The Difference Between Separation and Divorce

Let me tell you one thing I dislike about the legal system: the words. Especially the terms “separation” and “divorce.”

The terminology in this world is crazy. Even after going to law school and taking the bar exam, I resorted to Google to teach me a lot in my first year of practice. Most of the time, it was just unnecessarily frustrating. In family court, however, getting the terms wrong could lead to huge mistakes and highly emotional misunderstandings. Even lawyers who don’t practice in this field enough get it wrong sometimes. (Remind me to tell you about the time when I was a law student, and a lawyer told me that clients who get a “dissolution” end up better off than the ones who get a “divorce.” It still makes me shake my head.) 

It is not surprising that I have friends and clients asking me all the time: What’s the difference between a separation and divorce?

And this one is a big one. Misunderstanding the difference can actually lead to you filing the wrong kind of case in court, and with all the myths running around on the Internet, it may produce results you do not want. 

I do not want you to be one of the women who gets stuck in this technicality because you have much bigger things to be thinking about. So, let me break it down for you. 


A divorce is also called a “dissolution of marriage.” You may also hear things like “dissolving the marriage.” This all means that you are ending a marriage, giving it a precise end date. All property and debts will be divided in a divorce. If you share children with your spouse, then child custody and support will be determined. Alimony, also called spousal maintenance, would be determined or waived. At the end of a divorce, the goal is for all issues to be resolved. There should, ideally, be no outstanding issues left to deal with. 

Moving forward, child custody and support are the only things that would be ongoing matters for potential court involvement. A divorced person is free to get married again if they choose to do so without any knowledge or involvement of the prior spouse. Divorce is the ultimate end of a relationship. If the two people wish to get back together, they would most likely need to get married again. 


The simple word “separation” means that two people are not currently together. Some people separate temporarily to take a break and give each other breathing room. This may be anything from sleeping in separate rooms for a while to actually setting up separate living arrangements. A separation itself has no legal ramifications. All property and debts are still held the way they are when two people are married, and child custody does not change until a court gets involved. 

What makes this slightly confusing is that if you do file for divorce, you may be asked for a date of separation. I tell my clients to think of this as a date that they started living separate lives. Many people who still live together use the approximate date that they decided to get divorced. For some, that is the date they are sitting in my office having this very conversation. 

Legal Separation 

The term that messes people up is “legal separation.” In Missouri, while a simple “separation” is not a legal term, the term “legal separation” is. Think of it this way: a legal separation is exactly the same as a divorce, but in the end, you are not free to remarry. 

In a legal separation, property and debts are divided. Alimony or maintenance is established. Child custody and child support are determined. It is presumed that the two people will no longer be living together or mingling their finances. The only catch is that they are still legally married, so they cannot marry someone else without first getting divorced. 

In my experience, people who seek legal separation instead of divorce usually do so for a reason. One of the most common is that they need to get out of their marriage for safety reasons, but they feel religious or societal restraints on getting officially divorced. Another reason is that they are unsure about getting divorced because that word just bears so much weight, so they opt for a softer blow. This latter group almost always changes it to a divorce before filing the first round of paperwork. 

People reach out to me all the time with some very obscure questions based on things they read online. If you have any questions about the difference between separation and divorce, please talk to a lawyer who can give you a real honest answer. I do not want you to be one of those people who makes a bad decision based on something that is just not true. 

Need to talk to a lawyer friend about a separation and/or divorce? Click here to schedule a no-cost coaching call with me.