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LEGAL DICTIONARY

Legal Separation

A legal separation is a legal agreement between spouses that covers living arrangements, spousal support, and child custody. Some couples choose to legally separate when they are unsure of moving ahead with divorce but want to establish legal responsibilities and boundaries.

Some states require a legal separation before a judge will grant a divorce. Also, a married couple might choose legal separation as an alternative to divorce in order to retain insurance or retirement benefits, for religious reasons, or for the sake of their children.

With a legal separation, the couple is still married. On the other hand, a divorce agreement and a resulting divorce decree end the marriage. Another way to look at it is that a legal separation is reversible while a divorce is final.

However, under the terms of a legal separation, both spouses need to agree on the following terms:

  • Division of property, financial assets, and debts
  • Child custody and visitation schedule
  • Child financial support
  • Spousal support (or alimony)

When the court grants a legal separation, a spouse can no longer freely spend money in a joint credit card or bank account. The legal separation agreement also limits the use of other assets, such as vehicles or real estate.

Why Would a Couple Choose to Legally Separate?

A married couple might choose legal separation over divorce for a variety of reasons. They include

  • Religious beliefs: Some religious groups are opposed to their members divorcing or do not recognize divorce.
  • Cooling-off period: Some couples use separation as a trial period or time of reflection before ending the marriage.
  • Family unity: Especially when young children are involved, some couples may prefer to keep the family intact.
  • Benefit retention: Some couples wish to live separately but retain the health insurance and retirement benefits they have as a married couple.

What Is a Marital Settlement Agreement?

A marital settlement agreement (MSA) is a legal contract that is signed by both spouses. The contract is called a divorce settlement agreement or a separation agreement in some states.

Typically, a marital settlement agreement includes the following details:

  • Child custody and visitation plan
  • Child support amount and duration
  • Spousal support (also called alimony or maintenance) amount and duration
  • Division of property and debts

Read more:How to File for Divorce

What Is an Annulment?

In some situations, an annulment of a marriage is an alternative to a separation or divorce. An annulment declares a marriage as invalid. This decree means that the spouses can move forward with their lives as if the marriage never happened.

Each state has its own requirements for an annulment. The most common grounds are fraud, incest, bigamy, coercion, mental incompetency, under the age of legal consent at the time of the marriage, and a failure to consummate the marriage.

Here are the advantages of a legal separation over a divorce:

  • Financial: Both spouses retain any tax, insurance, or Social Security benefits they are entitled to as a married couple.
  • Religious, ethical, or cultural: Some cultures and faiths do not support divorce. Under a legal separation, each spouse can maintain their status as a married person while living separately from their spouse.
  • Personal: A legal separation can give a couple time to process their differences and possibly work through them without the finality of a divorce.
  • Residential: When one of the spouses is not a U.S. citizen, they may be able to remain in the country under the terms of some legal separations.

Alternatively, here are the disadvantages of legal separation over a divorce:

  • Financial: Both spouses’ finances are still connected with a legal separation. A divorce forces a division of all current assets.
  • Personal: A legally separated individual is still legally married and therefore cannot marry someone else.

What happens if one spouse wants a legal separation while the other seeks a divorce? It is a good idea to consult an attorney in this situation. However, in most cases, the court will proceed with the spouse’s divorce petition.

For help writing a separation agreement, use our Separation Agreement Template that can make drafting this important document much easier.


Download a Free Separation Agreement

A legal separation is a legal agreement between spouses that covers living arrangements, spousal support, and child custody. Some couples choose to legally separate when they are unsure of moving ahead with divorce but want to establish legal responsibilities and boundaries.

Some states require a legal separation before a judge will grant a divorce. Also, a married couple might choose legal separation as an alternative to divorce in order to retain insurance or retirement benefits, for religious reasons, or for the sake of their children.

With a legal separation, the couple is still married. On the other hand, a divorce agreement and a resulting divorce decree end the marriage. Another way to look at it is that a legal separation is reversible while a divorce is final.

However, under the terms of a legal separation, both spouses need to agree on the following terms:

  • Division of property, financial assets, and debts
  • Child custody and visitation schedule
  • Child financial support
  • Spousal support (or alimony)

When the court grants a legal separation, a spouse can no longer freely spend money in a joint credit card or bank account. The legal separation agreement also limits the use of other assets, such as vehicles or real estate.

Why Would a Couple Choose to Legally Separate?

A married couple might choose legal separation over divorce for a variety of reasons. They include

  • Religious beliefs: Some religious groups are opposed to their members divorcing or do not recognize divorce.
  • Cooling-off period: Some couples use separation as a trial period or time of reflection before ending the marriage.
  • Family unity: Especially when young children are involved, some couples may prefer to keep the family intact.
  • Benefit retention: Some couples wish to live separately but retain the health insurance and retirement benefits they have as a married couple.

What Is a Marital Settlement Agreement?

A marital settlement agreement (MSA) is a legal contract that is signed by both spouses. The contract is called a divorce settlement agreement or a separation agreement in some states.

Typically, a marital settlement agreement includes the following details:

  • Child custody and visitation plan
  • Child support amount and duration
  • Spousal support (also called alimony or maintenance) amount and duration
  • Division of property and debts

Read more:How to File for Divorce

What Is an Annulment?

In some situations, an annulment of a marriage is an alternative to a separation or divorce. An annulment declares a marriage as invalid. This decree means that the spouses can move forward with their lives as if the marriage never happened.

Each state has its own requirements for an annulment. The most common grounds are fraud, incest, bigamy, coercion, mental incompetency, under the age of legal consent at the time of the marriage, and a failure to consummate the marriage.

Here are the advantages of a legal separation over a divorce:

  • Financial: Both spouses retain any tax, insurance, or Social Security benefits they are entitled to as a married couple.
  • Religious, ethical, or cultural: Some cultures and faiths do not support divorce. Under a legal separation, each spouse can maintain their status as a married person while living separately from their spouse.
  • Personal: A legal separation can give a couple time to process their differences and possibly work through them without the finality of a divorce.
  • Residential: When one of the spouses is not a U.S. citizen, they may be able to remain in the country under the terms of some legal separations.

Alternatively, here are the disadvantages of legal separation over a divorce:

  • Financial: Both spouses’ finances are still connected with a legal separation. A divorce forces a division of all current assets.
  • Personal: A legally separated individual is still legally married and therefore cannot marry someone else.

What happens if one spouse wants a legal separation while the other seeks a divorce? It is a good idea to consult an attorney in this situation. However, in most cases, the court will proceed with the spouse’s divorce petition.

For help writing a separation agreement, use our Separation Agreement Template that can make drafting this important document much easier.


Download a Free Separation Agreement