Dissolution of Marriage

The term dissolution of marriage refers to the ending of a marriage through legal proceedings, the same as divorce. In many jurisdictions, a couple may file a petition for the court to terminate their marriage pursuant to a written agreement between the parties. Such an agreement must cover all issues pertaining to the dissolution, allowing the matter to be concluded without a hearing or trial. To explore this concept, consider the following dissolution of marriage definition.

Definition of Dissolution of Marriage


  1. A modern, more temperate sounding term for divorce.
  2. A term for divorce that is symbolic of a non-confrontational, no-fault approach to terminating a marriage.


1970s   California family law

Dissolution of Marriage vs. Divorce

In most jurisdictions, divorce and dissolution of marriage are the same thing, each requiring the same legal proceedings to finalize. The proceedings may be adversarial, or the parties may work together to come to an agreement regarding all issues of distribution of marital assets, and payment of spousal support, as well as child custody and child support, if applicable.

If an agreement is reached, it is documented in a Marital Settlement Agreement, and presented to the court for approval and a final divorce order or decree. Any issues not settled between the parties may continue to trial, during which both parties will present argument, testimony, and other evidence to make their case. Leaving these things for the court to decide is a more expensive avenue for most litigants.

What is Dissolution of Marriage by Marital Settlement Agreement

The process of obtaining a dissolution of marriage by Marital Settlement Agreement is easier, faster, and less expensive for the parties. Without the need for the parties to engage in discovery, prove what each owned prior to the marriage, argue about how the marital assets should be divided, and argue over the care and custody of their children, getting a divorce without an attorney becomes a possibility for many people, especially in jurisdictions that offer the help of a family law facilitator.

Coming to an agreement on issues related to dissolution of marriage means less emotional conflict and stress for all parties, including children and extended family. Submitting a Marital Settlement Agreement to the court also eliminates the stress of not knowing what the judge will order regarding the final divorce. Many couples find that giving up a few things in order to meet in the middle for such an agreement is well worth it, in that the divorce can usually be finalized much more quickly, and they can get on with their lives.

Filing a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage

Each state has specific requirements that must be met before filing for dissolution of marriage or divorce. These include residency requirements that the couple has resided in the state for a specified minimum period of time. The time varies by jurisdiction, often between 6 months and 1 year. Some states require the couple be officially separated for a minimum period of time before filing, yet others allow filing, but require a minimum separation time before the final divorce decree may be issued.

A petition for dissolution of marriage or divorce must be filed with the family court in the county where the couple has established residency, then served on the opposing party in person. This may be done by process server, sheriff, constable, or any adult person who is not a party to the divorce. These documents, as well as other documents needed in a dissolution proceeding, such as child custody documents, are available at the court clerk’s office for individuals filing for dissolution of marriage without the assistance of an attorney.

Once the petition for dissolution of marriage has been served, the other party, the “respondent,” must file an answer with the court. Following this, the parties may submit a Marital Settlement Agreement with the court. If these documents satisfy the judge as to the equitable distribution of marital assets, and that the best interests of the children are being met, the agreement will become the order of the court, and the marriage will be terminated on a specified date. If the parties are unable to agree, the matter will proceed to trial.

No-Fault Dissolution of Marriage or Divorce

In many states, couples may file a “no-fault” divorce or dissolution of marriage, in which they state they have separated by agreement, and neither is claiming the other is at fault for the failed relationship. In some states, including California, no-fault divorce is the only option, individuals being able to choose only between “irreconcilable differences” and “incurable insanity” as the reasons for the dissolution.

In a “fault” divorce, one spouse claims some wrongdoing of the other spouse caused the breakup, and this may entitle the wronged spouse to a greater share of the marital assets. In a “no-fault” divorce, the assets are divided equally with no regard for the reason behind the divorce. To prove fault in a divorce, the wronged spouse must prove an issue such as:

  • Adultery
  • Emotional or physical abuse
  • Failure to help support the family
  • Continued absence from the family home for one year or longer
  • Habitual drug or alcohol use

In states that allow fault divorces, the couple is not usually required to endure a minimum separation period before the divorce will be granted.

Going From Dissolution by Agreement to Contested Divorce

Even if a couple initially files for dissolution of marriage with the intent of coming to an agreement, issues may arise that cannot be amicably resolved. There is no extra step required to “convert” the case to a contested divorce, as the act of engaging in discovery, the filing of additional actions, such as motions, and requesting hearings or a trial automatically render the case a contested divorce or dissolution. At any point prior to a trial, the couple may still decide to agree and submit a Marital Settlement Agreement.

What is a Certificate of Dissolution of Marriage

In many states, the finalization of a dissolution of marriage or divorce ends with a decree or order for dissolution of marriage. Some states refer to this final court order as a certificate of dissolution of marriage, rather than a divorce decree. In either case, the certificate, decree, or order details the issues of marital property distribution, as well as the exact date the dissolution or divorce takes effect. This information contained in the certificate of dissolution of marriage is vital to many post-divorce activities, such as changing names on bank accounts, updating the beneficiaries of retirement accounts and life insurance, and dealing with other issues.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Petitioner – The individual who initiates legal proceedings by filing a petition, also referred to as “plaintiff” in some cases.
  • Respondent – The individual against whom a petition is filed, also referred to as “defendant” in some cases.
  • Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
  • Discovery – The pre-trial efforts of each party to obtain information and evidence.
  • Marital Assets – All property, financial assets, and debt acquired by the couple during the course of the marriage, regardless of who holds title to it.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.