Separation vs. Divorce in Maryland

Divorce and separation mean two different things.

In Maryland, the terms “separation” and “divorce” are sometimes used interchangeably. However, “separation” and “divorce” have different legal meanings in Maryland and you should try not to confuse them.

Does separation mean divorce?

No. “Separation” is not the same thing as “divorce.” Separation is just one “ground,” or reason, for divorce in Maryland (explained fully below).

Before we move on to the grounds for divorce, it's important to understand that in Maryland, there are two kinds of divorce: “limited divorce” and “absolute divorce. A “limited divorce” authorizes spouses to live in separate homes and get court orders about some financial and custody issues. However, the spouses remain husband and wife. That means neither spouse can remarry or have sexual relations with another person (that is adultery).

Spouses are also prevented from negatively impacting marital property during a limited divorce. A limited divorce is often used when spouses can’t settle the issues of their divorce themselves – it gives the spouses time to live apart and try to work out the terms of the divorce or reconcile.

A limited divorce is also useful to document the date at which the spouses actually separated (started living apart), which is often necessary to obtain an “absolute divorce.” That’s right: you can change a limited divorce into an absolute divorce, but a limited divorce is not necessary in order to get an absolute divorce.

An “absolute divorce” is what most people think of when they think of divorce: the marital bonds are terminated and after that, each spouse can go their own way and remarry if they wish.

Now, what are grounds for divorce in Maryland?

The grounds for a limited divorce in Maryland are:

  • cruelty or vicious conduct of a spouse or child
  • desertion, and
  • voluntary separation.

The grounds for an absolute divorce in Maryland are:

  • adultery
  • desertion for 12 months or more
  • conviction of a crime with at least a three year sentence and at least one year has been served
  • incurable insanity and institutionalization of one spouse
  • voluntary separation for 12 continuous months prior to filing for divorce, and
  • a separation for two continuous years.

What, exactly, does separation mean in Maryland?

In Maryland, separation is the only “no-fault” ground for divorce. “No-fault” means that the breakup of the marriage was not because of either spouse’s misconduct.

There are two types of separation grounds in Maryland: “voluntary separation” and “two years of separation.”

To obtain a divorce in Maryland on the basis of “voluntary separation” for a limited divorce, spouses only have to voluntarily live in separate homes, refrain from having sex with each other, and have no reasonable hope of reconciliation. There is no separation time requirement in order to obtain a limited divorce on the grounds of voluntary separation.

In contrast, to obtain an absolute divorce on the grounds of voluntary separation, spouses have to meet the following requirements:

  • voluntarily live in separate homes
  • refrain from having sex with each other
  • for 12 consecutive months before filing for divorce, and
  • have no reasonable chance of reconciliation.

To obtain an absolute divorce on the grounds of “two years of separation,” spouses have to live in separate homes and not have sex for at least two years (or 24 months) before filing for divorce.

What’s the difference between “voluntary separation” and “separation”?

The distinction between the two forms of separation is the voluntariness requirement. In order to obtain a divorce on the basis of “voluntary separation” in Maryland, both spouses have to agree to the separation. This means that both spouses agreed to separate, they did so without any threat or coercion, and they intended to end their marriage.

In contrast, after two years of separation for any reason, even if one spouse has not agreed to the separation and does not want to end the marriage, the other spouse can still obtain a divorce on the grounds of two years of separation.

Is it still separation if we live in the same house but sleep in separate beds?

No. The rules are very strict in Maryland. To be considered separated, spouses must:

  • not live in the same house, and
  • not have sex with each other.

In Maryland, sleeping in different rooms is not enough.

Remember, even though spouses live in different homes during separation, they are still married until a judge enters a Judgment of Divorce. This period of separation is necessary in order to eventually obtain a no-fault divorce.

Why is it important to follow the rules about separation?

To get a divorce in Maryland, even based separation, the spouse seeking the divorce (the plaintiff) still has to prove to the judge that the requirements for the divorce are met. If the plaintiff can’t prove that the spouses have been living separate and apart and have not had sex for the required time period, the judge won’t grant the divorce.

For a divorce on the basis of “voluntary separation,” the plaintiff also has to prove to the judge that both spouses agreed to separate and there’s no reasonable chance of reconciliation.

What is a trial separation?

Sometimes a couple may not know if they really want to get a divorce. If that’s the case, they may try a “trial separation” by living in different homes and see how it goes.

Be careful if you want to try a trial separation. Usually, the time a couple spends in a trial separation will not ultimately count toward the 12 months of voluntarily living separate and apart for a “voluntary separation.” This is because if spouses are just trying out separation, there is still a possibility of reconciliation.

However, the time spent in a trial separation might count toward the two years separation requirement if the spouses don’t sleep under the same roof and don’t have sex with each other at all. The trial separation time might count because the ground of two years separation is only concerned with time living separate and apart.

What is a separation agreement?

Many times, spouses agree to live in separate homes until they can obtain a divorce. With the help of lawyers or a mediator, they may also agree about other issues in the divorce like, child custody, child support, alimony, and dividing property. When the spouses make such an agreement before filing for divorce, put it in writing, and have it notarized, it is called a "separation agreement."

Separation agreements serve two important purposes. First, a separation agreement fixes the rights and responsibilities of the spouses between each other and forms a binding contract even before a judge enters a Judgment of Divorce. Second, in the case of a voluntary separation, a separation agreement proves that both spouses agreed to the separation. Therefore, with a separation agreement, it’s easier to get the judge to grant your divorce on the basis of voluntary separation for 12 months.


The Maryland State Court website answers some frequently asked questions and provides links to domestic relations forms.

For the full text of the law governing limited divorce, see Md. Code Ann. [Fam. Law] § 7-102.

For the full text of the law governing absolute divorce, see Md. Code Ann. [Fam. Law] § 7-103.

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