What is a Marital Dissolution?
A marital dissolution is another word for divorce – it is a court action that you may file to end your marriage. In Washington, we use the word marital dissolution instead of “divorce.” You may file a marital dissolution only if you are married. In most situations, if you are legally married according to the laws of the state or country in which you were married, your marriage will be recognized as legal in Washington. Washington has “no fault” dissolution — you do not need to prove that either spouse was “at fault” in order to get a divorce. Only one party needs to prove that there are irreconcilable differences (you can no longer get along with each other).
What Relief May I Get in a Marital Dissolution?
The main purpose of a marital dissolution is to legally end your marriage. In general, as part of a marital dissolution, the court may also divide your property and debts, award maintenance (also known as alimony) to one spouse, enter orders restricting one spouse’s contact with the other spouse or the children, change the name(s) of the parties, and, if you have children, enter a parenting plan and order child support for the children.
However, there are some situations in which the court has the power to end your marriage, but cannot grant other relief that you might want. Whether the court will give you the relief that you want depends upon whether the court has jurisdiction over the responding spouse, and whether the court has jurisdiction over your children. If Washington does not have jurisdiction over your spouse, or it does not have jurisdiction over your children, you may still file a marital dissolution in Washington. However, there will be limits on what the court has the power to order in the dissolution, which are described below.
How is a Marital Dissolution Different from a Legal Separation?
In a legal separation, the court may grant all of the relief that is available in a marital dissolution but the court does not actually end the marriage (in other words, the couple is not divorced at the end). Sometimes persons will choose to file for a legal separation instead of a divorce because they do not want to end the marriage, but they want the other relief (such as a parenting plan, or property and debt division) that is available through a formal legal separation. This may be the case, for example, where a person’s religious beliefs discourage him from filing for dissolution.
There are a few important facts about legal separation that you should keep in mind if you are thinking about filing one:
You do not need to file a petition for legal separation before filing for marital dissolution. If you want to make sure that you are not responsible for debts your spouse may create after one of you moves out of the house, you should file a marital dissolution and a motion for temporary orders.
If you file a petition for legal separation, but your spouse files a counter-petition asking for a marital dissolution, the court will probably enter a marital dissolution. This is because only one spouse must show that there are irreconcilable differences between the spouses in order to get a dissolution.
If you file a legal separation, but you later change your mind and want a marital dissolution, you will need to file and serve a new petition for dissolution (unless your spouse has cross-petitioned for a dissolution).
If the court enters a legal separation decree, the legal separation can be easily changed to a marital dissolution. Keep in mind that, once the court enters a decree of legal separation, your spouse can turn it into a divorce without your consent. Any time after six months have passed after entry of the decree of legal separation, either spouse may file a motion with the court to change the decree of legal separation to a decree of dissolution. The court must grant the request. All of the other parts of your legal separation orders (such as the parenting plan and order of child support) will not be affected and will stay in effect.
May I Get an Annulment Instead of a Divorce?
There is no legal action called an “annulment” in Washington. There is a little-used action called a petition for a declaration of invalidity, which is like an annulment in that it declares that the marriage was void (could not legally exist) from the day it started. There are very limited circumstances in which you can have your marriage declared invalid. The court can declare a marriage invalid if it decides that the parties should never have been married because:
a) one or both parties were underage (under 17);
b) lack of required parental or court approval for persons under age 18;
c) one or both parties was already married when the marriage took place;
d) the parties are too closely related by blood; one spouse lacked capacity to consent to the marriage (could not give consent), either because of mental incapacity or because of the influence of alcohol or drugs;
e) a party was induced to enter into the marriage by force or duress, or by fraud involving the essentials of marriage.
Even if the court finds one of the six factors, the court will declare the marriage valid unless the petitioner also proves that the parties have not “ratified” their marriage (showed that they wanted to continue the marriage) by voluntarily continuing to live together as husband and wife after turning 18, or after having the ability to consent, or after the force or duress stopped or the fraud was discovered. In addition, only the spouse who was the victim of force or fraud may petition for a declaration of invalidity.
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