What is the difference between legal separation and divorce?

With both legal separation and divorce, there is a division of assets and debts and an agreements put in place for child support obligations and parenting plans. Procedurally, pursuing divorce and pursuing legal separation in Washington State are very similar.

The primary difference is that with a legal separation, the legal relationship between the parties is not dissolved, as it is with divorce. Following divorce proceedings, there exists no legal relationship between the couple. Divorce is also referred to as “dissolution of marriage”. A Decree of Dissolution of Marriage legally ends the marriage. Following legal separation, however, the couple remains married. The Decree of Legal Separation details the obligations and rights of a couple who is still married but no longer living as a “traditional” married couple.

Why choose legal separation?

Most married couples who want to end their relationship will choose divorce. Legal separation is an alternate path and may be preferable to divorce when a couple no longer wishes to be together, but has reasons to want to remain legally married. Some of these reasons may include:

    • to ensure employer-sponsored benefits for both spouses following the separation
    • religious reasons
    • the couple is not confident they are ready to end their marriage permanently

The court will consider both parties’ wishes. If either spouse prefers a divorce to a legal separation, a divorce will be granted. If a legal separation is granted, there is then a 6 month waiting period before it can be potentially converted to a Decree of Dissolution, which can be done by filing a motion with the court. This can be relatively straightforward if rights and obligations are clearly defined, which they should be through the legal separation.

Legal Separation and Remarriage

Following a legal separation, neither party can legally remarry because they are still legally married. In order to pursue getting remarried, the Decree of Legal Separation must be converted into a Decree of Dissolution of Marriage (divorce). A motion must be filed with the court to request this conversion, following the 6 month waiting period after legal separation is granted. Either spouse may file the motion; both spouses do not have to agree on converting the legal separation to a divorce.

Legal separation can also be un-done. If spouses choose to reunite and reconcile, they can resume their marriage without having to actually legally re-marry. A motion to vacate Decree of Legal Separation needs to be filed in this case. Once court approved, the legal separation is no longer. If it is earlier in the process and legal separation is only pending, not yet approved, the couple can request case dismissal, withdrawing the legal separation before it is officially granted.

Legal Representation

Choosing to end a relationship that was meant to be forever is painful and difficult, and you should not try to tackle it alone. Our experienced family law attorneys can help you consider your options and determine whether legal separation is the right option for your unique situation. We will represent and advise you assertively and effectively. Our family law attorneys at Dellino Law Group are highly skilled and experienced in managing legal separations and divorces on all parts of the conflict spectrum, from more simple dissolutions and legal separations to very high conflict divorces. Our attorneys are well-versed in the sensitive nature of this topic area. We are prepared to help you navigate the process, offer sound legal advice and counsel, and ultimately reach a resolution. Please contact us for a consultation.