What is the Difference Between a Divorce and a Legal Separation?

A divorce and a legal separation are similar, however, there is a notable difference. A divorce is the legal end of a marriage, and while a legal separation resolves the same issue as a divorce (child custody, property rights, establishment of child and spousal support, etc.), the couple remains legally married.

Since Seattle is in Washington, and this is no-fault state, you don’t need to assign blame or wrong doing in the marriage in order to file for a divorce here. However, at least one spouse must declare the marriage “irretrievably broken”. Either spouse can file for divorce, and at least you or your spouse must live in Washington State in order to file here for a divorce.

Some married couples choose legal separation instead of a divorce. This is more than just living apart, it’s a legal agreement filed in court. There are several reasons a couple might chose this route. There might be a desire to keep one spouse on the other’s medical insurance, or there might be religious beliefs against divorce.

In both models, a number of marital issues must be worked out and agreed upon by both parties.

  • Separating property and debts
  • Establishing child and spousal support obligations
  • Making parenting arrangements
  • Obtaining restraining orders
  • Changing names

If a couple does decide to divorce, its takes at least 90 days from the beginning of the case before the divorce can be final. The courts appear divided as to whether the 90 day waiting period also applies to a legal separation.

Six months after a legal separation is final, either spouse can convert the legal separation to a divorce by filing a motion in court.  Since the issues (including asset division and support) have already been resolved in the legal separation, at the time of conversion to divorce there should be no further issues to resolve.  In other words, the things agreed to in the legal separation should carry over into the divorce.

If a couple cannot reach an agreed settlement in either a legal separation or divorce, they may have to go to trial before a judge who will determine the terms. The length of each trial varies and is usually the last resort.