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Legal Separation vs. Divorce in California: What’s the Difference?

On Behalf of | Aug 28, 2023 | Family Law

When a marriage faces challenges, couples in California have two primary legal avenues they can pursue: legal separation or divorce. Both options provide a framework for dealing with issues like property division, child custody, and support, but there are essential differences in the legal implications and requirements. This article aims to clarify the distinction between the two.

Legal Separation: An Overview

  1. Nature: Legal separation is a legal process wherein couples live apart but remain legally married. It does not end the marriage.
  2. Purpose: This option is ideal for couples who might have religious, financial, insurance, or other reasons to stay legally connected but want to live separately.
  3. Property and Finances: During legal separation, assets and debts can be divided, and orders related to spousal support and child custody can be put in place.
  4. Duration: There’s no time limit to a legal separation. Couples can remain legally separated indefinitely or decide later to get a divorce.

Divorce (Dissolution of Marriage): An Overview

  1. Nature: Divorce legally ends the marriage, freeing both parties to remarry if they wish.
  2. Residency Requirement: At least one spouse must have been a California resident for six months, and a resident in the county where they plan to file the divorce for at least three months.
  3. Waiting Period: There’s a mandatory six-month waiting period from the time the respondent receives the divorce papers until the divorce can be finalized.
  4. Property and Finances: Similar to legal separation, assets and debts are divided. However, once the divorce is finalized, the financial ties are completely severed.

Key Differences:

  1. Marital Status: With legal separation, you remain legally married, while with a divorce, the marriage is ended.
  2. Ability to Remarry: Only after a divorce can either party remarry.
  3. Residency and Time Limits: Divorce has specific residency requirements and a waiting period, while legal separation does not.
  4. Finality: A legal separation agreement can be a basis for a divorce decree, but they’re not the same. Divorce is final, while legal separation is potentially reversible.

Which Option is Right for You?

The choice between legal separation and divorce largely depends on the couple’s personal circumstances and preferences. Some might opt for legal separation due to religious beliefs or the hope of reconciliation. In contrast, others might prefer the finality and freedom that come with divorce. It’s essential to consult with a legal professional to understand the nuances and implications of each choice fully.


While both legal separation and divorce offer avenues for couples to navigate marital challenges, they serve different purposes and have varying legal ramifications. Understanding these differences is crucial in making an informed decision about your relationship’s future.