How to File for Legal Separation in Maryland

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Legal separation is called a "limited divorce" in Maryland, and it can be helpful if you’re not yet ready to divorce but you need the court to order financial help from your spouse. Many of the filing requirements are similar to asking the court for an absolute divorce.

A legal separation and a "limited divorce" are the same thing in Maryland. You’ll receive a judgment defining the terms of how you and your spouse will live separately, but you’re still legally married. This can be helpful if you’re not yet ready to divorce but you need the court to order financial help from your spouse. Or maybe you haven’t yet met the state’s grounds for no-fault divorce — a full year’s separation — but you want an order governing the situation until you do.

Filing for Limited Divorce

The filing process for a limited divorce in Maryland involves completing Domestic Relations Form 21, a complaint. The form asks you to state when you were married and to confirm that you’ve met the state’s residency requirement for divorce — either you or your spouse must have lived there for at least one year.

You must identify your children, if you have any, list any other times you’ve been in court regarding custody, and explain where your kids have lived and with whom. Tell the court what you want the judge to order regarding custody and visitation, and whether you’re asking for alimony or spousal support.

The court’s ability to divide your property is limited when you file for legal separation rather than divorce. The judge can’t terminate either spouse’s ownership interest in assets, although she can make orders regarding which of you can have possession of certain property while you live separately.

Choosing Your Grounds

Maryland recognizes five grounds for limited divorce and you must check off a box on the complaint form indicating which ground applies in your case.

You can use voluntary separation if you’ve already begun living apart, desertion, constructive desertion, cruelty, or excessively vicious conduct toward you or your children. Constructive desertion means that you were the one who left your marriage, but your spouse's behavior forced you to do so.

Serving the Complaint

The next step involves filing your complaint with the circuit court that serves your county. You must include a civil domestic case information report, which you can access on the state’s judicial website. Then you must serve your spouse with a copy of your complaint. When you file it with the court, the clerk will give you a writ of summons — make sure your spouse gets a copy of this, too.

You can serve him by mail in Maryland if you do so by restricted delivery and he signs a receipt, but you must have another person over the age of 18 arrange for the mailing — you can't do it yourself. You can also have a private process server, sheriff or any adult over age 18 hand deliver a copy of the paperwork. The individual who does this must sign an affidavit, attesting that service of the documents on your spouse was accomplished.

If you use the mail option, the return receipt acts as proof that your spouse received the documents. In either case, you must file the proof with the court.

Financial Statements

If you’re asking the court to make any financial decisions regarding your separation, such as alimony or child support, you must also complete a financial statement that lists your income, assets, debts and living expenses. Your spouse must do the same, and you must exchange copies and file the statements with the court. Use Domestic Relations Form 31 if you’re asking for child and spousal support, or Form 30 if you're asking only for child support. You’ll also need to complete a child support guidelines worksheet if you have kids.

If Your Separation Isn't Contested

If your spouse contests your limited divorce, you’ll have to go to trial so a judge can resolve any outstanding issues, but you and your spouse can draw up a settlement agreement, sign it, and take it to court with you to finalize the legal separation if your matter is uncontested.

At a minimum, your agreement will include terms for who has use of what assets, who is paying what joint debts, custody and visitation terms for your children if you have any, an amount of child support payable by the noncustodial parent, and terms of alimony or spousal support, if any.

Your spouse doesn’t have to appear if you’re the one who filed the complaint, but Maryland requires that you bring a witness to confirm your grounds for asking for a legal separation.


About the Author

Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.

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