Ending a marriage is a traumatic and difficult experience, and there are many factors that weigh into how a divorce will be processed. A contested divorce will often be adjudicated in court; however, couples can opt for a dissolution of marriage or a legal separation instead of a divorce. Although minor variations occur depending on the state, there are several common differences between these two choices, including legal status, benefits and court appearances.
In a decree of dissolution and a legal separation agreement, assets and property are divided, spousal support is determined, debt payments are allocated and parental rights (if applicable), are decided on by the court. A dissolution of marriage decree is final; however, a legal separation agreement can be converted into a decree of dissolution without having to negotiate new terms.
Once the court determines that all conditions are fair and agreed upon, a dissolution of marriage legally terminates a marriage. A legal separation, however, does not terminate a marriage, but instead allows the court to issue judgments regarding parental rights (if applicable) and separation of assets just as in a dissolution decree. However, after a legal separation is granted, both parties are still legally married and cannot remarry until they obtain a divorce.
In many states, a decree of dissolution will end insurance and military benefits for a spouse. A legal separation, however, allows a spouse to retain those rights, although a few states have ruled that a legal separation is the same as a divorce and have ended those benefits. In addition, a legal separation allows a spouse to continue to file a joint tax return and inherit property.
A decree of dissolution generally occurs when both parties agree to terminate a marriage without conflict by agreeing to a "no-fault" judgment that will end the marriage. Because there is mutual agreement and cooperation between both parties, a decree of dissolution often requires very little time in a courtroom as most negotiations are conducted informally. In a legal separation, however, which is a civil lawsuit, the court must issue orders regarding child support (if applicable), division of property and spousal support, necessitating court appearances.