Your relationship just isn’t what it used to be, and you feel the need for time away from your spouse. However, divorce seems too final, and you aren’t sure if you want to go that route. After all, with a little time apart, you might be able to work out your differences and salvage your marriage.
In Washington State, you have a legal alternative to divorce when you are facing marital issues. That option is called legal separation. If you think you could reconcile with your spouse, or if you have other reasons to oppose divorce, legal separation might be a viable option for you.
While you likely didn’t expect to reach this kind of impasse in your marriage, it’s a part of the human condition to experience unexpected bumps in the road. The unpredictability of life is something we must all face at one time or another. Luckily, there are options available to us when we do.
What Is Legal Separation?
Legal separation is similar to divorce in that it gives you time and space away from your spouse. However, you will still be legally married. Your living arrangements and your finances will be separate, and you have the opportunity to set formal boundaries between the two of you.
A legal separation is accomplished through a court order and is legally binding. Later, you can choose to return to your marriage by having the order dissolved. Alternatively, you can choose to move forward with getting a divorce.
Many people think of legal separation as a step toward getting a divorce. However, it’s an alternative to divorce. Like divorce, you make agreements regarding assets, custody, parenting plans, and financial responsibilities.
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Divorce and Legal Separation: What Are the Differences?
The process of obtaining a legal separation and divorce is similar. However, there are some notable differences. For example, the stigma that is attached to divorce isn’t there with legal separation. If your religious beliefs prohibit divorce, a legal separation might be a good alternative.
Divorced people have the option to remarry, but people who are legally separated don’t have that option. You and your spouse will still be legally married during your legal separation. You must legally divorce your spouse before you can remarry.
In Washington State, you must wait 90 days from the time the divorce petition is filed until you are divorced. This waiting period is in place in case the spouses change their minds and decide they don’t want to divorce. A legal separation doesn’t have this kind of waiting period.
In a legal separation, you are allowed to continue using health insurance benefits provided by your spouse’s employer. You also retain tax benefits of being married as well as Social Security benefits.
Legal separation and divorce are alike in many ways. Either one gives you space from your spouse. Basically, your lives move forward separately in much the same way. In a legal separation, though, you are still legally married.
Since you are still legally married, any time you are asked for your marital status, like when completing forms, you would respond with married. Remaining married but separated also allows you to retain your right to inherit from each other.
Legal separation can be the ideal solution if you simply want space from your spouse to determine where you are going in your marriage and your life. If you choose to begin living together again as a married couple, you simply request that the court end the separation.
Legally separated couples can choose to continue living in the same house. It isn’t common for couples to choose to live together when they are separated. However, some people choose to remain in the same house to work on their problems while not being legally responsible for each other financially.
Details That Must Be Decided in a Legal Separation in Washington State
You and your spouse will need to make some decisions that create the terms of your legal separation. If you’re unable to agree with your spouse, the court will make the decision for you. The court’s decision will be made as fairly as possible. Your separation arrangements should include provisions for the following things:
- Division of assets and property—All property and assets will be divided between you and your spouse just as they are in a divorce proceeding. Both community property and separate property should be considered when making your arrangements. If you can’t decide, the court will make the decision on your behalf. The court will do its best to be fair, but that doesn’t always mean that assets will be divided equally.
- Issues regarding custody—If you have children, you must provide for them in your separation agreement. Their well-being is the most important thing to the court. Both you and your spouse should stay involved in the lives of your children. Typically with a legal separation, you and your spouse will be given legal custody, so you can share the decision-making responsibilities with your spouse. Physical custody of the children will be awarded either to both of you together or one of you.
- Child support—You must have an order that spells out your plans for child support. Regardless of whether you agree on how child support should be handled or not, you must have a court order in place for support, even in a legal separation.
- Alimony or spousal support—The court may order temporary spousal support when you get a legal separation. This is particularly the case if one of you has significantly more resources than the other one. The motive behind ordering spousal support is to help whoever has less means to get established financially. The court uses discretion to determine how long the support is needed and how much the award will be.
Pay careful attention to the details of the arrangement you want before putting them into your separation documents. Changing the details later will require a hearing to determine if there is an adequate reason to change the provisions of the agreement.
Trial Separation vs. Legal Separation
You may want the benefits of separation without having to endure the legal process of going through the court system. In that case, you might consider a trial separation. A trial separation means that you and your spouse want to live apart while you work on your issues.
In Washington State, you need to establish a time to meet in court to determine agreements regarding things like custody and asset division. Without involving the courts, there is no legal recourse to enforce the agreement if the parties deviate from their agreement. You can, of course, decide to proceed with legal separation or divorce.
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A Separation Contract
When you decide to file for legal separation or divorce, you will need a separation contract. This document is legally binding, and it details the terms and conditions of your separation. Having the separation contract helps to prevent you from wasting time on unnecessary court actions.
Before you sign the separation contract, you must understand every point. If you have an issue later, you must prove why the part you don’t agree with was unfair. You must also explain why you signed the agreement if you didn’t agree with or understand it. Your explanations would be presented through an appeals process which can be a lengthy and expensive undertaking.
If you and your spouse decide you want to reunite, you must petition the court for a termination of the separation agreement. Because it’s a legal document, you can’t just start ignoring it and resume your marriage. Your separated status will remain in effect until the courts agree to end your separation.
Is an Attorney Necessary for Legal Separation?
Legal separation, like divorce, changes your marital status. For your protection, you should have an experienced divorce attorney available to advise you during the process. Some states require that each individual have their own attorney instead of retaining a family attorney to represent them both.
An attorney can help you navigate the process of filing for legal separation. Remember, with a legal separation. You must also divide assets and determine custody arrangements, so the stakes are high. Not to mention, you must determine how to separate your life from that of your spouse while acting in the best interests of your children. An attorney can help you to make the decisions required so that you aren’t leaving anything up to the judge.
The Right of Conversion
In Washington State, a legal separation can be converted to a divorce decree. Either party has the right to convert the separation, and the other party can’t object to the conversion. The conversion can’t happen within six months of your legal separation.
In addition to the time constraint, if you’ve created any written agreements like providing health insurance for your spouse, your conversion could be rejected. There’s no filing fee to petition for a conversion. If your conversion is approved, the decree for legal separation simply gets renamed a decree of dissolution of marriage, and nothing else within the separation agreement gets changed.
How the Aberdeen Law Firm Can Help With the Legal Separation in Washington State
If your marriage is on the rocks, you have an option available to you other than divorce. You can opt to file for a legal separation instead. Whether you choose to file for a legal separation or a divorce, contact the attorneys at the Aberdeen Law Firm to discuss your options in Washington State.