Separation vs. Divorce in Maryland

You can no longer get a "limited divorce" or "legal separation" in Maryland, but you can file for an absolute divorce based on a 6-month separation.

By , Attorney · Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
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Maryland has never recognized "legal separation." But it used to offer couples the option of "limited divorce," which was basically the same thing. A limited divorce didn't end a marriage, but it allowed couples to live apart and have a judge make decisions about issues like property division, child custody, and spousal support.

As of October 1, 2023, you can no longer get a limited divorce in Maryland. But a six-month separation is one of three "grounds" (reasons) for an absolute divorce.

What Is a Legal Separation in Maryland?

There is no such thing as a legal separation in Maryland. In states that allow it, some couples choose to legally separate because their religious beliefs prohibit divorce or they use it as a test run to see if divorce is what they really want.

Legal separations allow a judge to decide matters such as child custody and support, alimony, and property division. But the spouses stay legally married and can't remarry until they get a divorce.

Limited divorce was Maryland's version of legal separation and it's no longer an option for couples as of October 2023.

Maryland Divorce Grounds

Maryland allows three grounds for divorce:

  • Mutual consent. You and your spouse agree to divorce and sign a marital settlement agreement.
  • Six-month separation. You and your spouse live separate and apart, without interruption, for at least six months. (You can live under the same roof and still meet this requirement if you pursue separate lives or the separation can be based on a court order, like a protective order.)
  • Irreconcilable differences. You believe, or your spouse believes, that your marriage is permanently broken.

Learn more about Maryland divorce laws.

(Md. Code, Family Law § 7-103 (2023).)

Are My Spouse and I Separated if We Share the Same House but Sleep in Separate Beds?

Yes, if you pursue separate lives. Voluntary separation has always been grounds for divorce in Maryland, but the requirements used to be much more strict. You used to have to continuously live in separate households and not have sex for 12 months before you could file for divorce.

Now, in recognition of the financial burden a 12-month separation period was putting on couples, the law allows couples to divorce if they pursue separate lives for six months even if they live under the same roof.

(Md. Code, Family Law § 7-103 (2023).)

What Is a Trial Separation?

For couples unsure about whether they really want to get a divorce, there's a "trial separation." A "trial separation" means the spouses live in different homes and see whether they want to reconcile or move forward with a divorce.

Do I Need a Separation Agreement?

Many times, spouses agree to live in separate homes until they can get divorced. With the help of a mediator or lawyers, a couple can sort out separation issues, such as child support and custody, spousal support, and financial issues. When the spouses make an agreement before filing for divorce, put it in writing, and have it notarized, it's called a "separation agreement."

Separation agreements serve two important purposes. First, a separation agreement fixes the rights and responsibilities of the spouses and forms a binding contract before a judge enters a divorce decree. Second, in the case of a voluntary separation, a separation agreement proves that both spouses agreed to the separation. A separation agreement can make it easier to get a judge to grant your divorce.

Modifying Separation Agreements

A separation agreement can change if a couple:

  • revokes the agreement and gets back together, or
  • creates a new separation agreement.

A separation agreement isn't the same as a divorce decree. A judge may follow some of the terms of the couple's separation agreement but isn't bound by the agreement's terms if the couple moves forward with a divorce. For example, a judge will decide child custody based on a child's best interests, regardless of what a separation agreement says about custody.

Enforcing a Separation Agreement

If either spouse violates the terms of a separation agreement, the other spouse can bring a lawsuit to enforce the agreement. A couple's separation agreement can be incorporated into a divorce decree. Once the separation agreement becomes part of a divorce order, it can be enforced through a show cause hearing like the other terms of a divorce.

A judge might incorporate many of the terms of a separation agreement in a final divorce decree. But once the couple is divorced and a divorce decree is entered, a separation agreement is no longer enforceable. Only the terms of the separation agreement that become part of the divorce order can be enforced by either spouse.

Getting Legal Help With Your Maryland Separation or Divorce

Separating from your spouse and potentially ending your marriage is difficult. If your situation involves a lot of conflict, talk to a lawyer.

If you can't afford a lawyer, you can get information and assistance from Maryland's Family Court Help Center or the Maryland Court Help Center. Lawyers who work for the Maryland Court Help Center can't represent you, but they can answer questions and help you find court forms. You might also qualify for help from Maryland Legal Aid services.

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