Definition of Legal Separation and Divorce

By David Ingram

Legal separation and divorce offer two alternatives for married couples who wish to separate long term or permanently. Legal separation and divorce can look quite similar from an outside perspective, but there are differences in the filing process and the finality of each option. Married couples considering parting ways can benefit from reviewing the differences between these two options to determine which option is best for their situation.


A divorce is a complete dissolution of direct family ties between spouses. In divorce proceedings, spouses can agree upon the division of property, child-custody rights and financial support responsibilities, or they can enter into a court proceeding in which a judge rules on these challenging issues. A divorce grants each spouse the right to marry someone else, and to date other people without questions of infidelity. Contrast this with a legal separation, in which dating someone else can add complications to future divorce proceedings.

Legal Separation

A legal separation is a way to formalize a marriage separation without the finality of a divorce. In a legal separation, couples can agree upon provisions for child support, spousal support and the division of property. Separated couples often live at different residences, and their lives can be difficult to distinguish from divorced individuals. The main difference between the two is the fact that legal separations can be reversed through a relatively simple process. This has the benefit of allowing spouses to begin to move on with their lives before taking the final step of divorce. Legally separated spouses can have the benefit of continuing family health insurance plans and tax benefits for married tax filers, as well.

Divorce is never easy, but we can help. Learn More

Legal Separation Process

The process for legal separation, like divorce, varies slightly among states, but there are similarities across the board. Married couples seeking a legal separation must file a signed petition in county court. If both parties sign the petition, they must then submit additional forms to set forth agreed-upon provisions for child support, financial support and the splitting up of jointly owned property. If only one party wishes to enter into a legal separation, that spouse can submit a petition himself, present the other spouse with notice of intent to legally separate and enter into a court proceeding similar to the divorce process.

Divorce Process

After submitting a petition for dissolution of marriage – called by different names in different states – the filing spouse must serve notice to the other spouse. The served spouse can sign a voluntary appearance document to agree to cooperate with the divorce proceedings, or he can file an answer stating the desire to continue the marriage. From this point, divorce proceedings resemble other civil trials, moving from an initial hearing, through the discovery process and eventually to a bench trial if an agreement cannot be reached through negotiation, expert counsel or neutral evaluation. Some states impose a mandatory waiting period before a final divorce decree is granted, and the waiting periods vary widely among states. North Carolina imposes a 30-day waiting period, for example, while New York requires 1 year.

Divorce is never easy, but we can help. Learn More
What Are the Benefits of Legal Separation Vs. Divorce?


Related articles

The Advantages of Legal Separation Vs. Divorce in New York

The decision to dissolve a marriage is not meant to be taken lightly. Due to the sweeping effects that a divorce can have on a couple's life, either spouse may be unsure as to whether such a bold change in relationship status would be beneficial. For that reason, New York offers legal separation as a way to allow a couple to experience life apart for a period, or as a long term alternative to divorce.

Divorce & Adoption

When a couple decides to get divorced during an adoption process, it does not necessarily halt the adoption, although the impact of divorce will depend upon the type of adoption involved. Parents of children whose adoption is finalized before the divorce will have the same rights as biological parents with regard to custody, visitation and child support. Divorce proceedings occurring prior to the finalization of the adoption could hurt the progression of the adoption, depending on the individual circumstances. There is also an interplay between adoption subsidies and the receipt or payment of child support.

Indiana Laws for Separation Before Divorce

Indiana law provides couples with two options if they want to end or change their marital relationship: dissolution of marriage, which is a divorce, or legal separation. A dissolution of marriage officially ends a marriage, while a legally separation simply allows the couple to live apart for a specified amount of time to decide whether they want to save the marriage or divorce. Before seeking a legal separation, it’s essential to know the rights and responsibilities of each party.

Get Divorced Online

Related articles

90 Day Cooling Off Period for a Divorce in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania requires a 90-day "cooling off" period for no-fault or "mutual consent" divorces, which provides an ...

What Does "Granted a Divorce" Mean?

Even in no-fault divorce states where dissolving a marriage is a matter of personal choice, a judge must supervise your ...

New Hampshire Laws for Legal Separation & Divorce

New Hampshire offers both divorce and legal separation for couples who can no longer stay together. In either case, ...

Separation vs. Divorce in Michigan

When spouses decide to end their relationship, they can either terminate their marriage through divorce or divide their ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED