Legal separation is a family law term that is commonly misunderstood and misused. It does not mean that married spouses simply have decided to live apart. Even when both parties agree to a permanent separation, it does not constitute a legal separation.
Instead, legal separation is a legal designation that requires a process very similar to divorce. During a legal separation, property is divided, child custody is determined, and child support or spousal support may be arranged just like it would be during a divorce.
The most obvious difference, however, is that the legally separated spouses remain legally married. This means that neither spouse may remarry.
However, its benefits also differ from those in a divorce. Legal separation usually allows the spouses to retain medical insurance or other benefits contingent on their marriage. Additionally, legally separated spouses may meet certain requirements to become a social security or U.S. military beneficiary.
Additionally, parties may prefer legal separation over divorce if their religion discourages or prohibits divorce.
A legal separation may be obtained collaboratively, if both spouses agree, or it may be contested and require litigation. If one spouse files for legal separation and the other files for divorce, the parties will proceed to divorce.