Do I have to be physically separated from my spouse in order to start the divorce process in Maryland?

AvatarCasey Florance, Principal

I hear some version of this question from new clients all the time, and the common assumption is the separation clock has to be ticking before you hire an attorney and before you start negotiating a settlement agreement.

But that’s not the case.

To be eligible to file with the Court for an absolute divorce in Maryland, you must have a ground for divorce at the moment you file. There are several options, as explained in detail by Heather Collier in her post about grounds for divorce  in Maryland. And because one of the “no fault” grounds is a one year separation, many people incorrectly assume that they have to be physically separated for a full year before the divorce process can even begin.

Think of your Divorce Process as a Train Ride

The decision to separate and divorce is when the train leaves the station, but the first stop is usually not filing a lawsuit for divorce with the Court. More typically, actually filing with the Court is one of the last stops on the route, if not the very last stop. The earlier stops involve working to resolve the case, and will include information gathering, negotiation, or mediation.

Those early “train stops” can all be happening while you and your spouse continue to live under the same roof. Many people even resolve their entire case while still living together, and the terms of their settlement agreement will then set out a timeframe for the physical separation, as well as how custody will work and/or personal property will be divided once the physical separation begins.

The train stop for the physical separation may come up at any point during your divorce train ride; most typically it happens somewhere in the middle of the ride, but it could be in the beginning or even after the divorce is final.

Physical Separation and Settlement Agreements

During this conversation, clients also sometimes assume that a physical separation is needed in order for a settlement agreement to be effective. Not so: an agreement between spouses is effective the moment it is signed by both parties, regardless of where each is living.

Furthermore, with the mutual consent ground for divorce in Maryland now available, there is no longer a requirement for a physical separation in order to be divorced by the Court, so long as all issues arising out of the marriage are resolved. The parties start operating pursuant to the terms of their settlement agreement the moment it is signed, regardless of whether they continue to live together, and regardless of whether they will be divorced by the Court next week or next year.   

The safety of my clients and their children is always my top priority, so moving out may have to be the first stop. But absent safety concerns, I typically like to discuss with my clients the advantages and disadvantages of physically separating during the divorce process, as well as the timing of such a move. For example, if there are minor children involved, moving out prior to an agreement regarding custody and the children’s schedule with each parent can have a major impact on custody negotiations and the ultimate outcome. Taking on a second set of housing expenses and the timing of that can likewise have a major impact on the case, particularly regarding cash flow and support issues.

If you are thinking about separation or divorce, I always recommend having a consultation with an experienced divorce attorney right away. It will serve your best interests to be educated about the process, your rights, and your obligations; how to protect yourself; and how the law will apply to the facts of your case.

Your attorney can help you come up with a clear strategy and work through all the decisions you will need to make in your case, including the major ones like when and how to physically separate from your spouse. 


You’ve Decided to Mediate Your Divorce. Should You Bring a Lawyer?

Deborah ReiserDeborah Reiser

You’ve decided to mediate your divorce case. You wisely decided to avoid the expense, acrimony, and uncertainty of a contested court proceeding in favor of a negotiated resolution with the assistance of a neutral third party. You’ve selected a mediator, and now are faced with the choice of whether you should go to mediation with or without your lawyer.

There are pros and cons to both approaches, and the decision deserves thoughtful consideration.

When You May Not Want an Attorney

Obviously, mediating without two additional lawyers present is, at first, less expensive. The math is easy — you are paying two fewer professionals for the real time of mediation. If you and your spouse are able to communicate civilly, if the issues are not mired in complexity, if positions are not hardened in concrete, and if both sides recognize the wisdom of compromise — then, by all means, consider meeting with the mediator alone.

When You Should Consider Bringing an Attorney

On the other hand, what if one spouse holds all the advantages, financially and otherwise?

  • What if one spouse is unable to appreciate the value of achieving a resolution even if imperfect?
  • What if the complexities of resolution are outside your comfort zone?
  • What if there are issues which require specific expertise, such as identifying and valuing business interests? Or dividing retirements and pensions?

Having your lawyer present in real time can make the difference between success and disaster.

Remember: The mediator is a neutral. S/he cannot offer legal advice to either party; rather, the mediator’s job is to get the parties to agreement. There may well be issues where you need actual advice about the wisdom of your position, about the risks and exposure you face with different choices, or about whether your negotiating strategy is even prudent or smart.

As a neutral, a mediator should not say to you “You would be unwise to do this, this is a mistake for you.” If your lawyer is present, you can address strengths and advantages, pitfalls and risks in real time. Otherwise, stopping the mediation to consult with your lawyer and then re-grouping not only slows progress; actually, the fits and starts can easily cost more money over the long run.

Similarly, suppose you reach a tentative agreement in mediation. The mediator should advise you to consult with your own attorney before signing what will be a binding contract. Suppose further that on consultation with your lawyer you become aware of a major issue you failed to address, or worse, resolved in a manner that can actually cause you harm. Then you have to return to the negotiating table. You’ve lost time, money and quite possibly have created a more intransigent bargaining position on the other side.

At the very least, you should consult with your own lawyer In advance of mediation in order to become educated as to your rights and obligations under the divorce law, to think through your goals and areas of potential compromise, and to “game-plan” your negotiating strategy. Discuss with your lawyer whether to have him/her accompany you to the actual mediation. Then, and only then, decide what course is best for you.