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Legal Separation in Washington: What Does It Really Mean?

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In Washington there are two ways to address the end of your marriage. Dissolution (divorce) is the common way and legally terminates the marriage.  Legal Separation is a way to formalize a separation without terminating the marriage.  People choose one over the other depending on the situation. Common law marriages are not recognized in Washington, so only legally married couples or registered domestic partners can file for legal separation. Those filing for legal separation must meet specific requirements.

Legal Separation, in Washington State, is a legal process by which a married couple may formalize a separation while remaining legally married. A legal separation is granted in the form of a court order.

Furthermore, in cases where children are involved, a court order of legal separation often makes temporary arrangements for the care, custody, and financial support of the children (“for the time being”). Thus, part of the court order determines child custody. Some couples obtain a legal separation as an alternative to a divorce, based on moral or religious objections to divorce.  Sometimes it is necessary to maintain insurance coverage, continue services, or otherwise protect a vulnerable or disabled spouse.

Legal separation does not automatically lead to divorce. The couple might reconcile, in which case they do not have to do anything in order to continue their marriage. If the two do not reconcile, and they wish to proceed with a divorce, they must file for divorce explicitly.

A legal separation occurs where spouses agree to separate from one another. The marriage remains legally intact, but the couple formally agrees to live separately. Conversely, a divorce is permanent and ends a marriage.

If you have decided that you no longer want to live with your spouse, but you do not want to end the marriage, you can get a legal separation. However, simply moving out of the home does not constitute a legal separation–you must petition the court to grant you that legal status. The process and cost for a legal separation is generally the same as a divorce.  There will also be the additional cost to convert the legal separation to a divorce in the future.

The main reason to file for legal separation is to have legal documentation in place to ensure that all child and spousal support arrangements that are agreed upon by the separating parties are followed. Generally, child custody agreements are put in place as well. You and your spouse can agree to the terms of the separation order that outline child support payments, living arrangements and spousal support.

In Washington State you do not have to enlist the services of an attorney to submit an application to the courts to make your separation agreement binding.  However, if the separation is contentious, it will help to have legal counsel involved to determine what is fair to each party.

Article updated 8/26/2020

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