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Everybody Out of the Pool: Ending a Marriage

There are several ways to end a marriage in Washington State. Other than using a self-help method that involves faking your death, changing your name, and hiding in the cargo hold of a freighter to Shanghai, the traditional ways to end a marriage generally are: annulment, legal separation and dissolution.

Annulment is a pretty rare animal. It is only available if the court finds that the entire marriage was invalid from the get-go - which doesn't happen very often. A marriage can be invalid for several reason, some of which have been the basis for some pretty funny movie scripts:

• One or both parties are underage and don’t have parental consent or court approval. For example, two thirteen year olds sneak out their bedroom windows, run off and get married by Reverend Rufus McGrew of the Universal Essence Church of the Holy Cup of Life after paying the good reverend $24.99.

• One or both of the parties was already married to or in a domestic partnership with somebody else at the time of the marriage. This is probably evidence of the next reason - lack of mental capacity - since nobody in their right mind would want more than one spouse.

• One or both parties didn’t have the mental capacity to consent to the marriage in the first place. This does not mean merely poor judgment, or a “What was I thinking?” realization. This means lack of mental capacity to the point that one is legally incapable of consenting to the marriage.

• One or both of the parties was induced to enter into the marriage by duress, or by some fraud that involved the essentials of marriage or domestic partnership. This would address the iconic shotgun wedding. This would not address the argument, “He/she defrauded me. At the time of the marriage he/she told me that he/she was a human being, not the spawn of Satan.”

• One or both of the parties was under the influence of alcohol or some other incapacitating substance. This happens every once in a while, and make for pretty entertaining court presentations as the judge delves into all the juicy details. Tip: don’t let this happen to you.

Further, even if the court can be convinced that one of the above existed at the time of the marriage, if the couple “ratified” the marriage by voluntarily cohabiting after attaining the age of consent, or after attaining capacity to consent, or after cessation of the force or duress or discovery of the fraud, then annulment is not available. If ratification did not happen, or is not available - such as one of the spouses already has another spouse - then the court will enter an order declaring the marriage invalid. Technically called a "Decree of Invalidity," it nullifies a marriage from the beginning.

The second way to end a marriage is through a legal separation. A separation may be formalized with a legal contract, or a Decree of Legal Separation, or both. There are several reasons that couples may prefer a legal separation over a divorce. Sometimes people don’t want to divorce for religious reasons. Sometimes there are economic reasons, such as one spouse needs medical insurance and is only qualified if the couple is still legally married, or one spouse spends like a drunken sailor on shore leave and the other spouse needs financial protection. Also, a couple may decide to live apart while attempting to save the relationship, or sometimes it’s simply that neither party is willing to take the final step of terminating the marriage.

Obtaining a Decree of Legal Separation is very like obtaining a Decree of Dissolution: there is the same amount of legal work, and the court documents are almost identical. All the financial and parenting issues of the parties are addressed as they are in a dissolution, but at the end of the process the couple is legally separated, not divorced. However, six months after obtaining a Decree of Legal Separation, either party may convert it to a Decree of Dissolution by merely making a motion in court. Then, whatever terms were ordered under the Decree of Legal Separation carry over into the Decree of dissolution, and marriage is finished. Also, oral or written agreements regarding property disposition, arrangements for children, maintenance, or other agreements made while separated may become part of a dissolution proceeding.

Finally, if a marriage completely falls apart, the husband is living in a van down by the river brushing his teeth in a styrofoam cup, and the wife is sticking pins in her husband doll and muttering incantations, the marriage is considered "irretrievably broken" and one or both partners may seek a dissolution of the relationship. This, of course, is the main way that marriages are ended. This court proceeding legally terminates a marriage and makes provisions for the parenting of minor children, family support, and division of property and liabilities. Please read our other articles that speak to the specific topics that are addressed in a dissolution.

Lastly, Washington is a no-fault divorce state, meaning that a spouse does not have to prove wrongdoing to obtain a divorce. This no-fault system is intended to help spouses settle matters without unnecessary acrimony. This means that all that money that you spent on hiring Magnum PI to follow your spouse around, and all of those nasty texts you received from your spouse and kept, or secret pictures that you took and kept, are all for nothing unless they actually bear on some other aspect of the case, such as parenting. This no-fault status often infuriates an aggrieved spouse, since they want to expose their spouse to the world for the evil quisling that he/she is. But it is probably better than the alternative, which ratchets up legal fees, leads to even more bitterness and resentment, and is terribly destructive - especially when children are involved.

Ending a marriage is a complex matter, and the decisions, documents, and pleadings involved can be bewildering. Don’t go it alone. If you find yourself in this situation, please contact us.

Caleb Morgan