Legal Separation as an Alternative to Divorce
This article sprouted from a series of brainstorming meetings that I recently had with fellow Collaborative Attorney Bruce Peck. We decided to meet for coffee from time to time to discuss and share ideas for writing about any alternative topic that may come to mind that would be different from the usual topic of divorce.
One reason people seek a divorce (in Minnesota, what we call Dissolution of Marriage) is because they start to think that they cannot trust their spouse financially. So they feel that unless they divorce their spouse, they will face a mountain of debt because of the careless way their spouse handles money.
If you are feeling that way, you may be experiencing something like the following circumstances. Do you view your spouse as untrustworthy with money? Is your spouse spending too much money? Does your spouse gamble too much? Do you worry that your spouse will take on significant debt without your knowledge or consent? Does your spouse make terrible financial decisions? These financial concerns often lead to divorce because one spouse feels that the financial issues in their marriage are out of control and they cannot go on that way and have no other choice. One spouse feels that they can’t take on the financial risks involved in staying married and that divorce is the only option to save themselves from financial ruin. In these circumstances, divorce is not the only potential option you should consider. One alternative to divorce is a “legal separation”.
In Minnesota, a legal separation may be granted by a court when the court determines that “one or both parties need a legal separation.” Arguably, avoiding financial ruin is a good reason to need a legal separation. This is because a “legal separation is a court determination of the rights and responsibilities of a husband and wife arising out of the marital relationship.” Further, a “decree of legal separation does not terminate the marital status of the parties.” In other words, a legal separation is everything a divorce is, without calling it a divorce and without actually divorcing the couple.
People who have a legal separation in Minnesota are actually still married to each other. So, if you want to stay married, but determine all the rights and responsibilities of you and your spouse in a court order, just like in a divorce but without divorcing, then you might be interested in a legal separation instead of a divorce. In my experience, legal separations in Minnesota are quite rare. Usually, if a couple wants to separate their financial lives by determining their rights and responsibilities, they also want to be free to marry someone else if they decide to do that in the future. That rules out legal separation because if you are still married, you can’t get married to someone else. Even if a spouse has no intention of ever marrying again, they typically do not want to be married to their current spouse.
With a legal separation, a person is still married and so they cannot marry someone else. I suspect that the only reason that there is such a thing as legal separation in Minnesota is that there have historically been people whose religious beliefs prevented them from even considering divorce. While many people still have an aversion to divorcing, I haven’t run across many people recently who still hold divorce as completely inconsistent with their religious views. The only two reasons that I can think of to get a legal separation are 1) you want to get a divorce, but your religious beliefs don’t allow you to divorce, or 2) you want to stay married as long as you can separate your financed from your spouse so that financial issues don’t come in between you and your spouse.
There are some possible negative consequences and limitations of a legal separation. One is that your health insurance eligibility may be affected. Another may be the issue of how your change in marital status may affect your taxes. Another is that any joint accounts you have with your spouse are likely still at risk. There are additional issues to consider related to bankruptcy and debt collection. This is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of all the positive and negative aspects of legal separation, but this gives you a sense for the potential issues to consider in making your decision.
In order to choose legal separation over divorce, you should consult with a bankruptcy attorney, a family law attorney and a tax accountant and think through your options thoroughly before making a decision. The Collaborative process
is ideal for helping couples talk through and make these decisions with the help of legal (and other professional) advice readily available to both spouses. An alternative to legal separation, without going through with a divorce, is to complete a postnuptial agreement. This is like a prenuptial agreement (which is commonly referred to as a “prenup”), but a postnuptial agreement is signed after the couple is married (rather than before marriage). It is an agreement about the financial rights and responsibilities of the couple if they ever separate. This is a whole separate topic and is too large for this article. I’ll write more on the topic of postnuptial agreements in another blog post soon!
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