Many states allow married couples that wish to live apart as separate entities the option of filing for a legal separation instead of a divorce. If you do not wish to hire an attorney, it is possible to file for legal separation yourself. The key difference between a legal separation and a divorce is that when legally separated, you are still married. However, there will be an agreement that defines the division of assets and other financial matters if you choose to live separately from your spouse. Couples often choose a legal separation instead of a divorce for religious, moral or financial reasons, or as a trial period before deciding to file for a divorce.
Why Choose Legal Separation Over Divorce?
In most states, a legal separation accomplishes the same thing as a divorce with one major difference. At the end of a legal separation, the couple is still legally married and may not remarry. Generally, a legal separation can settle issues regarding child support, child custody and visitation, alimony, division of property, debt and assets. At the end of a legal separation, the parties will essentially be separate legal entities. However, because they are not divorced, a spouse and children may remain on a working spouse's healthcare plan and are still entitled to receive certain military benefits.
Can Anyone File For Legal Separation?
While all states within the United States recognize a married couple's right to file for a divorce, not all states allow married couples to file for legal separation. As of 2019, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Texas do not recognize legal separations.
What is the Procedure?
The procedure for filing for legal separation is usually the same as filing for divorce. You must prepare a petition telling the court that you wish to be legally separated from your spouse. You must also prepare a summons that will be served on your spouse to notify that you have initiated the legal separation proceedings.
Where to Find the Forms
Forms that can be used to file a legal separation are frequently available online through your state or county court website. Most state courts and many larger county courts now have self-help sections on their websites that contain fill-in-the-blank forms for common proceedings such as legal separations. They may also have a self-help center located in the court office where you can pick up or view sample forms to use in your legal separation case. You may also choose to pay a fee to any of a number of online companies that will provide you with the forms. Additional forms required in your state may vary, however, they will generally be the same requirements as in a divorce proceeding.
Take Care With the Petition
A judge is generally unable to award you anything that you have not asked for in the original petition. Thoroughly research and prepare your petition and make sure you have covered everything that you are asking for in the legal separation. The whole process is much easier if you and your spouse agree upfront what you would like to happen in the areas of child custody, visitation and child and spousal support, as well as what should happen to the marital home, assets and debt liabilities. A judge generally will not undo any arrangements that are supported by both parties, unless they are not in the best interest of the children or are blatantly unfair.
All orders contained in a legal separation agreement or decree are enforceable and any violation of the agreement can be considered contempt of court.