A Guide to Maryland Mutual Consent Divorce
You and your spouse both know it is time to go your separate ways. Divorce is inevitable, but you don’t think either is specifically at fault for the break-up of the marriage. Under Maryland mutual consent divorce laws, your marriage can be dissolved more quickly and less expensively, but only if you qualify for the streamlined program.
This blog post will provide an overview of mutual consent divorce in Maryland. It will discuss who qualifies to file a mutual consent divorce, and what the process is. It will also address some common problems that could turn a mutual consent case into a divorce battle in court.
Why Maryland Needed Mutual Consent Divorce
Before 2015, Maryland couples could not get divorced unless they met one of 7 legal grounds:
- Conviction of a felony or misdemeanor with at least a 3 year sentence and 1 year actual incarceration
- Cruelty toward a spouse or child
- Excessively vicious treatment of a spouse or child
- Total separation of at least 12 months, uninterrupted (meaning no sexual relations and no living under the same roof).
Except for the last one, these grounds were all based on some specific wrong-doing or conduct. While wrong-doing plays a role in some divorces, many other times, the spouses simply know they are better off living separately. Before Maryland passed the mutual consent divorce law, that meant they had to live completely separately — and pay the cost of two residences — for an entire year before they could even begin the divorce process.
The Maryland mutual consent divorce law gets rid of the 12-month waiting period. It allows couples (and as of 2018, parents) to get a divorce with no wait, even if they can’t afford to separate until the Judgment is final. But just because the process is streamlined doesn’t mean everything about a mutual consent divorce is easy.
Do I Qualify for a Mutual Consent Divorce?
To have your request for a mutual consent divorce granted you will need to be prepared to show the court:
- You have both signed a written settlement agreement that resolves property and alimony issues.
- If you have children, you have both signed an agreement resolving child custody, access or parenting time, and support of the children. (If support is entered you will need to provide a child support guidelines worksheet along with your agreement.)
- Neither spouse has changed his or her mind between the time the settlement agreement was signed and the date of your divorce hearing.
In uncontested divorce cases, these qualifications may sound easy in theory. In fact, the Maryland mutual consent divorce process simply shifts the hard work of resolving your issues to earlier in the process and puts the burden on you, instead of the Court. Mutual Consent Divorce removes the need, and the opportunity, for a judge to hear your case and decide your issues for you, so it requires both parties to reach an agreement on everything from pension plans to pots and pans. It can be difficult to reach agreement, and you want to ensure that your agreement is not only consistent with the law, but also protects your legal rights. This is one of the many reasons why getting an experienced Maryland divorce attorney to assist you with your settlement negotiations is so important.
The Effect of a Mutual Consent Divorce Judgment
When you present a settlement agreement to the family court judge in your mutual consent divorce, you are telling that judge that you want those terms to be the law for you and your spouse. An absolute divorce is a final and permanent judicial decree that forever severs your marriage and restores you to single status.
The Judgment of Absolute Divorce also serves as a permanent, binding distribution of all your personal property, real estate, assets, and alimony interests. Once the Judgment of Absolute Divorce is entered you can’t go back and change it later (except to modify child custody, access, or child support issues based on a “material change in circumstances”). Your settlement agreement will be merged, but not incorporated into your Judgment of Absolute Divorce and it will have the same power as a Court Order. These kinds of decisions, terms to be included in an agreement — and thereby a Court Order — should not be made hastily.
That is where a family law attorney can help. By meeting with an experienced family law attorney before you file for a Maryland mutual consent divorce and before you sign a settlement agreement, you can be sure you know how the law of your case will apply after the judgment is entered. A lawyer can help you work through all the issues with your spouse, and make sure your Judgment of Absolute Divorce (and your underlying agreement) sets out rules you can live by.
Pairing Collaborative Practice with Mutual Consent Divorce
There are many ways to negotiate the terms of your Judgment of Absolute Divorce. Sometimes, especially in short-term marriages without children, couples can easily agree that each will keep his or her own assets and go separate ways. Other times, a single meeting with a mediator or attorney can be enough to explain how the law works and help you sort out and resolve your concerns. The more assets you and your spouse own, the more complicated it may be to divide assets in a way that makes sense. When kids get involved, that complexity increases to a whole different level.
But just because you have a complex family situation doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of Maryland’s mutual consent divorce process. As one form of uncontested divorce, mutual consent divorce pairs well with the collaborative practice model to help families resolve their differences with the help of collaboratively trained counsel, and avoid the publicity and embarrassment of court trial.
In the collaborative divorce process, a team of coaches, attorneys, accountants, therapists, and any other support service providers you may need, form a team to help you and your spouse work together to resolve conflict and reach agreement. The collaborative practice model can also teach conflict resolution skills and techniques to address future life changes as you move forward in your life and with co-parenting. Collaborative can be a great option for families who recognize the toxic effect of conflict on parents and children alike.
When the collaborative process is done, you and your spouse will be able to enter a settlement agreement on property, alimony, child custody, access, and support. You will have everything you need to complete a Maryland mutual consent divorce.
The Maryland Mutual Consent Divorce Process Explained
You don’t need a lawyer to file a Complaint for Absolute Divorce under the Maryland mutual consent divorce law. However, you may want to have an attorney assist you with filing because someone who understands the process and the paperwork can make finalizing your divorce easier and more efficient.
Gathering the Documents
Once your settlement agreement is final and signed by both parties, it is time to file for a Maryland mutual consent divorce. You will need to provide the court copies of:
- A Civil-Domestic Case Information Report: This form provides the court with basic information about you, your case, and your attorney’s contact information.
- A Complaint for Absolute Divorce: This legal document gives the court information about your marriage, your children, and identifies the case as a mutual consent divorce (rather than a contested or separation-based divorce).
- A signed copy of the Settlement Agreement that resolves all the issues in your case.
- A signed copy of the Child Custody, Access, and Support agreement, if it is separate from the Settlement Agreement.
- A Child Support Guidelines Worksheet if your agreement includes either parent paying child support to the other.
- A Joint Request to Schedule an Uncontested Hearing on the Grounds of Mutual Consent: This form is required in some Maryland counties and asks the court to set a date for you to appear for an uncontested hearing.
If you and your spouse do not file your paperwork together, and sometimes if you do, your spouse will need to be served with your Complaint. If service is required, you will also need to file an Affidavit of Service with the Court. You cannot serve your spouse. Legal papers must be served by someone that is over the age of 18 and not a party to the case. Once served, your spouse will need to file an Answer to your Complaint and his or her own copy of the Civil-Domestic Case Information Report.
Filing the Complaint for Absolute Divorce
Once you have gathered and signed all the necessary documents, you should bring 3 copies with you to the courthouse, along with cash or a checkbook to pay the filing fee (the court does not currently accept credit cards). Some counties in Maryland allow attorneys and parties to file electronically, which can expedite the process. The current filing fee for a mutual consent divorce is $165, plus appearance fees if you are represented by an attorney. All three copies, and the filing fee, go to the Circuit Court Family Department in your county courthouse. One copy will be filed with the court. The other two will be processed by the court clerk and returned to you and/or your spouse for your records and service.
Make sure you go over everything carefully and make sure all the forms are complete before heading to the clerk’s office. The court clerks are not lawyers. They will not accept incomplete forms and are legally not allowed to help you fill them out. This is why, even in cases where there are no contested issues, it can be helpful to hire a Maryland divorce attorney to help you complete your paperwork and file your pleadings with the Court. Otherwise, you may find yourselves making multiple trips to the Court, experiencing unnecessary delays, and having to guess at how to do what the clerk requires to get your case filed and your marriage dissolved.
Attending the Mutual Consent Divorce Hearing
Once the Complaint and related documents have all been filed, the court will schedule your case for a hearing before a family court judge or magistrate within 45 days. When the Maryland mutual consent divorce law was first passed in 2015, both spouses were required to attend the hearing. However, when the law was revised in 2018 to allow parents to use the same process, that requirement was removed. That said, at least one spouse — the one who filed the Complaint — will be required to appear in court and present limited testimony to the court. When it comes time for your hearing:
- Dress professionally
- Arrive on time
- Be prepared to pass through security and metal detectors
- Bring a copy of your signed settlement agreement with you
When your case is called you, and your divorce attorney if you have hired one, will need to present limited testimony to the Court about your marriage and the settlement agreement. If your settlement agreement provides for the division of retirement assets, additional paperwork and testimony will be required. Your testimony will be under oath and recorded. You will be asked (or both you and your spouse, if you both attend) if you still agree with the settlement agreement and want the Judgment of Absolute Divorce entered. If you both say yes, your judgment will be entered and your marriage will be over.
Not every divorce has to be a heated battle over the kids, the house, or the retirement assets. If you and your spouse can agree on the terms of your divorce, the Maryland mutual consent divorce process can help you resolve your case faster, less expensively, and with more dignity. You don’t have to do it alone.
At the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, our divorce attorneys know how to guide you through the Maryland mutual consent divorce process, and help you make sure everything is done right. We will help you negotiate your settlement agreement with your spouse and prepare all the necessary paperwork, saving you time, frustration, and money later on. You don’t have to work through your divorce alone. We will help you protect your rights and find a solution that works for you and your family. Contact us today to schedule a consultation with an attorney.