Legal Separation vs. Divorce vs. Annulment

When it comes to winding up a marriage, most people think that when it’s over, it’s over. Yet, there are times when a marriage may not quite be over, just like there are cases where a marriage may never really have gotten started in the first place. For these reasons, there is more than one way to dissolve a marriage. In fact, there are three major ways in which marriage termination can occur.

The most typical and familiar way of ending a marriage is through the process of formal divorce proceedings. While the format is somewhat different in each of the various states, a number of common elements are found in all of them. To begin with, modern divorce laws do not place any blame on one party or the other. This is generally known as “no fault” divorce, which simply means that the court is not going to waste time apportioning blame and merely wants to oversee a peaceable and equitable termination of the marriage.

Divorce begins by having one party, “the petitioner,” notify the other, “the respondent,” that they wish to dissolve the marriage. Regardless of whether the divorce is desired by both parties or just one, the procedure moves forward with a number of legal restrictions and admonishments that have to be observed until the process is complete. Spiriting the children away or hiding marital assets are two common ways in which the parties might strike back at one another, and the court system is geared toward preventing any such bad faith dealings and arriving at an impartial settlement.

An interesting, but now little-used, divorce procedure is that of a marriage annulment rather than a formal divorce. An annulment is basically an assertion that the marriage was never properly instituted in the first place. It never took place at all, in other words. This usually involves a claim that one of the parties was not capable of entering into the marriage contract in the first place,  often as a result of already being married to someone else, of being below the legal age of consent, or being unable to carry out the expected sexual functions associated with marriage.

As a philosophical matter, a marriage annulment can offer what might be the only way out for someone whose religious faith does not permit the dissolution of a “real” marriage, no matter how odious it may have become. In practical terms, a marriage annulment can also be a much quicker avenue of escape. There is no waiting period involved, whereas divorce involves a statutory period of delay that typically runs anywhere from six to twelve months between the initial steps and the final divorce decree.  

Finally, there are cases where the marriage is mostly, but perhaps not entirely, over. In some situations, there may be business or personal reasons for continuing the marriage from a legal standpoint, but the parties are nevertheless desirous of living their own separate lives—at least for the moment.

A legal separation is the way in which this can be accomplished. If a reconciliation takes place later, it is much easier to carry out if the couple is merely separated. On the other hand, transforming a legal separation into a full-blown divorce requires the parties to undergo the full divorce process.

In short, divorce law is not really a one-size-fits-all proposition. There are multiple options that provide a wider degree of flexibility than is normally imagined. Of course, it is not possible to convey the full requirements of these avenues in such a short survey, but it is important to know that divorce is not a stark binary choice between married and unmarried.


For More Information