An action for legal separation is similar to an action for marriage dissolution (a/k/a divorce), except that a legal separation does not break the bonds of matrimony. Therefore, the parties remain married.
The legal separation is often confused with people who are separated pending a divorce. When a couple is getting divorced, and during the divorce they are separated, this is not a legal separation. (There is nothing illegal about their separation, but it is not a legal separation.)
When a couple seeks a legal separation instead of a divorce, typically it is for one of three reasons: (1) Residency; (2) Spiritual Concerns; (3) Substantive Issues.
(1) Residency. There is no residency requirement for a legal separation. In Minnesota, there is a 180-day residency requirement for a marriage dissolution. So, if someone has not resided in Minnesota for 180 days, but would like some form of relief, they may pursue a legal separation. (Note: in such instances, it may be more sound to simply seek the marriage dissolution as soon as the residency requirement is met.)
(2) Spiritual Concerns. If one or both spouses is concerned that dissolving the marriage is a spiritually unacceptable option (due to one’s personal emphasis on the sanctity of marriage), they may seek a legal separation to balance the interests of separating from their spouse and not breaching the marital vows. Since only one spouse would need to declare that the marriage is irretrievably broken in order for the family court to grant a divorce, a legal separation in this circumstance would require that either both spouses stand by the principle of not pursuing a divorce, or at least that one spouse respects the principles adhered to by the other spouse.
(3) Substantive Issues. In decades past, there were certain pension programs that simply would not pay benefits to a former spouse. (Examples: police pensions, firefighters pensions.) Therefore, the couple would have to stay married because otherwise the spouse of the pension participant would be deprived of their marital interest in the pension. That issue has not presented itself in the last 15 to 25 years. But more recently, a parallel issue has arisen with health insurance. In recent years, it is more common that a former spouse is not entitled to health insurance benefits than it was five or ten years ago. That said, a couple concerned about this issue should be sure to explore the options available in the event of divorce, and to compare and contrast what policies or programs might offer versus continuation coverage through their existing provider.
One reason NOT to pursue a legal separation is as a means to provide their spouse with a wake-up call, and make them change their ways, and/or to bring about a reconciliation. When reconciliation is successful, it is almost always with the help of a therapist or counselor, and through lots of effort and commitment on the part of both spouses. Using a legal separation essentially as an ultimatum is both procedurally and substantively improper. It is procedurally inappropriate because the family court process should be used for marriage dissolutions and proper legal separations, not for veiled efforts to reconcile. It is substantively improper because the terms of a legal separation are permanent and final; therefore, the relief should not be sought from the court if it is not meant to be permanent and final.