Getting a divorce case started can be tricky, especially for those with no legal background or experience with the court system. This article covers the basics of filing for divorce in Maryland. If you have specific divorce-related questions or your case is complicated, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.
The spouse who requests the divorce (files for divorce) is the “plaintiff,” and the other spouse is the “defendant.”
In Maryland, a person can obtain an “absolute divorce” or a “limited divorce.” In both forms of divorce, the same issues are addressed—custody and support of children, alimony, and the division of debt and assets.
The key difference between these two processes is that at the conclusion of a limited divorce, the couple is still legally married. In other words, the couple is legally separated, not divorced.
An absolute divorce is what is typically referred to as a divorce in other states. At the end of this process—in addition to resolving all divorce-related issues, such as child custody and the other matters identified above—the court will end the marriage and spouses will be considered single once again.
At the time of filing for divorce, at least one spouse must have been a Maryland resident for at least six months prior to filing. See Md. Code, Fam. Law § 7-101 (2019).
Additionally, Maryland law requires the divorcing couple to live apart for at least 12 months before filing for divorce. Otherwise, the plaintiff must show that there are “fault grounds” for the divorce. This means that the plaintiff must prove the other spouse did something that caused the breakup of the marriage. See Md. Code, Fam. Law § 7-103 (2019).
The law is very specific as to what sorts of conduct may provide fault grounds for divorce. In Maryland, the fault grounds include adultery, insanity and commitment to a mental institution, cruelty, or vicious conduct. Those who want to file for a fault divorce should consult with a licensed Maryland attorney to determine whether their grounds are sufficient.
To begin the divorce process, the plaintiff must complete a “Complaint for Absolute Divorce” form and the “Civil Domestic Case Information Report.” These forms are available through the Maryland Courts website. You can find additional information about the divorce process on the Maryland Courts Family Law Self-Help Center page.
The plaintiff spouse needs to file these papers in the circuit court that covers his or her county. Maryland has eight circuit courts covering the 23 counties and city of Baltimore. For more information on where to file, see the circuit court information page on Maryland’s Court website. At the time of filing, the plaintiff must either pay a filing fee to the court or request a fee waiver.
Once the complaint has been filed with the court, the court clerk will issue a “Writ of Summons” along with a copy of the complaint. These two documents must be “served” on the defendant spouse.
“Service of process” means that the other spouse receives copies of the divorce paperwork. Delivering these documents provides your spouse with notice that the divorce has been filed in the courts.
Under Maryland law, the responding spouse may be served by receiving a copy of the complaint and the writ of summons from:
If the above methods of service are unsuccessful, then you may need to ask a judge if you can serve your spouse by certified mail, return receipt requested. This means that the post office will require that only the defendant sign for the copy and the plaintiff will receive proof of delivery with the return of the receipt, which is the green card.
If you can't locate your spouse, your spouse is in the military, or your spouse is in jail, you will have to go to court and ask a judge to allow you to use an alternative method of service. In some cases, a court will allow you to complete service by publication, meaning you can complete service by publishing your notice of the divorce in a local newspaper.
Once service is completed, the plaintiff should receive proof of service from the server, be it the sheriff, a private process server, the third party, or the U.S. Postal Service’s receipt. This proof, which is in the form of an affidavit, will show that the defendant was properly served. Maryland’s court website contains fill-in forms for this purpose.
The defendant spouse should file an “Answer” to the divorce complaint, which will allow the defendant to admit or deny the statements contained in the divorce complaint.
The defendant must file an answer within 30 days after service, 60 days if the defendant spouse lives out-of-state, or within 90 days if living out of the country.
The defendant may also file a “Counter Complaint for Absolute Divorce.” Unlike the answer, the counter complaint allows the defendant to state grounds different than what the plaintiff wrote in the initial complaint. The answer and/or counter complaint may be mailed to the plaintiff—no formal service is required.
Both spouses must complete financial statements, which include information about each party’s individual assets, liabilities, income and expenses as well as any joint property and debts.
If either side requests child support and/or alimony from the other, the judge will rely on the information in these financial statements to make child and spousal support orders. Therefore it is very important that the financial information be as accurate as possible.
You can learn more about the divorce process, division of marital property and debt, child custody and visitation, alimony, and more in our section on Maryland Divorce and Family Law.
In addition to the Maryland Courts site, every circuit court has its own website. From the Maryland Courts homepage, go to the “Court tab” and click on the “Circuit Courts” page to connect with each circuit court’s individual website.
Maryland Legal Aid is another resource for divorce forms and information. Depending on your financial needs, you may qualify for free legal help. You can fill out an online application to see if you qualify for services.