Divorce: What It Can Do And What It Can’t

Divorce: What It Can Do and What It Can’t

Getting a divorce does more than end your marriage. Just as your marriage likely involved more than your personal relationship with your spouse, so, too, the end of a marriage likely involves more than the end of that relationship. A divorce may affect many areas of your life, such as where you live, the debts you owe, what property you own, where your children live, and your rights and obligations regarding your children and your former spouse. Knowing what is likely to be affected can help you prepare and plan for these changes.

Believe it or not, your marriage is a legal contract regulated by the state. Although your personal relationship may be over, the legal relationship must be ended using legal proceedings. A divorce, also called a dissolution of marriage, marital dissolution, or just a dissolution, is a legal proceeding used to end the legal relationship created by a marriage. In a divorce proceeding, the court issues a decree, or order, that officially ends the marriage, defines the spouses’ respective rights and obligations going forward, and sets out duties and rights regarding any children of the marriage.

A divorce can do the following:

Make you a single person

A divorce decree ends the legal relationship created by the marriage. In other words, once the court issues the decree, each spouse again becomes a single person, who may marry again.

Distribute property 

Most couples own property of one kind or another and either individually or together. The two types of property are real property and personal property. Real property includes land and buildings, like a house, and personal property is everything else, such as furniture, vehicles, memorabilia, and financial accounts. A divorce decree distributes between the spouses the property they had during the marriage. In some states, even property owned separately is considered marital property to be divided or distributed in the divorce. In other states, the prior-owned property remains that spouse’s separate property. Check with an attorney in your state to find out the law in your area.

Determine who pays which debts

The decree also provides which spouse will be responsible for paying which debts following the end of the marriage. The method used for dividing the spouse’s’ debts is usually similar to the method used in the state for dividing or distributing the spouses’ property. In some states, debts acquired before the marriage may be allocated to either party in the divorce. Again, check with an attorney to find out how your state deals with the division of individual debts.

Determine what happens with the children

If you and your spouse have children, the divorce decree will also set out where the children will live after the divorce, when the other parent will have visitation or parenting time with the children, and whether either parent pays child support. The decree may also set out which spouse has the authority to make decisions regarding the children on major life issues such as education, healthcare, and religious upbringing. The obligation to pay child support and the amount of a support obligation are determined by your state’s law.

Change your last name

A partner who adopted his or her partner’s surname in the marriage may be able to change the surname in the divorce, but that change may not be automatic. If you want to revert to your former last name, you must make that request to the court, usually before the divorce is final. If you did not ask the court to change your last name in your decree, you may petition the court for a name change in a separate proceeding.  

What a divorce can do

A divorce cannot do the following:

Change beneficiaries 

As mentioned above, a divorce decree changes your legal relationship to your former spouse, but it does not necessarily affect other contracts such as beneficiary designations on insurance policies or bank accounts. In order to change the beneficiary from your former spouse, you will need to contact each insurer, bank, or other party with whom you named your former spouse as your beneficiary. Similarly, if you wrote your will before your divorce, the divorce may have affected whether your former spouse may take under your will. Check with an attorney in your state.

Guarantee a fair division or financial security following divorce

As mentioned above, every state has laws that guide the court in dividing the marital property and debts in a divorce. But those laws do not guarantee that you will receive any particular amount of the property owned during the marriage. Check with a divorce attorney to find out how property and debts are divided where you live.

Make the other party behave civilly 

A divorce decree ends your legal relationship with your former spouse, but it cannot order that person to behave in any way not otherwise dictated by law. Other state laws may provide assistance if you are being abused or harassed, but you may need to file a separate proceeding to get the protection of those laws. An attorney licensed in your state can advise you regarding the best way to proceed.

Heal emotional wounds 

A marriage is a significant relationship in your life, and the end of marriage can be emotionally traumatic. The divorce decree only sets out the legal rights and obligations of you and your former spouse. If you need help dealing with your divorce or fallout from your marriage, seek the help of a professional in your area.

Getting divorced changes only your legal status but it does not “fix” everything that was wrong with your marriage. To find out more about effects of a divorce on your financial status, rights, and obligations, contact an attorney in your area.

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