Limited Divorce: What You Need to Know

Couple ignoring each other
Image Source/Digital Vision/Getty Images

A limited divorce occurs when a couple’s separation is supervised by the court. In states that do not recognize legal separation, couples can petition the court and be granted a “limited divorce” that does not end the marriage but allows couples to live apart but remain married.

During a limited divorce, the court can hand down an order that divides marital assets and spells out how issues such as child custody, child support, and spousal support will be dealt with during the period of separation.

This type of “divorce” can also be known as a legal separation, qualified divorce, partial divorce or divorce from bed and board. In other words, it is a form of marital separation that is recognized by the court but the marriage remains intact.

Below are a few reasons couples may choose a limited divorce:

  • Religious Reasons: Some religions forbid divorce except under certain circumstances. When those circumstances are not present but the marriage is not working a couple can choose this type of divorce to abide by their religious beliefs.
  • Retaining Benefits: A common reason is the ability to maintain health benefits coverage. As long as you are still married on paper/legally, you are still entitled to coverage under a spouse’s work-related health insurance. With the high cost of health insurance, some couples view this as a solution to an otherwise very expensive problem.
  • Tax Benefits: Since the marriage does not end with a limited divorce, spouses can still file income tax returns as “married” and filing jointly. This may provide some tax benefit to one or both spouses.
  • Possible Reconciliation: A limited divorce gives couples an opportunity to live separately while continuing to work on the marital problems.

One spouse cannot file and request a limited divorce from the courts. Both spouses must agree to a limited divorce and want the marriage to remain intact. For example, a wife cannot leave her husband for another man and request a limited divorce.

In such a situation the courts would consider the marriage broken beyond repair and would only grant an “absolute divorce” which would break the legal bonds of marriage.

Limited Divorce Case Sample

Mark is a 40-year-old who is experiencing a midlife crisis. He is feeling unsettled in his marriage and resentment toward his wife Kris. Mark doesn’t want to end his marriage. He recognizes his own confusion and doesn’t want to make any major life-altering decisions while feeling confused emotionally.

Mark discusses the situation with Kris. He tells her that although he is unhappy in the marriage he doesn’t want to end it and put her and their children through a divorce if there is a possibility that he will work through his issues and want to return to the marriage.

Kris, a stay-at-home mom with no income realizes the precarious position a divorce would put her and the children and agrees to a limited divorce. In doing so she is protecting herself financially and giving Mark space and the time he needs to work through his issues.

In Mark and Kris’s case, a limited divorce is in the best interest of all involved. They are able to use the court to deal with issues such as child support, custody, visitation and financial maintenance while at the same time work together to hopefully resolve the problems in the marriage.

How to Obtain a Limited Divorce

Just as with an absolute divorce, those petitioning the court for a limited divorce must meet their states residency requirements, grounds and any other legally prescribed laws. Since not all states recognize limited divorce you will need to consult with a divorce attorney about your state's requirements for obtaining a limited divorce or legal separation.

The grounds for obtaining a limited divorce may include cruelty, excessive violent conduct, desertion/abandonment and voluntary separation. And, in some states, the courts can order the couple to participate in therapy to attempt to solve problems in the marriage.

The legal process you go through is much like the legal divorce process. You must obtain an attorney, petition the court and request a court order based on the settlement agreement you and your spouse come to terms on.

After The Limited Divorce is Granted

Although you are still married, you will be considered single in the eyes of the law, to a certain extent. This means you cannot remarry until first obtaining an absolute divorce that legally ends the marriage. You cannot engage in sexual intercourse without being considered an adulterer which, in some cases, can be used as grounds for a divorce.

In other words, a limited divorce gives you the ability to live separately. It does not give you the ability to live as if you are no longer married. How you behave during the separation can and does play a large role in how the courts will deal with issues if you should eventually file for an absolute divorce.