What Is the Difference

When people talk about the end of a marriage they often mix up their terminology. They sometimes use legal terms that have very specific meanings without due attention. It is common, for instance, to use the term “divorce” to refer to the termination of a marriage in all cases when, in reality, dissolution (or even a legal separation) is meant. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the definition of these terms varies from state to state.

In states like Ohio, where there is a legal distinction between divorce and dissolution, the difference hinges on whether or not the process whereby a couple terminates their marriage is subject to trial. On a personal level, the difference is largely a function of a couple’s attitude toward one another and their perspective on the end of their marriage.


Fundamentally, a divorce is a lawsuit in which one spouse is the plaintiff and the other is the defendant. The complainant spouse is suing the defendant spouse with the intent, at the very least, of obtaining the termination of marriage. Often there is more at stake, which may be why the intervention of a court is necessary.

The process involves a specific set of steps. First, a complaint is filed with a court. Once the court has responded, temporary orders may be put in place to ensure that life goes on smoothly for everyone involved in the process before a final decision is reached-that financial obligations are met and that dependents are taken care of, regardless of future outcomes. Next, the parties to the divorce are given time to “discover” any information pertaining to their claims.

Once the facts are on the table, attempts may be made to reach a settlement without proceeding to trial. If this proves impossible, the claims of both parties will be subjected to the scrutiny of a court. This trial may take time and involve lawyers, judges, witnesses, and the presentation of evidence. Having heard and considered both sides of the case, the court will deliver a decree of divorce explicating the obligations of each party in terms of property division, finances, and child care, custody, and support. The marriage will then be terminated.


In many states, dissolution simply refers to the outcome of the divorce process, but in others (like Ohio) it refers to a discrete process, although the result is the same-the termination of a marriage.

Dissolution is an agreement to terminate a marriage in which all details are worked out by the two parties and their attorneys without being subject to trial. The two parties forge a separation agreement that addresses all the same issues as a divorce settlement: property division; debt settlement; spousal support; care, custody, and financial support of any children. Appropriate professional assistance may be sought in the preparation of this agreement, and once ready it will be filed with a court for a final hearing and approval. As long as there are no glaring instances of unfairness, such agreements will usually be expeditiously approved and the marriage terminated accordingly.

Divorce or Dissolution?

Whether a couple chooses to terminate their marriage by divorce or dissolution comes down to a few key considerations. First, there is the emotional factor: How well do they get along and are they emotionally capable of voluntarily exposing themselves to questions and facts that may stir up painful emotions? Secondly, they must consider how complicated it will be to reach an agreement and whether they have the requisite skills and/or patience to do so. Finally, there is the matter of trust. How confident are they in their own and their soon-to-be-former partner’s ability to consider the interests of both parties fairly?

Divorce is an inherently litigious process that will usually involve painful emotions and unwanted sacrifice. If it can be avoided through the use of dissolution, the latter may be worth pursuing. When done right, it can also save time and money. Sometimes, however, matters are either too complex or couples simply cannot get along. In such cases, divorce becomes an unpleasant but necessary avenue provided by our legal system to ensure that a fair outcome is reached for everyone.