Legal separation comes in two forms -- separation by agreement, or separation by judicial process. Which type of separation you're eligible for generally depends on where you live. Some states allow for separation by judicial process and others do not. In either case, the speed with which you can become officially separated depends on how quickly you and your spouse can iron out a resolution of the issues involved in your marriage.
Filing for Judicial Separation
In states that recognize the judicial separation process, it generally takes the same amount of time as a divorce. You must file a complaint or petition for legal separation to begin the proceedings, then the case moves along the same channels and time frames as a divorce does. If you and your spouse can reach a settlement agreement, the process is usually over relatively quickly. If you have to go to trial so a judge can decide issues for you, it takes considerably longer.
Reaching a Separation Agreement
In some states that recognize judicial separation, such as Connecticut, you can be legally separated within four to six months after filing your initial paperwork with the court. This process requires that you and your spouse resolve issues on your own and memorialize your terms in a signed settlement agreement. In other states, you're separated when you and your spouse sign a settlement agreement. The agreement is legally binding as a contract, even if the state does not issue decrees of separation. You could resolve your separation in as little as a day if you and your spouse are on the same page regarding custody, visitation, support, property division and marital debts. You would only need time to prepare a document memorializing the terms, then sign it. States that recognize judicial separation typically grant a decree when you submit a signed settlement agreement to the court. If you later decide to divorce, you can use the same agreement to streamline the proceedings and avoid trial.
Litigating Your Separation
Litigating a divorce or separation typically takes an extended period of time. The fact that you're headed to court for a judge to decide issues makes you and your spouse adversaries. As adversaries, you may have to go through a lot of time-consuming steps, such as asking for temporary orders and engaging in discovery to determine the facts of your case. You may have to go to trial so the court can base a decision on your submitted evidence and testimony. From start to finish, this might take a year or more. You can settle by agreement at any time during the proceedings, however, and this would cut the process short so you would not have to go to trial.
Some states have waiting periods before a divorce or legal separation can be finalized. If your state has a waiting period, this gives you a good idea of how long your legal separation will take if you and your spouse agree on all issues. If you submit a settlement agreement to the court during the waiting period, your matter can typically be resolved as soon as the waiting period expires.