Many people wonder what the difference is between a Divorce and a Legal Separation when it comes to specific issues like child custody and parenting plans, child support, property and debt division, and spousal support. In fact, with regard to those issues, in Washington State it really does not matter whether the action is a Divorce or a Legal Separation.
In Washington, a Legal Separation is basically a Divorce without getting divorced.
In other words, the same issues are dealt with and orders are entered dealing with all of the same issues that would be dealt with in a Divorce such as parenting, child support, spousal support, division of assets and liabilities, and even change of name. The difference is that when the final Decree is entered, we leave out the line that says the parties are now divorced.
What this means is that the Community (the Community is the legal entity made up of the two spouses) has been divided so that now the spouses are each treated as a single entity.
Each has their own property, income, rights and responsibilities, but they are still technically married (without the usual trappings of a marriage). The main affects of still being married is that neither can remarry, and one MAY (depending on the employer’s policies) still be carried as a spouse on the other person’s health insurance. Some people also choose a Legal Separation because their religion forbids them from being divorced, but they need to be as good as divorced.
One other difference is the time period it takes to complete the action. A Divorce in Washington requires a 90 day waiting period between the filing of the Divorce action and the finalizing of the Divorce (by entry of a Decree). On the other hand, many counties in Washington do not require a 90 day waiting period for a Legal Separation, though some counties do still require it.
If a couple who has obtained a Legal Separation later decide they do want to be divorced, it is generally just a matter of having the court enter a short order saying they are now divorced. Nothing else should need to be in the order, as all of the other aspects of a Divorce has already been taken care of in the Legal Separation. However, it should be noted that there is a 6 month waiting period between when a Legal Separation has been completed and when it can be converted to a Divorce.
Since there are very few advantages to a Legal Separation, we don’t do them very often.