As divorce attorneys in Charleston, South Carolina, oftentimes our clients ask us whether they can start dating while they are separated from their spouse. Before you start setting up your profile on eHarmony or swiping through Bumble or Tinder looking for a match, it is important to know how dating during separation may impact your divorce in South Carolina. We’ve written this article to help you understand the legal and practical consequences you may face if you start dating before your divorce.
What is Legal Separation in South Carolina?
Legal separation is a family court order that spells out the rights and duties of a couple while they are still married but living apart. These rights and duties may include financial obligations, child support, custody, and other marital issues.
Unlike some other states, South Carolina’s family courts do not recognize “legal separation.” In South Carolina, a couple is either married or they are not regardless of whether the couple is physically living together.
Is a “Temporary Order” Considered a Legal Separation in South Carolina?
No. In many cases, a couple may not see eye-to-eye on these decisions especially when they first separate. For these reasons, either spouse may seek “temporary relief” from South Carolina’s family courts while the divorce lawsuit is ongoing. If a spouse seeks temporary relief, the family court conducts a hearing that is referred to as a “temporary hearing” after which the court issues a “temporary order.” At a temporary hearing, the family court is not trying to decide who is right or wrong or who wins or loses. Instead, the family court’s primary goal is to maintain the status quo between the parties during the divorce case concerning financial issues, issues regarding children, and other issues surrounding the couple’s separation. For detailed information, please read our article about Temporary Relief in South Carolina.
Can I Date While I Am Separated in South Carolina?
There is no law that specifically states that you may not date another person while you are separated. However, if you date before you are divorced, then you run the risk of being accused of adultery (having sex with someone other than your spouse) even if you aren’t sleeping with anyone. In South Carolina, adultery is considered to be “marital misconduct” and can negatively affect your divorce in many ways including:
Dating’s Impact on Alimony – If a spouse commits adultery before (1) the formal signing of a written property or marital settlement agreement or (2) the entry of a permanent order of separate maintenance and support or of a permanent order approving a property or marital settlement agreement between the parties, then that spouse is permanently prevented from receiving alimony from the other spouse. Conversely, the spouse committing adultery may pay an increased amount of alimony because of their “marital misconduct or fault.”
Dating’s Impact on Property Division – When dividing a divorcing couples’ property, the family court may consider the “marital misconduct or fault of either or both parties, whether or not used as a basis for a divorce as such, if the misconduct affects or has affected the economic circumstances of the parties, or contributed to the breakup of the marriage.” So, a party guilty of adultery may have his or her share of the marital estate reduced because of the adultery.
Dating’s Impact on Child Custody & Visitation – Just because a spouse commits adultery, it doesn’t necessarily mean that parent is a bad parent. However, many family court judges consider issues such as whether a parent has acted “immorally” by dating before they are divorced or, worse still, whether the parent has exposed their children to the person they are dating.
Should You Date Before You Get Divorced in South Carolina?
In my experience, the answer is “no – definitely not.” Even in the simplest of divorce cases where there are no assets to divide, no children involved, and no issues concerning alimony, I still advise my clients to hold off on dating until their divorce is final. Although you may have “moved on” emotionally from your spouse, he or she may still feel attached. Even in situations where it may seem to you as if your spouse is accepting the divorce, he or she may turn jealous and angry because you are dating. When hostile emotions start to surface, you can count on negotiations becoming very difficult, your divorce taking longer, and paying more in legal fees as your divorce drags on. In some extreme cases, I’ve observed jilted spouses who went so far as to stalk my clients and the clients’ love interests, to vandalize my clients’ property, to contact employers to get my clients fired, and to become physically violent with clients.
In cases involving children, even when the divorce is amicable, children can still internalize hurt feelings and worry about being abandoned by their parents. If you date during your divorce, you risk more harm to your children’s emotional health. For example, your children may blame the divorce on the person you are dating. Similarly, your children may be angry at you for leaving the other parent for a new partner. Overall, your children are likely to feel confused, distrustful, and alienated if you begin to date too soon. In short, dating before your divorce is final is TOO SOON!