Legal Separation vs. Divorce in California

Unlike divorce, a legal separation doesn’t end a marriage and there’s no waiting period for it to become final. While a legal separation enables spouses to live separately, they remain legally married and not allowed to remarry. Furthermore, both spouses must agree to a legal separation and abide by court-ordered spousal rights and responsibilities. If one spouse disagrees to a legal separation, it becomes a divorce.

Reasons for Legal Separation

There are several reasons why couples may choose legal separation, including:

  • Because lot of consideration goes into the decision to divorce, legal separation gives couples the chance to live apart while determining the future of the relationship and to decide if divorce is the right choice.
  • Some religious beliefs prohibit divorce, and a legal separation allows spouse to live separately while remaining married.
  • California’s six-month residency requirement for divorce means that some couples may first file for legal separation and then proceed with a divorce after six months.
  • Remaining married allows some people to continue to receive a spouse’s health insurance benefits, military benefits, or certain Social Security benefits. Keep in mind, some employers may consider a legal separation equivalent to a divorce and deny benefits.
  • There’s no waiting period for a legal separation in California. However, in order to be granted a legal separation, one of the spouses must file a legal separation request with the appropriate court.

During a legal separation, spouses may ask the court to decide certain issues—such as, child custody, child or spousal support, visitation schedules, asset or debt division, joint financial accounts, health care costs, and legal fees—and protect both spouses’ interests until a decision is made to file for divorce. These types of agreements also may be converted into a permanent divorce agreement.

If the court is involved in deciding on property distribution, spouses may be asked to attend a hearing to testify or present evidence. However, some couples are able to reach separation agreements on their own or with the assistance of a mediator or their respective attorneys.

Proceeding with Divorce after Legal Separation

Unlike legal separation, divorce permanently ends a marriage. But before you file for divorce, you must meet California’s six-month residency requirement as well as the three-month residency requirement of the county where you’ll file for divorce. Your children, if applicable, must also meet the three-month residency requirement.

Once your California divorce trial concludes, the court enters a final judgment that outlines everything from child custody and visitation rights to alimony and dissolution of property. Many times, the agreement from your legal separation will be used in determining your final divorce settlement.