Attorneys are often asked to explain the difference between divorce and legal separation. From the client's perspective, the only substantial difference will likely be that a divorce will terminate the marital relation, that is, after a divorce the parties are no longer married. However, after a legal separation the parties remain married. In either action, the court will enter a judgment with provisions for legal custody and physical placement of minor children, child support, maintenance, and property division.
In our experience, most parties choose to pursue divorce rather than legal separation. Furthermore, if one party asks for a legal separation and the other asks for a divorce, the court will generally grant the judgment of divorce. The reasons why a party will choose to pursue a legal separation are varied. Some health insurance policies still allow a spouse to remain on his or her spouse's policy if the parties are legally separated rather than divorced. This often proves to be a compelling reason to pursue a legal separation rather than a divorce. Others believe that there may be a reasonable likelihood for a reconciliation and opt for a legal separation rather than a divorce. Still others pursue a legal separation for religious reasons.
Once a judgment of legal separation has been entered it can be converted to a judgment of divorce. During the first year following entry, a judgment of legal separation may be converted to a judgment of divorce by stipulation of the parties. Once the parties so stipulate the court has no discretion but to convert the judgment of legal separation to a judgment of divorce. Once a year has passed since entry of the judgment of legal separation, either party acting alone may petition the court to convert the judgment of legal separation to a judgment of divorce and, again, the court has no discretion but to convert the judgment.
Parties who separate and are truly undecided as to whether a divorce is appropriate under the circumstances may be well advised to obtain a judgment of legal separation. In this way, they can obtain a set of rules that are enforceable by the court that will provide some certainty and order in areas relating to the custody and physical placement of their children, as well as their financial affairs.