What’s the Difference Between Divorce, Dissolution, and Legal Separation?

by Sep 14, 2022Divorce0 comments

A dissolution of marriage is one legal way of terminating a marriage. While there are similarities between divorce and dissolution of marriage, there are many differences as well. Which one is right for you?

Divorce vs. Dissolution 

In the divorce process, one party must file a complaint for divorce and present grounds for divorce. Incompatibility is the most common reason for requesting an at fault divorce. At the end of a divorce case, the court approves the final child custody order, and any child support or spousal support that may be appropriate. The terms of a divorce can be agreed upon by the parties or based on court orders after a trial, but a divorce usually begins because the parties disagree initially.

A dissolution of marriage is sometimes referred to as no fault divorce because neither party must present grounds for divorce. Instead of allowing a court to make the decisions for you, both parties in a marriage dissolution will come to an agreement on child custody, child support, spousal support, and the division of property before filing a petition for a dissolution of marriage with the court. A dissolution of marriage is often completed faster and less expensively than an at fault divorce case.

Dissolution of Marriage

While it may sound nice in theory, in reality it may be much harder for one spouse to agree with the other over such emotionally-charged issues as child custody and child support. Agreeing on spousal support and property division can also be contentious, and the parties may have to negotiate several times before an agreement can be reached. In fact, it is not uncommon for a couple to start the process with the hopes of filing for a dissolution of marriage, only to end up unable to reach an agreement and filing a complaint for divorce instead. However, if you think there is any possibility that you and your spouse can come to an agreement, it may be in your best interest to start with an attempt at a marriage dissolution.

black heart disolving

Legal Separation

A legal separation is not required as part of a divorce or marriage dissolution process. A Legal Separation is more of a permanent step, ending with a Separation Agreement that addresses the legal issues of child custody, child support, spousal support, and property division, much like a divorce or marriage dissolution does. It is for couples who, for whatever reason, do not wish to terminate their marriage yet. Down the road, if a couple who is legally separated chooses to terminate their marriage, they should be able to file a complaint for divorce to convert the separation agreement into a divorce, since the important issues will have already been decided. If the termination of the marriage is your end goal, then a legal separation is typically not a step you would need to take.


Annulments can be either legal, religious, or both. A legal annulment is a way of voiding the marriage, meaning it was invalid from the beginning. There are very specific qualifications for the annulment process, and it only pertains to situations such as bigamy, underage marriage, a spouse who was unable to provide consent to marry, and close relatives who married. Annulments are not nearly as common as divorces and marriage dissolutions, but if one of the above situations applies to you, be sure to contact a law firm focusing on family law right away. A religious annulment is between you and your church, but it still requires a marriage to be legally terminated either through the divorce process or a dissolution of marriage.

The Dissolution Process

Once you and your spouse agree to end the marriage, it is in both of your best interests to retain separate legal counsel. However, if you and your spouse decide to sit down together and write your own terms regarding child custody, child support, spousal support, and property division, that is certainly your prerogative. It is still advised, however, that after doing so, you seek the advice of an experienced divorce attorney to review them. You may be in a hurry to “get it over with”, or you may be feeling guilty, or not wanting to be difficult…emotions run high during this time! An attorney focusing on family law can be objective about the situation and make sure your proposal for dissolution is fair and equitable.
If one spouse cannot reach agreement with the other over any item, your attorneys can negotiate with the other side on your behalf. There may be several rounds of negotiations before you can iron out a plan that you both agree to. This is when it’s very helpful to be working with a local family law firm like Kirkland & Sommers. Because we know the local courts so well, we can advise you on how a court might view the issue if you let them decide, so you know whether to keep negotiating, compromise, or file for divorce instead.
Once both spouses have reached an agreement that is acceptable, it will be reduced to writing and signed by both parties. This is called the Separation Agreement. If minor children are involved, you must also prepare a Shared Parenting Plan. Both documents will be sent to the court, and a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage will be filed.

When is a Marriage Dissolved?

Your case will be put on the court’s docket, and when your court date is scheduled, both spouses must appear before the judge. The judge will ask a few simple questions to ensure both parties have proceeded willingly and still agree to the terms in the Separation Agreement, and then the court grants your Dissolution of Marriage. Just like that, it’s over. The entire process in front of the judge takes about five minutes!

Do I need a Lawyer for a Marriage Dissolution?

It is highly recommended that you work with an experienced divorce attorney during the marriage dissolution process, although it is not required if you are able to successfully petition the court and get your case on the docket. However, unless you have only been married a short time, have no minor children together, and both parties want to leave the marriage with only the separate property each brought to the marriage, you really should have an objective third party review your separation agreement. There may be legal issues you didn’t even think about, such as a retirement or investment account, health insurance for the children, or the actual value of a self-owned business.

Talk to a Divorce Attorney at a Free Consultation

No matter how friendly you think your marriage dissolution may be, you owe it to yourself to at least talk to a divorce attorney at the outset. You may be surprised at the level of detail required in the Separation Agreement! At Kirkland & Sommers, we will listen to the specifics of your case, hear your wishes, and outline the legal steps necessary to proceed. There’s no obligation to work with us after your initial consultation, but if we decide to work together, we will represent your interests with objectivity and ensure that your Separation Agreement and Shared Parenting Plan are fair and thorough. And if the worst happens and you and your spouse cannot agree, you will already be prepared to move forward with your divorce case with an experienced divorce attorney on your side.

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