What is Divorce Bifurcation?

News reports on high profile divorces often mention couples who are legally single before their divorce is concluded, like the recent cases involving Dr. Dre, Ron Perlman, and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. In cases like these, the divorces were bifurcated.

Bifurcation is a legal procedure that divides the case issues into separate proceedings. In the celebrity divorces mentioned above, the courts bifurcated the dissolution of the marriages from the rest of the issues (like asset division or child custody).

In this way, the court can legally end the marriage before all outstanding issues are resolved. The parties can even date and remarry before custody, asset division, and other matters are decided. Couples can also use bifurcation to separate other specific issues, like financial matters from child custody matters.

Most states allow bifurcation in divorce, but a handful do not.

Is Divorce Bifurcation Allowed in New York?

For many couples, bifurcation is an appealing option. You're free to date or remarry while the rest of your divorce case is pending. But it's generally not an option in New York.

New York enacted no-fault divorce in 2010, removing any reason to go to trial to obtain a divorce. Couples can still file grounds for divorce claims (like adultery or abandonment), but it is rare to see these cases in New York since no fault is an option.

In enacting no-fault divorce, New York courts decided there is rarely a reason to bifurcate the marriage dissolution from the rest of the divorce. Even when there is a grounds for divorce issue at trial, New York courts will not issue a final judgment of divorce until all issues in the case are resolved.

Benefits of Divorce Bifurcation

Bifurcation is permitted in some states because it fills an emotional need of many divorce litigants. They want the marriage to end quickly. They need closure. They want to be free of their spouse and move on with their lives.

Waiting months or years for a divorce to conclude can be a traumatic and challenging experience. Divorce bifurcation ends that waiting and offers litigants the rapid legal change in status they need to move forward.

Spouses can also file their taxes as single or head of household after bifurcation. This not only simplifies financial matters, but can reduce conflict and stress, removing the need to interact with each other during filing.

Spouses can also reclaim their pre-marital name once the marriage is legally ended in a bifurcation proceeding.

Some bifurcation cases not only end the legal marriage, but also release the separate property of the spouses so they can resume using and transforming their assets, something that is not permitted during an ongoing non-bifurcated divorce proceeding.

Drawbacks of Divorce Bifurcation

The most significant drawback of divorce bifurcation is that it can drag the case on much longer than cases without bifurcation. The couple no longer feels the sense of urgency to end the marriage and may feel more comfortable taking their time resolving important financial or child custody issues.

Some critics feel it's a bad idea for couples to remarry before all of the issues in their divorce case have been resolved. Entering into a new marriage before financial or custody matters are settled can create instability in the new marriage.

Divorce bifurcation prevents a clean and final break, drawing out the parties' entanglement with each other and leaving the parties unsure of final outcomes.

And divorce bifurcation usually requires warranties and promises between the spouses on the record, like continuing health insurance coverage, indemnification for tax liability from the marital estate, and other warranties.

Bifurcation ends the couple's married status with wide-ranging influence on things like eligibility for Social Security benefits and continuation of spousal health care coverage. Ending the legal marriage without working out the financial issues can put a non-moneyed spouse in a challenging position.

Also, divorce bifurcation generally results in higher attorney fees. The case is more complex, involves multiple proceedings, and takes longer to resolve.

If you are concerned about divorce bifurcation, it is important to talk with an experienced divorce attorney about your options.


Dror Bikel

Dror Bikel co-founded Bikel Rosenthal & Schanfield, New York’s best known firm for high-conflict matrimonial disputes. A New York Superlawyer℠ and twice recognized (2020 and 2021) New York Divorce Trial Lawyer of the Year, Dror’s reputation as a fearsome advocate in difficult custody and divorce disputes has led him to deliver solid outcomes in some of New York’s most complex family law trials. Attorney Bikel is a frequent commentator on high profile divorces for national and international media outlets. His book The 1% Divorce - When Titans Clash was a 5-category Amazon bestseller.

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