In my family law practice, one of the things that amuse me the most is when a client asks me how a disillusion is different than a divorce. Of course, what the client really means is a dissolution, but the irony is not lost on me. Per Google, “disillusion” is defined as “disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.”
If you are considering a dissolution vs. divorce vs. legal separation, you have likely come to the realization that your marriage is not as good as you once believed. But which path is best to take?
Dissolution vs. divorce: what are the differences?
Let’s focus on dissolution first. If you dissolve your marriage through a dissolution, it means you have reached agreement on everything – I mean everything – before you file anything with the court. Once you reach agreement and file, you can have a final hearing to dissolve the marriage a short time later (in most states; for instance, in Ohio, you can have your final hearing 30 days after you file). Not only is it quick from file-to-finish, but to some, it brings mental and emotional peace because they did not “go through a divorce.”
A dissolution pitfall is it can take a long time to negotiate and agree on everything if one party is emotionally not ready to end the marriage or if one party is a bully or unwilling to compromise. In the meantime, during the negotiation process, there are no “rules” to follow regarding what happens with your assets and debts, support, parenting time with children, etc., like you would have if you had filed for divorce and asked the court to set some rules. So, if negotiations go south and one party decides to play tough with the finances, parenting time, etc., there is no help in sight unless you file for divorce and enlist the court’s help.
Filing for Divorce
If you file for divorce, in most states you can enlist the court’s help from the very start to set “temporary orders” for the parties to follow. I call these the “rules” you will live by while the case is pending. These rules include child support, spousal support, payment of debts, custody and parenting time. When I counsel clients between dissolution vs. divorce (or legal separation, discussed below), I usually advise them to file for divorce if they need one of two things:
(1) The court’s assistance in setting “rules” because they can’t get the other side to agree (or behave) on money or child-related matters while they sort things out; or
(2) The proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” That light is a trial date, a known date in the future when, if agreement cannot be reached on all issues, the court will give the parties their day in court, a decision and terminate the marriage.
A wise attorney once told me that in every divorce there is a rabbit and a tortoise – one party is moving quickly towards the finish line, and the other one is slowly approaching it. If you are the rabbit and you want the marriage over soon, for whatever reason, but your spouse is a tortoise, filing for divorce ensures you will get to the finish line someday. And, if you reach an agreement and settle all issues, you can usually schedule your final hearing sooner than the trial date and end the case quickly.
The downfalls of divorce? It can be more expensive to pay your attorney to deal with discovery (requests to produce documents, you having to appear under oath and testify at a pre-trial deposition) and appear at court and argue for you on various matters. It also looks and feels adversarial, even if you file for divorce and reach an agreement soon thereafter.
What is Legal Separation?
I tell people that you prepare all the same paperwork for a legal separation that you do for dissolution or a divorce, but in the end, you are still married. Why do all that work and remain married? Honestly, I have not handled a case that began as a legal separation and ended as a legal separation. Almost always, after doing all the work to divide and conquer assets, debts, custody and parenting time issues, the parties decide to terminate the marriage, too.
If they don’t, why not? The two primary reasons parties don’t terminate the marriage but seek only legal separation are religion and health insurance. If you are legally separated, you can remain on your spouse’s health insurance. With the cost of health insurance on the rise every year, staying on a spouse’s group or low-cost plan can have a big financial impact on the positive. As to the other reason – religion, some people feel strongly that they cannot break their religious vows of marriage and choose the legal separation route instead.
If you are considering terminating your marriage or legally separating, the best tip I can give you is to be patient. None of these processes happen overnight. Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, your joint, married life wasn’t built in a day. Untangling your assets and debts, figuring out support issues, negotiating custody issues, and establishing the two of you as parents who parent separately takes much more than a day. Also, understand every case is different; the terms of a friend’s final agreement may be far different than yours for a host of reasons.
If you are trying to work through figuring out the differences between dissolution vs. divorce vs. legal separation, all attorneys in this process – and the court – want to be attentive to the details so that when you launch your “officially separate” lives, you are on solid footing. It’s our goal to have you leave the process informed, with clear agreements and rules, and certainly not disillusioned.
Joanne Beasy is a partner at Isaac Wiles Burkholder & Teetor, LLC. She has provided decades of representation in the fields of family law, business, litigation, and attorney professional ethics matters. In family law, Joanne’s experience includes representing clients in dissolution, divorce, custody and like proceedings.