Legal separation is a murky area of family law because the procedures and rules can vary a great deal from state to state. In Rhode Island, a legal separation is called a divorce from bed and board, differentiating it from an absolute divorce which completely terminates the marriage. The procedures, time and expense are about the same for both.
Filing for a Divorce from Bed and Board
Rhode Island law relaxes some filing requirements when you ask the court for a legal separation -- or divorce from bed and board -- not for an absolute divorce. The same grounds apply to both -- Rhode Island recognizes the no-fault grounds of irreconcilable differences as well as certain fault grounds. But the law also allows a judge to grant a divorce from bed and board for “other causes that may seem to require” it. You must be a resident of the state to file, but if you’re filing for legal separation, there’s no specific period of time that you must have lived there to establish residency. The judge decides if it’s long enough to give the state jurisdiction over your marriage. If you file for a divorce from bed and board but your spouse wants to end your marriage entirely, he can file a response to your complaint, asking for an absolute divorce instead, and the court must grant his request.
Distribution of Property
A key difference between a divorce from bed and board and an absolute divorce involves property distribution. The court can divide your assets and debts as they exist at the time you receive an order granting you divorce from bed and board, but you’re technically still married. This means that property and debts acquired after this date will still be subject to distribution if and when you eventually divorce. Your spouse might run up $100,000 in credit card debt and you’d be jointly responsible for paying it off. But you can override this provision of Rhode Island law if you negotiate and sign a settlement agreement rather than have a court order separation terms after a trial. The agreement can provide that anything earned or owed by either of you going forward is your separate property or liability. It can also address things like support and custody of children. If you later divorce, you can ask the court to carry over your agreement’s terms into the absolute divorce judgment.
Custody and Child Support
Rhode Island’s rules for custody and child support are the same whether you divorce or legally separate. Unless you reach an agreement with your spouse so a judge doesn’t have to rule on custody and visitation terms, he must base his decision on what he feels is in the best interests of your child. Rhode Island’s best interests factors include your child’s wishes if the court feels she’s sufficiently mature; moral fitness of both parents; and which parent is most likely to promote a healthy and ongoing relationship between the child and other parent. Rhode Island uses the income shares formula for calculating child support. Both parents’ incomes are included in the calculations. Judges have some flexibility to deviate from the formula under special circumstances.
The court can award alimony as part of a divorce from bed and board. The factors a judge will consider are the same as for an absolute divorce. The length of your marriage is important -- the longer you were together, the more likely it is that alimony will be ordered, provided one spouse earns significantly more than the other. The court will consider whether one of you lacks the necessary job skills to support herself because she spent the term of the marriage caring for the family or helping to put the other through school or advance his career. Rhode Island law also allows judges to consider marital misconduct when deciding alimony issues.