Ending your marriage might be one of the most challenging ordeals you ever experience, and every marriage is unique. There is no one solid approach to ending a marriage, and the state laws of Missouri actually provide multiple options that are worth consideration. While divorce or dissolution of marriage is the most commonly sought method of ending a marriage, there are other options as well that apply to specific situations or provide certain advantages over traditional divorce.
If you are unsure about how to approach ending your marriage, a Missouri family law attorney is your best resource for specific advice about your unique situation. It’s a good idea to understand the divorce process as well as the alternatives to divorce if you want to make an informed decision about resolving your current situation.
Legal Separation in Missouri
A legal separation is functionally almost identical to divorce except for the fact that once a legal separation is recognized by the court, the couple remains legally married. Missouri state law not only allows legal separation but also encourages couples to seek legal separation prior to filing for a formal divorce. The legal separation process exists to allow couples to gain perspective on their marital issues, ultimately encouraging the couple to resolve their differences and reunite.
A married couple may seek legal separation in Missouri by filing the appropriate paperwork with a Missouri family court. A judge will then oversee a hearing to determine if legal separation is reasonable and appropriate for the situation. If the judge approves the legal separation order, you and your spouse will face certain legal restrictions until you formalize your divorce. Neither of you may remarry, incur any new major debts, or sell any marital assets. Your legal separation order may also include provisions for property division, alimony, and custody of your children. However, these provisions will not take effect until you convert your legal separation order to a divorce order.
Once you have your legal separation order, a judge may convert this order into a finalized divorce decree after at least 90 days have passed. However, both spouses have the ability to file motions to have the separation order set aside if they decide to reconcile. It’s not uncommon for people to consider the legal separation period as an opportunity to “cool off” before beginning formal divorce proceedings. However, some couples obtain legal separation orders so they can live separately while still taking advantage of the financial benefits of their marriage, such as shared health insurance and tax benefits.
The annulment process is unique, and Missouri courts rarely grant annulments. Unlike a divorce that formally ends a legal marriage, an annulment declares that a marriage was never legal or valid in the first place. Annulment is typically reserved for (and only approved for) very specific circumstances, such as:
- The discovery that a marriage is incestuous. This justifies annulment on the grounds of incest or blood relation.
- Discovery that one spouse was already married before marrying a second time. This would justify annulment on the grounds of bigamy.
- Revelation that one of the spouses was under the age of 18 at the time they were married and did not have parental consent to marry.
- Incurable impotence that was not discovered until after the marriage ceremony.
- One spouse’s diagnosis with an incurable mental illness.
- The revelation that one of the spouses married due to coercion, threat, duress, or fraud.
- Lack of capacity. If it is revealed that one of the spouses lacked the mental capacity to agree to the marriage, this would justify annulment in Missouri.
In the event your marriage satisfies one or more of these conditions, it is likely that a Missouri family court judge will approve an annulment in your situation. If you and your spouse have children together, the court will still recognize them as the legal children of both you and your spouse, and you would need to form a custody agreement similar to those created by unwed parents.
The most commonly used method of ending a marriage in the US is divorce, also called dissolution. The divorce process is relatively straightforward on paper and quite complex in practice. Depending on the complexity of a divorce case, it can potentially take months or even years before you have a divorce order in hand.
There are several options for handling the divorce process. If you and your spouse are unwilling to negotiate with one another and cannot reach mutually agreeable terms, you may need to litigate your divorce. The litigation process is notoriously expensive and stressful, and the final result will be completely outside of your control.
Many couples choose mediation to handle their divorces. This form of alternative dispute resolution provides the divorcing couple an opportunity to privately negotiate their divorce terms under the guidance of a neutral mediator. The spouses should each retain their own legal counsel and choose a mediator who does not hold any conflicts of interest favoring either spouse. The mediator will guide negotiations and help the couple draft their divorce order before submitting it to the appropriate family court for final review and approval.
Why You Need Legal Counsel
No matter how you intend to approach ending your marriage, it is vital to have reliable legal representation on your side throughout the entire process. Many people make the mistake of thinking they can handle their divorce cases on their own, only to wind up with divorce decrees they feel are imbalanced, unfair, or otherwise fail to suit their needs. Hiring an experienced Missouri divorce attorney is one of the best things you can do to protect your interests in divorce proceedings.
Ending a marriage can be an incredibly stressful and emotionally draining experience, even if you are certain that your marriage needs to end. The right attorney can streamline the process significantly, helping you determine the best approach to ending your marriage and assisting you in gathering the evidence and documentation you will require to complete the process.
If you are unsure whether divorce, annulment, or legal separation would apply best to your situation, or if you simply need legal guidance as you initiate divorce proceedings, contact a reputable and experienced Missouri divorce attorney as soon as possible to secure the legal counsel you need to approach the situation with confidence.