What Is Legal Separation and How Does It Work?

Most brides who have walked down the aisle would have never imagined that they would want to end their marriage one day. And many grooms who were so excited to exchange their vows might not have thought that a marital disaster was waiting for them in the future.

There are situations when you can keep your marriage while living apart. What is legal separation? Legal separation is a binding agreement that occurs when a married couple chooses to live separate lives while keeping the legitimacy of their marriage intact. This means that the couple remains married as they live an unmarried lifestyle.

The thought of legal separation sounds confusing because when we talk about leaving our spouses for good, it is divorce that comes into our mind. And most of the time, legal separation gets compared with divorce. Questions like “what’s the difference?” or “what’s the advantage?” pop up in your head. We’re here to help you understand more about legal separation.

How Does Legal Separation Work?

Legal separation works in the same way as divorce except that it doesn’t cease the legality of your marriage. You can live in a home separate from your spouse, you are not obliged to share expenses or finances, your assets are separated, you have formal child custody and visitation arrangements, and you can return to your “singlehood” with the restriction that you cannot remarry.

Yes, you cannot marry again because, in the eyes of the law and the court, you are still married to your spouse. Therefore, marrying another person is not lawfully possible.

Basically, in a legal separation, the court allows you to hold the freedom of living a life separate from your spouse but all the legalities that come with your marriage contract remain the same. It is a law-recognized and court-ordered arrangement that enables a husband and a wife to separate without having to end the marriage.

What’s the Difference Between Legal Separation and Divorce?

A legal separation and divorce both create a division between married couples. Both processes involve a separation, but as mentioned above, a legal separation does not terminate a legal marriage.

If you are legally separated, you still have to sign legal documents as a married person. Your right to inherit from your spouse is still in place.

Whereas in divorce, marriage is officially and legally dissolved. The couple can go back to a totally single life. You are formally unmarried and you have the freedom to remarry.

What’s the Advantage of a Legal Separation Over Divorce?

Many couples see legal separation as a better alternative to divorce. Apparently, some religious beliefs go against the idea of a total dissolution of marriage. For married couples who have religious objections to divorce, legal separation may work best.

How Do You File for Legal Separation?

Once you’ve decided to ditch the idea of divorce and go with a legal separation, your next question would be how to go about it.

1. The first step is to identify whether you are living in a state that recognizes a legal separation. The good news is, most states in the US allow legal separation. Check out the list below.

Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois,Indiana,Iowa,Kansas,Kentucky,Louisiana,Maine,Maryland,Massachusetts,Michigan,Minnesota,Missouri,Montana,Nebraska,Nevada,New Hampshire,New Jersey,New Mexico,New York,North Carolina,North Dakota,Ohio,Oklahoma,Oregon,Rhode Island,South Carolina,South Dakota,Tennessee,Utah,Vermont,Virginia,West Virginia,Wisconsin,Wyoming

The following states, on the other hand, do not recognize a legal separation.


2. The next step is to prepare the documents required to process a legal separation in your state. To know your state’s residency requirement, check your state’s divorce laws, as residency requirements for legal separation and divorce are usually the same.

3. After completing your residency requirements, you need to proceed with filing a legal separation petition in court. You can either hire a family attorney to process this for you or you can go directly to your court clerk and file it by yourself. Do remember that you also need to file a legal separation agreement along with your legal separation petition.

The legal separation agreement should cover details about your arrangement regarding spousal support, marital assets, debts, and child custody and support. The agreement should also contain restrictions, rules, and terms about dating and whether you and your spouse would like to keep it from your children if you have any.

4. Similar to a divorce proceeding, everything can be easier if the couple is jointly submitting a petition. However, if this is not the case, you need to have your spouse served. The rules about this will depend on your state but basically, your spouse will be given a certain period of time in which he/she must submit an answer to your petition. If it happens that your spouse does not consent to the provision you submitted, then he/she can file a counter-petition.

The latter situation can complicate the process, so it is best if you and your spouse come to an agreement. However, if you really cannot settle your issues, then you have to go before a judge to help arrange the terms for you.

5. Once an agreement is made, the couple will need to sign and notarize the provision. The court clerk then files it and waits for an approval from the judge. After the judge reviews and signs the legal separation agreement, you need to wait for the document to be filed and recorded with the court clerk. Do not forget to get a copy of the record. Keep it and make sure that you follow the arrangements written in the agreement.

Please do note that the steps we shared here are the usual processes you may encounter in most states. Therefore, it is best for you to check with your court clerk to verify the actual laws and processes in your state.

In addition, you must bear in mind that a legal separation is a legally binding contract. You have to be decided and determined to follow the agreements you have written in it before filing.

Can You Terminate A Legal Separation Agreement?

Yes. You can actually reclaim your marriage after a legal separation. Because your marriage is still intact, you can dissolve the legal separation arrangement and return to your married life.

As a matter of fact, separation allows most couples to resolve their differences. Without the pressure of marriage, it sometimes becomes easier for spouses to find their way back and resume their relationship. This makes a legal separation a better alternative to divorce, especially for couples who are still uncertain about terminating their marriage permanently.


There are married couples who struggle with a dilemma between ending a marriage and fighting for it. These couples are probably fitting candidates for a legal separation. Because sometimes, all we need is some time apart to realize how important a person is in our lives.

So for couples who are still contemplating whether or not divorce is a good idea, a legal separation is a good option. It might even grant a more positive outcome for their marriage.