UNITED STATES—For many couples, a legal separation is just a pit stop on the road to divorce. But for others, a separation allows them to handle a lot of their own business before reaching the irreversible endpoint of divorce.

Depending on a couple’s circumstances, a long-term legal separation may be a better option than getting a divorce. It is essential to understand the legal ramifications of each option before proceeding.

Legal Separation

Separation is characterized by living apart and working as a couple to divide up responsibilities and assets in a way that will become permanent in the case of divorce. There are legal steps to becoming separated in the eyes of the law; you can not just send your spouse to a motel and assume you meet the qualifications.

A separation of around three years is the standard length of time before a complete divorce is reached — a small percentage of couples that separate attempt to reconcile the marriage and return to a relationship. However, around ten percent of legally separated couples remain that way indefinitely.

An indefinite, long-term legal separation seems counterintuitive at first glance, but it makes sense for many couples. Some religious groups do not approve of divorce, so a long-term separation is occasionally the best that couples under these rules can do.

Studies have shown that low-income households are also more likely to remain in a long-term separation, likely due to the high cost of a divorce. Couples with children at sensitive ages have also been known to separate for an extended amount of time to soften the blow of divorce.


Divorce is final. It is a legal dissolution of a marriage and the forfeiting of some associated rights and assets by both parties. A divorce can send ripples through the finances, career, family structure, and lifestyle of everyone involved.

It is important to understand the seriousness of divorce compared to a separation. Each situation is unique, but a poorly-negotiated divorce can foil plans like healthcare coverage, retirement plans, and long-term investments that need to be split up.

Core Differences Between Divorce and Separation

The main distinguishing characteristic between a legal separation and divorce is that you remain technically married while separated. Until a married couple is divorced, they must report that they are married on any form. This distinction means that separated couples can continue to benefit from their relationships, such as Social Security and pensions.

A separated couple is also not permitted to remarry until they divorce. Any children born to the couple will be assumed to be parented by both of them unless proven otherwise and amended in paperwork.

State Laws

In some states, a couple must undergo a separation to obtain a divorce under specific grounds. Of course, this will not be necessary in extreme cases where abuse is present, but a period of six months to a year of separation is not unheard of as a qualification for divorcing.

Some other states use separation as the legal grounds for a divorce. A period of time living apart and settling affairs can automatically convert into a divorce agreement after some time, under this type of state laws.

Spousal support may be required under a separation in some states. Review the laws of divorce for a great example of a complex system that seems to ensure everyone will need their own legal representative.

Build a Support Network

No matter what you choose to do, you should surround yourself with people who can help you through the difficult process of ending a marriage. Consulting with a divorce attorney can help you explore that option further, but many prefer to only handle divorce settlements.

You should also consider looking for either a certified marriage counselor who can guide you and your spouse through the process. Alternatively, you could find a therapist for yourself since the stress of both legal separation and divorce can be a significant change in anyone’s life.

About the author:

While she had a solid education in law, Lynda King wanted more than a job as a lawyer. She knew that people needed information and a better understanding of everyday legal matters, so she began writing articles and guidelines to educate individuals and businesses. Now, Lynda is collaborating with Farzad & Ochoa Family Law Attorneys, being proud that her knowledge and writing talent are helping everyone every day.