Divorce vs. Legal Separation
As you consider divorce and its potential implications for your life, you may not want a divorce, but also may not want to remain in living together. Many Washington couples choose to file a Petition for Legal Separation instead, giving themselves the opportunity to live apart with clearly defined rights and duties without a divorce. If you are ready to separate, there is much more involved with this process than simply for one spouse to move out.
There are pros and cons to choosing a legal separation over a divorce proceeding. You may have important personal reasons for not filing for divorce – for example, one or both of you may have religious reasons to not divorce; or one spouse may have medical issues that would not be covered by the other spouse’s medical insurance if they get a divorce, but would be covered in a legal separation. In addition, if you simply separate without a divorce, who will pay the rent? What about custody? When parties simply separate, there are no enforceable rules on who pays the mortgage, who stays in the house, who takes care of the children, who pays what bills, who drives which car, and who owns or controls which assets.
An informal separation period could last months or even years. That is why it is important to file a Petition for Legal Separation, asking for court orders that will resolve issues regarding various important aspects of your life, such as property division, financial support and child custody. Custody, child support, division of assets, and spousal maintenance are important elements of a final Decree of Divorce, and they are also important parts of a Decree of Legal Separation as well.
Protection of your parental rights
You have important parental rights you will want to protect during this time, and you will also want to ensure that your kids have some stability during your separation. This likely means providing them with as much continuity of lifestyle and relatively equitable access to both parents. In a Decree of Legal Separation just like in a divorce, the right way to approach custody in a final parenting plan depends on the needs of your child and your unique family situation. Regardless of your objectives, it’s important to formally address the following:
- Residential time – This is the formal term the court uses to refer to time provided to each parent with the child. Informally, clients and attorneys often distinguish between “primary custody” and “visitation”.
- Primary custody – This refers to the amount of time your child will spend with his or her parent, including weekends, vacations, holidays and special occasions.
- Visitation – This refers to the right that a parent has to make important decisions on behalf of his or her child, such as those referring to religious training, education and more.
If the custody and visitation schedule you create for your separation works well for your family, you can choose to carry this over into a final divorce order in the future if you move forward with this process.
The goal of any custody or visitation schedule during a time of separation is to protect the best interests of the children above all else. When you are considering terms or navigating negotiations, it will be helpful to set aside your own temporary emotions and consider what will work best for your kids for the months and years ahead.