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Should You File For Divorce or Legal Separation?

People often ask, "should I file for a divorce or get a legal separation?" The answer is, "it depends." Firstly, let's break down exactly what a divorce is.

The divorce process can be summed up into four primary subjects:

  1. The termination of the marital status
  2. The division or confirmation of property
  3. The award or payment of support
  4. Custody and visitation of children

While each subject can be subdivided into other issues, it all comes back to these primary components.

What is the Difference Between Divorce and Separation?

It's simple: A legal separation does all the same thing as a divorce but does not include the termination of the marital status. In a divorce, either party can pursue a judgment, but it requires a six-month waiting period. In contrast, a judgment for legal separation requires both parties to consent and is final immediately.

A judgment for legal separation leaves the marital bonds intact (Fam. Code §2347), but it can serve as a final judgment for spouses' property rights or support rights, even in a subsequent proceeding to dissolve the marriage or a probate proceeding. (Estate of Lahey (1999) 76 Cal.App.4th 1056, 1058-1059; Prob. Code §78.)

How to File for Legal Separation in CA

file for legal separation
  1. Meet California's residency requirements for legal separation.
  2. File all legal separation paperwork at the court in the county where you live.
  3. Serve your spouse (if you are not filing jointly).
  4. If your petition is contested – negotiate your separation through mediation or court.
  5. If you are in agreement about your separation – sign and notarize the agreement and file it with the court clerk.
  6. Your legal separation will be approved and finalized by a judge.

What Happens After a Legal Separation is Entered?

Once a judgment for legal separation is entered, the spouses are treated as if they are divorced. For example, the spouse's earnings and obligations will be their separate property (Fam. Code §771.). The spouses may no longer file joint tax returns (IRC §7703 (a)(2).), and on some occasions, the nonemployee spouse will lose access to any group health insurance coverage. The spouses have no right to intestate inheritance (Prob. Code §78). However, unlike the spouses that get divorced, legally separated spouses cannot remarry because they are still legally married. (Fam. Code §2201.)

Why Choose a Legal Separation Over a Divorce?

There are several valid reasons why people choose to legally separate but remain married to one another. Some of these reasons include:

  • You and/or your spouse oppose divorce for religious or moral reasons
  • One spouse will soon become eligible for his or her spouse’s government benefits (such as Social Security)
  • One spouse may remain eligible for the other spouse’s health care or insurance benefits if they remain married
  • There may be some tax benefit if you and your spouse remain married to one another
  • There may be some estate planning benefit to you and your spouse obtaining a legal separation
  • There is a chance the spouses may reconcile after some time apart
  • It may present a less stressful environment to negotiate a separation agreement than to negotiate a divorce agreement between the spouses

If you decide to remain married and only obtain a judgment for legal separation for specific reasons (such as Social Security or health insurance or other retirement benefits), make sure you read the fine print associated with such benefits or any orders made by the court in connection with those property rights. Some benefits will specifically exclude legally separated spouses from eligibility resulting in the loss of the expected benefit.

What Happens if You Later Decide You Want the Divorce?

You can later file for divorce but the issues resolved in the legal separation are final, with the following exceptions:

In addition to talking to an attorney from our firm about which option is right for you, you should consider talking to an accountant, a financial planner, and/or estate planning attorney to make certain you understand the financial ramifications of legal separation versus divorce.

Contact Moore, Schulman & Moore, APC

If you have questions about legal separation and/or are ready to begin the process, we invite you to contact Moore, Schulman & Moore, APC to request an initial consultation. We'd be happy to review your case and help you understand the legal ramifications of your decision. Our team helps clients throughout Southern California from offices in San Diego and Irvine.

Call us today and let us help you make the right decision!

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