The law—including family law— is always evolving, but often the changes are narrow and gradual. However, effective October 1, 2023, there will be some sweeping changes to Maryland divorce laws that are likely to impact almost every Maryland resident who seeks to end their marriage.
Here is a guide to how Maryland divorce law changes in 2023, and what it means for you.
Until October 1, 2023, Maryland had recognized two types of divorce: limited divorce and absolute divorce. Limited divorce was what might be referred to in other states as a legal separation. Spouses could file for a limited divorce when they wanted to live separately and have binding court orders regarding child custody and access, child support, and alimony. Limited divorce also allowed courts to make temporary orders regarding the distribution of the couple’s property. However, because a limited divorce did not legally end the marriage, any property distribution was not final, and spouses were not free to remarry.
Limited divorce was sometimes the best option for spouses who wanted to separate, but were not yet sure they wanted to divorce. If the couple decided to reconcile, they could easily end the limited divorce and resume their marriage. Often, however, limited divorce has been used as a tool by couples who were planning to divorce. The limited divorce would establish the terms of the couple’s separation, and when they had been separated (living in different households) for the required 12-month period, the limited divorce could be converted to an absolute divorce and end the marriage completely.
With the new legislation going into effect, the limited divorce is abolished in Maryland. However, other substantive changes in the law have rendered the option of limited divorce unnecessary.
Grounds for divorce are, as we like to say, “legally good-enough reasons” to divorce. What Maryland considers adequate grounds for divorce has changed over time. At one time in Maryland, it was necessary for one spouse to allege fault on the part of the other in order to be granted a divorce. Those so-called fault grounds were:
Maryland also allowed couples who had lived “separate and apart” for 12 months to divorce even absent a showing of one of the fault grounds above. In 2015, Maryland began to allow “mutual consent divorce” without the long separation period for couples who agreed on all terms of their divorce and met certain other criteria. Initially available only to couples without a child in common, in 2018, the option of mutual consent divorce was offered to parents as well.
With the new law taking effect October 1, Maryland has made it even simpler for couples who need a divorce to obtain one. The fault-based grounds for divorce are eliminated. The new grounds for divorce in Maryland are:
Under certain circumstances, a spouse may also be granted a divorce in Maryland if the other spouse has become permanently incapacitated such that they are unable to make legal decisions.
Even with the 2023 Maryland divorce laws changes, fault still matters in a Maryland divorce. It is no longer necessary to prove fault in order to be granted a divorce as the parties to a marriage are in the best position to know whether their marriage should continue. But just because proof of fault, or bad behavior, is no longer required to obtain a divorce, that doesn’t mean that wrongdoing by one party is not relevant to the outcome of the divorce. The legislature recognizes that fault still matters when determining what is equitable for each of the parties to the divorce.
For example, if one spouse gambled away much of the family’s savings, or spent marital assets on an affair partner, it is only fitting that that spouse could experience the consequences of their actions during the equitable distribution of marital property. Another example might be if a spouse is alleging cruel and abusive behavior by the other spouse, it makes sense that the alleged conduct would be considered by the court when determining child custody. Considering that fault still matters in Maryland divorces, this also means that if these sorts of allegations are made, both parties need to provide credible evidence to prove, or disprove the fault claims.
These major changes to Maryland divorce law bring the law into alignment with the reality of modern families. Generally, it doesn’t make economic sense to require spouses to live in two households for a year to confirm that they really should divorce, or to require one of them to prove the other’s fault when both of them want to end their marriage peacefully.
However, anytime there is a sweeping change in the law, such as this one, there are usually areas that are not entirely clear. For instance, and as indicated above, what “irreconcilable differences” are sufficient to serve as grounds for divorce? Are differences “irreconcilable” just because the parties say they are? What if one spouse asserts irreconcilable differences, but the other denies that differences between the parties cannot be reconciled? Maryland law does not offer a definition of “irreconcilable differences” beyond the language of “based on the reasons stated by the complainant for the termination of the marriage” in the new Section 7-103(a)(2).
It is possible that Maryland courts will refer to the law of other states with “irreconcilable difference” language, like California and Florida, when resolving disputes over this issue. In the meantime, Maryland residents can take comfort in the fact that their legislature has taken steps to make divorce more accessible, and less contentious and expensive.
To learn more about the 2023 updates to Maryland divorce laws, or to begin the divorce process, contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to schedule a consultation.