While there is no legal separation by statute, you can file a petition for an order of separate maintenance and support. The effect is basically the same as a legal separation. See the link I posted below for more information and a complete discussion.
This answer is for general advice. It is not legal advice and does not create an attorney client relationship. For legal advice you have to retain your own attorney.
In South Carolina, one of the grounds for divorce is separation for a period of one year without intervening cohabitation. Unlike some states, divorcing couples in SC are not required to go to court in order to start the one year time clock ticking. The date when parties physically moved into different residences is the key date. People need to know, however, that any period of living together again will re-start the clock from the beginning.
Having a physical separation is not the only issue to be decided in a divorce. You asked about the "next step". The next step would be to reach agreement on some additional, very important issues that must be decided as part of the divorce process. Among these issues are property division, support obligations, and parenting arrangements. All three of these issues involve matters that are very personal and which have deep long term consequences.
For decades, the standard answer has been to "file papers" and ask a court to decide the issues. This is called a "litigated divorce." As part of the litigation process, parties engage in various legal procedures in order to obtain full financial disclosure and gain information on all the issues. Then, the evidence is put before the court and a judge decides the case. A litigated divorce typically is achieved with two court hearings. First, a temporary hearing is held, after which a judge makes a ruling that declares the arrangements which will govern during the period of separation. Then, at the conclusion of the one year waiting period, a final hearing is held in which the judge issues a final decree.
Litigation and putting the decision in the hands of a judge is necessary in cases where parties are unable to agree, where there is a severe imbalance of power, or where one party refuses to make voluntary disclosure of financial information. However, if parties are both committed to principles of fairness there are other, newer options which are designed to help parties reach their own fair and voluntary agreement. If parties are able to use these other processes to achieve a separation agreement they both agree is fair, complete, and workable, then they may ask a court to approve the agreement they reached instead of asking the court to impose solutions on them.
Two of the newer divorce methods which help parties forge agreements are mediated divorce and collaborative divorce. In a mediated divorce, the parties use a neutral mediator to guide them through a process designed to help them reach agreement on the important points. The mediator must have training in both the legal issues and in helping parties work through the challenging emotional and communication issues to help them reach authentic and fair agreement. In a collaborative divorce, each party has their attorney but both attorneys make a commitment to achieve a settlement through negotiation rather than through litigation. Both mediated divorce and collaborative divorce make use of outside professionals where needed to lend expertise on difficult decisions, rather than asking a court to decide. For instance, parties in a mediated or collaborative divorce process might hire a single tax expert to review facts and make a recommendation rather than each having their own tax expert to testify against one another in court.
I think your next step should be to learn more about your options, including consulting with a couple of divorce professionals to discuss your individual circumstances, learn the specific pro's and con's of each divorce method, and then think about what makes the most sense in your particular circumstances.
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