The Legal Aspects of Getting Separated

Many people view legal separation as a step toward a divorce and, while it may be that, it is also an important legal process in its own right. Therefore, it is important for couples to understand their rights and the legal effects of their separation.
Issues that Can be Addressed in a Legal Separation
A married couple may decide to separate or live apart at any time without permission of the court. However, when the couple announces their intent to live apart to the court, then they are seeking a legal separation. Since a legal separation is a court proceeding, there are matters that may be decided by a judge. For example, issues such as child custody, child support and spousal support are commonly decided in legal separations. However, it is important to note that all of these things may be revised, or retracted if the couple seeks a divorce.
Differences Between Legal Separations and Divorces
The parties involved in a legal separation are legally bound to comply with the terms of the court order, however they are still considered to be a married couple because they do not have an official divorce decree. 
Furthermore, a legal separation is often ordered without any delay on the part of the court because the consequences of a separation are not permanent. In many states, couples who seek a divorce may only be granted a divorce after they have gone through a waiting period. The waiting period is meant to ensure that the couple truly wants to be divorced and to end their marriage. Since a separation does not end a marriage and may be revoked with the mutual consent of the spouses, no waiting period is necessary.
Separations are often sought by couples who no longer wish to live together as husband and wife but who want to maintain certain benefits of marriage such as tax benefits, social security benefits,  or pension benefits, by couples who are religiously opposed to divorce, and by couples who are unsure about whether to file for divorce.
How to File for a Legal Separation
A legal separation is an important legal proceeding that can have an immediate impact on your life and may influence divorce proceedings. Therefore, it is important to consult with a family law attorney before filing a legal separation. Your lawyer will help you file a petition or legal separation with the court that will include how you want financial and child custody matters handled during your separation. If your spouse has no objections than the court will likely grant the separation. However, if your spouse objects to the separation or to the terms of the separation than a hearing will likely be held before the separation is granted unless both spouses agree to work things out privately or to seek the help of a mediator. Once both spouses agree and sign the separation agreement it will be approved by a judge, filed with the court and the parties will be legally separated and bound by the terms of their separation agreement.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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