouse to make decisions. Click here for more information.
Impact of New Legislation
The new legislation will have a significant impact on those who wish to obtain a divorce and the attorneys who represent them. Some advantages to the new law are:
- Obtaining a divorce will be easier and quicker as the time required to do so is significantly lessened.
- Parties may remain in their shared home and live under the same roof during the six-month separation period 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 still may 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 limited and absolute divorces that were filed before October 1, 2023?
- Will clients feel disadvantaged without the “legal crutch” of the limited divorce when uncertain whether to permanently end their marriage?
- How will Maryland define irreconcilable differences? Will misbehavior on the part of a spouse remain relevant for support and monetary determinations?
- How will the court deal with domestic violence cases with regards to safety, given the provision that parties may be considered separated even if under the same roof?
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.
Get Legal Help
Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) is the largest pro bono services organization in Maryland and provides free legal services for eligible individuals. To learn more or find out how MVLS can help, visit mvlslaw.org.
Nancy Grimm, Esq., family law attorney for Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.