Limitations of Divorce and Bifurcation

by Heather Frances J.D. Google
Bifurcation may mean more time in court.

Bifurcation may mean more time in court.

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When spouses want to end their marriage quickly but want to take their time working out issues like child custody, support and property distribution, a bifurcated divorce may be the answer. Bifurcation allows spouses to dissolve their marriage now and deal with other important issues later. However, bifurcation requires special procedures and not all states offer a bifurcation option for divorces.

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Bifurcation Motion

Bifurcation is not automatic. Typically, spouses must file a motion requesting bifurcation after the divorce is initiated. The motion asks the court to divorce the spouses but postpone decision on the terms of the divorce until later. In states that recognize bifurcation, courts may require spouses to show special circumstances or other qualifications before granting a bifurcation request.

Tax Returns and Social Security

Bifurcation legally terminates the bonds of marriage, so spouses no longer have the legal benefits of marriage even though other marital issues have not yet been settled. Thus, the now former spouses can no longer file their taxes as a married couple, even if filing as married persons would be more financially advantageous. Similarly, the spouses are considered divorced for purposes of Social Security benefits at the time of bifurcation, so spouses must meet the 10-year marriage requirement to receive Social Security benefits before bifurcation if they intend to claim spousal benefits later on.

Health Care

Many group health insurance plans terminate a spouse’s coverage if she and the employee spouse divorce, though some states do not allow this. In states that allow termination, bifurcation represents a legal divorce; thus, health care coverage may be terminated by those providers once bifurcation takes place. If the spouse losing coverage wishes to continue on that health insurance plan, she must sign up for COBRA coverage. COBRA coverage permits an ex-spouse losing coverage to pay the full price of insurance premiums in order to continue coverage for up to 36 months.

Pension and Retirement Benefits

Bifurcation can lead to a possible loss of rights to a portion of an ex-spouse’s pension and retirement benefits if he remarries or dies before the former spouses resolve their remaining property division issues. For example, if a husband has a retirement plan that provides benefits to his wife if he dies, those benefits may not be available after the spouses legally divorce. However, attorneys may be able to include provisions protecting against this possibility in the bifurcation decree.