What Is a Legal Separation?

A legal separation is a court-ordered arrangement whereby a married couple lives apart, leading separate lives. A legal separation is a popular alternative to a divorce when the parties are unsure of the state of their marriage but want to establish financial boundaries and responsibilities, such as separation of assets, custody of dependents, and child support. However, for those who want a divorce, a legal separation may be required before a judge grants a divorce.

Key Takeaways

  • A legal separation is a court-ordered agreement in which a married couple lives separate lives, usually by living apart.
  • The separation court order may specify financial obligations, child custody and visitation agreements, and child support.
  • A legal separation is preferred over divorce for some people because of religious beliefs, financial reasons, and for the benefit of minor children.
  • Separated spouses may be entitled to certain benefits although legally separated.

How a Legal Separation Works

Although the reasons for seeking a legal separation vary, there are some common ones worth noting. Some religions prohibit married couples from divorcing; a legal separation grants most of the benefits of a divorce without compromising religious tenets. Also, those unsure of their marital future may opt for a legal separation, hoping for a reconciliation. Couples with minor children often cite that a legal separation is more ideal for their children than a divorce. Although the parents function as a separate unit, the family may remain together, maintaining stability and order, for the most part. A few other reasons for opting for this arrangement is to retain health and retirement benefits.

Many couples choose to separate without a court order as it is simpler and avoids costly legal proceedings. The growing trend towards informal separations and no-fault divorces is making the formal legal separation process increasingly rare.

Once the actual date of separation is determined, it freezes a spouse’s ability to freely spend money from a joint credit card or bank account. It also limits control over other assets like properties and vehicles.

Each spouse becomes legally responsible for his or her debt after the date of separation.

It’s important to treat a legal separation as seriously as a divorce as both are orders of the court, containing duties and obligations that each party must legally uphold. If the couple later divorces, judges may consider the details of the separation agreement when ruling on a divorce

Benefits of Legal Separation

For some, reaching their 10th anniversary is a monumental occasion, but it is also a milestone when future benefits are impacted. If deciding to part ways, a legal separation may keep benefit entitlements intact. For example, military spouses must remain married for a decade to take advantage of the benefits provided by the Uniformed Services Former Spouse Protection Act.

Also, remaining married for at least 10 years means being able to take advantage of certain spousal social security benefits. If at retirement, your spouse will draw more social security than you, it is beneficial to remain married for a minimum of 10 years so you can draw a larger sum by drawing on your spouse's social security retirement.

In spite of the pain from a split, sometimes a legal separation makes sense when a divorce doesn't. For example, a legal separation can be temporary, while a divorce is permanent. Some couples legally separate when trial separations don't work. This may be the last attempt at saving their marriage.

Additionally, a legal separation is often more cost-effective than a divorce, and many parents find that their children are better able to adjust to a divorce if they legally separate first.