When a marriage is over, the most common path people take is to file for a divorce to end things permanently. But in some cases, couples aren’t quite ready to take that final step. In many states, the law provides an alternative—a middle ground so to speak. When people talk about divorce, an absolute divorce is usually what they’re referring to. It’s called “absolute” because it’s the type of divorce that ends the marriage once and for all. In most states, the laws simply refer to “divorce” or “dissolution of marriage.”
In an absolute divorce, the court (or the couple’s marital settlement agreement) will address all of the legal issues involved in ending the marriage, such as alimony, child support, child custody, and property division. Once the court has issued a judgment (or “decree”) of absolute divorce, the spouses no longer have any of the rights or privileges that arose when they got married. These include things like the ability to file a joint income tax return, the right to automatically inherit a share of each other’s estate, and the chance to obtain insurance benefits through the other spouse’s employer. In order to obtain an absolute divorce, you must meet your state’s residency requirements, and you must have “grounds” (acceptable legal reasons) for ending the marriage.
The laws in some states use different terms including “dissolution of marriage” and “absolute divorce”—to mean basically the same thing as plain old divorce: a legal proceeding that will permanently end a marriage, along with all of the rights and privileges that come with marriage. Once a judge finalizes an absolute divorce, both spouses are free to remarry.
You might also hear the terms “contested divorce” and “uncontested divorce.” These don’t refer to the effect of divorce—the legal end of the marriage—but rather to the process of getting there. In an uncontested divorce, the spouses have worked out a settlement agreement on the issues in their divorce rather than having a judge make the decisions for them. The agreement must at least include provisions for dividing the couple’s property and debts, alimony, and if they have minor children—custody, parenting arrangements, and child support. Without an agreement, couples will need to go through the process of getting a contested divorce which can be expensive, time consuming, and stressful. If you want the advantages of an uncontested divorce but are having trouble resolving your differences, divorce mediation could help you work through the stumbling blocks and come up with solutions.
What Are Requirements for Absolute Divorce?
Although the laws on divorce are quite different from state to state, there are basically three sets of requirements for getting a divorce: residency requirements, having an acceptable reason for divorce, and going through the proper legal steps.
Residency Requirements for Absolute Divorce
State laws have residency requirements for divorce to prevent people from filing for divorce in a state where they haven’t been living, just so they can take advantage of the laws in that state. These requirements also make it more likely that the legal proceedings will be in courts that are accessible to both spouses. Depending on the state, the amount of time you must have lived there before filing for divorce typically ranges from three months (in Colorado) to six months (in California, Utah Texas, and Florida). In some states, the residency requirement depends on the circumstances, including where you were married and where the reason for your divorce happened.
Grounds for Absolute Divorce
Whenever you file for divorce, you must state the reason you want to end your marriage and that reason must be one of the grounds for divorce allowed in your state. Historically, these grounds were based on a spouse’s misconduct (or fault), like adultery or desertion. But all state laws now include some variation of no-fault divorce, such an “irreconcilable differences,” “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage,” or separation for a certain amount of time. And several states allow only no-fault divorce grounds. If you want a divorce for a no-fault reason, you generally only have to check the appropriate box on your divorce papers, without providing proof. But some states (like Wisconsin) will require that you testify under oath about the breakdown in your marriage, and if your spouse disagrees, you might have to meet further requirements, such as a lengthy separation, before you can get divorced.
Legal Steps for Getting an Absolute Divorce
The divorce process involves a number of legal steps, starting with filing the initial divorce papers (usually a petition or complaint, along with various other forms) and paying a filing fee. If you have a lawyer, your attorney will take care of all the paperwork and filing for you. But depending on your situation particularly if you have an uncontested divorce you might be able to handle it by yourself, or you can get help with the paperwork from an online divorce service.
Generally, the spouse who starts the process will have to serve the divorce documents on the other spouse, who will have a certain amount of time to file an answer. In some states, you may skip these steps after filing for an uncontested divorce, when you’ve included the written settlement agreement signed by both spouses.
At this point, the legal steps will depend on whether you have a contested or uncontested divorce, as well as the laws in your state and the particular circumstances in your case. For instance, you might be required to exchange detailed information about your finances, take a parenting class, or participate in mediation of certain disputes (especially unresolved disagreements about child custody). With contested divorces, you’ll go through the legal “discovery” process for gathering evidence, such as custody evaluations or real estate appraisals, and you might have several intermediate court hearings on issues like requests for temporary support or custody orders.
Generally, the process will end with a final hearing, either a trial on any unresolved issues or a brief hearing when the judge will review your settlement agreement and ask you a few questions. But in some states, you might not have to attend a final hearing for an uncontested divorce. Instead, the judge will simply review your agreement and other paperwork, then will sign your final divorce decree if everything is in order. Many states have a mandatory waiting period before the judge may finalize your divorce, even when your case is uncontested.
For folks outside the legal profession, the fact that there can be more than one kind of divorce may come as a surprise. A divorce is a divorce, right? Marriage over, drop the mic, move on. And that would be correct if you were talking about actually ending the marriage. But in a few states, something called “limited” divorce enters the picture.
Does limited divorce mean that you’re kind of divorced? In one way it does, because a limited divorce has some of the same effects as an absolute divorce in terms of the rights and liabilities spouses have. The major difference between the two is that when a limited divorce is over, you’re still married. Unlike absolute divorce, you’re not free to marry anyone else.
The reality is that “limited divorce” is actually akin to a court-sanctioned separation. In the states that have this option, you file your limited-divorce papers (known as a “complaint” or “petition”) with the court, the same way you would start an absolute divorce. Normally, there are similar rules, like meeting residency requirements and having grounds. And a limited divorce can usually address the same issues (custody and so on) that you find in absolute divorce.
Only a few states, actually use the term “limited divorce.” Other states, like New Jersey and Virginia, refer to limited divorce as “divorce from bed and board.” On the whole though, most states that provide for limited divorce use the term “legal separation.”
You should be aware that not all states allow limited divorce or legal separation, no matter what it’s called. And in states that do, there may be limitations on using it.
Why Would Anyone Choose a Limited Divorce?
A limited divorce can be just as time consuming, anxiety laden, and expensive (think legal fees) as an absolute divorce. So it’s reasonable to wonder why anyone would opt for it if you’re still going to be married when it’s over. Actually, there are a number of potential reasons.
• Although divorce doesn’t have the stigma it once did, there are still people who are concerned about “how it looks,” In those circles, a legal separation may be more socially acceptable.
• A person’s religion might not condone an absolute divorce.
• If a state has stricter grounds for absolute divorce than limited divorce, spouses who don’t yet meet the standards for an absolute divorce may choose limited divorce as an interim measure. And some states allow you to eventually convert a limited divorce to an absolute divorce.
• Sometimes a couple feel they need to be apart, but aren’t ready to give up on the marriage. A legal separation can address issues regarding the children, support, and property, so there’s at least some stability in those areas while the spouses try to figure things out.
• There may be practical reasons—usually finance related—to stay legally married. For example, one spouse might need to continue receiving health insurance coverage through the other spouse’s plan. Or, income tax implications may come into play. But in those situations, spouses need to do their homework regarding insurance company or IRS rules governing legal separations, to make sure what they’re planning to do is permissible.
Alternatives to Absolute Divorce
Most couples don’t decide to end their marriage without first thinking about other options. Typically, they’ve already tried to repair the damaged relationship with individual therapy, couples counseling, or even a trial separation. If you’ve tried to work things out with your spouse and haven’t been successful, but you’re still not ready to jump on the divorce track, you may have other options.
Many states offer couples the option to file for a legal separation, which is sometimes called “limited divorce” or “divorce from bed and board.” These different terms refer to a legal status that doesn’t end the marriage (and doesn’t allow either spouse to remarry) but allows judges to issue orders dealing with child custody, child support, alimony, and property division. Couples may also sign a separation agreement to settle these issues for themselves. Although limited divorce or legal separation is uncommon, it’s still available for couples who need it. For example, if you and your spouse practice a religion that prohibits divorce, legal separation or limited divorce may be your preferred option for living separate and apart, while continuing to be faithful to your church. For other couples, an absolute divorce may simply be too permanent of an option, but they still want to disentangle their legal and financial obligations. If you aren’t sure which option is right for you, it may be time to speak with a qualified family lawyer.
You may have heard about “separation agreements,” sometimes called “divorce settlement agreements” or “property settlement agreements.” These are documents that are prepared and signed after couples have settled all their marital issues, usually with the aid of their lawyers or through mediation.
In terms of whether a separation agreement is considered a legal separation, the answer can be a little confusing. As you saw above, a true legal separation is one that goes through the courts. If you live in a state with legal separation (or limited divorce) and you reach a separation agreement with your spouse, you typically will have to submit the agreement for a judge’s approval in order for the agreement to be part of the separation or limited divorce judgment. But in states without legal separation, the court doesn’t have to be involved with a separation agreement. That said, a separation agreement that’s properly signed by both spouses is a legally binding document. It’s essentially a contract between them. So if one spouse violates its terms, the other spouse can go to court to force compliance, just as you would with any breach of contract. (Except the case would be heard in family court rather than a general civil court.)
The beauty of separation agreements is that if you eventually decide to file a divorce complaint, whether absolute or limited, the fact that you’ve already resolved all your issues will make the divorce process easier. The court will consider your case “uncontested,” and your separation agreement will become a part of the divorce judgment.
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