Absolute Divorce Based on Cruelty of Treatment and Abuse In Maryland

The legislature recently added new grounds for absolute divorce based on cruelty of treatment and excessively vicious conduct. F.L. 7-103 (a)(7); (a)(8). Prior to the new law, most domestic violence victims could only file for a limited divorce in Maryland if domestic violence served as the grounds on which the divorce was to be based. See Melony J. Ellinger, Ruth-Ann Lane, & Gregory P. Jimeno, Recent Developments: Maryland General Assembly Update, 28 U. Balt. L. F. 43, 44 (1998). As amended, the new law allows an absolute divorce to be granted if it can be proved that there was cruelty of treatment or excessively vicious conduct toward the complaining spouse and there is no reasonable expectation of reconciliation. Id. A significant feature of the law is that there is no required waiting period. Accordingly, the party meeting the requisite burden of proof of cruelty or vicious conduct can obtain an absolute divorce immediately. Id. Similar to the child custody determination situation, a protective order that states that one spouse has abused the other pursuant to FL 4-501 might be considered by a trial court in granting an absolute divorce on the basis of either cruelty of treatment or excessively vicious conduct. The divorce, alimony, and custody provisions in the Family Law article, temporary and permanent, are designed to deal with issues relating to divorce, child custody, visitation, support, marital home, and other monetary issues. The domestic violence statute, unfortunately, could be used to seek an advantage with respect to issues properly determined in a divorce, alimony, or custody proceeding. A trial judge frequently has to make difficult decisions and this area is perhaps more difficult than many others. the court must look to the criteria provided by the Legislature. According to 4-506(c), protective orders may be issued only if there has been at least one act of abuse as defined in 4-501. Section 4-501(b) provides: Abuse. -- (1) "Abuse" means any of the following acts: (i) an act that causes serious bodily harm; (ii) an act that places a person eligible for relief in fear of imminent serious bodily harm; (iii) assault in any degree; (iv) rape or sexual offense as defined by Article 27, 462 through 464C of the Code or attempted rape or sexual offense in any degree; or (v) false imprisonment. (2) If the person for whom relief is sought is a child, "abuse" may also include abuse of a child, as defined in Title 5, Subtitle 7 of this article. Nothing in this subtitle shall be construed to prohibit reasonable punishment, including reasonable corporal punishment, in light of the age and condition of the child, from being performed by a parent or stepparent of the child. (3) If the person for whom relief is sought is a vulnerable adult, "abuse" may also include abuse of a vulnerable adult, as defined in Title 14, Subtitle 1 of this article. The abuse must be proved by clear and convincing evidence. See Piper v. Layman, 125 Md. App. 745, 754, 726 A.2d 887 (1999)(citing Ricker v. Ricker, 114 Md. App. 583, 586, 691 A.2d 283 (1997); FL 4-506(c)(1)(ii)). In Maryland, the clear and convincing standard of proof is an intermediate standard, requiring more than a preponderance of the evidence, but less than evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Weisman v. Connors, 76 Md. App. 488, 504-05, 547 A.2d 636 (1988). The Maryland Civil Pattern Jury Instruction on the clear and convincing standard of proof provides, in part: To be clear and convincing, evidence should be "clear" in the sense that it is certain, plain to the understanding, and unambiguous and "convincing" in the sense that it is so reasonable and persuasive as to cause you to believe it. But you need not be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. MPJI 1:8 (3rd ed. 1998). If that burden is met, the court "may issue a protective order tailored to fit particular needs that the petitioner has demonstrated are necessary to provide relief from abuse." Piper, 125 Md. App. at 754 (citing Ricker, 114 Md. App. at 586). When we review cases in which conflicting evidence was presented, we must accept the facts as determined by the trial court unless such findings were clearly erroneous. See id. (citing Md. Rule 8-131(c); Riddick v. State, 319 Md. 180, 183, 571 A.2d 1239 (1990)); Innerbichler v. Innerbichler, 132 Md. App. 207, 230, 752 A.2d 291 (2000)(stating that the trial court's findings are not clearly erroneous when they are supported by substantial evidence)(citations omitted). In making this determination, "we must assume the truth of all the evidence, and of all the favorable inferences fairly deducible therefore, tending to support the factual conclusions of the lower court." Mercedes-Benz of North America, Inc. v. Garten, 94 Md. App. 547, 556, 618 A.2d 233 (1993)(citing Pahanish v. w. Trails, Inc. 69 Md. App. 342, 353-54, 517 A.2d 1122 (1986)). As for the final conclusion, however, "we must make our own independent appraisal by reviewing the law and applying it to the facts of the case." Piper, 125 Md. App. at 754-55 (citing Aiken v. State, 101 Md. App. 557, 563, 647 A.2d 1229 (1995)). This Court may substitute its judgment for that of the circuit court if our interpretation of the relevant legal principles is different. See Meyers v. Montgomery County Police Dep't, 96 Md. App. 668, 689, 626 A.2d 1010 (1993)(citing Perini Serv., Inc. v. Maryland Health Resources Planning Comm'n, 67 Md. App. 189, 201, 506 A.2d 1207 (1986)).