New Md. divorce rules: ‘People can move on’

“All and all I think it is a good law,” says Sue Ann Armitage, managing partner at Armitage & Armitage. “I think it is going to help expedite some of the divorces that need to move forward.” (Submitted Photo)

Getting a divorce will soon become a little easier in Maryland, thanks to a change in state law.

The Maryland General Assembly Senate Bill 36 and House Bill 14, now signed into law by Gov. Wes Moore, repeals most existing grounds for an absolute divorce. The change allows the court to authorize an absolute divorce based on the grounds of a six month separation for those living separately or together. Irreconcilable differences can now be grounds for a divorce which many states already have as an option.

The bills also repeal existing provisions for a limited divorce.

Several area family law attorneys see the law change as a positive as the divorce process can be expedited. Previously, they said, many residents could also not live separately from their spouse for the required 12-month separation period due to financial issues.

“The new law allows the court to jump right in and divide up property, which I would call that a plus,” said Sue Ann Armitage, managing partner at Armitage & Armitage. “People can move on. I think the new law takes the negativity out of divorce. You don’t have to allege ‘my husband has been cruel’ or ‘my wife committed adultery.’ You can just say ‘We have irreconcilable differences and we want to permanently dissolve our marriage.’ It takes a lot of negativity out of it.”

Jessica Markham, managing principal for the Markham Law Firm, said the new rules will make it a lot easier for people to get into the courthouse and file for absolute divorce.

Some cases with no contested issues can now move forward quickly; the cases that family law attorneys handle usually involve disputes so for those cases, there may be less of an impact, attorneys said.

Morgan P. Appel, a partner at Meiselman, Helfant & Wills LLC, said, “I think this will change families for the better in Maryland because it will make it easier to move on with their lives and start planning their future instead of looking at the past.”

Grounds that needed to be proven under the former law can still be used as factors in the divorce filing to determine other issues, such custody and the division of property and marital assets.

“You could spend months preparing and fighting to get this divorce for your client and if you can’t prove the grounds that you have alleged, you don’t get the divorce,” Armitage said. (The new law) takes that sting out of it and allows people to move forward.”

One of the chief sponsors of SB 36, Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County, said in a letter to his constituents that the new law also will be a boon to those who find the divorce process a strain on their finances.

Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County, says the new law offers lower-income divorce parties a chance to make the process a little less financially onerous. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

“To assist low-income families that can’t afford to maintain two separate households until the family assets have been divided, the bill allows the separated parties to continue to live under the same roof for the six-month separation period, albeit not in the same bed. Once this bill takes effect on October 1st, getting a divorce in Maryland will be simple and will minimize the period of family strife which so harms the children of the divorcing parents.”

Armitage does see some negative aspects to the changes.

“The old law allowed people a little bit of a healing process,” she said. “You couldn’t really jump in and have the court divide up property. They could determine custody and visitation, but they couldn’t divide up the property until you met the grounds (taking 12 months). It allowed people to heal a little bit before they went in. What I have noticed in over 33 years (of family law practice) is a lot of times people need a moment. They need a beat and this new law is going to allow people to jump right in.”

With a short divorce time frame, Armitage said, some spouses will be affected, including potentially losing their health insurance or not having time to pursue new employment opportunities.

There is also no written legal definition for irreconcilable differences. The way the law is written states irreconcilable differences is based on the reasons stated by the complainant for the permanent termination of the marriage.

Does this mean the spouse did not clean? Forgot to put the seat down on the toilet? Didn’t start the coffee maker in the morning? The definition is unclear so judges will have to determine whether a compliant has a reasonable grounds for the claim since there is no case law to determine what it is.

“There are a lot of pros and cons” to the changes in the divorce law, Armitage said. “All and all I think it is a good law. I think it is going to help expedite some of the divorces that need to move forward. … I hope that my clients will understand (a divorce proceeding) is still going to be a process. I hope it will extract negativity out of the divorce proceedings and allow people just to move forward in the process without the all the negativity. I think it will be a great strength to the family law bar.”

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