What Is Cruelty in Grounds for Divorce in Maryland?
By Kevin Owen
Divorce in Maryland is separated into two categories: limited divorce, which is a court recognized separation; and absolute, which is a permanent, legal termination of the marriage. To qualify for an immediate, limited divorce or an absolute divorce in Maryland, you must establish a legally recognized cause, which can include misconduct of your spouse. Marital cruelty and excessively vicious conduct by your spouse, which is directed either at you or your child, is a ground for divorce that's set forth under Maryland law.
Not all unpleasant conduct of your spouse constitutes cruelty. Rather, according to Maryland Court of Appeals, your spouse's actions must be sufficiently egregious that they seriously impair your health or permanently destroy your happiness, to establish cruelty as a grounds for divorce. You must demonstrate that your spouse engaged in a continuous pattern of physical violence, threatened physical violence, or committed mental abuse. The misconduct qualifies as evidence of cruelty if it is directed towards you or your minor child. The courts look to the specific incidents of cruelty in the context of the marriage rather than isolated incidents, although one particularly severe incident may constitute cruelty, if your spouse intended to harm you or your child.
Not every act of physical violence constitutes grounds for divorce on the basis of cruelty. The court does not grant immediate divorce for cruelty on the basis of mere unhappiness between spouses. For example, in one case the court found that a single incident of physical violence combined with a pattern of verbal abuse was insufficient to establish cruelty. In another case, a wife showing that her husband having slapped her was insufficient to constitute cruelty, but if there were a situation in which her husband had been punching her, it may be sufficient to show cruelty.
The court recognizes mental anguish imposed by a spouse as a form of cruelty. However, mere name calling or neglect by your spouse is not sufficient to establish cruelty. To establish mental abuse, the courts look to factors such as whether your husband is excessively controlling or makes attempts to limit your access to friends or family. In one case, the court found evidence that a husband required his wife to keep a log of all her activities to be persuasive evidence of cruelty.
As the person asserting cruelty as a reason for divorce, you have the burden of proving facts supporting your allegations of misconduct if your spouse contests the divorce. The courts are not permitted to rely solely on your testimony recounting your spouse's misdeeds. Rather you are required to produce corroborating evidence, either in the form of witness testimony or in documents such as emails. You may also corroborate claims of physical violence with photographs of bruises or police records.
Impact on Divorce
Maryland is one of the few states that considers spousal misconduct as a factor when deciding the division of marital property, in awarding alimony or determining child custody. In determining whether awarding property to a spouse is fair and equitable, the court in its broad discretion can deny a spouse's claim for alimony or possession of physical property if they were at fault for cruelty. The court may also restrict a parent's access to the child or children, if the evidence that established cruelty or excessively vicious conduct also reflects negatively on whether parental rights are in the best interests of that child.
Kevin Owen has been a professional writer since 2005. He served as an editor for the American Bar Association's "Administrative Law Review." Owen is an employment litigator in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area and practices before various state and federal trial and appellate courts. He earned his Juris Doctor from American University.