In Maryland, spouses beginning the divorce process can voluntarily enter into a separation agreement. In addition to describing how the spouses will handle the divorce process and its costs, the agreement can also set forth rules for more permanent arrangements, such as child support. A court may use the spouses' intentions, as set forth in the agreement, to craft the final divorce decree.
Maryland recognizes both fault-based divorce, where one or both spouses' behavior is to blame for the failure of the marriage, and no-fault divorce, where one or both spouses claim that the marriage is beyond repair. But no matter which grounds the divorce is based upon, spouses who agree may choose to enter into a voluntary separation agreement. Spouses seeking a no-fault divorce will need to wait for one year before the divorce becomes finalized. The separation agreement establishes ground rules for this one-year period (who will pay for attorney costs, how the children's time will be shared, etc.) as well as the spouses' intentions regarding division of their marital property, child custody and support, alimony and other divorce-related matters. The agreement is basically a rule book for how the spouses will behave and interact until the court makes an actual decree that legally defines that relationship. If the court approves of the separation agreement, it can eventually incorporate the terms into the actual divorce decree.
Income Shares Model
A Maryland court will use a model known as Income Shares to decide how much child support each spouse must contribute. This model takes the basic assumption that the entire family unit is still living in the same household, then calculates how much of each parent's income would have gone to the children in that situation. To this total, the court will add extra expenses needed by a family, such as child care or additional health care. The final sum is the family's child support needs. The court will then divide this sum between the two spouses in the same proportion as their incomes. For instance, if one spouse makes 20 percent of the household income, he will have to contribute 20 percent of the child support. The other spouse, who makes 80 percent of the income, will need to provide 80 percent of the child support.
Calculating Support Yourself
While the court will calculate child support, two parents can also calculate their respective child support amounts themselves using the Income Shares model. The totals they come up with can then be incorporated into the separation agreement. But a Maryland court, deciding on child support, is supposed to consider the good of the children before all other considerations. Therefore, the court doesn't have to accept the parents' calculations. In fact, if the parents' child support totals differ from those that the normal Income Shares model would produce, the court has the right to leave the parents' totals out of the final divorce decree. Parents may try to convince the court to accept their calculations anyway, but they will need to prove that the deviation serves the children's best interests.
In Maryland, even if the court doesn't incorporate some or all of the separation agreement into the divorce decree, the separation agreement is a valid contract on its own as soon as the parties sign. Unless the contract contains a time limit, it remains a valid, separate contract even after the divorce becomes final. Should either spouse fail to abide by the agreement, the other spouse may ask the court to enforce the contract. But if the court does incorporate the agreement's child support terms into the final divorce decree, there is an additional level of enforcement: A spouse who fails to pay required child support may face contempt of court charges and other penalties.