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Legislators consider making Maryland a no-fault divorce state

The measure would permit splitting couples to “get on with their lives” without the time and expense of litigation resulting from the need to show fault or a full year of separation, says Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

ANNAPOLIS — Legislation to make Maryland a no-fault divorce state came before House and Senate committees Tuesday, with the bill’s supporters saying the time has come for Maryland to join the 39 other states that permit a spouse to uncouple based on “irreconcilable differences.”

House Bill 14 and its cross-filed Senate Bill 36 would repeal adultery, desertion, a three-year prison sentence, 12-month separation, insanity and cruelty as statutory grounds for divorce. Instead, courts could grant a divorce for irreconcilable differences, a six-month separation or the medically proven permanent incapacity of a spouse to make decisions.

The no-fault legislation “will streamline Maryland’s current divorce law and allow our citizens to file and obtain divorces with less waiting time, less expense and less acrimony within their families,” attorney Michelle Smith told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. “It will simplify and allow more people in unhappy marriages immediate access to the courts to begin the process of dissolving their marriage and moving on with their lives instead of having to wait 12 months to do so.”

An ex-spouse’s adultery, desertion or cruelty could still be presented to the court as it calculates alimony, custody and monetary awards in the divorce judgment, said Smith, of the Maryland State Bar Association’s family law section.

Under the legislation’s six-month separation provision, the estranged couple would be permitted to have lived in the same house during that span. However, they must remain separate and apart for the six months to qualify for divorce.

Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard, and Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County, are the chief sponsors of the legislation in their respective chambers.

Atterbeary said Thursday that the measure would permit splitting couples to “get on with their lives” without the time and expense of litigation resulting from the need to show fault or a full year of separation.

Dorothy Lennig, director of the House of Ruth Maryland’s domestic violence legal clinic, praised the legislation for permitting divorces to be sought without requiring a spouse to testify regarding the other’s cruelty.

“The whole idea of this bill is to take the temperature down in these filings,” Lennig told the House committee. “You no longer have to file on fault grounds.”

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee held its hearing on S.B. 36 after presstime Tuesday.

In addition to creating no-fault divorce, the legislation would end the authority of judges to grant a “limited divorce,” which does not end the marriage but allows the complaining spouse to live separate and apart from the other.

Under current law, courts may grant a limited divorce if the parties are living apart or when the spouse seeking it is being cruelly treated by the other. A limited divorce may also be granted in cases where an absolute divorce is sought but the grounds have not been satisfied.

The legislation would not affect the ability of couples to get a divorce by “mutual consent.”

Under mutual consent, courts may grant a divorce if the parting couple has signed a written agreement resolving issues of alimony; property distribution; and the care, custody, access and support of minor children. The court must be satisfied that the terms related to the children are in their best interests before granting the divorce.