Legal Separation and Dissolution (Divorce): How Different Are They?

Legal Separation and Dissolution (Divorce): How Different Are They?

It is easy to be confused about the differences between a dissolution (divorce) and legal separation, and which one to choose, because they are so similar in their processes and legal implications. In Washington State, legal separation and dissolution are governed by the same statute, RCW 26.09. They both can result in final orders governing child custody (a parenting plan), child support, spousal maintenance (often known alternatively as alimony), and division of property. The main difference between the two is perhaps the most apparent one: that a separation does not end the marriage. This means parties to a legal separation cannot marry someone else unless the legal separation is converted into a dissolution. If one spouse wants a legal separation, but the other wants a dissolution, the likely result is a dissolution. Under RCW 26.09.150, the court shall convert the separation to a dissolution if one spouse motions for such a conversion at least six months after the separation decree.

So why get a legal separation instead of a dissolution if they are so similar? One reason is because a person’s or couple’s religion may prohibit or strongly discourage divorce, but that person or couple may still effectively need the same things dissolution provides: court orders governing child custody, child support, maintenance, division of assets, restraining orders, etc. Another possible reason is that the filing spouse may not like the thought of ending the marriage, but similarly needs the same type of court orders a dissolution provides. Parties may also hope to reconcile their marriage but be ready to move forward with the finality of other divorce orders.

If you have questions about legal separation and/or dissolution in Washington State, email us at or call at 206-926-9848 to schedule a consultation.


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