In some states, legal separation or marital status gives you time to decide whether you want to end your marriage without actually ending it altogether. A legal separation allows either party to ask for a final decree of dissolution of marriage during its term.
This means that once both parties have decided they do not wish to reconcile with their spouse, they can petition the court to dissolve the relationship formally. The court will then determine if one (or both) spouses should be granted custody of children, spousal support, division of property, etc., based on what’s best for their child/children and respective circumstances.
While separating and divorcing aren’t necessarily interchangeable terms, most couples choose the latter route because it’s final and garners a quicker resolution to important matters. However, legal separation may be the better first step before saying goodbye to your marriage forever.
How Is a Legal Separation Different from Pressing Forward with a Divorce Attorney in Bellevue?
There are several key distinctions between a legal separation and obtaining a divorce, legally speaking.
Most importantly, legal separations only give participants six months to consider reconciliation, whereas getting a divorce is an immediate and permanent situation. Your divorce attorney in Bellevue can help further explain the process to you. You can also learn the differences between separation and divorce here.
At any time during the separation, individuals may decide to move forward with the divorce. At this point, the separation is moved to a full divorce, and the separation is no longer relevant.
People who opt for a legal separation rather than divorce don’t have to worry about losing certain benefits and protections afforded by being married—for example, joint ownership of the real estate, survivor rights, domestic partnership benefits, inheritance rights, tax breaks, etc.—and can enjoy a greater degree of flexibility.
Legal separators are able to avoid emotional turmoil caused by uncertainty and doubt and save themselves unnecessary stress and anxiety. Additionally, a legal separation affords participants the option to request assistance from professionals, such as therapists, counselors, divorce attorneys in Bellevue, judges, mediators, and others, to help work toward reconciling with their partner(s).
These services wouldn’t normally be considered readily available as an option during a divorce. Finally, unlike a legal separation, obtaining a divorce generally involves formal procedures, hearings, trials, and appeals using a divorce attorney in Bellevue. Once a judgment dissolving the marriage is issued, both spouses become single entities.
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The Process of Legal Separation
The process for legal separation is similar to divorce. The couple must meet the state’s divorce requirements, and both agree to the separation. The process begins when either spouse files a petition with the local court, something that a divorce attorney in Bellevue can assist you with.
Next, you must provide grounds, or a reason, for your request. For instance, in Washington State, the state is a no-fault divorce state. This means that the only acceptable reason for divorce or separation is because your marriage is “irretrievably broken.” Additionally, some states will require that a spouse have certain legal grounds, such as infidelity or abusive treatment before the state will order separation.
Legal separation laws vary across states but generally, couples must meet residency requirements first to qualify. This means that they must have lived in one state and county for a certain amount of time.
From this step, you must wait ninety days during which you can use that time to negotiate the terms of your separation. If there are disputed issues, the judge will make the decisions for you.
Once the legal separation is finalized, you have six months before you are able to ask the court to convert the separation into a formal divorce.
Legal separation and divorce are tough and intimidating. It can be an emotional rollercoaster for families, so taking the steps to formalize these tough life decisions. Participating in a “trial separation” is an option, but the court does not monitor these. This is simply a mutual agreement between spouses to separate and reassess your relationship. If you’re not sure which route to take, a divorce attorney in Bellevue can walk you through the steps and help you examine your options.
Part of legal separation is creating a “separation contract.” This legally binding document is created and signed by both parties. It is designed to put in writing the terms and conditions of the separation and prevents frivolous lawsuits. Some states will only grant a legal separation if the couple is able to reach a legal separation agreement.
If the couple has children, the agreement should include a parenting plan that outlines custody, child support, alimony, and property division. This agreement will often be approved by a judge if the agreement is reached together, however, there are certain legal rules judges must follow, such as not being able to waive child support. It is vital that both parties agree and fully understand the contract before signing.
Should the couple decide that they do not want to divorce and would like to stay together, the separation contract must be terminated and at least one spouse must request the court to terminate the contract.
Reasons People Choose Legal Separation Instead of Divorce
There are a handful of reasons that legal separation is often chosen as the first step prior to divorce:
Medical Insurance – Most insurance policies will not allow the other spouse to remain on their medical insurance. If one of the spouses has serious medical problems or chronic health issues, legal separation allows them to stay on the insurance.
Federal Government Benefits – A couple may want to stay legally married so that they can qualify for federal government benefits. For instance, disability benefits that are based on a spouse may cease to be available after divorce. Or Social Security benefits may be available to couples that reach ten years of marriage and then divorce.
Immigration Status – If one spouse is not a citizen, they may need to stay married until the spouse is able to receive full citizenship status or maintain their current legal immigration status.
Military Benefits – The spouse of a member of the military may be able to receive certain military benefits, however, they must remain married for a certain period of time in order to receive the benefits available under the Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act.
Inheritance Rights – Some states will disinherit a spouse upon divorce but will not under legal separation.
Religious Reasons – Religious or cultural values may not approve of divorce.
While there are a variety of reasons in favor of legal separation over divorce, remember that there still may be a time limit on the separation itself, so it may require perfect timing in some situations to still qualify for the benefits listed above.
Additional Impacts on Your Life
Depending on the state in which you reside, a legal separation may still result in many life changes, some quite more important than others.
Financial impacts may include requiring the separation of debt obligations. Any debt acquired while separated, will be your own in most cases and not shared with your spouse. You may also be required to close joint accounts and credit cards. You will become responsible for your own household expenses, rent or mortgage, and maintaining your own insurance.
If you have accumulated wealth, the legal separation agreement will dictate what is considered marital property and may provide a specific date at which all acquired income or property is considered and separate. Some of this property may be subject to division should you eventually divorce.
Finally, depending on your state, your tax filing status may be affected. You may no longer be able to file jointly.
Child Support and Custody
The court may award legal and physical custody of children to one or both spouses. This means creating a visitation and parenting plan that is agreeable to both parties and in the best interest of the children. Keep in mind that these arrangements may be temporary until a final decision on the legal separation is reached at the end.
If you have children, the court will likely order that child support be paid, even if joint custody is awarded. The amount of child support is typically based on one or both incomes of the parents and must follow state child support guidelines.
Additionally, spousal support might also be ordered for a specific amount of time. Spousal support may be ordered for a specific timeframe during the separation or for the entirety of the separation when the separation is either dismissed or a divorce action filed.
Do You Need a Divorce Attorney for Legal Separation?
Because a legal separation, and potential divorce, will alter your marital status, it is vital that you have a knowledgeable attorney at the ready for advice.
Some states will require or recommend mediation in a legal separation. They may also require that each spouse has their own lawyer, versus a family lawyer, to prevent an inherent conflict of interest.
As mentioned, these are highly emotional discussions, and an attorney can help walk you through the process. It’s not just your marital status at stake, but the years of assets, property and a life that must be partitioned out and planned for. These decisions are not to be taken lightly, particularly if there are children involved. You want to be sure all of the boxes are checked so you’re not leaving important life decisions into the hands of the judge.
You Need an Experienced Divorce Attorney in Bellevue on Your Side
When you’re ready to move forward with either of these steps, a divorce attorney in Bellevue will ensure you get a fair result, and the process is done correctly. Contact Aberdeen Law Firm for all of your concerns regarding divorce and our line-up of Bellevue divorce lawyers.