The mere thought of divorce conjures up dreadful visions: terrible arguments with your spouse, taking time off work for contentious court hearings, and attorney’s fees that seem to creep higher and higher as the days pass. But that’s just the worst case scenario. If you and your spouse are able to be civil with each other, there’s a good chance you can settle the issues and get an uncontested divorce, which will save you time and money.
This article will explain uncontested divorces in Maryland. If you still have questions after reading this article, you should consult with an experienced family law attorney.
An uncontested divorce simply means that both spouses agree on all the key terms of the divorce, including:
If you or your spouse disagree about any of these items, your divorce will be considered "contested" and it will have to go to trial.
Maryland doesn’t have special rules or procedures for uncontested cases. However, uncontested cases move through the system much more quickly. If you and your spouse agree on all the terms of the divorce before you file, you will write a separation (settlement) agreement, and you may be done with your divorce relatively quickly.
If you can't agree right away but you come to a total agreement later on, it will take somewhat longer for the divorce to be finalized but the overall length will still be faster than if you'd gone through a full-blown trial.
There are a couple of preliminary rules that have to be satisfied before you can get divorced in Maryland.
First, you have to give the court a "ground," or legal reason, for the cause of the divorce. Maryland recognizes a number of fault-based grounds, including adultery, desertion, felony conviction, insanity, and cruelty to a spouse or child. However, if you select one of these grounds, you’re likely to face an argument with your spouse. There is one more option you can select: you and your spouse have been separated and haven’t lived together for 12 months. Selecting this separation option, rather than assigning fault, might work best if you and your spouse are trying to work through legal issues together.
Second, you have to fulfill the residency requirements. There are two possible ways to do this. If the grounds for the divorce occurred within Maryland, then there is no residency requirement except that you or your spouse are currently living in Maryland. But if the grounds for the divorce happened outside of Maryland, then you or your spouse have to have been living in Maryland for one full year before you can file for divorce.
Third, you must file your case in the circuit court that’s located in the county where either you or your spouse live, are regularly employed, or have a business.
You’re responsible for knowing where to file your papers. If you file in the wrong place, your case could be tossed out or transferred and you might have to start over. The Maryland Courts have a website you can use to identify each judicial circuit by county.
The entry-level trial court in Maryland is the district court, which handles less serious cases, like misdemeanors, small claims, and misdemeanors. The next level up is the circuit courts, which are also trial courts. They handle more serious matters, including divorces. Every county and the City of Baltimore are assigned to a circuit court. You must identify the correct circuit court before you begin your divorce.
The first thing that the plaintiff (the spouse who begins the divorce) needs to do is locate the correct forms and complete them. The Maryland Courts offer divorce forms online at no cost. There are highly detailed instructions that you must follow exactly. Take your time and work carefully. Type everything on a computer or write or print neatly. If you rush through the papers and make mistakes, your divorce could be delayed.
Feel free to talk to the court clerks who work in the courthouse, but keep in mind that they can’t give you any legal advice. You may be able to get additional help or information through Maryland Legal Aid: Divorce Topics or Maryland Courts: Information on the Divorce Process. If you still have questions, you’ll need to consult with a family law attorney.
Although many documents need to be completed, the most important is the complaint. The complaint provides a lot of information about the spouses and their marriage, and it includes a plea from the plaintiff for the court to order certain relief, like granting the divorce or ordering the defendant (the other spouse) to pay alimony.
The plaintiff should then take the papers to the courthouse for filing. The court will issue a summons, create a case file, assign a number to the case, and charge a filing fee. If you can't afford a fee, ask the clerk for an indigency waiver. You will provide financial information on the waiver form and if you meet the financial criteria (i.e., you’re below the poverty line), all your filing and service fees will be waived.
The next step is for the plaintiff to serve the defendant. "Service" is the official means by which you make sure that the other spouse gets a copy of your documents. If you and your spouse have already been talking and reached an agreement, it may seem silly to have to serve the documents, but you must do it. If you think your spouse will cooperate, ask your spouse to sign an acknowledgement of service. If not, have them served by having a sheriff or private process server personally hand over the summons and complaint. The sheriff or process server will then give the plaintiff written proof of the service, which has to be filed at the courthouse.
At this point, the defendant can file an answer which indicates total agreement with the petition, and the plaintiff or the defendant can file their written separation agreement, which should show that they agree on all the important issues.
Next, the plaintiff should write to the clerk of court to request an uncontested hearing date. The plaintiff must appear at the hearing with a witness (not the other spouse) who can testify that the plaintiff has satisfied the residency requirements for a Maryland divorce. The plaintiff should also bring a copy of the marriage certificate, a copy of the signed separation agreement, and some information that supports the plaintiff’s Maryland residency (like W-2s).
At the final hearing, the plaintiff will give testimony by responding to some brief questioning from the judge. The defendant can appear but also has the right to waive (give up) an appearance. The final agreement will be placed “on the record” (meaning, a court reporter will write it in an official transcript) and the judge will approve it. The judge will sign the final divorce order if it is fair and reasonable and all the rules have been followed.
Code of Public General Laws (Statutes) of Maryland