Almost every couple experiences minor disagreements now and then, but no one deserves to suffer in a marriage filled with constant conflict, tension, or abuse. If you believe that ending your marriage is the right choice for your family, know that you have several options for handling your situation.

In Missouri, you can file for divorce to dissolve your marriage or pursue a form of legal separation known as separate maintenance. Each of these legal processes has its own set of requirements, benefits, and disadvantages. The information below can help you understand the difference between divorce and legal separation and make the best choice.

What Is Divorce?

In Missouri, a divorce is referred to as a dissolution of marriage. This process legally terminates the marital rights and responsibilities between spouses and returns them to single status. State law requires that either spouse must have been a resident of Missouri for a minimum of 90 days before they can file for divorce. Missouri is a “no fault” divorce state, so it is not necessary to establish specific grounds for divorce by describing to the court what caused the marriage to fail (such as infidelity) and proving fault.

Instead, you can claim that “irreconcilable differences” have led to the marriage becoming “irretrievably broken,” meaning that you have exhausted all opportunities for reconciliation. It means there is no reasonable likelihood that the marriage can be preserved. You and your spouse must reach decisions on property division, child custody, child support, and spousal support before a judge will approve your petition to dissolve the marriage.

What Is Legal Separation?

Legal separation, or separate maintenance, is very similar to divorce in that couples must decide on the same issues (property division, child custody, etc.) and develop a written Separation Agreement outlining their plans. However, if you obtain separate maintenance, you and your spouse will continue to be married and retain the benefits of being legally married.

Instead of filing a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage, you file a Petition for Separate Maintenance. If the court grants your separation, a judge will issue a Judgment of Legal Separation containing orders or legal protections that would be issued in a divorce but without formally dissolving the marriage. You can begin your own separate lives, but you have the flexibility to later rescind the separation order if you decide to reconcile. If you decide to divorce, you can file a motion after 90 days to convert the separation judgment into a Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage.

Differences Between Divorce and Legal Separation

Although both these processes require a court order and involve some of the same steps, there are distinct differences between them. Divorce is designed as a final dissolution of a marriage, while legal separation is intended to help couples preserve their marriage by giving them time and space to work through their issues. This allows a couple to remain legally married and prevents both parties from getting re-married. They enjoy the same benefits as a married couple, including healthcare, social security benefits, and right to inherit property, and they are considered next of kin for legal and medical purposes, meaning they can make decisions for each other unless a power of attorney grants another person this authority.

Each spouse can also be held legally responsible for the other’s debt. If the couple decides to reconcile, they simply obtain a court ruling that dismisses the separation. In contrast, a divorce is final, so if a couple reconciles after a divorce, they must legally remarry to regain the rights and benefits of marriage.

Is Legal Separation Right for Me?

You should consider legal separation if any of the following apply to your situation:

  • Your religious beliefs prohibit divorce. Some religious traditions explicitly condemn divorce and prohibit couples from legally terminating their marriage. For example, in the Catholic church, marriage is considered eternal in the eyes of God, and marriage vows cannot be broken for any reason. Therefore, the church does not perform or recognize divorces and views remarriage as adultery. If you or your spouse belong to a religious group that does not allow divorce, legal separation can allow you to establish separate living arrangements and make decisions on your own without violating the rules of your faith.
  • You believe you can preserve your marriage. In some cases, you may only need some breathing room to gain perspective on your marital issues so you can come together and address them as a team. Legal separation can help you take time for yourself to discover what you truly want from your relationship, evaluate your priorities, and determine exactly what it will take to make the marriage work. This time apart can serve as a trial period for divorce, giving you the chance to experience what life would be like as a single person. It may encourage you to reconcile with your spouse or confirm that divorce is the right choice for your family.
  • You want to stay together for the sake of your children. Divorce can be a traumatizing event for children, and it makes sense that you would want to avoid divorce to prevent disrupting your children’s lives. If you and your spouse can remain civil and successfully co parent, a legal separation can give you the space you need while keeping the family intact. However, if your marriage involves frequent conflict, stress, or abuse, staying together can do more harm than good. Children raised in high-conflict households are at higher risk for neglect and can have difficulty forming relationships, managing their emotions, and developing positive self-esteem. Every situation is unique, so it’s important to prioritize your child’s best interests before making a decision.

Get Advice From an Expert

If you are not completely sure you want to legally terminate your marriage, but you believe you and your spouse would benefit from spending time apart, legal separation may be the best solution for your family. Whether you decide to legally separate or divorce, the attorneys at Stange Law Firm can help you understand the requirements, procedures, and consequences of each option and ensure you achieve a favorable outcome in your case. Contact us today to discuss your case and determine the right course of action for your future.