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New law eases path to divorce for many couples
When spouses in Maryland agree to split up and amicably hammer out a separation agreement, state law still makes them wait a year to file for divorce.
That will change Thursday — at least for some couples — when a new law eliminates the waiting period for those without minor children who mutually consent to divorce and agree on a property split. Couples with children will still have to live apart for a year before they can file, even if they have resolved custody and support issues.
The change is the result of legislation sponsored by Sen. Robert A. Zirkin and passed in April by the General Assembly. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the measure will help thousands of Marylanders to move on with their lives.
Lindsay Parvis, a Montgomery County attorney who co-chairs the Maryland State Bar Association’s section on family law, called the change “a huge development.”
She said it will be a relief for many people to know they can move forward “rather than a law telling them they have to wait 12 months.”
The current law starts the one-year clock on the day one spouse moves out of the common home. If the two later stay under the same roof for even a night, the clock resets to Day One.
Parvis said the law will get the courts out of the business of asking eligible couples about that aspect of their lives.
Del. Kathleen Dumais, a family lawyer and vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said clients come to her with settlement agreements and are shocked to learn they have to wait a year.
“They just look at me like I’ve lost my mind,” said Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat. “It just seems so crazy.”
There are exceptions to the waiting period in current law for cases in which a spouse has committed adultery or been abusive. Lawyers point to cases where couples didn’t want to raise adultery charges in an uncontested divorce, but did so to avoid the waiting period. In other cases, spouses accuse themselves of adultery to expedite a ruling.
Dumais, who helped steer the legislation through the House, said some delegates were concerned that Zirkin’s original bill did not include enough protections against one spouse taking advantage of the other. She said the House committee added an amendment excluding parents of minor children from expedited divorce and another requiring that both spouses attend the court hearing in person. Currently only one spouse has to attend the hearing on an uncontested divorce.
The House passed the bill 104-34, with most Republicans opposed. The Senate, which earlier passed the bill 40-7, accepted the House changes and Gov. Larry Hogan signed the bill.
Lawmakers acted after hearing stories such as that of Rachel London and William Atwell.
In joint written testimony, London and Atwell told senators that after deciding in June 2011 that they no longer wanted to be married, they quickly reached agreement on a property split and the support and custody of their 4-year-old son. But because neither could afford to leave their Anne Arundel County home immediately, they lived under the same roof in separate bedrooms until Atwell could move out in October of that year.
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