How to Get a Divorce in Maryland Without a Lawyer
April 2nd, 2020
These days, many Maryland residents are trying to find ways to do more with less. That includes taking on projects they would normally have left to a professional. When the project at hand is ending your marriage, you may be able to get a divorce in Maryland without a lawyer. However, even if you don’t want to use the traditional litigation model, you may still want to consult with a lawyer before you use the state’s mutual consent divorce process. Otherwise, it could end up costing you more down the road.
Hiring a Divorce Lawyer for Traditional Litigation Can Get Expensive
Many Maryland couples are willing to spend thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars on their wedding. However, when the marriage relationship breaks down, they may be hesitant to spend the same kind of money on their divorce. The traditional litigation model for dissolving your marriage can become expensive quickly. Using that process, your lawyer will need to spend time preparing and filing court paperwork, attending motions and status conferences, negotiating with your spouse’s attorney, and reviewing all the financial and personal documents disclosed during a process called discovery. With traditional lawyers’ fees billed by the hour, the more time a lawyer spends on your case, the more it will cost you and your former spouse. However, not every case needs to be so expensive. In low conflict cases, where the parties agree on most of what needs to happen and who will receive which assets, hiring a divorce lawyer doesn’t need to be expensive. In fact, you may be able to go to court to get a divorce without having a lawyer at your side at all.
Maryland Mutual Consent Process Lets You Get a Divorce Without a Lawyer
Until a few years ago, the traditional litigation model was the only path to a divorce in Maryland. Even if you and your spouse agreed on everything, you still needed to wait at least 12 months before a judge would grant you a divorce. Then, in 2015, the Maryland legislature created the “Mutual Consent Divorce”. At the time, it only applied to couples without children together. It shortened the time it took to get a divorce and eliminated the 1-year separation requirement. The mutual consent process was so successful that in 2018, the legislature expanded it to cover all divorces -- even those with children.
If your family qualifies for a mutual consent divorce, it can save you time, money, and stress. Because the process is quicker, it is almost always less expensive, even with a divorce lawyer’s help. If money is tight, you and your spouse can also continue to live together until the divorce is finalized, which will let you save money on maintaining two households.
Mutual Consent Means Agreeing on Everything, from Custody to Cutlery
Unfortunately, many couples who agree that they need a divorce still are not eligible for the mutual consent process. This is because they can’t agree on the details of their divorce. A Mutual Consent Divorce only allows you to skip hiring a divorce lawyer to go through a formal litigation process if:
- You sign and submit a written settlement agreement resolving all issues including alimony (spousal support) and property distribution.
- Include terms resolving all issues related to the care, custody, access, and support of your children.
- Include the court-approved child support guidelines worksheet.
- Neither party asks the court to set aside the settlement agreement before the divorce hearing.
- One of you attends a hearing in front of the Maryland family court judge.
While some couples can work out all their issues on their own, others need help deciding how to divide their property, or how long alimony payments should continue. Others are able to reach an agreement on all issues, but don’t have the skills to draft an agreement that fully documents all of the agreed upon terms. When these things happen, it can save everyone time and frustration to hire a divorce lawyer or mediator to help work through the details of settlement.
Example: Negotiating the Division of the Family Home
For example, Daryl and Ebony agree they need to get a divorce. They also know neither of them can afford the home they share on their own. While they were married, Daryl paid the mortgage, but Ebony’s income covered all the utilities and insurance. Daryl wants both parties to move out so they can sell the home immediately, but Ebony thinks that will waste money, since they will be paying a mortgage for an empty house. An experienced divorce lawyer can help Ebony present options to Daryl for one party to live in the home while it is listed for sale, and can negotiate with him over what bills Ebony will continue to pay until it is sold. A mediator can help Daryl and Ebony find a compromise that is agreeable to them both.
In other cases, the challenge isn’t knowing how to divide property, it’s both sides knowing what needs to be divided. In families where one spouse has traditionally handled all the financial matters, the other spouse may not know what they have, or what they are entitled to. This is especially true when it comes to retirement accounts and alimony. Often, the spouse with a higher income may falsely believe they are entitled to more of the assets in a divorce. If the lower earning spouse (or homemaker) doesn’t ask questions, it could leave her or him without the means to start over after the divorce is final.
Example: Dividing the Family’s Retirement Investments
Jerry and Gina have been married for a long time. Their children are grown and have moved away, and they both feel it is time for them to do the same. Jerry has always been the wage-earner, while Gina took care of the children and worked part-time. Over the last 20 years, Jerry has accumulated substantial amounts in a retirement account connected to his work. He believes he should receive that money in the divorce. Gina doesn’t have a retirement account and isn’t sure whether she’s entitled to any of Jerry’s investments or not. By having a consultation with a divorce lawyer, Gina can find out how Maryland law treats retirement assets in divorce and can explore options to allow her to have the money she needs when it is time to retire. Even if she decides not to hire a lawyer for the divorce process itself, that consultation can help her rest easy knowing she protected her rights and received what was fair. In the alternative, If Jerry goes to see a lawyer, he would be educated about the law and have a better understanding of how all property would be divided by the Courts, including his retirement investments.
In theory, you and your spouse could come to an agreement on all the terms and get a divorce without a lawyer using the mutual consent process. However, all too often, couples agree on the big picture, but forget about the details. When that happens, they often end up heading back to court, this time with lawyers, to get those details sorted out after the dissolution is entered.
Example: Agreeing on Custody, But Not Visitation Schedules
Consider Amy and David, and their children Mary and Edward. Amy and David know they want to get divorced, and they know that David should be the day-to-day caregiver for the children once they have separated because he works from home. They agree generally that Amy should have access to the children when she’s not working. With all this in mind, Amy and David complete the mutual consent process and get a divorce without a lawyer. However, when the holiday season rolls around and the children are on their first school break, both parties want the children to spend Christmas Day with them, and both parents find themselves needing to hire childcare providers while they are working. They end up hiring attorneys and going back to court to ask the judge to decide how the holiday break should be divided, and who should pay for child care costs.
Even when all the details are worked out and you have an agreement on all issues in your divorce, putting together the settlement agreement, child custody agreement, and child support guidelines on your own can be difficult. If you get it wrong, you may find yourself turned away from the courthouse to try again. Even if you want to get a divorce without a lawyer standing beside you in court, you may still want to hire an attorney to write the paperwork for you. That way you can be sure you will only have to have one hearing in front of the judge.
Example: Missing Guidelines Delay Divorce
James and Nancy have known their relationship was over for a long time, but neither of them bothered to file for divorce. Instead, they have been handling child visitation and support informally, with James paying Nancy $500 per month to help with the kids’ expenses. Now Nancy’s new partner has proposed to her and she needs to dissolve her marriage to James before her new wedding day. They decide to use the Mutual Consent Divorce process because it is faster, write up a settlement agreement documenting what they are already doing, and submit it to the court. On the day of the hearing, they both show up and ask the judge to enter the Dissolution of Marriage. Unfortunately, because everyone agreed on how much James should pay in support, no one ever applied the child support guidelines or filled out the worksheet. Because of this, they could be sent away to correct the error, and Nancy may have to push back her wedding.
Options to Make Sure Your Mutual Consent Divorce Goes Through
You may decide not to retain an attorney to file papers on your behalf or stand beside you in court. However, you can still hire a divorce lawyer to help you complete the mutual consent divorce process, making sure everything is worked out in advance, and the paperwork is completed properly. Depending on your needs, this could include:
- Helping you identify issues to discuss with your spouse.
- Brainstorming options to resolve disputes.
- Negotiating with your spouse or their lawyer to work out details.
- Scheduling and attending mediation to resolve disputes without traditional litigation.
- Reviewing your settlement agreement to make sure everything is covered.
- Applying the child support guidelines and filling out the worksheet.
- Writing up the settlement agreement in a way the court will accept.
Not every family needs to go through formal divorce litigation, or pay for attorneys to battle over child custody or family property. Sometimes, everyone involved knows the divorce needs to happen, and can agree on the division of property, alimony, child custody, access, and support issues. However, even if you plan to use the Maryland mutual consent process to get a divorce without a lawyer, you can still benefit from meeting with an attorney first to review your case and your documents before going to court.
At the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, our divorce attorneys and mediators know that traditional litigation isn’t the best choice for every client. Sometimes, a client can use the mutual consent process to get a divorce without a lawyer at their side every step of the way. We help you decide if mutual consent is right for you. If so, we can guide you through the mutual consent divorce process, giving you advice along the way and helping you prepare paperwork properly once you have reached an agreement so you can get your divorce finished quickly, and without expensive and time-consuming trips to the courthouse. If you and your spouse prefer to work together, we can act as your mediator to help you resolve all issues and then prepare a written agreement so that you and your spouse would be eligible for mutual consent divorce. We can tailor our work to give you the support you need, without an attorney fee bill you can’t afford. Our office offers in-person and virtual consultations and mediations using Zoom, Skype, Facetime, and telephone. Contact us today to schedule a mediation or a consultation with an attorney.