What are the differences between a divorce and a legal separation?

The basic difference between a divorce and a legal separation is the status of the parties at the end of the proceedings. In a divorce, there is no legal relationship between the parties, other than the respective obligations for each parent in a parenting plan, and of course, the related child support obligation. In a legal separation, the parties remain married. As in divorce, the assets and debts are divided, the parties agree on the parenting and child support obligations, but they don't take the final step to have the legal relationship between the parties dissolved as it is in a divorce.


Whats the purpose of a legal separation?

In my practice, the only situation where I have seen the legal separation be preferred over a divorce is when the parties are trying to ensure that both parties will have coverage for medical and non medical benefits as a result of one party's job or retirement. The particular case in question was a situation where a retired service member wanted to divorce his wife, but she suffered from a serious medical situation that was incredibly costly to treat. The parties agreed to get a legal separation rather than a divorce, allowing the spouse to keep medical and commissary benefits on base.


Procedurally, whats the difference?

As I have alluded to in my earlier steps, the process for seeking a divorce and a legal separation, in Washington State, is basically the same. A petition is filed, the other party is served, the parties hopefull agree to the parenting plan and child support, if necessary, and the final papers are drawn up after 90 days. The forms themselves are essentially the same. The only difference is in whether or not the legal relationship formed by the marriage is disolved or not.