So, you’ve arrived at a place in your marriage where you know things just are not right. You feel sure that something needs to change and that maybe some space between you and your spouse would be a good thing. But you’re not convinced that you are ready for the finality that accompanies divorce.
The state of Washington provides a legal option other than divorce for couples that are experiencing marital problems. This process is known as legal separation. Couples may want to choose this option instead of asking for a dissolution of the marriage to have time to reconcile. Others may choose this option because of other personal or religious convictions.
Whatever your reasons for exploring legal separation, you are no doubt considering things you didn’t think you’d have to consider on the day you married. Humans are unpredictable and you can’t always guess what’s going to happen. All you are able to do is simply do the best you can.
Legal Separation in Washington
Legal separation, while like divorce in many ways, is a means of providing space between a couple in terms of living and financial arrangements. Additionally, the procedure allows you and your spouse to formalize a separation while still being legally married. The legal separation is legally binding and is accomplished by a court order. Later, you can choose to have the order dissolved and go back to your marriage as before, or you may wish to move on to divorce.
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Why Might Legal Separation be of Benefit in Washington?
Contrary to a commonly held belief, legal separation is not necessarily a step toward divorce. It is, instead, an alternative. Both legal separation and divorce divide the assets, assign financial responsibilities, and create custody arrangements and parenting plans.
A key difference that exists between divorce and legal separation is that, in a legal separation, you and your spouse are still able to preserve valuable tax benefits or federal benefits like social security. Spouses who rely on the other for their health insurance can keep it under legal separation.
A legal separation sometimes can be the answer if what you and your spouse need is some space to restore stability for yourselves and your kids and reflect to be freer to reflect on your marriage and life direction. And if you decide you want to resume living as a married couple, you can simply ask the court to terminate the separation.
Key Differences Between Divorce and Legal Separation
Although the process to obtain a legal separation and a divorce are nearly identical, there are some key differences between the two processes. The most obvious difference is in the name. The term “legally separated” doesn’t carry the same stigma as “divorced” carries. This is especially true with regard to your religious life and beliefs.
Divorced parties can remarry, while those who are legally separated cannot. Even with a legal separation, you and your spouse remain legally married, and you cannot remarry without dissolving your marriage in divorce proceedings.
In divorce proceedings, the state of Washington requires a 90-day waiting period from the time the petition is filed. This provides a “cooling off period” for you and your spouse in case they change their mind about wanting to divorce. Technically, there is no such waiting period for legal separation.
As already mentioned previously, a key difference between divorce and legal separation in Washington is that you can remain covered by each other’s employer-sponsored health insurance coverage.
Divorce and legal separation do have many of the same effects. They both create space between you and your spouse. Your lives are essentially separated in the same way. But in a legal separation, your marriage is not formally ended. You still mark that you’re married when filling out forms. You still have the right to inherit from each other.
What Details Should Be Worked Out in a Legal Separation in Washington?
Like divorce, there will be some general decisions that will need to be made by you and your spouse to establish the terms of your legal separation. If you do not reach an agreement, the court will make decisions as fairly and even-handedly as possible. Arrangements that need to be addressed include:
- Separation of Property and Assets – as with a divorce, all property and assets are divided between you and your spouse. Community property, or property purchased during the marriage should be addressed as should separate property, or property that was owned individually before the marriage. If you cannot come to an agreement on how these will be divided, the court will make those decisions for you. The court will strive to be fair and just, which does not always mean a completely equal division of assets.
- Custody Issues – if your marriage involves children, their well-being is of paramount importance to the court. It’s the preference of the state of Washington that both you and your spouse remain involved in the lives of the children. As such, in many cases, you and your spouse will be given legal custody to be able to share decisions about education, religion, health, and extracurricular activities. Physical custody can be awarded jointly or solely awarded to one parent.
- Child Support – Because Washington state places the well-being of children in a place of high priority, you and your spouse don’t have the option to not have some sort of court order regarding child support. Even if you agree on support arrangements, you will not be able to opt-out of an official court order on this matter.
- Spousal Support – It is not unusual, particularly in situations where you or your spouse have considerably more resources, for the court to order temporary spousal support. The intention in this is to help whichever of you has lesser means to be able to establish themselves financially. Many factors influence this decision, and the court has great discretion in terms of how long and how much spousal support is ordered.
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What is the Process to Obtain a Legal Separation in Washington?
To obtain a legal separation, you must file paperwork in court. You cannot simply move out of your house. Though you’re technically separated, nothing is official about that arrangement until a Decree of Separation is issued.
The process for legal separation is almost identical to the process for divorce. So, if you meet the divorce requirements set forth by the state and both spouses agree to the separation, the court will honor your wishes. To start the process, one or both spouses file a request with a local court. As with divorce in Washington, at least one spouse must be a resident of the state.
As with divorce, you’ll need a reason to make the request. Since Washington holds to a no-fault divorce position, there is only one reason acceptable to the court: your marriage is irretrievably broken. Although the 90-day waiting period isn’t necessarily mandatory, most couples follow it anyway to prevent any issue with the court.
When the judge signs the Decree that declares your legal separation to be completed, the case is closed. If you choose to reconcile and restore your marriage, you can ask the court to set aside the separation decree.
Conversion as a Matter of Right
The state of Washington allows a legally separated spouse to convert their decree to a divorce. This is a matter of right and, generally, the other party cannot object. As mentioned, this conversion cannot take place within six months of the legal separation. In addition, if there is any sort of written agreement between the parties, such as a specification that one of them can remain on the health insurance plan of the other, then the conversion might be declined.
The conversation process is simple and quick. There is also no filing fee. The result of the conversion request is that the decree of legal separation is renamed a decree of dissolution of marriage. Everything else remains unchanged.
What if We Don’t Want to Involve the Court in Washington?
It is not unheard of for couples to participate in a trial separation. In this scenario, you and your spouse simply live apart to assess your marriage and lives and, if possible, work toward reconciliation.
It is recommended that you work through the issues that would be addressed by the court (listed above). Since the agreement is not legally binding, however, if either you or your spouse violate the agreement, there is no remedy except to move forward with legal separation or divorce.
Consider Your Options Carefully
Like divorce, a legal separation will cause a major life disruption. It is going to hurt your kids and it could cost you financially. The decision to pursue a legal separation or divorce should not be taken lightly, nor should it be put off indefinitely. If your marriage is dysfunctional to the point that you’re seriously giving thought to these options, putting things off will not make it any easier.
There’s never a good or easy time to take drastic action such as legal separation or divorce. But now may be better than later. The details that you must work through will not change and may only become more complicated as time goes on.
Experienced Family and Divorce Attorneys Can Help in Washington
The family law attorneys at The Aberdeen Law Firm are ready to walk with you through this trying time. Drawing on our years of expertise in this field, we will be able to answer any questions you may have. In addition, walking through the steps toward legal separation with one of our lawyers may help clarify whether moving forward in the process is what you really want. Contact us today for a no-obligation consultation to see how we can help you.