The decision to end a marriage is emotionally painful and often very difficult for both spouses. But unlike an unmarried couple, you can’t simply move out and move on: You’ll need to go through the divorce process to officially dissolve your relationship in the eyes of the state.
For many couples, the first step on the road to divorce is separation, especially in no-fault cases. In some states, couples can file paperwork to officially claim the status of “legal separation,” in which they live apart and fulfill certain marital obligations prior to a divorce, as agreed to by a court order.
This is not the case in Virginia. Here, a married couple is considered “legally” separated if one or both members intend to end the marriage, and cease to cohabitate as a married couple.
What does that mean?
The first of the two main criteria for separation is simple: You and/or your spouse must believe the marriage is over and decide that you will seek a divorce. This decision may be made separately or mutually, and your husband or wife does not have to share your intention. However, a divorce court will not recognize the official start of your separation until you clearly communicate your desire to end the marriage to your spouse (more on that below).
The “cohabitation” requirement can be a little trickier if you still live in a shared residence – which many couples do at the time one or both of them decide the marriage is over. The easiest way to stop cohabitating as a married couple is for one spouse to move out, but that’s not always practical or financially possible, particularly if you have children together.
Fortunately, you can still be legally separated from your husband or wife while you’re under the same roof, but you must live and treat each other as platonic roommates. This means, first and foremost, that you cannot share a bed or room, nor can you act like a couple inside or outside the home. For example, you can’t shop, cook, or clean for each other, sleep together, go on one-on-one outings together, etc. Essentially, you must not behave in ways that would indicate you are a married couple.
How long do I have to be separated before I can get divorced?
Before a spouse can even file for a no-fault divorce, the Commonwealth of Virginia requires that they be officially separated for one year, or for six months if they have no minor children and create a separation agreement.
In fault-based cases on the grounds of cruelty, desertion, or abandonment, you can file for a limited divorce from “bed and board” at any point after your separation period begins. However, the court will only transfer a limited divorce to an absolute divorce from the bond of matrimony (i.e., you become legally single) after the couple has been separated for a full year.
Establishing the date of separation becomes important here: If the timeline is contested by either spouse, it may delay your divorce proceedings. A surefire way to prove the timeline of your separation is to both sign an agreement that clearly states the date you separated, and that you have no intention of reconciling. If one spouse moves out of the marital home and communicates the intent to end the marriage, this can also be considered a valid date of separation.
Your separation timeline is also important for dividing up assets during your divorce. Generally, any income earned and items purchased after the official separation date are considered separate, individual property that cannot be awarded to your spouse.
There are two key exceptions to the separation waiting period. If you can prove that your spouse committed adultery (or other sexual acts outside of your marriage), or if your spouse has been convicted of a felony and sentenced to at least one year of jail time, you may immediately file for a divorce from the bond of matrimony.
Keep in mind that, due to the complex nature of many divorce cases, it can take months or upwards of a year to get through the litigation process and receive a final order of divorce, regardless of grounds.
Consulting a family law attorney about your separation
If you and your spouse are considering divorce, you’ll want to speak with an experienced family law attorney to go over your options. A lawyer can also help you draft your separation agreement and reach the fairest, most equitable divorce settlement possible.
The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C., has been serving Northern Virginia families for more than 15 years, and we can make this complicated, difficult period in your life easier. Contact us today to speak with a counselor about your needs and circumstances.