Making the leap from spouse to ex-spouse can and should give a person pause. When the subject of divorce first raises its ugly head, it is sometimes valuable to step back and take a time out, especially when children are involved. Although "trial divorce" is not a legal term, you can view each of the stages of separation as part of your ongoing attempt to figure out whether it is time to sever the knot permanently.
A trial separation occurs when a couple decides to live apart temporarily in order to evaluate the idea of something more permanent. One spouse can initiate it by walking out the door, or the separation can be something the couple plans for and organizes. Although no legal procedures are required for a trial separation, it may be wise to consult a divorce lawyer beforehand, since the choices you make may become relevant if you later divorce. For example, the child custody and visitation arrangement you use during a six-month trial separation will not likely be ignored by the divorce court.
A legal separation is similar to a divorce but the couple remains married. Although legal separation is the legal status of choice for couples who would like to divorce but whose religion or other circumstances prevent it, many couples also use it as a trial divorce. Negotiating or litigating a legal separation is done essentially the same as in a divorce: you and your spouse agree to all of the financial and child custody matters -- or they're decided by the court. If you decide to take the final step to divorce, it is simply a matter of filing paperwork.
Some states, like Maryland, do not offer couples the option of a legal separation; a married couple is either married or divorced. However, in these states, a couple who does not have grounds for divorce can obtain what is termed a limited divorce that includes a court ruling on all financial and child custody issues. A limited divorce looks very much like a legal separation and a couple can move quickly to an actual divorce if they choose to do so and have proper grounds in the future.
A divorce or dissolution is a severing of the marital bonds. Property is divided, support is determined and child custody matters are adjudicated. While a divorce judge may retain jurisdiction to review support issues in the future, most other issues are put to rest permanently. However, this does not always mean that a couple's split is permanent. It is not unheard of for ex-spouses to get back together after a divorce and even to remarry. In this sense, every divorce can be viewed as a trial divorce, since the choice to go separate ways is not irreversible.