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What is Legal Separation?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 April 2014
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A legal separation is a court document which affirms that a married couple are living apart. The document details the mutual rights and responsibilities of the couple, typically spelling out terms of child support, spousal support, child custody, and other issues which may come up. A legal separation is not a divorce, as the marriage remains valid. You may also hear a legal separation referred to as a trial separation or as a “divorce a mensa et thoro” among the Latin-inclined.

There are a number of reasons for a couple to pursue legal separation. For example, some people recognize that they no longer want to live together as a married couple, but they may want their spouses to be able to access health care and other benefits provided only to spouses. In that case, a legal separation allows the couple to live apart, while still ensuring that both partners have access to benefits.

A legal separation can also be used to try living apart, to see if a divorce is necessary or to provide some breathing space for the couple to work out their difficulties. For people who have religious or moral objections to divorce, a legal separation provides a middle-ground, allowing them to live apart without violating their principles. Legal separations can also be used to establish grounds for divorce in regions where it is difficult to get a divorce.

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One might reasonably ask why one partner doesn't just move out, instead of going through the process of getting a document from the court. The answer to this has to do with legal protections. If a partner moves out, he or she loses many legal protections, and could potentially be sued for desertion or found liable for various legal issues. A legal separation codifies the status of the couple, and provides some protection to both parties.

Getting a legal separation is just the first step. It is important to be aware that any jointly held accounts, leases, and other agreements may need to be adjusted as well. If, for example, a partner skips out on a jointly held lease, the absent partner will be held liable. Therefore, a legal separation often includes removal of names from joint accounts, or a freezing of accounts while the details of the legal separation are hammered out. Essentially, when a legal separation is arranged, the partners need to decide what they want to be responsible for.

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Discuss this Article

oasis11
Post 3

@Mutsy -That is true, but I wanted to say that a legal separation is not valid in a lot of states. For example, a legal separation in Florida is not valid. Florida does not recognize legal separations only marriages and divorces.

I am sure you can form a separation of some sort but it will not be recognized in the courts. I read that in the states that do allow legal separation that it could cost as much as a divorce.

mutsy
Post 2

@Subway11 - Well at least your father got to move back in with you. I bet that was nice. I would imagine that a legal marriage separation must be even more difficult than a divorce because with a divorce you have made up your mind to go separate ways, but with a legal separation you are separated but still legally married to the person.

At least with a divorce there is closure and you can start to rebuild your life, but with a legal separation you may build hopes of a reconciliation that may or may not come. I guess when there are kids involved this might make more sense than to go for a full blown divorce because some couples can work out their differences during counseling when they are apart from each other.

It gives them time to think about their feelings without getting into more fights. I think that when you are apart you also start to appreciate the other person more and that could really help rebuild the relationship.

subway11
Post 1

I just wanted to say that my mother had a legal martial separation from my father because of religious reasons. She was a devout Catholic and did not feel that a divorce would be viewed well as a result of her beliefs.

It really was like a divorce. I saw my father on the weekends and that was part of the legal separation agreement. As a kid I always wished they would get back together. They got a legal marriage separation when I was in first grade, and I think this was especially difficult for me to deal with.

My mother was able to reconcile with my father a few years later because he had a fire in his apartment and lost everything and my mother felt bad for him. I think that the legal separation vs. a divorce made it easier for my dad to move back in with us. They still remained friends, but that was about it.

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