When spouses in Maryland agree to split up and amicably hammer out a separation agreement, state law still makes them wait a year to file for divorce.
That will change Thursday — at least for some couples — when a new law eliminates the waiting period for those without minor children who mutually consent to divorce and agree on a property split. Couples with children will still have to live apart for a year before they can file, even if they have resolved custody and support issues.
The change is the result of legislation sponsored by Sen. Robert A. Zirkin and passed in April by the General Assembly. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the measure will help thousands of Marylanders to move on with their lives.
Lindsay Parvis, a Montgomery County attorney who co-chairs the Maryland State Bar Association's section on family law, called the change "a huge development."
She said it will be a relief for many people to know they can move forward "rather than a law telling them they have to wait 12 months."
The current law starts the one-year clock on the day one spouse moves out of the common home. If the two later stay under the same roof for even a night, the clock resets to Day One.
Parvis said the law will get the courts out of the business of asking eligible couples about that aspect of their lives.
Del. Kathleen Dumais, a family lawyer and vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said clients come to her with settlement agreements and are shocked to learn they have to wait a year.
"They just look at me like I've lost my mind," said Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It just seems so crazy."
There are exceptions to the waiting period in current law for cases in which a spouse has committed adultery or been abusive. Lawyers point to cases where couples didn't want to raise adultery charges in an uncontested divorce, but did so to avoid the waiting period. In other cases, spouses accuse themselves of adultery to expedite a ruling.
Dumais, who helped steer the legislation through the House, said some delegates were concerned that Zirkin's original bill did not include enough protections against one spouse taking advantage of the other. She said the House committee added an amendment excluding parents of minor children from expedited divorce and another requiring that both spouses attend the court hearing in person. Currently only one spouse has to attend the hearing on an uncontested divorce.
The House passed the bill 104-34, with most Republicans opposed. The Senate, which earlier passed the bill 40-7, accepted the House changes and Gov. Larry Hogan signed the bill.
Lawmakers acted after hearing stories such as that of Rachel London and William Atwell.
In joint written testimony, London and Atwell told senators that after deciding in June 2011 that they no longer wanted to be married, they quickly reached agreement on a property split and the support and custody of their 4-year-old son. But because neither could afford to leave their Anne Arundel County home immediately, they lived under the same roof in separate bedrooms until Atwell could move out in October of that year.
It wasn't until a year later they could file for divorce, which was granted in November 2012.
"Allowing us to file for absolute divorce when we were ready more than a year before would have decreased the stress, burden and uncertainty," they wrote.
Under the new law, a couple in their position still would not be eligible for a quick divorce because a child was involved. But Dumais said the legislation nonetheless represents meaningful change.
"What I find in family law is that baby steps are important," she said.
Zirkin, who said divorce law is a small part of his practice, said he hopes the legislation will encourage separating couples to reach agreements.
"It creates an incentive for people to work it out," he said. "Because the last thing you want in a divorce is people fighting over every last thing."
And if couples aren't fighting it out, that could save them on legal fees, Zirkin said.
"If this bill works the way it should ... it's a bad thing for divorce lawyers — which is a good thing," he said.
Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, said the amendments made the bill less objectionable, but he still is opposed.
"Right now there's a cooling-off period that's in the law," he said. "I just don't want to make it so you can get a next-day divorce, and that's where the law is headed."
The bill was one of several that passed this year removing obstacles to divorce. Another that becomes law this week shortens to six months, rather than a year, the time someone must live in Maryland to file for divorce here — an issue important for military families who move frequently.
Zirkin said such changes are part of a broader re-examination of Maryland's approach to divorce.
"We have a lot of remnants of very old common law and very old statutes," said Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. "This is not the end in terms of modernizing our law."
Other new laws
These are among new Maryland laws effective Thursday:
Rape kits: Requires police agencies to report backlogs of untested rape kits to state.
Mental health: Requires Baltimore and county police to create units by next Oct. 1 trained to deal with mentally ill people.
Police review: Expands mission and changes membership of Baltimore's civilian review board.
Public information: Creates new compliance board with authority to enforce public records law.
Speed limits: Allows state highway officials to set speed limits up to 70 mph.
Human trafficking: Allows someone charged with prostitution to use as a defense being a victim of human trafficking.