Maryland has recently passed legislation that transforms the state into a no-fault divorce jurisdiction. This change has significant implications for couples seeking divorce in Maryland, as they will no longer be required to prove fault or wrongdoing by one party in order to dissolve their marriage.
SB36, which will take effect on October 1, 2023, involves substantial modifications to Maryland’s divorce laws. The new law not only eliminates the concept of “limited divorces,” which were unique to Maryland and similar to “legal separations” in other jurisdictions, but it also amends the grounds for obtaining an absolute divorce in the state.
These changes will have a profound impact on how attorneys handle divorce cases and the available legal recourse for their clients.
Prior to the implementation of SB36, Maryland recognized two types of divorce: limited divorce and absolute divorce.
Limited divorces allowed couples to live separately and address various family-related issues, such as child custody, support, and alimony, but did not terminate the marriage or involve the distribution of assets.
The grounds for limited divorce included voluntary separation, cruelty, excessively vicious conduct, and abandonment. Remarriage was not allowed under limited divorce and could be ended at any time by joint application of the parties or later converted into an absolute divorce.
Under the new legislation, the option of obtaining a limited divorce has been completely nullified, rendering it unavailable under Maryland law. As a result, couples seeking to formally separate and address matters related to custody, property, and other rights will be required to pursue an absolute divorce as the only available option under the new law or by negotiating a comprehensive marital settlement agreement.
Under the provisions of SB36, the grounds for obtaining an absolute divorce in Maryland have also undergone significant changes. Adultery, desertion, conviction of a felony or misdemeanor, 12-month separation, insanity, cruelty of treatment, and excessively vicious conduct were among the previous grounds that have now been repealed. They have been replaced with grounds such as a 6-month separation where parties have lived separate and apart without interruption, irreconcilable differences, the permanent legal incapacity of a party to make decisions, and mutual consent. For divorces based on mutual consent, it remains necessary for the parties to prepare and submit a written and signed settlement agreement that addresses matters such as alimony, property division, child custody, and support.
Notably, the new law allows for an absolute divorce even if the parties have been living under the same roof or if their separation is in compliance with a court order. This is a departure from previous requirements of establishing separate residences.
By shifting Maryland to a no-fault divorce jurisdiction, the new legislation removes the need for couples to establish fault or wrongdoing by either party in order to obtain a divorce. Instead, they must demonstrate that their marriage is irretrievably broken with no hope for reconciliation. The requirement of a one-year separation period has been eliminated, enabling couples to divorce while living in the same house, ultimately making the process of ending marriages easier and more cost-effective.
No-fault divorce offers several significant benefits, primarily reducing the emotional burden on both parties. Unlike fault-based divorce, where one spouse must prove the other’s responsibility for the marriage’s breakdown, no-fault divorce eliminates the need for such blame. This alleviates the negative emotions associated with proving fault and helps prevent animosity between the parties. Instead, couples can prioritize the newly present reality of untangling their lives.
In cases based on fault, it is common for both parties to engage legal representation, gather proof, and participate in court hearings to substantiate their allegations. In contrast, no-fault divorce simplifies the proceedings, reducing the need for extensive legal battles and thereby saving time and money for both parties involved.
The implementation of no-fault divorce in Maryland aligns with the increasing prevalence of this approach in many states across the United States. By embracing this shift, Maryland recognizes the need for a more streamlined and less adversarial divorce process. This change aims to enable couples to move forward with a smoother transition to the next chapter in their lives.
KEEP IN MIND
While the advantages of the newly adopted no-fault divorce in Maryland cannot be overstated, it is important to recognize that fault will still hold some relevance in certain aspects of the divorce proceedings. Factors such as child custody and spousal support may still take into account instances of fault, particularly in cases involving serious offenses like domestic violence or infidelity.
Furthermore, it is important to highlight that the effective date of SB36 is set for October 1, 2023 and will not apply retroactively. Parties who wish to take advantage of the current law should ensure they file before this deadline, while those seeking the benefits of the new law should file afterward.
As always, it is essential to seek legal counsel for the most accurate and up-to-date information regarding how the proposed legislation impacts your specific circumstances.