Legislation would rewrite rules on separation
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By Steve Lash, The Daily Record, February 4, 2014
ANNAPOLIS – Couples in failing marriages would be able to forgo Maryland’s one-year separation requirement for divorce by reaching a settlement agreement that resolves all marriage dissolution issues, such as property division and child custody, under legislation that came before a Senate committee Tuesday.
Judges, after reviewing the agreement, would be able to grant the couples an absolute divorce, thus preventing much of the vitriol that often accompanies the process, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin.
“Judges don’t want to see these cases,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “The only people who make out from these long, protracted battles are divorce attorneys.”
Under current law, married couples must generally live “separate and apart without cohabitation” for 12 months before a divorce can be granted in Maryland. The separation requirement is waived in cases of adultery, desertion, a felony conviction and prison sentence, confinement to a mental institution, or one spouse’s “excessively vicious conduct” toward the other or the other’s child.
As a result, current law tacitly encourages spouses to accuse the other of “bad behavior” in order to bypass the 12-month separation requirement, Zirkin said.
“They are all things that you don’t want to see happen to a couple,” he said of the accusations.
By contrast, allowing judges to grant a divorce based on the couple’s agreement would “incentivize” estranged spouses to resolve their financial and child-rearing disputes amicably, minimizing the need for attorneys, depositions and court proceedings, Zirkin said.
Couples who seek divorce via an agreement could also remain in the same home, as the one-year separation requirement would not apply to them, he said. That would save the considerable cost of maintaining a second abode, Zirkin added.
“It’s an incentive to work things out,” he said of the bill. “It’s great for the kids when parents work things out amicably.”
Zirkin’s comments came as the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, of which he is a member, prepared for a brief hearing late Tuesday afternoon on the legislation, Senate Bill 363.
The measure has drawn the support of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland.
SB 363 “would be beneficial to ease the ability of people in an uncontested divorce to move forward with their lives,” the center stated in written testimony it submitted to the Senate committee.
“Under Senate Bill 363, if the parties enter into a voluntary separation agreement they would no longer have to wait for one year before filing for absolute divorce on a no-fault ground, nor would they have to live separate and apart prior to filing,” the center added. “The WLC contemplates that the purpose of this proposed bill is to allow a faster way to obtain a divorce in uncontested matters, as evidenced by a validly signed separation agreement.”
The bill has not been cross-filed in the House of Delegates.