Divorce, Dissolution, and Legal Separation – What’s the Difference?

In California, there are several avenues for pursuing a divorce, each with separate requirements. Couples wishing to end their marriage may benefit from filing for a separation, dissolution, or a divorce. The choice depends on how much the couple agrees upon, how complicated their situation is, and how emotionally invested they are in their marriage. The following information may help you decide which option is most appropriate.


A divorce, in legal terminology, is known as a Dissolution of Marriage. Essentially, you are dissolving your partnership and ending all legal bonds. In order to get a divorce, you and your spouse must have lived in California for at least 6 months and in your particular county for at least 3 months before filing a petition.

If a spouse does not agree to the divorce, it doesn’t stop it from happening – most likely a default judgment will be filed in that case. In California, there is no fault law, so fault does not have to be proven as grounds for divorce. The spouses will need to agree on division of property, custody, and any other final decisions before filing. If an agreement cannot be reached, the court will make these decisions.

Divorces are final, and once judgment is made the parties can remarry in the future. Those seeking a divorce will be able to choose full, partial, or sole representation, and they will benefit from court determinations for complicated decisions. Spouses with many assets, children, or who cannot seem to agree on decisions should seek official divorce proceedings through an attorney and the court.

Summary Dissolution

A Summary dissolution is a more stream-lined divorce process. Spouses who qualify for a summary dissolution will not have to file as much paperwork and may not need to be seen in court for proceedings. In order to qualify for dissolution, the spouses must meet the following criteria:

  • Have been married for five years or less.
  • Do not have any children from the marriage and neither party is pregnant.
  • Neither spouse owns a home or other real estate.
  • Value of community property is not worth more than $40,000 (not including motor vehicles).
  • Combined debt does not exceed $6,000 (not including auto loans).
  • Both spouses waive spousal support.
  • You have a written agreement on division of assets and debts.

If these requirements are met, and both spouses agree to the summary dissolution, they can proceed. This process is best suited for people in the early years of marriage who do not have many entanglements. If spouses cannot agree, they should seek a divorce instead.

Legal Separation

A legal separation allows the couple to live apart from each other and make independent decisions on finances, property, and parenting. It does not legally end the marriage, and spouses are not allowed to marry someone else. There are no residency requirements in the state of California in order to file.

If desired, spouses can ask a judge to legally divide assets, debts, and child custody. People sometimes seek legal separation for religious reasons or issues regarding insurance or benefits. Legal separation may sometimes be an option if the couple is unsure about divorce and wants to temporarily separate themselves and their assets.


Annulments are rare, but they can happen. An annulment ends the marriage as if it never existed. The marriage will be declared void because it was not made on legal grounds. Some reasons for this can be force, fraud, bigamy, physical/mental incapacity, or being married underage. The court will make all final decisions on property, assets, and children.

Boyd Law Firm serves Orange County and Greater Los Angeles, and has Los Angeles family law attorneys experienced in family law, divorce, business law, and bankruptcy. If you are looking for a top-rated divorce attorney to assist you in your divorce, contact us today.