There are a number of hurdles to clear before a divorce is granted in the state of Maryland. The following information outlines the process.
Absolute vs. Limited Divorce
An absolute divorce dissolves the marriage. It usually also resolves related issues. After an absolute divorce is finalized, the parties are legally able to remarry.
A limited divorce is a legal action that allows the court to resolve several initial issues. It does not end the marriage. Those who file for this usually do so because there are financial matters or other issues that can’t wait until an absolute divorce is granted by a court.
When Can You File?
After you and your spouse have lived apart without cohabitation for one year, you may file for absolute divorce. The separation must be without interruption.
If you can prove certain events including adultery, cruelty of treatment and excessively vicious conduct, then you can file for divorce immediately.
Often, parties separate before they start a court action. While you don’t have be separated to file for divorce in Maryland, a divorce will only be granted if your case meets conditions required by law. Some grounds for divorce require a period of separation.
If you live apart with the intention of ending the relationship, and if you don’t have sexual intercourse during that time, that constitutes separation for the purposes of obtaining a divorce. You don’t need to file with the court or enter into an agreement. There’s no such thing as “legal separation” in Maryland.
Some couples choose to separate before they file for divorce (or while they’re waiting for their divorce to be finalized). A separation agreement is a contract to govern child custody, child support, spousal support, use, ownership or distribution of a home, car or personal property and other issues during the separation period.
When a couple enters into a separation agreement, it becomes a part of the final divorce decree and is an enforceable court order after the divorce. You can craft the document with the help of a mediator and/or your lawyers. If you enter into a separation agreement without a lawyer, consider having it reviewed by a professional before finalization.
The only way to obtain a legal divorce in Maryland is to file one with the courts. In a divorce case, the court can also make other important decisions and establish other rights and obligations.
— Child custody and visitation
— Child support
— Spousal support
— Use and possession of a home, automobile(s) and other personal possessions
— Distribution of property
— Distribution of pensions and other assets
Your First Three Steps
1. File the Case. Once you have legal grounds, file a complaint or petition and ask the court to grant the divorce. Other forms may be required. The court will issue a summons.
2. Serve the Other Side. In order for the case to be heard in court, the other side must be properly served (see the People’s Law Library — FAQ on Service). The court sends the summons and a copy of the petition to the sheriff who serves the other person. If you’re using a private process server or some other private method of service, then the court sends the summons and a copy of the petition to you. Arrangements must then be made to have the other side served.
3. Return of Service. Once you’ve served the other side, complete and sign an Affidavit of Return of Service to state that the person was properly served. If the sheriff completes service, then s/he also files the affidavit with the court. If you arranged for private service, then you must file the affidavit.
The Ongoing Case
4. Discovery Process. Either you or your attorney needs to gather evidence and identify witnesses who can help prove your case to the court. This process is called discovery. There are special rules and procedures to follow in order to obtain information from the other party.
5. Pre-Trial Procedures. Courts require both parties and their lawyers in court for a pre-trial conference, hearing or a scheduling conference. A master or judge discusses the case with you and tries to identify the contested issues in play. You have the opportunity to discuss the case with the other side and attempt to reach an agreement on some or all issues. The court sets a scheduling order with important dates and orders any services deemed appropriate or necessary.
6. Court-ordered Services. In order to help you through the divorce process, the court may require you and the other side to participate in a range of services. These are designed to help the court understand your family’s needs so a sound decision can be made.
7. Pendente Lite Hearing. The court may order an early hearing, called a “pendente lite” hearing (which means “pending litigation”). This will help to decide interim issues. This way, you don’t have to wait for the final divorce to establish temporary child custody or access, support and other items.
8. Uncontested Hearing. If both of you reach an agreement, this can be placed “on the record” at a final hearing. It’s incorporated into the final decree of divorce and becomes an enforceable court order. In Maryland, the court must take testimony on the grounds for divorce, even if the parties agree on all the terms. For this reason, some final divorce hearings are short.
9. Trial. If both of you can’t reach an agreement on all issues, the court will hold a trial. The court then deliberates on all remaining items and issues a final judgment or decree.