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  • Cindy Wysocki

What's the difference between legal separation and divorce?

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

In Washington state, legal separation is an alternative to divorce. It is a court-ordered agreement that allows you and your spouse to live separate lives, but you are still legally married. A legal separation can be granted for a variety of reasons, such as religious beliefs or a desire to keep health insurance benefits.

Like a divorce, a legal separation is controlled by RCW 26.09. The same forms are used in both cases, and the same issues are addressed. Legal separation involves dividing assets and debts, and if appropriate making arrangements for spousal maintenance, child custody and child support. However, you are not allowed to remarry while you are legally separated; you must first obtain a divorce to end your marriage. Either party can file a motion to convert the legal separation decree to a divorce decree and that motion will be granted.

Divorce, on the other hand, is the legal dissolution of a marriage. When you get a divorce, you are no longer married and are free to remarry. The process of obtaining a divorce is similar to that of obtaining a legal separation, but the end result is that your marriage is completely terminated.

In short, the difference between a legal separation and a divorce is less than many people would assume based on the names. Sometimes people choose to file for legal separation instead of divorce because the name “legal separation” seems less harsh than “divorce.” In reality, the two processes are almost identical. For those who file for legal separation, it’s not unusual for the petition to be converted to a divorce petition even before final orders are entered. Nonetheless, "legal separation" may feel softer than "divorce," so sometimes that's a more desirable starting place for divorcing couples at the time of filing.

If you are thinking about getting a divorce but unsure, you should consult a therapist and a lawyer. The therapist can help you sort through conflicting emotions about your relationship, whereas a lawyer can tell you what you need to be thinking about to plan ahead and make the path through legal separation or divorce as smooth and pain-free as possible.

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