The Difference Between Legal Separation and Divorce

The Difference Between Legal Separation and Divorce

Sometimes two things are similar, but not quite the same. For example, divorce and legal separation both involve major changes to marital relationship. Yet there are some distinct differences between divorce and legal separation. Before deciding which is right for you, you’ll need to consider several factors.

Marital Status

One difference between a separation and a divorce proceeding is that a legal separation does not seek termination of the marriage. Divorce does.

In a legal separation, the parties remain married. Neither can remarry. Remarriage is an option for divorced couples, although it may affect spousal support and social security benefits.

People who remain legally separated may be eligible for:

  • greater social security benefits at retirement (depending on other factors);
  • health insurance benefits;
  • tax benefits enjoyed by filing jointly; and
  • some military benefits.

A divorced spouse may lose benefits as soon as the divorce is final.


The parties still divide up marital and community property and debts whether they are divorcing or legally separating.

Just living apart may not be enough. Couples may remain liable for each other’s debts and legal problems unless they formally separate. A legal separation agreement may provide some protection while spelling out each party’s responsibilities when it comes to financial obligations.

In a divorce proceeding, the final divorce settlement shows a clear division of assets and debts.

Residency Requirements

The party filing for divorce must be California residents for at least six months before filing. In addition, the party must live in the county in which they filed for at least three months.  People who do not meet that residency requirement mays file for legal separation instead. The legal separation can be changed to a divorce proceeding at a later date.

Other Factors to Consider.

A legal separation goes into effect as soon as the paperwork is filed. A divorce, however, may take at least six months from filing the petition to signing the final divorce settlement. For couples who need some space, but not a complete end to the marriage, a legal separation might be best.

Also, sometimes a legal separation fits the couple’s religious beliefs better than a divorce. The couple don’t completely break their marriage vows, which may satisfy family and church leaders. However, the parties are spared the ordeal of living together.

Need Help Deciding Whether to Divorce or Legally Separate?

Find out about whether to terminate your marriage or just put it on hold.

To discuss the particulars of your situation, please call us at 415-293-8314. The attorneys at the Law Offices of Judy L. Burger assist clients in San Francisco, Marin County, Santa Barbara, Ventura/Oxnard, San Jose, Gold River (Sacramento), Roseville, and surrounding communities.