In the state of Washington, married couples who wish to separate but not divorce can file a petition for legal separation. Legal separation is not too different from marital dissolution. In fact, the processes for both are quite similar. The parties file a petition in court, and after the initial pleadings, the assigned judge may hear motions and make some early rulings.
In some cases, the court may issue temporary orders regarding custody, support and assets. There may also be a discovery phase in which the spouses disclose their financial situations, along with any other facts that may help the court in issuing its final decree of separation. Often, a court may order mediation or arbitration if the judge believes that it can help to resolve disputed matters more quickly and efficiently.
The main difference between a decree of separation and a divorce decree is that state law requires a 90-day waiting period for dissolutions. A decree cannot be made final until 90 days have passed since the filing of the petition. There is no such waiting period for a legal separation. Thus, if all issues are resolved quickly, the decree can be issued in less than 90 days.
A legal separation does not have to be done by court order, though. The parties can choose, instead, to enter into a separation contract and record the contract with the county and publish a notice in a legal paper of record. This may be a good option for parties who are particularly amicable.
Sometimes people choose separation over divorce because their religious beliefs proscribe divorce. Other times, it is to preserve medical or other benefits. Couples interested in comparing the legal ramifications of separation with those of dissolution should seek the advice of an experienced family lawyer.
Source: Washington State Legislature, RCW 26.09, "Dissolution Proceedings-Legal Separation," accessed Mar. 27, 2018