Divorce and Dissolution: What’s the Difference?

If you are dealing with the end of a marriage, it might be time to consider how you will officially and legally dissolve your marriage. A divorce is a way to extricate yourself from another person, separating your finances and assets, and allowing lawfully yourself to start anew and potentially remarry one day if you so choose. But how is divorce different from dissolution?

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The Main Difference Between Divorce and Dissolution

In most states, a dissolution is simply a form of divorce. They are both ways to end a marriage, but the main difference varies based on where the couple lives.

Dissolution vs Divorce: What Do They Mean?

Many people use the terms interchangeably, but the processes are different in certain states. In some states, a dissolution of a marriage doesn’t permanently end the marriage but instead sets the couple up for a legal separation. In other states, a spouse can only use dissolution when he or she is not filing for fault and already has a resolution for things like

Also read:How to Win a Divorce Case: 6 Tactics for Lawyers

For couples going through a divorce, the process is never a walk in the park. It is emotionally challenging and extremely draining for...

How a Divorce Proceeding Works

Understanding dissolution vs divorce or dissolution of marriage vs divorce means knowing how divorce proceedings work. Depending on what process a spouse uses to terminate his or her marriage or legally separate from the other spouse, almost all steps require that formal paperwork be submitted to the court. The court for the proceedings has to be in the state where the couple lives. A spouse must provide grounds for the divorce, depending on the situation, sign legal paperwork with the current spouse, and come to a legal agreement for dividing all joint assets and marital issues like alimony, child support, or child custody.

Marriage dissolution vs divorce vs annulment vs legal separation

Things get a little complicated when considering all the different terms of a divorce petition. Every state has its own set of rules and definitions for certain legal terms. For this reason, it’s important to seek legal advice from a law firm in your state if you want your marriage dissolved. The four main types of separation from marriage are described generally as follows:

  • Legal separation—A separation allows a couple to request that the court determine issues typically involved in a divorce like spousal support or child support without legally ending the marriage. A legal separation might happen for religious reasons, such as with a Catholic couple who doesn’t believe in divorce because of their religion but still wants to be legally separated.
  • Annulment—An annulment effectively erases a marriage and usually happens immediately after someone gets married. This form of separation is reserved for situations when both spouses realize early on that a mistake was made.
  • Divorce—A divorce legally terminates a marriage and determines divorce-related issues like alimony, child support, custody, and division of assets. Divorce also allows both parties to be legally free to marry someone else.
  • Dissolution—A dissolution is a way to resolve divorce-related issues, sometimes permanently ending the marriage and sometimes not permanently ending the marriage, depending on the couple’s state.

Fault and No-Fault Divorce

A dissolution of marriage has a different meaning in fault states compared to no-fault states. 

Benefits to a dissolution vs a Divorce in fault states

Some states like California are considered no-fault states. This means that if a person files for divorce, one spouse does not have to prove that the other spouse did something wrong in order for a judge to approve the divorce. 

Older states, usually those along the east coast and in the South, tend to have more antiquated legal systems that require a spouse to prove that the other spouse did something wrong in order to divorce. These are called fault states. If you live in a fault state, you have to place blame on your spouse when you file for divorce by listing the specific misconduct that qualifies as your grounds for divorce. 

What are the grounds for divorce and dissolution?

Different fault states have varying qualifying reasons, but these typically include:

  • Adultery; 
  • Physical or emotional abuse;
  • Abandonment;
  • Drug or alcohol use; or
  • Imprisonment.

Fault divorces are typically much more contentious, especially when it comes to the parties agreeing about children, property distribution, legal fees, and which party did something wrong. If you live in a state that requires you to prove that the other party did something wrong, the alternative is to file an uncontested divorce or a joint petition to the court for a dissolution of the marriage.

Uncontested divorce vs dissolution

So, what’s the difference between an uncontested divorce and a dissolution? Again, where you live makes the difference. If you live in a no-fault state, an uncontested divorce is just a regular divorce because neither party has to prove that the other did anything wrong. If you live in a fault state and one spouse decides to separate, a dissolution could achieve the same end result.

What Is a Summary Dissolution?

In some states, the court refers to dissolution as a summary dissolution. Both parties must present legal documents to the court that explain the agreements they have come to privately. You might benefit if you choose divorce lawyer help before you go to court.

There are different requirements for a couple to use a summary dissolution, again, depending on the state. In California, for example, a spouse can use the summary dissolution process if:

  • Both spouses live in California;
  • Both spouses agree that there are irreconcilable differences;
  • The couple has no minor children, and no one is pregnant;
  • The couple has only been married for fewer than five years;
  • The couple does not own property except for their current residence;
  • The spouses do not have more than $4,000 in marital debt; and
  • The community property for the spouses is less than $25,000.

If you qualify in your state and your state recognizes a summary dissolution, this process can be a much cheaper option than a contested divorce.

Steps to File for Divorce or Dissolution

The first step is to file a divorce petition, a document that is sometimes called a complaint. If you have come to an agreement on the terms of your divorce or dissolution with your spouse, you can potentially file a joint petition, depending on where you live. Whichever of the two petitions you file, it will include the same relevant information like:

  • Identifying information for each spouse;
  • The date of the marriage and separation;
  • Names, birthdates, and Social Security numbers for any minor children;
  • The legal grounds for your divorce;
  • A statement confirming that at least one spouse meets the residency requirements for your state; and
  • Any other information required by your state.

You will have to pay court filing fees or ask for a fee waiver based on your financial situation. If you hire an attorney, you will also have to pay attorney fees.

What happens next depends on your situation. If you file for divorce individually, you will have to serve the other spouse with papers. The court generally requires a certain amount of time for the other spouse to respond. The process can take multiple months or even years to finalize, depending on how the spouses decide to terminate the marriage. Consider speaking with a qualified divorce attorney to get the help you need. 

Frequently Asked Questions

*All answers may vary depending on your state and should be discussed during a consultation with a divorce lawyer.

Which is cheaper, divorce or dissolution?

Dissolution is often much less expensive compared to the litigation involved in a divorce, but this is something to discuss with your attorney, as every case is unique. 

Is summary dissolution vs divorce different?

No. Summary dissolution is just another term for dissolution, depending on where you live. 

Can I use a summary dissolution with no lawyers?

In certain states, the court offers a summary dissolution. This is a faster way to get a divorce by going to the court with your spouse and presenting a signed settlement agreement that addresses the complete division of assets as well as custody and alimony. When you do this, you waive your right to a trial or your right to have a judge intervene in the settlement. Instead, you come to a private agreement, the court signs the agreement, and the marriage is dissolved. At no point are spouses legally required to have an attorney, but it might be in your best interest to have one, even if you are negotiating privately with your spouse, before exercising a summary dissolution.

What happens if the marriage or civil partnership took place abroad?

This is something to discuss with an attorney. Generally speaking. However, marriage or civil partnership that takes place abroad can still be legally dissolved or divorced in the United States. These matters are reserved for each state government, so the rules of the state in which the person is filing for divorce lives will dictate what steps to follow. 


The divorce process can be complicated, but in some states, spouses have different options like dissolution versus divorce. If you and your spouse have no areas of contention and are filing a no-fault divorce, a dissolution of marriage might be a faster option for you. In this area of family law, it is best to seek legal counsel if you are unsure which path to take. 

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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