Three new bills, passed by the Legislature in the recent 2015 session and approved by the Governor, bring Maryland residents another step closer to a place where they can decide for themselves when their marriage is over. The first bill, HB 1185, introduced by Delegate Kathleen Dumais, reduces the time from one year to six months the time needed for one of the parties to reside in Maryland if the grounds (legal reason) for divorce occurred outside the State of Maryland. The second bill, HB 165, also introduced by Delegate Dumais, clarifies and simplifies circumstances in which a couple can get a limited divorce. And the third bill, SB 472, introduced by Senator Bobby Zirkin, allows divorce with no waiting period where a couple with no children in common have settled all issues in a written and signed agreement that is presented to the court. Taken together, these three bills evidence a significant, if incremental, modernization of Maryland’s divorce laws.
The benefits from these three new laws are fairly obvious. In our transient society, making someone wait one year before filing for divorce, simply because the legal reason for the divorce occurred outside of Maryland, can be quite burdensome. So reducing the waiting period is a good thing. And the need for a period of in-state residency only when grounds occur outside the state is somewhat less obvious since the “domicile” in Maryland of at least one party is still a constitutional requirement before Maryland courts can entertain a divorce suit.
The second new law removes elements of the limited divorce ground that required voluntariness of the separation and the absence of any reasonable expectation of reconciliation. In other words, it recognizes that if the parties no longer live together, and one of them no longer wants to continue the marriage relationship, neither a court nor the state of Maryland should prevent the limited divorce process, which is – well, limited in scope. This also is a good – and wise – thing.
The third important change in Maryland divorce law is an entirely new ground (or “legally good enough” reason) for divorce. It essentially allows a couple who have worked out all the terms to their divorce, and who have no children in common, to avoid waiting up to a full year before asking the court for a divorce. It also potentially allows this same couple, where finances are tight, to live in the same house while in the process of a divorce. In some circumstances, this might allow marital assets needed post-divorce, for such things as housing costs, to be divided sooner. Otherwise, those same assets might be unavailable until after the year-long separation period has passed, the parties have filed divorce papers, and the court holds the uncontested divorce hearing. Perhaps most importantly, it signals another area where Maryland divorce law can be modernized to reflect the real need of couples to make decisions for themselves.
Maryland has long had a reputation as conservative and paternalistic in the context of its divorce laws. This is exemplified in the saying, meant as a joke, “They don’t call it marry-land for nothing!” Maryland has been among the last states to adopt a number of uniform state laws addressing various issues within family law. Until recently, Maryland also had waiting periods before a couple could file for divorce that were among the longest in the United States. And it still has an antiquated and cumbersome procedure for finalizing an uncontested divorce (where nothing is disputed between the parties) - and requires a hearing before a judicial officer, often in the courthouse, at which couples must bring a witness, often someone who takes time off work or away from other duties, to verify elementary (and sometimes embarrassing) aspects of the couple’s lives in a formal and public process. In this context, the progress made in recent years to modernize our divorce laws, thanks to dedicated legislators and those who help them, is welcome relief. Keep up the good work!