What Is an Absolute Divorce?

What Is an Absolute Divorce?

People sometimes hear the term “absolute divorce” thrown around, and it can be a bit intimidating.  After all, it is not just a regular divorce. It is an “absolute” divorce. The extra word is nothing to worry about, though.

“Absolute” does not really mean anything

Marriage and divorce laws are set by state governments in the United States.  Some states, like Maryland for example, have a law allowing “absolute divorce.”  Maryland Code Sec. 7-103 says that an absolute divorce can be granted for adultery, desertion, conviction of a felony, after a twelve-month separation, insanity, cruelty, or child abuse.  

The twelve-month separation period is just a waiting period on a no-fault divorce that is common throughout the country, and the other grounds for divorce are fairly standard “fault” grounds.  Maryland also allows couples to get an absolute divorce immediately by mutual consent if they have a written settlement agreement and no children.

In other words, an “absolute divorce” in Maryland is just what most states call a “divorce.”  It permanently breaks the legal bonds between two married people. It also allows the court to divide up the couple’s assets and provide for the care of their children.  

The only real reason that the term “absolute divorce” continues to exist is because some courts call separation a type of divorce.  

For someone leaving an ugly relationship, the twelve-month separation period required for many couples in a state like Maryland can be a very long time.  Some states, like New York, really try to keep couples out of court until they are ready for an actual divorce.  

Other states, like Maryland, have laws that are more open to getting the courts involved in a separation or “limited divorce.”  

Absolute divorce continues to exist is because some courts call separation a type of divorce

Limited divorce is not really a divorce

In states that use the term “absolute divorce” to mean what most states just call a “divorce,” there is often some type of legal separation that is considered a lesser form of divorce.  In Maryland, Code Sec. 7-102 provides for a “limited divorce.”  A limited divorce can be granted for cruelty, child abuse, desertion, or separation.  

As a practical matter, the limited divorce is usually just a way of legally enforcing a separation until the year-long waiting period has passed and a final divorce decree can be issued.  The courts have many options to help each spouse until the divorce is finalized.

For example, a court can issue an order clearing up child custody, awarding visitation, requiring child support, allowing a spouse to use the marital home, or sorting out possession of personal property (like a computer or a ring).  

Other states have similar laws that have been shaped by a history of divorce being disfavored.  For example, Virginia has a form of legal separation that is called “divorce from bed and board.”  Decades ago, when couples could not or would not actually get divorced, many would permanently separate.  

Typically, this meant the husband moved away and left his wife without a means to take care of herself.  A divorce from bed and board was a long-term legal separation that allowed to couple to live separately but still required the husband to take care of his estranged wife.  

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