Many states recognize a “legal separation” which can be a precursor to divorce. South Carolina does not have a legal separation. Instead, our state offers what is called a decree of separate support and maintenance. In both a legal separation and separate support and maintenance action, the Family Court is called upon to determine all of the same issues that are generally handled in a divorce: child custody, visitation, child support, spousal support, and division of property and debt. However, at the end of the process, you are still married. Because the marriage has not been legally ended, obtaining a decree of separate support and maintenance does not allow either party to get re-married. The most common reason I see for people desiring to file for separate support and maintenance is that the client does not have a fault-based ground such as adultery or physical abuse to file for the divorce immediately, but they have immediate needs such as spousal support, child support or custody that need to be addressed now – not in 12 months. Often times, parties simply desire to work through all of the property/debt/financial issues immediately so they can go ahead and take care of those items now and not let them sit around for a year.
Sometimes I meet with prospective clients who have been through the separation process and have obtained a decree of separate support and maintenance from the Family Court and they are ready to get a divorce on the no fault ground of living separate and apart for more than one year continuously. Many times the client believes that as soon as the one year separation rolls around, the divorce is automatically granted. That is not true.
In order to become divorced following the grant of a decree of separate support and maintenance, it is necessary to file an entirely new action with the family court with a final divorce as the relief being sought. This requires a new filing fee with the Family Court, filing a Summons and Complaint seeking the divorce, properly serving the defendant spouse, and a final divorce hearing.
So, to answer the initial question posed, you cannot convert a decree of separate support and maintenance to a divorce in South Carolina.