Ending a Marriage: Divorce, Annulment or Legal Separation

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Although there are several options, such as a divorce, annulment, or a legal separation, the most common option for ending a marriage is a divorce, called a Dissolution of Marriage in some states. All states allow one spouse to seek a no-fault divorce, which means that there is no claim that either spouse is to blame. There is no defense to a no-fault divorce.

A dissolution of marriage dissolves the marriage, but it also deals with other issues, including child custody, visitation, and support; property and debt division; spousal support; and return of a pre-marriage name. It there are problems with violence or misbehavior by one spouse, the final decree may also include a restraining order against one spouse to regulate access to the other spouse or the children.

In some states, parties who meet certain conditions can get short form or simple divorces. This is usually possible when there are no children and the parties agree on all property and debt division questions.

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An annulment also ends a marriage, but in a different way than a divorce. A divorce or dissolution ends the marriage as of the date indicated in the final decree. An annulment says that the marriage was legally void from the very beginning. Annulments are usually granted after very short marriages, but if there are children, the children do not become illegitimate because of an annulment.

Annulments are granted only when a party can show a legal defect that made the marriage invalid. This can include some kind of fraud or misrepresentation, concealment of some important fact, lack of consummation by sexual intercourse, or a misunderstanding between the parties about something crucial to the marriage, like whether or not to have children. See Annulment on the Free Advice Divorce page for more information.

Some people prefer annulments to divorce for religious reasons. Spouses may be able to remarry after an annulment but not after a divorce, or a legal annulment may make it easier to obtain a religious annulment.

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Legal Separation

Spouses may obtain a legal separation if they choose not to divorce, perhaps for religious reasons or if they want a trial separation to see if they can resolve their differences. A legal separation order deals with the same issues an order of dissolution does. It can include child custody, visitation, and support; where the parties will live; who will pay the bills; and whether spousal support will be paid. A legal separation is not required before a marriage can be dissolved. See Separation on the Free Advice Divorce Law page for more information.

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