For the majority of people getting divorced in Michigan, as with almost everywhere else, divorce is usually preceded by a period of separation. This looks different for different couples, but usually means that the couple have parted ways, and have begun living their lives as single people in preparation for their divorce.
For some couples, a legal separation is the option they choose instead of divorce. For a variety of reasons divorce is an unacceptable option. Reasons include loss of a spouse’s medical insurance benefit, religious beliefs or cultural traditions. Whatever the reason, it is important that you know exactly what rights the law affords you with regard to this issue, and what your options are.
Informal Separation Before Divorce
Separating before you get divorced usually means that one or both parties packs their belongings and moves to another home so that the couple is no longer living together. If they have children, it is usually during this period that they begin to work out what custody and/or visitation will look like for their family. Additionally, this is the stage at which they begin to discuss the issue of asset and debt division, assuming they do not have a prenuptial agreement already in place. (Having a professionally drafted prenuptial agreement is usually a way to avoid much despair during the separation or divorce process.)
This form of separation, which is temporary and is an informal arrangement between the divorcing couple, presents its own challenges. Issues can range from spouses who move out and then discover that they have been accused of abandoning their children and are worried about endangering their child custody, to spouses who move out and then cannot access the documents stored inside the home.
We encourage our clients to speak with our divorce attorneys before making any drastic moves, including moving out of their marital home. Pre-divorce separation can result in a host of unintended consequences if it is not handled properly. So we strongly urge you to discuss your plans with your divorce lawyer before doing something that you will later come to regret.
What is Legal Separation in Michigan?
For some couples, separation is what they choose instead of a divorce, and for those couples, Michigan law provides the Separation Maintenance Act. This allows any married couple who want to separate instead of getting divorced, to file an action for separate maintenance.
Under state law,an action for separate maintenance is filed in exactly the same way, and for the same reasons, as an action for divorce. This means that “fault” is not often considered as a reason for the separation. In addition, the same 180 day residency requirements apply for a separation judgement as for a divorce judgment.
A Judgement of Separate Maintenance allows a married couple to live apart, continue their lives as single individuals, and to exist as if they had divorced, without having to go through the legal process of a divorce. While nothing will change from a legal standpoint, meaning they will still be legally considered to be married, they are able to live apart, file taxes separately, and have court-ordered agreements governing the custody of their children, and any child and spousal support agreements made.
Separation for Continued Health Care Coverage
There was a time where a Michigan couple who wished to part ways, but didn’t want to lose the health care benefits that marriage provided for both of them, filed for separate maintenance. This would allow them to continue to have all of the benefits of marriage, which included shared health care benefits, without having to remain in a relationship with each other.
But many employers and insurance companies now view a separate maintenance judgement as being the equivalent of a divorce. Thus, they will not extend health coverage to separated spouses. For this reason, if the main reason that you are considering separation is to continue to receive joint health care coverage, then we advise you to seek the advice of an experienced family law attorney before making any life-altering decisions. Having a discussion with your employee benefits personnel is also a fine idea to ask whether a legal separation will cause a loss of medical insurance coverage to your spouse.
The Separation Maintenance Act
An action for Separation Maintenance, just like in a traditional divorce situation, determines matters like the custody and financial support of the children in the family, spousal support, and also asset division and property distribution.
The Michigan courts will use the same standards when making determinations about custody, visitation and support. For example, “the best interests of the child” will be the primary basis for determining any and all custody agreements, and “a fair and equitable division” will be the basis for determining asset division.
It is very similar in almost all ways to a legal divorce. The one major difference, of course, is the fact that the couple is still legally married to each other and so may not get remarried. Couples who have been legally separated, regardless of how long the separation has lasted, or how little contact they have with their spouse, are not allowed to remarry without first getting a Judgement of Divorce.
It is important to note that if one party files for a Separation, while the other party files for Divorce, the court will automatically recognize the divorce filing over the separation filing, and the result will be a Judgement of Divorce.
Separation as an Alternative to Divorce
The majority of Michigan residents that choose legal separation over divorce, do so because it affords them the freedom of a divorce with most of the same benefits, without affecting their religious or cultural beliefs that make divorce an undesirable option.
Another option for those who are seeking to terminate their marriages without having to undergo a divorce, is annulment. However, annulments are very rarely granted by the court, and only if certain very specific conditions are met. For example, bigamy, incompetence, one of the spouses being under the age of 16, and blood-relations between the spouses are all grounds for an annulment. Please note that being married for only a very short time is not grounds for an annulment.
Separation and Divorce Attorneys
If you are considering filing for a legal separation (“separate maintenance”) or divorce in Michigan and you have questions or are unsure about what the best options are for your future, you will should speak with a respected and experienced family law attorney.
At The Kronzek Firm PLC (“The Kronzek Firm”), our experienced family law attorneys are standing by to discuss all of your options with you. We have decades of experience representing clients in every aspect of family law, including divorce and separation. Our attorneys are skilled, hard working, and determined to protect every one of our client’s rights as if they were our own.
So if you are considering divorce, or legal separation, we can be reached at 1 866-766-5245. We are available for crisis intervention when necessary.