Divorce versus Separation: What's The Difference?

Divorce versus Separation: What’s The Difference?

by May 21, 2021Divorce

For many adults, hearing the term “separated” has a somewhat undefined meaning, which is actually not a surprise considering there are four different kinds of separation. Understanding the difference between divorce versus separation is important because the type of separation a couple chooses can impact property rights.

Types of Separation

The following is a brief overview to help understand the different types of separation, and the the difference of divorce versus separation in general. Keep in mind that each state has specific rules regarding property rights, so it’s always a good idea to contact a family law attorney regarding specific legal issues.

1) Trial Separation

A trial separation is when a couple decides to live apart for a certain amount of time to decide if they want to separate permanently. If, after the decided upon amount of time, a couple decides not to get back together, the assets they’ve accumulated and debts they’ve incurred together are usually considered marital property.

This type of separation is often not legally recognized, but is a very common type of separation for couples to go through.

2) Living Apart

Spouses who no longer live in the same home are defined as living apart. In some states, living apart without intending to reunite changes the couple’s property rights. For example, some states consider property and debts accumulated while the spouses are living apart to be the separate property or debt of the spouse that incurred it.

In other states, property is joint unless and until a legal divorce complaint has been filed in a court of law. Some states also stipulate that spouses must live apart for a certain period of time before they are permitted to file for a no-fault divorce.

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3) Permanent Separation

A permanent separation occurs when a couple decides to permanently split up, and this is a common occurrence following a trial separation. In most states, all assets received and most debts incurred after permanent separation are the separate responsibility of the spouse incurring them.

However, some debts that happen after separation and before divorce are considered joint debts if they are incurred for certain necessities such as child expenses and costs related to maintaining the marital home.

4) Legal Separation

A legal separation shares many things in common with a divorce, but is not actually a divorce. A legal separation occurs when spouses separate and have a court rule on the division of property, alimony, child support, custody, and visitation — but does not grant a divorce.

This situation isn’t common, but there are occasionally couples who don’t want an actual divorce for religious, financial, or personal reasons, but do want the security of a court order that defines all the same legal aspects of one.

Divorce Versus Separation

To be very clear, all the types of separation listed above are not divorce. When trying to understand divorce versus separation, it’s important to remember that a divorce is a very specific legal filing with it’s own set of legal rules and requirements.

Generally speaking, many couples go through some or all of the above phases of separation before they file for an actual divorce.

If you are still unsure about the difference between divorce versus separation, or need advice about which alternative to pursue, call a reputable family law attorney who can answer you questions and provide legal guidance specific to your situation.


At Vonder Haar Law Offices, we offer every client a free phone consultation to discuss their unique situation and determine how we can help. To arrange a consultation, please fill out the adjacent form or call us at: (707) 529-3200.

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