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Maryland divorce lawyers push for quicker splits

State Delegate Bobby Zirkin

Divorce lawyers might be the last people you would expect to support legislation to halve the time married couples must live separately before divorcing in Maryland.

But at a state Senate committee hearing last week, attorneys who represent soon-to-be-exes said they are willing to forgo the billable hours to eliminate what they called a nonsensical requirement that couples remain married against their will for a full year before filing for divorce.

The legislation the lawyers endorsed would cut Maryland’s one-year voluntary separation requirement to six months.

The state’s separation mandate does not apply in cases of adultery, desertion, felony conviction, cruelty or excessively vicious conduct. These exceptions would not change under the legislation.

“They [the husband and wife] know they want to get a divorce,” attorney Dorothy R. Fait told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “Why make them wait a year?” added Fait, of Fait, Wise & Dilima LLP in Rockville. “Why prolong the agony?”

Attorney P. Lindsay Parvis said reducing the time of separation would enable couples who know they want to a divorce “to get in the courthouse door sooner” and resolve financial issues.

For example, courts cannot order jointly titled property to be transferred or sold until a divorce is granted, she said. Judges also cannot divide retirement assets until the granting of a divorce, added Parvis, of Dragga, Hannon, Hessler & Wills LLP in Rockville.

Fait testified on behalf of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Family and Juvenile Law Section Council, and Parvis represented the Montgomery County Bar Association’s Family Law Section at the hearing.

The bar groups support Senate Bill 139, which also would reduce from two years to one the pre-divorce separation requirement in cases where one spouse opposes the split.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, the bill’s sponsor, said this “involuntary” separation provision is especially “draconian,” as it enables spiteful spouses to delay divorces out of anger or as a negotiating ploy to get a soon-to-be-ex to surrender the house or the car.

“We force people to stay together for an inordinate amount of time,” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, told his fellow committee members. “I would like to make this easier for people who are simply trying to get away from each other.”

But Sens. Christopher B. Shank and Victor R. Ramirez, both committee members, said the separation requirements serve the vital function of preventing husbands and wives from resorting to divorce too hastily.

“Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but marriage does mean something,” said Shank, R-Washington. “There does need to be a waiting period.”

Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, said the mandated separation gives couples “time to contemplate” whether they truly want to end their marriages.

“You want people to work things out,” he added. “Is six months enough?”

In response, attorney Laure Ruth said she has never heard of any instance when the separation requirement led to the reconciliation of couples who had decided on divorce. But she has heard of many cases when the state-imposed separation has drained families financially and emotionally.

“The longer that goes on, the more you drive up the bills,” said Ruth, legal director at The Women’s Law Center of Maryland Inc. Reducing the separation requirement would be “better for the children, the court system, but maybe not the lawyers’ pocketbooks,” she added.

Attorney A.P. Pishevar said his support for the shorter separation requirement goes “against the financial interest of attorneys.” Thus, “it speaks volumes” for the legislation that it is backed by family law sections, said Pishevar, of the Law Offices of A.P Pishevar & Associates PC in Rockville.

The Maryland Catholic Conference, by contrast, urged the committee to leave the separation requirements in place.

“While in certain cases existing law may create what seems to be an undue burden for couples seeking a divorce, these cases should not override the general intent of the law to ensure that marriages are not quickly or easily dissolved,” the conference stated in written testimony to the committee.

“The legal commitment made in marriage is rightly recognized by the state as a commitment that anticipates permanence so as to provide a desirable stability to families and society,” the conference added. “Allowing the dissolution of that commitment to be achieved more readily risks increasing the rate of divorce in our society, and with it, the well-known negative consequences on the divorced parties, their children and future generations.”

Identical legislation to SB 139 has been introduced in the House of Delegates. House Bill 402 is sponsored by Dels. Luiz R.S. Simmons and Benjamin F. Kramer, both Montgomery County Democrats.

Reducing Maryland’s separation requirement from 12 to six months would bring the state more in line with some neighboring jurisdictions.

For example, Virginia law requires that married couples with no minor children be separated for six months before divorcing (12 months if children are present). Delaware and Washington, D.C., both have a six-month separation requirement, and Pennsylvania requires 90 days of separation before divorce can be granted.

West Virginia, like Maryland, has a one-year separation requirement.