Legal separation agreements determine all the issues between a married couple, including spousal support and child custody, without legally ending a divorce. Couples can enter into informal separation terms between themselves, but only a court can issue a separation agreement. The laws governing separation agreement differ between states, so talk to a lawyer if you need legal advice.
Couples choose to get a legal separation instead of a divorce for a variety of reasons, ranging from ethical and religious concerns to an inability to qualify for a divorce. While some couples become "separated" or spend time apart, a legal separation is one where a spouse has petitioned a court and the court has entered a separation decree. Like a divorce, couples can generally agree to their own separation agreement terms, but must have the court approve the agreement by entering an enforceable decree.
Property and Alimony
Separation agreements, just like divorce decrees, contain property distribution terms that divide all the property owned by the couple. For example, separation agreements set out who gets to live in the marital home and who receives specific personal property. Separation agreements can also include alimony terms, sometimes known as spousal support or spousal maintenance. The couple can agree to alimony and property terms between themselves, or if unable to agree, ask the court to determine the appropriate terms.
Child Custody and Support
Whenever children are a party to a legal separation, the court must ensure that the needs of the children are met before the desires of the parents. Courts issue child support and child custody orders in a legal separation in the same fashion as they do in a divorce. These orders are made to ensure the child's best interests are served. While the couple can agree to terms themselves, the court must approve any terms that impact a child's best interests.
While a legal separation decree allows the couple to live apart, divides property and child custody, and makes allowances for alimony and child support, the couple is still legally married. Neither spouse can get remarried until they receive a divorce decree. Even if a couple files for legal separation because they do not qualify as state residents and have to wait a specific period of time before the court will grant a divorce, they can only get remarried once they ask the court for a divorce and the court issues a divorce decree.