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The Difference Between Dissolution, Separation, and Annulment

It is a simple truth that marriages do not always work out. There is a nearly endless list of reasons why a couple who once pledged their lives to each other would want or need to end their union or domestic partnership, and it happens often in the United States.

Most people just assume that a divorce is the only path to ending a marriage, but in fact, there are several different ways you could end a marital relationship in the eyes of the law. The stakes are high due to the legal implications of ending a marriage, and it is important to choose the method that best serves the needs and goals of your family.

In the State of California, couples have the option to dissolve their marriage (divorce), get a legal separation, or annul their marriage. Since California is a “no fault” divorce state, couples do not have to prove reasons for the split, nor do both partners or spouses have to agree to it in order to proceed.

In this blog we’ve outlined the differences between these three legal paths to ending your marriage and moving on to a new life.

A dissolution of marriage is characterized by its finality with regard to the law. A divorce legally ends a marriage following some sort of legal process, such as mediation or litigation, whereby the couple’s assets will be divided, parenting plans and custody agreements will go into effect with regard to the couple’s children, and other details like spousal support and child support will be developed and finalized.

Once the divorce is completed, the couple will no longer be considered married in the eyes of the law. Legal separation, on the other hand, is not as final as dissolution.

A legal separation is characterized by a physical separation of the couple (they will no longer live together) where they will test out certain aspects of their split on their own such as visitation plans and dividing joint assets. However, unlike divorce, a legal separation does not legally change your marital status. You are still considered married by law and cannot participate in extramarital relationships while you are legally separated. A legal separation is also the preferred approach for people who cannot get divorced due to religious reasons.

While many legal separations lead to the same result as a dissolution, many couples prefer this method if they are unsure if a divorce is what they really want. In effect, a legal separation is a trial run for a divorce. If the couple decides they can work out their differences, it will be much easier to reverse course than it would be with a dissolution.

Furthermore, you may enter into a legal separation in California at any time, whereas you must have been a resident for at least six months in order to get a divorce. For this reason, some couples will utilize legal separations until they can fulfill the six month requirement for a divorce.

Annulments are quite different legally than a divorce or legal separation. Whereas a divorce and a legal separation both recognize the validity and clear start and end to a marriage, an annulment treats the marriage as if it never happened.

An annulment can be obtained when there is grounds that the marriage was never legally valid. For example, no incestuous or bigamous marriage is ever valid in California and can be nullified. Other legal grounds for being granted an annulment include marriage by fraud, by force, if one party was underage, if someone was of “unsound mind” to consent to the union, or if the one party had a previous marriage or domestic partnership that was still legally valid.

You can receive an annulment at any time in California if you can prove one of the aforementioned conditions or if you can prove that the marriage was invalid for some other reason. Unlike a marriage or legal separation, you cannot get an annulment for something like “irreconcilable differences.” Keep in mind that, since the marriage is considered to never have been valid, you may not have rights to assets or a share of benefits from your former spouse if you have the marriage annulled. If there are children involved, you may still be able to have custody or child support measures included in the annulment as long as you can officially establish parentage.

If you are in need of a dissolution, legal separation, or an annulment, please contact the Law Offices of Kayleene H. Writer and let us help you start a new life.