The Concept of Legal Separation in Maryland
What Does “Legal Separation” Mean in Howard County, Maryland?
Many jurisdictions consider a husband and wife “separated” if they refrain from having sexual relations and are not living together. Some couples with irreconcilable differences choose to remain separated with no immediate plans to seek an absolute or “final” divorce for moral, religious, or financial reasons. In Maryland, the alternative to an absolute divorce is known as a limited divorce, which encompasses the concept of legal separation. A limited divorce is similar to an absolute divorce in that it still requires a court decree, and the couple must provide the court with a signed agreement addressing marital property division and issues regarding any minor children. But a limited divorce also is starkly different from an absolute divorce. For example, it can be revoked at the request of both spouses if they choose at any time to return to life as husband and wife.
Under Maryland law, a couple can petition the court for an absolute divorce within a year of separating, but there are limitations. When minor children are involved, the traditional wait period to file for an absolute divorce remains one year—two years if the divorce is contested. If a couple’s situation does not meet the criteria under the new law, either spouse still can petition the court for a limited divorce. Note that a limited divorce decree does not preclude a couple from seeking an absolute divorce in the future; and if they meet the criteria, they can take advantage of the new law’s truncated wait period.
4 Grounds for a Limited Divorce in Maryland
To be granted a limited divorce in Maryland, the spouse who files the petition must prove one of four grounds:
- Cruelty of treatment committed by the other spouse toward the petitioning spouse, or a minor child of the petitioner;
- Excessively vicious conduct committed by the other spouse against the petitioning spouse, or a minor child of the petitioner;
- Desertion committed by the other spouse; or
- Mutual and voluntary separation.
A limited divorce decree allows a husband and wife to live apart while subject to the same rights and obligations associated with an absolute divorce; however, it is important to note that a limited divorce does not convey the finality of an absolute divorce. In other words, the couple receiving a limited divorce remains legally married. This means the spouses are not free to remarry nor are they free to have sexual relations with others, as this may constitute adultery.
Legal Separation & The Spousal Agreement
Couples who choose to separate may privately enter into an oral or written agreement to live apart. When seeking a limited divorce, however, the court will require a written document referred to as a marital settlement agreement, separation agreement, or property settlement agreement. This agreement is a contract between the spouses that can define each spouse’s rights and responsibilities regarding:
- Child support
- Custody and visitation
- Ownership of retirement funds and bank accounts
- Continuation of life and health insurance benefits and financial investments
- Debt allocation
- Ownership of the family home
- Ownership of household furnishings
The agreement also can include items that are unique to a couple’s situation but fall outside of a court’s purview, such as responsibility for the family pet(s).
A separation agreement is an enforceable document but it can be rescinded if the court finds it to be unconscionable or that it was obtained using fraud, duress, or undue influence. A court can modify certain provisions within the agreement regarding the care, custody, education, or support of a minor child if it is in the child’s best interest. So long as the document does not contain provisions that are contrary to public policy, it can and will be decreed by the court as a valid and enforceable contract.
To file for a limited divorce in Maryland, you must have resided in Maryland for at least one year before filing and must be resident in the state at the time of filing. To learn more about Maryland’s legal separation & divorce requirements, contact Howard County, MD, attorney Fred L. Coover, Esq., of Coover Law Firm, LLC, at 410-995-1100.
Disclaimer: The information in this blog post is provided for general educational & informational purposes only. It is not intended to convey legal advice or serve as a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter.