When a couple is not yet ready or willing to pursue an absolute divorce, which ends the marriage completely, another option in some states may be a "limited divorce." Depending on the laws of the state, a limited divorce allows the couple to live separately, either indefinitely, or for a period of time leading up to an absolute divorce. A divorcing couple should consider the advantages and disadvantages of both an absolute and a limited divorce before starting the divorce proceedings.
Limited vs. Absolute Divorce Overview
Depending on the laws of your state, you may pursue a limited divorce. A limited divorce serves as a legal separation, meaning that the couple lives separately under the supervision of the court. While the couple is still legally married, the court may determine property division, award alimony, or determine child support and custody. On the other hand, an absolute divorce is the final divorce which legally ends the marriage. Couples do not need to request a limited divorce before an absolute divorce. However, couples may first go through a limited divorce because they do not yet have the grounds for an absolute divorce, which may require the couple to be separated for a period of time. (See Ref. 1 & 3).
Reasons to Pursue an Absolute Divorce
Couples may pursue an absolute divorce instead of a limited divorce for several reasons. A main reason to file for an absolute divorce is to completely dissolve the marriage and allow either spouse to remarry. With a limited divorce, the couple is still legally married and cannot remarry. By going straight for an absolute divorce, the couple may avoid the legal fees and time incurred by first filing for a limited divorce. (See Ref. 2, p. 4-5). Additionally, the couple may meet the requirements for an absolute divorce, but not a limited divorce. In some states, the court may only grant a limited divorce in certain circumstances, such as cases of cruelty or if one spouse deserted the other. Conversely, the state may allow you to pursue an absolute divorce on no-fault grounds, such as irreconcilable differences. (See Ref. 3).
Reasons to File for a Limited Divorce
Couples may have many reasons to pursue a limited divorce. In addition to taking the time to qualify for the grounds or residency requirements for an absolute divorce, a limited divorce may also allow one spouse to remain on the other's health insurance during the separation. Additionally, the separation may allow the couple more time to negotiate a settlement agreement, and to transition into financial independence. Another reason for a limited divorce is that the state law may revoke any bequests made in a will, meaning that if the spouse dies before the divorce is finalized, the other spouse will not receive part of the estate. (See Ref. 2, p. 3-4).
Converting from Limited to Absolute Divorce
Generally, courts will allow couples to merge or convert a limited divorce into an absolute divorce. The law may require couples to wait a year from the date of separation. (See Ref. 3). The court may schedule a hearing to convert the separation into a final divorce, largely dependent on whether or not the couple has any remaining issues to settle, such as alimony or child support. However, if the couple entered into a divorce agreement as part of the limited divorce, the court may simply affirm the agreement as the final divorce decree. (See Ref. 4).