Overview: What's the Difference Between Legal Separation and Divorce?
A quick and easy way to explain a legal separation is that for most practical purposes, it is the same as a dissolution of marriage (commonly called a "divorce"). In both proceedings a petition is filed, the opposing party is served, temporary orders can be entered, and final orders can be entered by agreement or by conducting a trial. In both proceedings all relevant issues are resolved: the division of property and debts, child custody and visitation, child support, spousal maintenance, name change and restraining orders. The only big difference is that after a divorce the parties are no longer married; after a legal separation they are. For that reason, neither party is free to re-marry after a legal separation.
If the Difference Is So Small, Why Pick One Over the Other?
When a marriage breaks up, one or both spouses usually want to sever all ties; they don't want to remain married. Washington State is a "no fault" state. In a divorce, neither party has to show that the other party did something wrong to get a divorce. Neither party can force the other to accept a Decree of Legal Separation if the other party wants a divorce. For that reason alone, by far the largest percentage of separating couples get a divorce. However, in some cases a legal separation is the appropriate choice. There are three main reasons for choosing a decree of legal separation over a decree of dissolution of marriage: (1) Sometimes the parties simply cannot accept the emotional impact of being divorced; (2) some couples hold strong religious beliefs that prohibit divorce; and (3) in some cases there are important financial reasons to remain technically married.