Legal separation is a legal process by which a married couple may formalize a separation while remaining legally married. The parties make an agreement, or the court makes an order, that specifies the rights and responsibilities of each spouse. It is not the same as nor will it automatically lead to a divorce. It is also not a required precursor to filing for divorce. If the parties at some point wish to proceed with a divorce, they must file for divorce with the court.

Couples who opt to be legally separated have to follow the same formalities as in a divorce proceeding such as filing a formal petition with the court, submitting a legal separation agreement and getting a final judgment of legal separation from the court. In California however, unlike in the case of divorce which has a six month waiting period before it can be finalized, a legal separation can be binding on the spouses without the waiting period.

In California, spouses that have decided to pursue legal separation may enter into a “separation agreement,” which is a legally binding contract detailing how issues resulting from their separation will be dealt with, much like the “settlement agreement” in a divorce process. The issues to be covered in the separation agreement include child custody and visitation schedules, child support, spousal support, living arrangements, division of debt and property along with other related matters. Since the decisions that will go into the preparation of the separation agreement may have serious consequences for the future, especially on matters that will impact the children, it is often best to hire an attorney who can ensure that the rights of everyone concerned are adequately protected.

Related Read: Understanding Child Custody Laws

There are couples who opt to legally separate instead of divorce because of religious beliefs and there are those who do so on account of certain material advantages, like paying lower taxes. In some cases, the separated spouses remain legally married until the ten-year deadline for certain Social Security benefits is reached. For those in the military service, the separated spouses have to remain legally married for a certain period of time to receive pension and other benefits.

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