Maryland’s laws regarding divorce are about to undergo significant changes that will substantially impact how attorneys practice law and what relief may be afforded to our clients.
Gov. Wes Moore has signed into law legislation passed in the 2023 General Assembly session that repeals the authority of the court to decree a limited divorce and alters certain grounds for an absolute divorce. The law takes effect Oct. 1, 2023.
So, what does all this mean?
First, the law will entirely eliminate “limited divorces.” Limited divorces were already somewhat unique to Maryland and are most akin to a “legal separation” in other jurisdictions.
Under a limited divorce, the parties’ marriage would not be completely dissolved but it would permit the couple to live apart, establish child support and custody arrangement, and alimony, among other things.
Under current Maryland law, the court can grant a limited divorce on several grounds, including voluntary separation, cruelty, excessively vicious conduct, and desertion. Importantly, because the parties are awarded only a limited divorce, they cannot remarry until granted an absolute divorce.
Persons seeking limited divorces often did so for religious reasons, financial and even personal safety reasons. Others because their grounds for an absolute divorce had not yet ripened and they wanted to formalize a separation in the meantime.
With the revocation of limited divorce, parties looking to formally separate and enforce custodial, property and other rights, will be forced to seek an absolute divorce
The new law also alters the grounds for an absolute divorce. Under current Maryland law, the grounds for an absolute divorce include adultery, desertion, cruelty, excessively vicious conduct, and voluntary separation for a certain amount of time.
Furthermore, the new law will eliminate the grounds of adultery, desertion, conviction of a felony or misdemeanor, 12-month separation, insanity, cruelty of treatment or excessively vicious conduct.
In addition to eliminating certain grounds, and as further set forth in the new bill, the amended law will permit an absolute divorce on the following grounds:
- Six-month separation, if the parties have lived separate and apart for six months without interruption before the filing of the application for divorce;
- Irreconcilable differences;
- Mutual consent.
For divorces predicated on mutual consent, the parties are still required to execute and submit a written and signed settlement agreement that resolves all issues regarding alimony, property, care, custody and support of minor and dependent children.
Interestingly, the court may grant an absolute divorce to parties seeking a dissolution under a six-month separation even if the parties have been or are still residing under the same roof or the separation is in accordance with a court order. This is a marked difference from years past when one had to establish separate domiciles.
One of the main reasons for these changes is to streamline the divorce process and make it more efficient. With many courts reporting that the majority of cases are domestic disputes, removing some of the barriers to divorce and otherwise streamlining the process hopefully will reduce judicial backlog and benefit those seeking to dissolve unhappy marriages.
Some of these changes, particularly to the elimination of limited divorce and certain grounds for divorce, have drawn criticism from, among others, advocates for victims of domestic violence. Those advocates argue that eliminating the protections of limited divorce or removing the grounds for excessively vicious conduct may make it harder for victims of domestic violence to obtain relief.
These changes, of course, only take effect on and after Oct. 1, 2023. Parties who may want to take advantage of the current state of the law should make sure to file before this deadline, while those who may want the benefits of the new law should take care to file after.
Elizabeth J. McInturff, Esq., a partner at JDKatz, PC, represents clients throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C., in complex family, civil and commercial disputes. For more information, visit www.jdkatz.com.