Big changes are coming to Maryland when it comes to divorce. The new legislation will not only end limited divorce, but also change our residency requirements and grounds for filing a divorce. Governor Wes Moore is expected to sign the bill into law, which will go into effect on October 1, 2023.
We want to go through the changes outlined in the legislation, because they can and will affect couples who file for divorce on or after October 1, 2023.
Limited divorce will no longer be allowed in Maryland
Maryland never had laws regarding “legal separation,” but it did allow for limited divorce, which was essentially the same thing. In a limited divorce, a couple could live separately and remain married. It was a popular option for couples who were unsure whether they truly wanted to split up (for any number of reasons), or whose deeply held religious beliefs did not allow for an “absolute” divorce (the official, legal termination of a marriage). Couples who sought a limited divorce could address issues like child custody and support, alimony, and who keeps the marital home, but there was no provision for the distribution of assets or properties.
The new bill repeals that provision of the law entirely. Starting on October 1st, there is no more limited divorce in Maryland. However, the bill neither includes any provisions for legal separation, nor does it explain what happens to couples who already have a limited divorce in place.
The grounds for divorce are about to change
This has been the major focus of the new legislation, and the changes are monumental. The legislation eliminates the following grounds for divorce:
- Criminal convictions leading to jail/prison time
- 12-month separation
- Cruelty of treatment of excessively vicious conduct towards a spouse and/or child
The bill repeals the authority of a court to grant an absolute divorce based on any of the above grounds. Instead, the bill authorizes a court to grant an absolute divorce on the grounds of (1) six-month separation, if the parties have lived separate and apart for six months without interruption before the filing of the application for divorce or (2) 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.
In plain language, the legislators are proposing the removal of these grounds, and instead will allow courts to grant a divorce if a couple has lived “separate and apart” for at least 6 months or has cited “irreconcilable differences” as a reason to end the marriage.
One important thing to note is that “separate and apart” does not necessarily mean in separate homes. Under the new legislation, you and your spouse can cohabitate for those six months and still seek a divorce, provided that you meet other qualifiers.
So, what will the new grounds be for divorce in Maryland?
Under the new law, you’ll have two grounds for divorce: mutual consent, and irreconcilable differences. In some cases, a court could grant a divorce for “the medically proven permanent incapacity of a spouse to make decisions.”
What we love about the new legislation
Over the years, we have worked with our fair share of people who wished there was a faster, easier way to get divorced, but whose hands were legally tied because of the 12-month separation requirement. It may also make it easier and safer for victims of domestic abuse and violence to get out of their marriages, and potentially reduce the level of conflict that other couples face. We are happy with this change, and with the inclusion of an option for “irreconcilable differences.” Our only goal is to help our clients and ease their burden, and we think these changes may make things easier.
We’re also pleased that the new law stipulates that you don’t have to live physically separate from your spouse. We believe this will help people who may struggle to afford a home on their own, or who wish to remain physically close to their children.
Finally, we note that while the grounds for divorce will change, the new law doesn’t prevent a person from presenting them in their filing as factors for decisions on alimony, custody, or asset division. For example, folks whose spouses cheat may not be able to cite adultery as grounds, but that adultery can still be a factor in whether one person is granted alimony. A person whose spouse is serving time in prison can still cite that as a factor for child custody.
Potential issues related to the changes to the law
There are two elements of this new legislation that could be problematic. First, the elimination of limited divorce may cause problems for some. There are some couples who cannot or will not legally end their marriage, but who would still seek protection under the law. Removing the option for a limited divorce could affect access to health care, for example. There are also couples who eventually revoke their limited divorce because they decide to give their marriage another chance.
Another concern we have is regarding divorce for medical incapacity. Again, we worry about access to health care if the spouse who files is the one with the policy. In the interest of fairness, this concern is not a new one; courts have always had this power.
McCabe Russell, P.A. provides thoughtful, compassionate counsel to clients seeking a divorce. If you have concerns that the new legislation may affect your plans, we are here to answer your questions. Our experienced family law attorneys in Fulton, Bethesda, Rockville, and Colombia that can help. Fill out our contact form today to set up a no-obligation consultation.