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Legal Separation

Posted by attorney Howard Lewis

A legal separation is a step that can be taken when a married couple separates but does not want to divorce. ( A court will decide how the couple's assets will be divided and rule on issues such as child custody (, child support (, and visitation ( Legal separations are unusual but are sometimes sought by couples who are not ready to divorce.

When to seek a legal separation

If you are separated from your spouse but do not want to divorce immediately for religious, financial, or other reasons, a legal separation would clearly define the rights and responsibilities of each partner. The spouses have a court order to rely upon that covers the issues that would normally be decided in a divorce.

If you legally separate

With a legal separation, assets (money, property, etc.) accumulated during the separation will belong to each individual and will not be considered joint assets. Any money awarded for spousal support under a legal separation is usually known as separate maintenance, not alimony or child support.

As with a divorce, it's important to have an attorney experienced in family law represent your interests when you are getting legally separated. Decisions made for the legal separation regarding finances and child custody and support will likely influence what you may receive if you decide to divorce later.

Other types of separation

If a couple simply splits up without a court decreeing a legal separation, their rights may be different. There are three such kinds of separation:

  • Living apart. If you and your spouse begin living in two different places, you are considered "living apart." Depending on the state you live in, assets you accumulate while living apart may or may not be considered joint property.
  • Trial separation. If a couple decides to live apart for a short period to determine whether to split up, it's known as a trial separation. Assets accumulated during this period are normally considered joint property. This is not a legally recognized situation.
  • Permanent separation. If a couple splits up for good, it's known as a permanent separation. They may or may not have had a trial separation first. Generally, assets received and debts incurred once a permanent separation has happened are each person's separate responsibility.

Additional resources

Avvo's Divorce Resource Center (

Divorce Info: Trial separation (

Ezine Articles: Legal Separation - What You Need To Know (

Related Legal Guides

Understanding Divorce (

Divorce Mediation (

No-Fault Divorce (

Military Divorce (

Divorce Settlement (

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