What Is a Dissolution of Marriage?

Learn more about dissolution of marriage and how it relates to traditional divorce.

By , Attorney | Updated by Melissa Heinig, Attorney

What is a dissolution of marriage? Is it just another term for divorce? In most states, yes, a dissolution simply refers to how a couple can permanently end their marriage. But in a few states, it's a different process entirely. Continue reading to learn more.

Dissolution Versus Divorce

In a few states, a dissolution of marriage is not the same as a divorce because it doesn't permanently end the marriage. In other states, couples can only use dissolution under specific circumstances, such as where they agree to the dissolution itself and on how to resolve all of their divorce-related issues, including child support, child custody, alimony, and property division.

Dissolution isn't the same as an annulment, which effectively voids (erases) a couple's marriage. Dissolution isn't the same as a legal separation either. A legal separation allows a couple, for religious or other reasons, to request the court to determine divorce-related issues, like child support and spousal support, without legally terminating the marriage. If a court approves a legal separation, the couple is "effectively" divorced, but neither can remarry until filing for a dissolution.

For purposes of this article, we'll focus on the more common use of the term.

Fault and No-Fault Divorce

Couples can end their marriages by choosing a "no-fault" or "fault" divorce. A "no-fault" divorce is one where spouses seek to end their marriage without assessing any blame or fault. Instead, the filing spouse can list a "no-fault" reason for the divorce, such as "irreconcilable differences," which is just a fancy way of saying the couple can't get along anymore, and there's no real chance they can get back together.

A no-fault divorce is easier and quicker to obtain than a "fault" divorce, but spouses may be required to live apart for a certain amount of time. The specific requirements for a no-fault divorce will depend on the laws of the state where you file.

In a "fault" divorce, the filing spouse lists a specific type of marital misconduct as the reason for the divorce. The filing spouse must also prove to the court that the misconduct led to the breakup. Grounds for a fault divorce vary from state to state, but some of the most common are adultery, physical or emotional abuse, abandonment, and drug or alcohol addiction.

Fault divorces are more contentious and stressful for all involved (including any children). They generally cost more in attorney's fees because of all the time spent trying to prove allegations of bad behavior. Historically, fault divorce was a very common way to dissolve a marriage, but today, most states have either abandoned fault grounds or added no-fault divorce options.

For more information on this topic, see No-Fault Versus Fault Divorce.

What Is a Summary Dissolution?

In some states, courts call dissolution cases "summary dissolution,"—which is a fast-track divorce. In a summary dissolution, divorcing couples present the court with a signed marital settlement agreement, addressing child support, custody, property division, and alimony. By presenting the signed divorce agreement to the judge, you're both agreeing to waive a trial or judicial intervention. Couples must meet the state's requirements for summary dissolution to qualify for this expedited legal process.

For example, in California, couples can use the state's summary dissolution process, if:

  • the spouses meet the state's residency requirements for divorce
  • both spouses agree to the legal grounds (irreconcilable differences) for the request
  • the couple does not have minor children, and neither spouse is pregnant
  • the marriage is less than 5 years
  • neither spouse owns real property (except a current residence)
  • the spouses do not have more than $4,000 in marital debt (excluding an automobile note)
  • the couple's community property is less than $25,000, and neither spouse owns more than $25,000 in separate property
  • the couple execute an agreement dividing assets and debts from the marriage
  • neither party requests spousal support
  • both spouses waive a right to appeal, and
  • both spouses agree to dissolve the marriage. (Cal. Fam. Code § 2400.)

In states that recognize this type of divorce, the cost is significantly less than a contested divorce.

Steps to Filing for Divorce or Dissolution

The first step in any divorce case is to file your divorce petition (also called a complaint) with your local court. If you and your spouse agree on the divorce and its terms, some states allow you to submit a joint petition.

Your petition must include all relevant information, including:

  • each spouse's name and identifying information
  • the date of your marriage and separation (if any)
  • the names, dates of birth, and social security numbers for any minor children
  • the legal reason (grounds) for divorce
  • a statement informing the court that at least one spouse meets the state's residency requirements, and
  • any additional information your state requires.

When you submit your divorce petition, the court will ask you to pay a filing fee. If you can't afford to pay, you can ask the court for a fee waiver. If the judge approves your request, you can file your divorce petition for free. It's important to note that a filing fee is not the same as an attorney fee. So, if you hire a lawyer, a fee waiver for court costs doesn't apply to the lawyer's fees.

Divorces can take time, especially if one spouse intentionally tries to delay the process or if there are many different issues to resolve. Every state permits the court to issue temporary orders for child custody and support, alimony, and/or status quo orders. You can request temporary orders with your divorce petition or at any time after you file. These types of requests can also increase the length of your divorce process.

After you file, you have to "serve" your spouse with the divorce paperwork. "Service of process" is a fancy way of stating that you delivered the documents to your spouse. If you and your spouse agree, your spouse can waive service in writing. If not, you may need to hire a professional process server or ask your local sheriff's department for assistance delivering the documents.

Once you've served your spouse, a court will have to wait a period of time (usually between 21-28 days) to allow the responding spouse to file a response (answer) to the complaint. If the spouse agrees to the allegations in the original complaint or otherwise fails to respond, the filing spouse can request a default judgment which is where the court grants the divorce without a trial.

If you and your spouse requested a summary dissolution or an uncontested divorce, the court can grant your request after your state's waiting period expires. For contested divorces, the court may order you to attend divorce mediation, counseling, or schedule a divorce trial. The court will issue a final divorce judgment outlining all of the terms for the dissolution.

Hiring an Attorney

A dissolution of marriage can be challenging on many levels because it involves potentially complex and emotionally charged issues, such as child custody and support, property and debt division, and alimony (also known as "spousal support" or "maintenance").

As a result, spouses considering dissolution of marriage may want to seek legal advice. An experienced family law attorney can explain each of these legal issues and how they may play out in your particular case. Also, an attorney can prepare all necessary divorce paperwork and ensure that your rights are fully protected, whether you end up settling all issues with your spouse (outside of court) or going through a full-blown divorce trial.

In addition to helping you navigate through the legal steps of divorce, an experienced attorney can also review your case to determine whether you would benefit from divorce mediation, collaborative divorce (if available), or an online divorce petition.

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