SEPARATION v. DIVORCE

Dissolution of a marriage can only happen through a divorce decree issued by a Court of competent jurisdiction. However, many states issue “legal separation”, “conversion divorce”or “separate support” judgments– which fall short of a divorce but still address certain marital situations.

A legal separation and separate support are types of applications to the court to recognize that parties wish to live “separate and apart”, wish to formalize financial arrangmeents but are not seeking a dissolution of the marriage. These proceedings address primarily financial arrangements between the parties, and custody if children are involved.  They do not address distribution of marital assets such as the marital home or pensions, etc. And of course they do not dissolve the marriage.  The biggest distinction between separate support and legal separation is in individual state laws.  New York recognizes “living separate and apart” as a “legal separation”, whereas Massachusetts does not.  It will interpret the issues addressed in any MA proceeding for separate support more narrowly than a state like NY, that allows a legal separation to be “Converted” into a divorce after one year of the filing.  MA does not have conversion divorces, i.e. a legal separation that can be converted into a complaint for divorce upon which judgment for divorce may be entered. MA requires a new action specifically calling for the termination of the marriage.

A person wrote to me asking about housing arrangements between the spouses in what appeared to be a “living separate and apart” situation where no legal action of any sort had been commenced. This lead to a discussion of distinct ways in which parties may resolve end of marriage or separation problems:

If you are married, [housing] is an “extra-legal” question, meaning the law does not cover this subject because the law does not interfere with how a husband and wife make out their living arrangements; so it is up to you and your spouse to come to some agreement you can both live with.

If you are already divorced, you have to look to the divorce judgment for any express terms and conditions that address this question. Typically something is said in the judgment about distribution of the marital home–who gets to stay, how has to leave, if one party has to buy out the other party’s interst or refiance a mortgage, etc.

If you are still married, but living apart you have 2 options under MA law: filing for “Separate Support” which brings the issues of care and maintenance before the court but does not conclude a divorce; or one might have to consider filing for divorce. At that juncture, the courts will step in and force a distribution of assets and other settlements provisions which could include a housing allocation for wife and (minor) children. Its best to consult with a local lawyer to get a better understanding of the process and laws involved in your state, as well as an opinion tailored to one’s specific facts and circumstances.

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