There are two methods for dissolving a marriage in Tennessee via the court system: “divorce” and “legal separation.” Most people generally understand the former, but would benefit from a brief explanation of the latter. Legal separation is a (slightly) less drastic alternative that retains the legal relationship between the parties but allows a discontinuation of marital cohabitation. At the time of legal separation, the court may develop child custody, child and marital support, and visitation plans, as well as settling any property issues raised by either or both parties.
In order to grant a legal separation, the courts of Tennessee require essentially the same grounds as would be required to grant a divorce. As set forth in T.C.A. 36-4-101, those grounds include adultery, bigamy, impotence, conviction of an infamous crime, desertion, habitual drunkenness or drug abuse, refusal to move without cause, and “cruel and inhuman treatment.” As a general rule, the court will only grant a divorce or legal separation if one party has misled or abandoned the other – if one party knows the other is a drunk when they marry, he or she cannot get a divorce later on that basis. A legal separation may be temporary or permanent as petitioned by the parties and as the court find appropriate, but a period of two years of separation is independent grounds for divorce by either party if there are no minor children involved.
Because the legal bonds of matrimony exist between the parties after legal separation, conduct taken during the period of separation can be used as grounds for divorce. This is most commonly an issue when one party enters into a sexual relationship with a third party while legally separated, but still married, and therefore commits adultery.
If one party sues for divorce while the other sues for legal separation, the court has discretion to determine appropriate relief in light of the circumstances. In Hill v. Hill, decided in 2008, the Tennessee Court of Appeals stated that “purely financial reasons are simply not sufficient to justify [...] legal separation instead of divorce.” 2008 Tenn. App. LEXIS 238. The Hills were no longer interested in maintaining a marital relationship, but Mrs. Hill would not be eligible for federal Medicare benefits for four more years. The trial court granted a legal separation for that period in order that Mr. Hill’s insurance covered Mrs. Hill as well; the appellate court found that the purpose of legal separation is more to leave an opportunity for reconciliation than to allow financial benefit.
This is just a brief overview of legal separation in Tennessee. The duration and eligibility for divorce or legal separation vary with the situation. Further information about legal separation and other family law issues can be found here.