Missouri allows married couples two options when they no longer want to remain together – a divorce and a legal separation. Both require the parties have resided in Missouri for at least ninety days prior to the filing of the petition, but they differ in one critical respect: a divorce requires the parties’ marriage be “irretrievably broken,” meaning no chance for reconciliation, whereas a legal separation requires the marriage not be irretrievably broken meaning there is a chance for reconciliation.
As you probably figured out, the Missouri legislature offers the option of a legal separation to actually encourage parties to think about reconciling while they live apart.
The process for pursuing a legal separation is the same as for a divorce – one party files a petition, the other party answers, and both parties file financial information. If the parties need time to work out dividing property, creating a custody schedule and handling issues of support, one or both parties can petition for temporary custody and/or support. Eventually, the parties either agree to terms or the case could actually proceed to a trial (which seems strange given the parties still hold out hope for reconciliation). In the end, the Judgment of Legal Separation looks very much like a Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage – except for the ability to reconcile.
How long is the reconciliation process? Under Missouri law, no party can move to convert a legal separation to a dissolution of marriage until ninety days after the entry of the legal separation. So, a couple has a minimum of three months to work on reconciling after the entry of the legal separation. When combined with the minimum thirty day waiting period, a couple seeking a legal separation must live at least four months apart with the chance at reconciliation. In this time, the parties should pursue marriage counseling and other similar avenues to repair the relationship (though these steps are not legally required).
Legal separation may also be appropriate for couples that want to live apart and pursue separate lives but cannot afford a divorce, either because of financial constraints or perhaps health insurance issues. Also, some couples have deeply held religious beliefs that do not allow divorce, so a legal separation allows the parties to remain married but have all of the protections that go with a divorce.
If you have questions about a legal separation, contact us – we can help.