Legal separation is one of those terms that can mean different things, depending on where you live. Some states don't recognize it at all – including North Carolina. The state doesn't recognize a judicial process resulting in a separation decree. Separation is still a pivotal aspect of the state's divorce laws, however. You can't file for it, but you generally cannot get divorced without it.
Separation as Grounds
North Carolina's only divorce grounds include separation for a full year, or incurable insanity on the part of your spouse. For obvious reasons, most divorces are granted based on the couple's separation. You don't have to file anything with the court to begin or document your separation – you and your spouse must simply move into separate households. After a year, you can file for divorce. If your spouse doesn't contest your divorce by saying that you really haven't been separated that long, your word for it is good enough for the court.
You can enter into a separation agreement with your spouse while you wait out the year, but it's not required. In North Carolina, the court can simply terminate your marriage without addressing issues such as property, support or custody. If you want to enter into an agreement, nothing stops you, but if you do, this doesn't mean you're legally separated. It just means you've paved the way for an uncontested divorce and you won't have to file separate pleadings so the court can rule on issues of property or your children. Your separation agreement acts as an enforceable legal contract, so if you don't ultimately divorce and incorporate the terms into a decree, you can still enforce them in civil court.