Legal Separation, Dissolution, and Annulment: What’s the Difference? When a party wants to separate from their spouse in the State of Arizona, they have three formal options: 1) a dissolution; 2) a legal separation; 3) an annulment. But what are the functional differences among these options and why might a party pursue one over the other? This blog addresses those questions.
A dissolution is a divorce. It is the process by which a married couple is restored to the status of unmarried, single, persons. The process itself culminates in a Decree of Dissolution which assigns rights and responsibilities to each party covering issues such as spousal maintenance, child support, legal decision-making rights over children, parenting time, payment of debts, and assignment of assets. Once the process is over, each former spouse is free to marry again if they so choose – they are no longer married or related to the other former spouse.
Why a dissolution/divorce? At the most basic level, there is finality to it. It is a once and for all declaration that a marriage is over.
A legal separation looks very similar to a dissolution action. Like a dissolution, the process culminates in a Decree. A Decree of Legal Separation assigns rights and responsibilities for the same issues as are covered in a dissolution action. At the end of the process, though, the parties are not single. They are still legally married – they simply have a Decree stating that they will be living separate and apart from each other and under what rights and obligations they have to operate under during that separation. They are not free to marry anyone else (without committing an act of bigamy).
Why then choose a legal separation? By far, most people choose the dissolution option. A legal separation may be appropriate, though, if one spouse needs to maintain health insurance coverage through the other spouse’s employer (check each individual policy to ensure a legally separated spouse is still considered a dependent for this purpose), if the parties have a particular religious conviction that precludes the option of dissolution, or if the parties are simply not ready for, or do not want, the finality of dissolution.
NOTE: You are not “legally separated” simply because you are physically separated or because a dissolution action has been filed. A legal separation is a separate and distinct action that is filed with the court.
An annulment declares that a marriage never validly existed because of some defect. Examples of obvious defects would include a “purported” marriage between related parties or a “purported” marriage between one party and another party who is already married. There may be other potential defects that would qualify for an annulment which should be discussed with qualified counsel.
Why pursue an annulment? First, it should be said that whether parties qualify for an annulment is an extremely fact-specific legal analysis and many parties interested in this option will be disappointed to find out that they will not qualify. The two main reasons someone may be interested in pursuing this option are: 1) community property principles will not attach because an annulment declares that a marriage, and therefore, a community, never validly existed; and 2) neither party would be entitled to spousal maintenance since they were not, technically speaking, ever spouses.
Whether to file for a dissolution, legal separation, or an annulment should be a decision based on a comprehensive evaluation of the facts and circumstances surrounding your situation. It is a decision to be reached with the assistance of competent counsel after weighting the pros and cons of each potential option.
This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please feel free to contact family law attorney Lindsay A. M. Olivarez at www.udallshumway.com or contact an attorney in your community.