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What is the Difference between Divorce and Legal Separation in Arizona?

In Arizona, there are two ways to formally and legally remove your estate from your spouse: divorce and legal separation. It’s important to understand that these are two different processes. Legal separation is not another term for divorce. While there are certain overlapping legal similarities between the two, it’s important to understand that these are two different things. Read below to find answers to commonly asked questions about divorce and legal separation in Arizona:

What is the Difference between Divorce and Legal Separation?

Obtaining a divorce means that the marriage is legally dissolved, with all assets separated, and both spouses legally become single people capable of remarriage and child custody rights are legally established. In contrast, a legal separation does not dissolve a marriage. The spouses will be technically still married to each other, but also judicially separated. However, like with a divorce, virtually all assets and debts are typically separated between the two spouses. But unlike in a divorce, the spouses cannot claim to be single persons for any legal reason nor can they remarry.  Most people pursue Legal Separation to maintain valuable health care coverage, among other reasons.

Why Seek Legal Separation Instead of a Divorce?

Legal separation may be suited for some people over a divorce for several reasons. Most spouses who do not want to divorce due to religious reasons or personal convictions can still undergo legal separation to judicially extricate oneself from a spouse. Spouses that want to live apart but without getting a divorce can obtain a legal separation.

Some people prefer to legally separate rather than divorce in order to keep valuable health insurance benefits of a group plan. As mentioned above, legally separated spouses are still considered married, and thus can benefit from continued spousal health insurance coverage. Similarly, those who have been married for less than 10 years can continue to receive social security benefits on their spouse’s federal benefits following a legal separation, unlike with a divorce in which such benefits are completely terminated for the lower earning spouse.

If you need to formally cut all legal, civic and other ties to a spouse, then you will need a divorce.

Grounds for Divorce or Legal Separation

Arizona is a no-fault state. It does not matter who did what to whom, or who cheated with whom.  Therefore, for both divorce and legal separation, you don’t need to show any reason for divorce to a court. If one spouse desires to divorce then the court will grant the divorce. Similarly, spouses do not need to prove a reason to get a legal separation. Claiming that the marriage is “irretrievably broken” is reason enough to obtain a Decree of Legal Separation as long as the other spouse does not object.  Only one of the two spouses must desire the divorce.  The person who “wants to hang on” cannot prevent the legal divorce from ultimately taking place.

What if One Spouse Insists on a Divorce?

Unlike in a divorce, legal separation is only granted if one spouse does not object. If one spouse wants a legal separation but the other wants a divorce, the court will convert the case and grant the divorce. Because a spouse can object, it’s important to discuss and make sure this is what both parties want. Consult with a local divorce attorney in Scottsdale to discuss your options.

What if the Legally Separating Couple has Children?

Child custody issues for legally separating couples are handled similarly to a divorce by Arizona courts. The courts will always prioritize the needs of the children. A family court will also determine parenting time and parental responsibilities.  You will receive formal judge imposed custody orders from the Court under either scenario.

What Happens to Marital Assets and Debts When a Couple Legally Separates?

Asset and debt separation for legal separations are also handled similarly to divorces. A court will make the determination.   Usually, the date upon which the original Legal Separation or Divorce Petition is “served” on the receiving spouse is the date that the community terminates.  Put another way, any salary or paychecks received after the date of service will usually be the earning spouse’s sole and separate property.  Exceptions apply, however.  Please consult seasoned legal counsel on all of these issues.

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