legal separation

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A legal separation is an arrangement in which a married couple lives apart but remains legally married. It can be either mutually agreed upon or ordered by judicial decree. Depending on the form of separation and the laws in the jurisdiction where the parties are domiciled, the rights of legally separated parties may differ. The primary difference between a legal separation and a divorce is that in a legal separation, the separated spouses still maintain a legal relationship as married people, with spousal interests in one another's property at death, as well as spousal privileges for testifying in actions not brought by the other spouse. Legal separation is often done for religious purposes or to maintain health insurance or life insurance benefits.

The definition of legal separation can be particularly important in immigration court because a child’s citizenship may depend on their parents' marital status.  In this respect, legal separation can be defined broadly or narrowly. Under the narrower definition, a legal separation means either a limited or absolute divorce through judicial proceedings; therefore, under the narrower definition, a legal separation can refer only to a situation where marital status has been terminated. Under the broader definition, legal separation requires some formal government action to dissolve or alter the marital relationship by operation of law. That said, both the narrow and broad definitions of legal separation require some degree of formal government action––whether a divorce decree or some other government action short of divorce. 

[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]