It’s a sad fact of life, but relationships go wrong. Good things turn sour, and one or both partners may decide to end what was once probably a strong partnership. But when a marriage or domestic/civil partnership has run its course, what options are available to you?
Just about everybody is familiar with divorce - the official, legal dissolution of a marriage. Yet, not everyone understands the concept of legal separation and what it means in practice. The single most significant difference between divorce and legal separation is that divorce represents a final and permanent end to a marriage. A legal separation is simply an agreement on how both parties will live their separate lives while still technically married.
That short definition doesn’t tell the whole story, however. You might not know it, but there are many situations where legal separation is preferable to a divorce, and for both parties too.
If you’re separating, separated, or divorcing, read on for more information on the potential benefits of a legal separation over a divorce.
With a divorce, your marriage is officially and legally over, and you’re free to remarry. With a legal separation, you and your partner agree on sharing assets, childcare, and finances - just as you would in a divorce - but legally, you remain married. That’s the main and overriding difference, but there are other significant contrasts too: legal separations are easier to reverse, are usually quicker to finalize; plus, they offer certain practical and financial benefits that would be sacrificed in a divorce.
Having outlined the significant differences, it’s worth noting that there are major similarities too! In both cases, you must file the relevant legal paperwork, agree in areas like financial support, the division of assets and property, sharing of debts, and obtain an official judgment from the courts. If children are involved, you’ll need to agree on areas like custody, visitation rights, and child support. And if you can’t agree on any issues, in both cases, it’s the judge who’ll make the final decision.
If a couple has decided to break up, you might reasonably ask why they would choose not to divorce. It’s a fair question, but in fact, there are many situations where a legal separation might make more sense.
Perhaps the couple wants a trial separation before committing to a divorce. If there’s a chance that the two partners might want to get back together, then a legal separation makes that process a whole lot easier. Alternatively, a legal separation can act as a valuable “half-way house” to help you prepare for your divorce. Also, because there’s no stipulation for a cooling-off period or time-based residency requirements, it typically takes less time to process a legal separation.
There are several other good reasons for choosing a legal separation ahead of a divorce, so let’s look at some more examples.
Situations Where Divorce Is Frowned Upon
In certain cultures and religions, divorce isn’t just frowned upon - it’s expressly forbidden. Although most religions now accept marital breakdowns as a fact of life, a legal divorce can still bring many negative religious consequences. By choosing a legal separation, you may avoid some of the stigma or unwelcome conditions associated with a divorce.
But it’s not just religions that disapprove of divorce. There are many other scenarios where a legal separation could prove to be preferable: to comply with a family trust that’s only applicable as long as the marriage endures, to benefit from a will that stipulates an inheritance on condition that you’re married, or to avoid discrimination by schools against the children of divorced parents (yes, sadly that still does happen).
Once couples have decided to divorce, they often find that there are many unexpected consequences. With a legal separation, you can hold on to certain marital benefits that would be lost in a divorce. One typical example is health insurance, where an employee's family members might lose their cover. With a legal separation, coverage is maintained.
For a divorce to happen in California, either you or your spouse must have lived in the state during the previous six months. That person must also have lived in the filing county for the last three months. If either of you fails to meet those conditions, you can apply for a legal separation and then file for divorce once you comply with the timing requirements.
If you’re desperate to separate as quickly as possible, a legal separation is likely the right choice to make.
The most obvious situation where a divorce is more applicable is when either you or your spouse plans to remarry. You can’t do so until your divorce is finalized.
There’s also an all too real human side to divorce. Yes, it’s the sad end to what was once a happy relationship, but it can also represent a clean break, a fresh start, and new beginnings. Both legally and psychologically, a divorce confirms that one chapter of your life has ended, and another is about to begin - and that may be what you need to move forward.
Unless you’ve been married several times, it’s unlikely that you fully understand or appreciate all the implications, legalities, and expenses associated with divorce and legal separations. That’s why it’s crucial to seek professional legal advice, ensure you make the best choices around your separation, and perhaps even more crucially avoid any costly mistakes.
At such a momentous time in your life, you need the best support available, so make sure you set aside time to choose the divorce lawyer who’s right for you.
There's no doubt that a divorce or legal separation is one of the most stressful and life-changing events you’ll ever have to endure. Anything you can do to facilitate the process, avoid conflict, and secure a fair settlement, is in the interest of all parties. That’s why so many people decide that the best option is to use the services of an experienced, professional divorce attorney.