Filing for divorce in Maryland can seem overwhelming, especially with all of the required forms, legal steps, and special terminology. But you can get help—and it doesn't necessarily have to cost an arm and a leg. Here's what you need to know to get started.
Under Maryland law, there are two different kinds of divorce: absolute divorce and limited divorce. In essence, however, absolute divorce is just a Maryland term for what most other states mean by plain-old divorce (or "dissolution of marriage"): a legal process that ends a marriage and allows either spouse to remarry. A limited divorce in Maryland is similar to what's known as legal separation in some states. It doesn't legally end the marriage but allows judges to make orders on issues like child custody or support payments until a couple is ready (and eligible) to get an absolute divorce—or until they decide to get back together.
Whether you're filing for an absolute or limited divorce, you have different options for approaching the process:
There are also some variations on these options. For instance, you could handle the divorce mostly by yourself but consult with a lawyer if you have a few questions or want an independent legal review of any agreement you reach with your spouse (more on that below).
Below, we've outlined the steps with DIY filers in mind, with a focus on absolute divorce. But your choice of how to proceed will depend on your resources (how much money and time you have), as well as the specifics of your case (such as whether you have complex assets or difficult issues around your kids). A DIY divorce will be the cheapest option, but it might require more of your time and greater attention to detail, in order to make sure you've met all of the requirements and followed the rules to the letter.
Before you actually file for divorce in Maryland, you'll need to learn about a few requirements and do some preparation work.
Unlike in most other states, you usually don't have to live in Maryland for a period of time before you may file for absolute divorce in the state. Instead, you or your spouse simply must live in the state (and consider it your permanent residence) on the filing date. There's only one circumstance when you need to meet a longer residency requirement: If the legal cause of your divorce (more on that below) happened in another state, then either spouse must have lived in Maryland for at least six months just before the filing date. (Md. Code, Fam. Law § 7-101 (2022); Fletcher v. Fletcher, 619 A.2d 561 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1993).)
However, if your absolute divorce decree is going to include provisions on custody of any children, those kids generally must have lived in Maryland with a parent for at least six months before the filing date (or since birth if they're younger than six months old). There are complicated exceptions to this rule for the court's "jurisdiction" over child custody (meaning the judge's authority to issue orders on that issue), but they can be difficult to prove. So you should speak with an experienced family lawyer if you have children who haven't lived in the state long enough. (Md. Code, Fam. Law §§ 9.5-101, 9.5-201, 9.5-204 (2022).)
It will be easier to navigate the divorce process on your own if, before you file the initial divorce papers, you can agree with your spouse about all of the issues involved in ending your marriage. An uncontested divorce—known as absolute divorce by mutual consent in Maryland—is almost always far cheaper and quicker than a traditional, contested divorce. (It's also generally required for using an online divorce service.)
In order to file for an absolute divorce by mutual consent, you and your spouse must have a written marital settlement agreement that covers all of the issues related to:
If you're having trouble agreeing about all of these matters before you file for divorce, you might work through the stumbling blocks with the help of divorce mediation. When the mediation is successful, most mediators or mediation services will prepare the written document that reflects your agreements—and some may even help with the filing process.
Without an agreement, you must:
(Md. Code, Fam. Law § 7-103 (2022).)
The grounds for a limited divorce in Maryland are different than for an absolute divorce. You must:
(Md. Code, Fam. Law § 7-102 (2022).)
You should speak with an experienced family lawyer before filing for divorce based on fault, since these cases can involve lengthy legal battles to prove the misconduct.
If you're the one who'll be starting the divorce process (as the "petitioner"), you'll need to complete a Complaint for Absolute Divorce (Form CC-DR-020) and a Civil Domestic Information Report (CC-DCM-001). Other forms will depend on what you're requesting (or what's in your agreement), as well whether certain requirements apply to you. For instance:
(Md. Rules Fam. Law, rules 9-202, 9-204.1, 9-204.2, 9-206 (2022).)
Some of the forms, including the complaint, will be different if you're filing for a limited divorce. You can find and download the forms from the Maryland Court Forms webpage. The same page also offers a Forms Finder tool and a free Maryland Court Help program, which will help you fill out the forms by guiding you through a series of questions. Or, if you use an online divorce service, the service will provide you with the completed forms that you need. Many of these services guarantee that the court will accept your forms.
Note that some counties in Maryland may require additional forms, so it's a good idea to check with the court clerk's office in the Circuit Court where you will be filing the paperwork (more on that below).
Once you've gathered and filled out all of the forms, bring three copies to the court clerk's office in the county where you live or where your spouse (the "defendant") lives, works, or operates a business. (Md. Code, Cts. & Jud. Proc. §§ 6-201, 6-202 (2022).) Depending on the county, you might be able to file your forms electronically.
You will need to pay a court fee to file the divorce papers, unless you request and receive a fee waiver. The filing fee for a limited or absolute divorce complaint is $165 (under the fee schedule effective September 2021). After you file the complaint, the court clerk will issue a "Writ of Summons." You must then deliver the summons, along with a copy of all the divorce papers you filed, to your spouse (the "defendant") through what's known as "service of process." Usually, this means having a sheriff hand deliver the documents or mail them by certified mail, with a return receipt. A judge may allow you to use an alternate method of service in certain circumstances, such as when you can't find your spouse. There are also special rules when your spouse is in jail or in the military. Ask the court clerk for details. The person who served the papers should give you proof of service and file it with the court. (Md. Rules Civ. Proc., rules 2-121, 2-122, 2-123, 2-126 (2022).)
If you're the defendant spouse, you should file an answer to the divorce complaint within a certain period of time after being served with the paperwork (30 days if served in South Carolina, 60 days if served out of state, or 90 days if served out of the country). With a mutual consent divorce, be sure to check all of the boxes indicating that you admit the statements in the complaint, and that you're asking the court to grant the relief requested in the complaint.
(You might also file a Counter Complaint for Absolute Divorce if you want to claim different divorce grounds than the plaintiff did, but that would mean that your divorce will be contested.)
If you don't file an answer in time, the plaintiff may file a request to proceed with a default divorce based on the complaint.
The next steps in your divorce will depend on whether you and your spouse have a marital settlement agreement. When you've filed for an absolute divorce by mutual consent, you might need to file a Request for Hearing (Form CC-DR-059), unless the court automatically schedules the hearing for you. Some counties may require both spouses to sign and file a joint request to schedule a hearing for an absolute divorce by mutual consent.
As the petitioner spouse, you'll need to appear at the hearing, show proof of your Maryland residency, and answer any other questions. The magistrate will review your agreement, especially to make sure that any provisions concerning minor children are in their best interests. Unless there are some problems (or one spouse has asked to have the agreement set aside), the magistrate will approve the agreement and issue the final decree of absolute divorce. (Md. Rules, Fam. Law, rules 1-203, 9-209 (2022).
With a contested divorce, you'll probably go through discovery—the legal process for gathering evidence, including testimony and reports from experts like custody evaluators or real estate appraisers. You may also need court hearings on issues like requests for temporary support. If you and your spouse have disagreements about custody or visitation, the judge will order you to participate in mediation, unless that would be inappropriate in your case. Unless you settle your disputes at some point—typically with the help of lawyers, a mediator, or both—you'll need to go to trial and have a judge resolve those issues for you. (Md. Rules Fam. Law, rule 9-205 (2022).)
You can get more information and assistance from one of Maryland's Family Court Help Centers. Most of these centers provide free legal help. Also, Maryland Legal Aid provides advice and legal representation for those who qualify for their services based on need.