Marital separation can be particularly complicated in Arkansas because the state recognizes two types of marriages and three kinds of legal separation. Sorting through all the laws and rules pertaining to each can be daunting, but the method of separation you choose comes down to a few basics: your personal preferences, your ability to negotiate and how you got married.
Separation as Grounds for Divorce
Unlike many states, Arkansas has no divorce grounds that allow you to simply tell the court that your marriage isn't working any longer. The state's code contains no provisions for irretrievable breakdown of the marriage or irreconcilable differences, so you must prove a statutory reason for ending your marriage. This isn't to say that you have to accuse your spouse of some wrongdoing, however. Arkansas allows you to divorce after 18 months of living separately and apart. It's the closest the state comes to no-fault grounds.
You can be legally separated while you wait out the time until you can file for divorce; Arkansas recognizes separation agreements as legally binding documents. If you and your spouse can negotiate an agreement, it sets enforceable terms for custody, spousal support, child support, and even property division after you both sign it. When you file for divorce, the agreement can be merged into a divorce decree, or if you find that it's not working, you can ask the judge to rule on the issues instead.
If you and your spouse can't reach an agreement, Arkansas gives you another option. You can file a complaint with the court asking for an order of separate maintenance, similar to filing a complaint for divorce. This asks the court to decide things like custody, support and property division while you're separated. The court will issue an order that includes the judge's rulings, just like a divorce decree, except your marriage is not legally terminated.
Read More: Legal Separation Agreement Vs. Decree of Separate Maintenance
Divorce From Bed and Board
You can also file for a divorce from bed and board in Arkansas. In many respects, this option is identical to filing a complaint for separate maintenance. The court decides issues for you, but it also terminates your marriage when it issues a decree. You're actually divorced, with one catch. Neither you nor your spouse can remarry unless you file a second legal proceeding, asking the court for an "absolute divorce." A divorce from bed and board is a "limited" divorce. You might choose this option for purely personal reasons.
If you entered into a covenant marriage, which Arkansas recognizes, your options for separation are more limited. In a covenant marriage, you and your spouse contractually agree that your marriage is a lifelong commitment. You can still divorce on grounds of separation, but the qualifying time of separation extends from 18 months to two years, and you and your spouse must attend counseling first. An exception exists if you're divorcing because of abuse. In this case, you only have to wait a year. If you can't reach an agreement with your spouse regarding custody, support and property, and you want the court to decide these things for you, you must file for a judicial separation of a covenant marriage.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.