A Bellevue Family Law Attorney Explains The Difference Between Legal Separation and Divorce?

April 1, 2022

In Bellevue, WA, there are many families searching for a Family Law Attorney when their marriage doesn’t end up working out the way that they intended. However, not everyone wants to head straight to divorce and they take the option for a legal separation—either first, before divorce, or simply as the final solution for their situation.

Some people also choose to go forward with a legal separation because it benefits their situation financially or otherwise.

What is the difference between legal separation and divorce, though? Do they have different requirements for how to obtain the legal status, and does either one have benefits or consequences that are different than the other? What if there are children involved?

If you live in Bellevue, WA, and you and your partner are exploring the idea of legal separation or divorce, the family law attorneys at Aberdeen Law Firm can help you sort through the options and find the one that works best for your unique relationship or family situation.


An Overview of Divorce & Legal Separation in Bellevue

When a marriage simply doesn’t work out—whether it is for communication issues, infidelity, money problems, or differing desires or lifestyles—couples have the option to either legally separate or to officially divorce. Both of these are legal changes that affect the partners and their responsibility to each other, among other things.

Divorce begins with one partner submitting a petition to the court. This gives the judge assigned to your case the right to explore the issues in your marriage and make final decisions regarding division of property, who owes child support to whom (plus how much and how often), or if spousal support (alimony) is required. Once a case goes to court, the judge has the final say in the separation or divorce terms.

If the divorce is amicable, or if the partners are able to communicate effectively, they might have made decisions on all these things on their own before coming to court. If both people agree to the plan and it seems fair to both parties, Washington judges will usually approve the plan as is without question. However, many couples need mediation to come up with a plan that they will both agree to.

Mediation is where both partners sit together with a court-appointed professional who helps flesh out all the details of the marriage and assists with the planning in an unbiased, unemotional way. In a number of cases, unfortunately, even mediation doesn’t work and the couple needs to bring the case to trial. (This is time-consuming and expensive, so if you can work things out on your own or through mediation, it would behoove you to do so.)

It’s also possible for a couple to decide many things on their own but to have a few unsolved, lingering issues. If this is the case, the judge could sign off on everything that the couple was able to resolve on their own and then help weigh in and decide on those issues that need more assistance. Remember that whenever a judge’s assistance is required, their decision is final.

Once a couple is legally divorced, they are both free to remarry again. They are each also able to take out their own contracts, buy and sell property, and acquire their own debt without their divorced partner being held responsible.

Legal separation bears many similarities; however, the couple is still technically married in the eyes of the law. Many people might think that this seems an easy way out without having to muddle through a messy divorce, but if your partner engages in contracts or debt and you are married to them, you might end up being responsible if they default. Additionally, if you (or they) decide to remarry, a legal divorce is necessary before that can take place.


Pros to Legal Separation

Many couples choose to begin their conflict resolution with legal separation if they aren’t sure that they want to officially divorce. Oftentimes, people find it easier to work out their differences and improve their relationship communication if they are not living together and have some literal—as well as figurative—space. They can keep their marriage legal and intact so that if they resolve their issues and decide to move forward with their marriage, they can do so much more easily.

Legal separation doesn’t have to be the first step toward divorce, though. If a couple absolutely knows that they no longer want to be married, they can move forward with divorce from the get go.

Legally separated couples can live together, too, although this isn’t a common situation. Obviously, people can live with whomever they like, married or not, but some people choose to legally separate and still live together so that they can work out their issues while physically close to each other without being responsible for the others’ financial or property responsibilities. (As stated, if one partner takes out debt or enters into a contract while legally separated, the other might be responsible, but it depends on the circumstances.)

When a judge signs off on a legal separation, a parenting plan is decided upon if there are children involved, with custody and child support decisions put into place. Financial responsibilities and property assets are also divided between the two partners, and all of this needs to be signed off on by a judge. Parenting plans are probably one of the most detailed parts of a legal separation or divorce, because both partners often have such strong emotional ties to their children and ideas about the best living arrangements, who should be in charge of what responsibilities, and how much it costs to take care of the kids’ specific educational, medical, and other needs.

These things must be taken into careful consideration before putting them into a legally binding document, because changing them later requires an adequate cause hearing, where the judge will decide if there is actually enough solid reason to change the original decision.

Legal separation is the right choice for many couples who get financial perks such as tax breaks, social security, or health insurance benefits by staying legally married.

If a couple is legally separated and then decides that they want to go back to the original married situation, they just have to go back to court and ask a judge to overturn the separation, and they are legally married once more.

In Washington State, the courts only require that a couple meets the requirements for a divorce but both parties agree to a legal separation. The courts will honor the wishes of the couple as long as both are in agreeance for the separation and they both agree that the marriage is irretrievably broken.


What to Do If You Don’t Want to Involve the Courts

Judges, attorneys, courts, legal documents—all of this can be incredibly intimidating, not to mention emotionally exhausting and financially overwhelming. If you and your partner aren’t ready to move forward with this arduous process (even if you know that hiring an Bellevue Family Law Attorney makes the process exponentially easier), then you could begin with a trial separation.

A trial separation means that you and your partner live apart while figuring out your differences. The both of you do, however, need to agree on a time to meet in court and determine a plan for any issues that will come up during the trial separation, such as custody, visitation, and child support. Since trial separations don’t involve the courts, though, if either member of the couple chooses to negate from the agreed upon plan, there isn’t any legal recourse that can be taken—besides, of course, filing for an official legal separation or divorce.


Separation Contracts

Whether you decide that legal separation or divorce is the right choice for you and your partner, you will need to create and sign (possibly with the help of a judge) a separation contract. This is a legally binding document that outlines the terms and conditions of the relationship (or now, lack thereof). The separation contract is important because it can be referred back to when conflicts arise in the future, preventing tedious and frivolous conflicts coming to court again—wasting everyone’s time, money, and energy.

Before signing the separation contract, it is essential that you fully understand each and every line, because you will be held to it to the letter of the law. (This is yet another reason why a divorce attorney should be a part of the process.) If something comes up later which you realize that you don’t agree with or cannot follow, you have the responsibility to prove why it was unfair and explain why you signed it to begin with. This is done through a process called an appeal—again, lengthy and expensive.

If you and your partner decide that you’ve worked on things and want to give the marriage another go, the separation contract cannot simply get tossed to the wind. Either spouse can petition the court for termination of the separation agreement, but since it is a legal document it must be taken care of before full marriage rights can resume.


Call Today For A Free Case Evaluation From An Experienced Bellevue Family Law Attorney

Hiring a Family Law Attorney in Bellevue might not seem like something you need to do if you and your spouse communicate efficiently or if you feel capable of doing a DIY divorce. However, situations often arise in which people wish they would have just started with a legal helper in the first place.

The family law attorneys at Aberdeen Law are experienced, understanding, and will help ensure that you and your partner (or ex-partner) are listened to and given all the resources necessary for a fair separation or divorce that is run through the legal system as smoothly as possible.







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