Continuing a move begun two years ago to modernize Maryland's divorce laws, the Maryland Senate today passesd legislation that would make sweeping changes in ways alimony is awarded by the courts.
The bill would scrap the old common law theory under which Maryland judges award alimony for the indefinite future -- the awards ending only with death of either party or the remarriage of the recipient.
The proposed law, which now moves to the House of Delegates, would allow judges to award alimony for a fixed period of time, geared to a program of making the recipient self-sufficient.
In an even more dramatic change, the bill allows a spouse to recieve alimony regardless of who was found "at fault" for the divorce. Current Maryland law says a spouse who is found by the court to have committed adultery or desertion automatically forfeits the right to alimony.
"This bill brings Maryland into the world of the 20th century in divorce law," said Sen. Thomas V. (Mike) Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), one of its sponsors.
The bill is expected to pass the influential House Judiciary committee, which would virtually assure its passage by the full body. The major concepts of the bill have been supported by both women's and husbands' rights groups, who testified before a special governor's commission which proposed the bill.
But juggling the concerns of all those who testified proved a delicate job for the commission, which was faced with "two widely divergent views of the married state at the brink of divorce," according to the commission's final report.
"On the one hand, the model seemed to involve a virtous husband, who combined the blameless purity of Sir Galahad with the honest poverty of the younger Abraham Lincoln, married to a wife who was indistinguishable from Jezebel . . ." "On the other, the standard was . . . a woman of valor whose worth was far above rubies, espoused to a heartless wretch who outdid the worst features of Scrooge and Mr. Hyde."
Assuming that most marriages lie somewhere between those extremes, the commission proposed gearing alimony to a goal of making the recipient self-sufficient in a fixed period of time.
But the bill gives judges wide discretion, and says they must recognize exceptions to that principle, taking into account age, illness, infirmity or disability that would make it impossible for a recipient ever to become self-sufficient.
The bill also would allow judges to take into account for the first time the "nonmonetary" contribution, such as the value of a homemaking, that a spouse makes to the marriage, according to Miller.
Both Miller and the House sponsor, Del. Joseph W. Owens (D-Montgomery) believe the bill will persuade more judges to make alimony awards because they can be for a fixed period of time.
"In Montgomery County, only about 10 percent [of those divorced] get alimony," Owens said. "There would be more awards [under the new law] because judges will know they're granting alimony for a year or two, not for life."
The fixed-time provision wuld move Maryland ahead of many jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, where judges still grant alimony for indefinite periods, according to a District divorce expert.
The provision allowing alimony awards regardless of who is legally at fault for a divorce would bring Maryland in line with most states and the District, according to lawyer John Long. Maryland's current provision, he said, seems like it is out of "another century."
The proposed bill is the second major reform legislation offered by the governor's commission. In 1978, the legislature enacted a new property division law that gave wives an equitable share of property. The law allowed the spouse with custody of the children to keep the family home for three years. After that, the house was divided under the same principle as other property. This was a sweeping change from the old law in which the spouse with title to the home -- usually the husband -- received it.