What Is the Difference Between Legal Separation and a Divorce?

March 27, 2024 | By Doppelt and Forney
What Is the Difference Between Legal Separation and a Divorce?

The difference between legal separation and divorce in California is considerable, though the process for both is similar. In both cases, the court must divide property, determine child custody and support issues, and make decisions about spousal support. 

However, one option leaves the door open to reconciliation and benefits, while the other may put couples back at square one regarding heart, health, and financial security matters.

Doppelt and Forney San Diego lawyers have spent years helping couples understand which option is best for their particular circumstances. Consult with our San Diego divorce attorneys for to navigate complex paperwork, negotiate settlements, and represent your interests in court. If you and your spouse are considering a split, here's what you need to know about legal separation and divorce in California.

California defines legal separation as the situation in which a couple lives apart but has not legally dissolved their marriage.

To qualify for legal separation in California, couples must: 

What Is the Difference Between Legal Separation and a Divorce
  • Meet the residency requirements (one party must have lived in California for at least six months before filing)
  • Have legitimate grounds for separation, such as irreconcilable differences or permanent incapacity to make decisions 

Once the paperwork has been filed, the court will address all related issues, such as child custody and support, spousal support, and division of assets. However, unlike divorce proceedings where the marriage is legally dissolved, a legal separation does not terminate the marital status of the couple.

What is Divorce in California?

In California, divorce is the legal termination of a marriage. This means both parties can remarry, and their assets and debts become permanently separated in a (usually) 50-50 split. 

When filing for divorce, couples can choose between four types of dissolution:

  • No-fault: This is the most common type of divorce in California and does not require either party to prove grounds for separation.
  • Uncontested: In this type of divorce, both parties agree on all issues related to the separation, including child custody, support, and property division.
  • Limited scope: With this type of divorce, couples choose only to address specific issues, such as child custody and support, while leaving other matters to be resolved at a later time.
  • Simplified: This is a streamlined process for couples with no minor children, who have been married less than five years, and who have limited assets. 

Once the divorce finalizes, the court will issue a judgment that legally ends the marriage and outlines all terms and agreements for child custody, support, spousal support, and division of assets.

Though legal separation may seem like a slower path to the inevitability of divorce, it can bring certain benefits to couples who are not sure about ending their marriage, including but not limited to:

  • Continuation of health insurance coverage. During a legal separation, a spouse’s health insurance policy can cover the other spouse.
  • Tax advantages. By remaining legally married, couples can continue filing joint tax returns and receive more favorable tax treatment.
  • Time to Reconsider. Legal separation allows both parties to step back and evaluate their relationship without rushing into a permanent decision like divorce.
  • Protection of Personal Assets. During legal separation, spouses maintain separate assets and debts, which can protect individuals from their partner's financial debts or liabilities.
  • Religious Reasons. For couples who have strong religious beliefs, legal separation may be a better option, as divorce is not allowed in some religions. 
  • Lower Costs. Legal separation typically involves fewer court and attorneys' fees than a regular dissolution, making it a more affordable option for some couples.

With the ability to address critical issues such as child custody and support, spousal support, and division of assets, legal separation provides a clear framework for couples to navigate while they decide on the future of their marriage. 

What Are the Benefits of Divorce in California?

While legal separation may work for some couples, divorce may ultimately be the best option for others.

In California, there are several benefits of getting a divorce, including:

Benefits of Divorce
  • Finality. Divorce formally ends the marriage and allows individuals to move on with their lives. This can bring closure and emotional relief for both parties.
  • Equal division of assets. In a divorce, assets and debts are typically divided equally between spouses. This can provide a fair and equitable outcome for both parties.
  • Ability to remarry. Unlike legal separation, divorce allows individuals to lawfully remarry if they choose to do so.
  • Eligibility for government benefits. Divorce may be necessary to maintain eligibility for those relying on government benefits. In some instances, the government may not recognize legal separation as an official end to the marriage.

Divorce can benefit you in marriages involving abuse or infidelity. The legal process of divorce can provide protection and closure for those who have experienced these issues in their relationship.

However, it's important to note that every situation is unique, and the best option for one couple may not be the best for another. You can better understand your situation and the best course of action by contacting Doppelt and Forney San Diego Divorce lawyers in San Diego. 

Though the benefits of legal separation offer certain advantages, there are also drawbacks to consider, including:

  • Financial implications. Legal separation can help protect assets and debts but may also have financial implications. For example, one spouse may still need to pay for the other's insurance or retirement benefits.
  • Lack of closure. Unlike divorce, legal separation does not officially end the marriage. This can leave individuals in limbo and prevent them from moving on emotionally.
  • Inability to remarry. While divorce allows individuals to marry again, legal separation does not. Those wishing to enter a new relationship or have their new partner legally recognized may want to divorce.
  • Continued legal ties: Legal separation still means that both parties have legal ties to each other and may need to continue working together on some issues, such as child custody or financial agreements.

When children are factored into the equation, legal separation may also affect their well-being and stability, leading to increased mental health issues that affect learning, diet, mood, and energy. 

What are the Drawbacks of Divorce in California?

San Diego California divorce lawyers are instrumental in helping couples file for divorce.

But, despite the potential benefits of divorce, there are also downsides to consider, including:

  • Emotional toll. Divorce can be emotionally draining for both parties involved. The process of ending a marriage and potentially losing a partner, along with dividing assets and dealing with custody issues, can take a toll on mental health.
  • Financial strain. Divorce can also have significant financial implications, including legal fees, alimony or spousal support payments, and changes in living arrangements. In some cases, one party may experience a lower standard of living after the divorce is finalized.
  • Impact on children. Divorce can be incredibly challenging for children, who may struggle to understand and cope with the changes in their family dynamic. It may also lead to feelings of guilt or responsibility for the breakup.

Furthermore, in some circles, divorce still carries a social stigma that can alienate individuals from their social support network and impact their self-esteem. As a result, many divorced people find trusting, building new relationships, and moving on more challenging.

To file for legal separation in California, couples will need to:

  • Satisfy all requirements. To file for legal separation in California, at least one spouse must have been a state resident for at least six months before filing and in the county where they plan to file for three months.
  • File a Petition. The first step is filing a court petition requesting a legal separation. This form will outline details such as the reason for the separation, division of assets, and child custody arrangements.
  • Serve the Petition. The petition must also be served to the other spouse, along with a summons outlining their rights and responsibilities in the legal separation process.
  • Respond to the Petition. Once served, the respondent has 30 days to respond to the petition with their own requests or agreements for the terms of the legal separation.
  • Negotiate and Agree. Both parties can negotiate and agree on the terms of their legal separation, including child custody, division of assets, and spousal support. It is highly recommended to seek legal counsel during this process to ensure a fair outcome.
  • Finalize the Legal Separation. Once all terms have been agreed upon, the parties can submit their final agreement to the court for approval. The judge will then issue a legal separation judgment outlining the terms of the separation.
  • Considered Legally Separated. Once the judgment is issued, both parties are considered legally separated and must adhere to the terms outlined in the agreement.

There is no waiting period for legal separation, so once the judgment is issued, the parties can begin living separately. Both parties will still be considered legally married and cannot remarry unless they choose to file for divorce.

How Do I File For Divorce in California?

To file for divorce in California, one must meet the following requirements:

San Diego Divorce Lawyers
  • Residency. Either spouse must have lived in California for at least six months before filing for divorce.
  • Grounds for Divorce. In California, a no-fault divorce is recognized, meaning neither party needs to prove grounds for the dissolution of marriage. The only requirement is that the marriage is irreconcilable, meaning that irreparable differences have led to the breakdown of the marriage.
  • Filing Forms. The spouse initiating the divorce must file a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage with the court and serve it to their partner. The other spouse then has 30 days to file a response.
  • Negotiate and Settle. Like legal separation, the spouses must negotiate and agree upon terms regarding child custody, division of assets and debts, spousal support, and other marital issues. This agreement can then be submitted to the court for approval.
  • Finalizing Divorce. Both parties are legally divorced after the court issues the Judgment of Dissolution. However, there is a six-month waiting period before the divorce can be finalized. During this time, neither party can remarry.

Assuming both parties have amicably agreed to a divorce, the process shouldn't take more than six to eight months. However, if disagreements arise or one party contests the divorce, it can take longer.

Should I Hire San Diego Divorce Lawyers? 

The complicated nature of legal separation and divorce cases can make it challenging to navigate the process alone. Hiring a right divorce lawyer in San Diego, CA, can provide experienced legal representation that protects your rights and interests throughout the proceedings. 

Additionally, a California divorce attorney can help you understand the laws and regulations specific to your case, providing valuable advice on negotiating and settling any outstanding marital issues. 

And it isn't just couples that benefit from having experienced San Diego, CA divorce lawyers on their side - it's also children. With legal professionals taking care of the details, both parents can spend more time nurturing strong bonds in the wake of a legal separation or divorce, increasing the chance for a smooth transition for everyone involved.

Ultimately, divorce and legal separation are both viable options for ending a marriage in the state of California. While divorce completely dissolves the marriage, legal separation allows couples to live separately while remaining legally married. 

Each option has its benefits and drawbacks, so it is important to carefully evaluate your situation and seek professional guidance from an experienced San Diego divorce attorney before making any decisions.

Ready to start your legal separation or divorce proceedings? Contact San Diego, California divorce lawyers for guidance and support. Remember, with the right legal team, you can emerge from this difficult time stronger and more prepared for whatever lies ahead.