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What is a legal separation versus a divorce?

Sometimes people in California might say after a divorce that they have separated. However, from a legal standpoint, a divorce and a legal separation are two different things, each accomplishing its own purpose.

Let's take a look at legal separation. Essentially, a legal separation is agreement that is issued in court that allows the spouses to live apart, but stay married. Sometimes people will get a legal separation as a means of having some breathing room before deciding whether or not to divorce. A legal separation order will lay out each spouse's rights, including child custody decisions, child support decisions and alimony decisions. A legally separated couple can still keep joint assets, and has a legal right to said property if they decide to divorce, unless the separation order says otherwise.

Similarly, since they are still technically married, a couple in a legal separation can be on one another's health insurance benefits, and they can still make decisions on the other's behalf if the other becomes incapacitated. They retain the right to inherit from one another, and they will still hold responsibility for the marital debts. As it is not a divorce, couples in a legal separation cannot marry another individual.

A divorce, on the other hand, legally ends a marriage. The spouses no longer hold any responsibilities towards one another except those stated in the divorce decree. The divorce decree is legally binding, and will contain all the details of the divorce, such as child custody arrangements, child support, alimony and property division. Usually, once divorced a person cannot remain on his or her ex's health care policy. Also, once divorced unless stated elsewhere, the spouses will no longer be considered each other's next of kin. After a divorce, a person can remarry if he or she so chooses.

The decision whether to seek a legal separation or a divorce is a very personal one. Since this post only provides a brief overview of this important topic, those in California who want to learn more about this subject are encouraged to contact a family law attorney.

Source: Seeking Alpha, "What Is The Difference Between Legal Separation And Divorce?," Russ Thornton, Sept. 28, 2017

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