Getting a divorce in any circumstance can be a challenging experience. However, adding a deadly pandemic into the mix is certainly an additional stressor and challenge that will need to be overcome.
There are multiple steps involved when it comes to getting a divorce in Maryland or Washington D.C. As a result of the pandemic, different court proceedings now utilize different techniques in order to mitigate the threat of COVID. The major changes largely involve teleconference hearings and mediations instead of in-person meetings. (See Maryland Courts, or District of Columbia Courts website for the latest advisory on current operation plans.) Despite that change, the legal steps that parties must meet in order to receive a final divorce decree remain the same.
Perhaps one of the larger challenges in divorce cases during this pandemic involves child custody. If child custody is not an issue, the parties involved can go through the divorce process and go their separate ways. However, if child custody and questions regarding visitation arise, there can be lingering concerns as it relates to COVID’s potential spread between different homes. Additionally, some questions may rise as to whether one party follows all the required COVID protocols enacted by their city or state.
In this article, we will look generally at the steps involved in getting a divorce. We will also take a look at how COVID has affected those steps, and what it might mean for you and your divorce.
Initiating a Divorce
For both Washington D.C. and Maryland, there are residency requirements in order to file for a divorce. In Washington D.C., you must have been a resident for at least one year prior to filing for divorce. In Maryland, if the grounds for divorce happened within the state, you need to only prove you are a resident, there is no time requirement. If the grounds happened outside the state, one party must be a Maryland resident for at least six months.
After confirming you meet the residency requirements, you can fill out the required paperwork. Maryland is a no-fault and fault-based divorce state, whereas Washington D.C. is a no-fault divorce state. What that means is that in Maryland, a person may divorce their spouse for no reason and get what is referred to as an “Absolute Divorce,” or they may divorce them for the harm they caused the marriage. The standards of fault-based divorces involve a spouse who has been convicted of a felony, committed adultery, desertion for at least 12 uninterrupted months, insanity, cruelty, excessively vicious conduct, and voluntary separation. Additionally, you can get a limited divorce in Maryland, which does not completely end the marriage but settles certain disputes. This can be a step toward an absolute divorce, but issues like child custody/support and alimony can be managed by a judge prior to doing so.
The significant impact that the difference between no-fault and fault-based divorces creates is the separation requirement. In Maryland, if a person wants to divorce their spouse in a no-fault divorce, they must be separated for at least two years if the separation is involuntary and one year if the separation is voluntary.
In Washington D.C., which is a no-fault jurisdiction, there are two different grounds for divorce. If the divorce is mutual and voluntary, the separation must occur without cohabitation for at least six months. The second path occurs if one party does not agree to the divorce, in that instance the separation without cohabitation must last for one year.
Separation and COVID-19
The challenge that parties must take into consideration during the pandemic is how they will remain separated. This can be an extremely challenging logistical obstacle, especially if you live in an area where affordable housing is hard to find, or if there are children involved in the divorce. Before moving ahead with your divorce, be sure to consider whether you will have to be separate for six months or a year, and how you will manage that separation.
Additionally, if you live in Maryland and believe you may go through a fault-based divorce, there may be changes to the separation waiting period requirement. It is ideal to contact an attorney before initiating this type of divorce. Fault-based divorces require substantial amounts of evidence, and there are also techniques to defend against these allegations. Lastly, fault-based divorces may influence the amount of alimony and/or child support that is ordered.
Some states allow you to propose to the court that you are separate even though you are cohabitating. Unfortunately, Washington D.C. and Maryland do not fall into those categories. Both jurisdictions require physical separation and no cohabitation for at least six months or a year, depending on the status of any shared children.
Mediation and Separation Agreements
An effective alternative to court proceedings is mediation and separation agreements. This involves using mediators and your attorneys to negotiate and draft an agreement between both parties. Such an agreement will have to be approved by the court; however, this process saves a significant amount of time and can expedite the divorce process. In a mediation, both parties will present their goals and wishes, the mediators will attempt to draft an equitable, fair, and balanced separation agreement.
Mediation is ideal for divorces that do not have significantly contested issues. Even in agreeable scenarios, there may be some differences in opinion; however, that is the mediator’s job to resolve. If the negotiations ultimately fail, the parties will then have to go to court.
Child Custody and COVID-19
As previously mentioned, one of the bigger challenges in divorces is child custody. This can be an extremely emotional topic in any divorce case. The added stress of COVID-19 and the possibility of transmitting it between households between established visitation rights is also of great concern.
If you have an amicable divorce, it is possible to modify your child custody order by putting down any modifications on paper. It does not have to be particularly formal, but it is advisable to contact your attorney before changing the rules. If both parents are on healthy and friendly co-parenting terms, they can agree to do things like logging how much time has been missed, increasing video/telephone calls, creating social distancing rules for each household, and so on. With these changes, both parents can be confident that the increased safety measures may reduce the risk of transmission.
However, if you experienced a hostile and disagreeable divorce, and one parent is engaging in behavior that you believe is unhealthy or hazardous, you should immediately contact an attorney. The next best step is for the attorney to file an emergency temporary custody order. This will be presented to a family court judge for a determination.
Contact The Law Offices of Thomas Stahl
COVID-19 does not appear to be going away any time soon. If you are dealing with a divorce, and also have concerns about how this pandemic may affect the process and your family, contact The Law Offices of Thomas Stahl for help at (410) 696-4326. We have extensive experience in handling divorce cases and will work with you to make sure you are guided through this complicated process during the uncertainty created by COVID-19.