Often married couples may want to reach an agreement that allows them to live separate and apart but remain married. That is the basic purpose of a legal separation. A legal separation is essentially a contract between the parties and approved by the Court that addresses how the parties will share in the marital responsibilities while living separated from one another. The separation agreement can address issues such as, which party will remain in the marital home; the sharing of marital assets (e.g. automobiles and furniture); payment of marital debts; spousal support; and, if applicable, child custody, parenting time and child support.
The reasons couples opt for a legal separation are varied, but often couples seek legal separation for religious or financial reasons (continued medical insurance coverage), or to provide one another the space necessary to sort through things.
Similar to seeking a divorce, a legal separation is instituted by filing an action at Court. The basis for obtaining a legal separation are similar to the “grounds” for seeking a divorce, including incompatibility, adultery, willful absence for more than one year, extreme cruelty, habitual drunkenness, and gross neglect of duty. It is important to understand that although one spouse may file an action for legal separation, the other spouse is not compelled to agree and is free to file a complaint for divorce. The Court would move forward on the divorce rather than a legal separation. In a legal separation the marriage remains legally intact, whereas in a divorce or dissolution, the marriage is ended. All of the same issues addressed in a divorce or dissolution are also addressed in a legal separation. At a later time, the terms and conditions of the legal separation may serve as the basis for the terms and conditions of a final divorce or dissolution order.
Once the legal separation is in place it can remain in effect until the parties either reconcile or one of them takes some further action to terminate the marriage. So long as the legal separation is still in-tact, the rights and obligations of the parties are governed by the legal separation agreement, which is enforceable through the Court.
Obtaining a legal separation is not a prerequisite to filing a complaint for divorce or a joint petition for the dissolution of a marriage.