Ending a Marriage: Divorce, Separation & Annulment

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a divorce?

A divorce is a legal decree that ends a marriage before the death of either spouse. During a divorce proceeding, a court may resolve issues of child custody, division of assets, and spousal support or alimony. After a divorce becomes final, the parties are no longer legally bound to one another, and are free to remarry or enter into a domestic partnership with another person.

What are the legal grounds for divorce?

Spouses may choose to file for a "no-fault" or "fault-based" divorce.

  • No-Fault Divorce. No-fault divorce statutes allow a spouse to file for divorce without blaming the other spouse for the dissolution. Grounds for a no-fault divorce include irreconcilable differences, irremediable breakdown and loss of affection.
  • Fault-Based Divorce. Many states also allow a spouse to obtain a fault-based divorce. Grounds for a fault-based divorce include adultery, abandonment, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol abuse. Spouses may choose to obtain a fault-based divorce to avoid a required waiting period, or to influence the court's decisions regarding child custody, child support, alimony, and division of assets.

What is the difference between a divorce and an annulment of marriage?

An annulment of marriage is a legal decree that a marriage is null and void. Annulments are granted when a court makes a finding a marriage is invalid. While a divorce ends a legally valid marriage, an annulment treats the marriage as if it never existed. The end result of an annulment is the same as a divorce—the parties are single and may remarry or enter into a domestic partnership with another person. Additionally, as with divorce, the court presiding over an annulment proceeding may determine issues of child custody, child support, alimony, and division of assets.

What are the grounds for obtaining an annulment?

The grounds for annulment vary between states. Typically, however, an annulment may be obtained for one of the following reasons:

  • The marriage was incestuous.
  • The marriage was bigamous.
  • The marriage was the result of force, fraud, or physical or mental incapacity.
  • The marriage took place when one or both spouses were below the legal age for marriage.
  • The marriage took place when one or both spouses were already married or in a registered domestic partnership.
  • The marriage took place when one or both spouses were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

What is the difference between divorce and legal separation?

A legal separation is a judicially recognized separation between spouses. A legal separation does not end the marriage and both spouses are prohibited from remarrying or entering into a domestic partnership with another person. Simply living apart or agreeing to separate for a period of time does not constitute a legal separation in most states. However, some states consider the date of permanent separation, rather than the date of legal separation, when determining the length of the marriage for purposes of dividing marital assets.

How do I determine whether divorce, annulment, or legal separation is the best choice for me?

Deciding whether to obtain a divorce, annulment or legal separation is a personal decision. For example, individual religious beliefs may lead a spouse to prefer an annulment of marriage over a divorce. However, not all procedures are equally available to all individuals. The grounds for obtaining an annulment are often very limited. If a union does not qualify for annulment, a couple must determine whether to separate or file for a divorce. Some states require that a couple be married in a state for a certain period of time before they may obtain a divorce in that state. For example, California requires a married couple to live in the state for six months before they may file for divorce. In that case, a couple may choose to be legally separated for a period of time before seeking to dissolve their marriage.

Do I need a lawyer to obtain a divorce, legal separation or annulment?

It is not necessary to hire a lawyer before obtaining a divorce, legal separation, or annulment. However, couples may consider retaining legal representation to guide them through the complexities of child custody, spousal support and division of assets.