A legal separation is a court document which affirms that a married couple are living apart. The document details the mutual rights and responsibilities of the couple, typically spelling out terms of child support, spousal support, child custody, and other issues which may come up. A legal separation is not a divorce, as the marriage remains valid. You may also hear a legal separation referred to as a trial separation or as a “divorce a mensa et thoro” among the Latin-inclined.
There are a number of reasons for a couple to pursue legal separation. For example, some people recognize that they no longer want to live together as a married couple, but they may want their spouses to be able to access health care and other benefits provided only to spouses. In that case, a legal separation allows the couple to live apart, while still ensuring that both partners have access to benefits.
A legal separation can also be used to try living apart, to see if a divorce is necessary or to provide some breathing space for the couple to work out their difficulties. For people who have religious or moral objections to divorce, a legal separation provides a middle-ground, allowing them to live apart without violating their principles. Legal separations can also be used to establish grounds for divorce in regions where it is difficult to get a divorce.
One might reasonably ask why one partner doesn't just move out, instead of going through the process of getting a document from the court. The answer to this has to do with legal protections. If a partner moves out, he or she loses many legal protections, and could potentially be sued for desertion or found liable for various legal issues. A legal separation codifies the status of the couple, and provides some protection to both parties.
Getting a legal separation is just the first step. It is important to be aware that any jointly held accounts, leases, and other agreements may need to be adjusted as well. If, for example, a partner skips out on a jointly held lease, the absent partner will be held liable. Therefore, a legal separation often includes removal of names from joint accounts, or a freezing of accounts while the details of the legal separation are hammered out. Essentially, when a legal separation is arranged, the partners need to decide what they want to be responsible for.