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DIVORCE: As you likely know, a divorce means the end of the marriage. Importantly, a marriage is not legally ended until you have a "final judgment and decree of divorce" that is both signed by the Judge and filed by the Clerk of Court. Usually the parties to a divorce will address all issues, including child custody, child support, spousal support (alimony) and division of property and debts. But you do not have to address all of these issues (though you should). You can obtain an order from the Court that simply dissolves the marriage. (And sometimes because of jurisdictional issues that is all you can do unless you file in the jurisdiction of your spouse.)
SEPARATION: A separation does not change the fact that you are legally married. You can be informally separated by simply living apart or not carrying on marital (sexual) relations anymore. You can also enter into a "Separation Agreement," which is basically a contract between you and your spouse that reduces to writing your agreement upon custody and property issues, just like you would in a divorce, e.g. child custody, child support, spousal support and division of property and debts. You can formalize the separation (what sometimes is called a "legal separation") by having one spouse file a "Petition for Separate Maintenance and Support" with the Court and obtaining a court order that makes your Separation Agreement the order of the Court.
DIFFERENCES: When you are divorced, you are then allowed to date and remarry if and when desired. When you are separated, you cannot remarry, and, unless you have sufficiently addressed the issue in your documentation so as to protect yourself (at least civilly), you really should not carry on relations with anyone else. It may even be a crime to do so under state or military law.
WHY DO SOME CHOOSE SEPARATION OVER DIVORCE? Some reasons include: (1) One or both spouses are not ready to call it quits on the marriage, yet. (2) It is the only or most efficient way to maintain health insurance on one of the parties, who may need it due to illness. (3) Other economic benefit reasons, which can include social security or government benefit issues, tax issues, or more.
CONTACT US TO DISCUSS YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION AND NEEDS.