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Divorce & legal separation: What are the differences in Colorado?

Most people are familiar with what divorce is and how it works. Divorce is so common that nearly everyone has experienced one directly or indirectly. But what do you know about legal separation? For instance, how does it differ from divorce?

First, it's important to discuss terminology. In common usage, separation is generally understood to mean that a married couple is living apart (or at least in different rooms) and is considering whether to reconcile or get divorced. If you're discussing "separation" or "trial separation," this description is more or less accurate. But the two terms we just mentioned are not tied to legal processes - they are just decisions couples have made on their own. Legal separation is a distinct legal process, and in many ways, it is closer to divorce than to trial separation.

Here in Colorado, a "decree of legal separation" covers nearly all of the issues that would be covered in divorce. This can include:

  • Child custody and visitation
  • Child support
  • Spousal support (sometimes called separation maintenance)
  • Property and debt division

Once the decree has been issued, a couple goes back to being two separate individuals, so to speak. Except for any provisions made in the decree of legal separation, they have no obligations to one another regarding finances, taxes, etc. While the decree renders them all but divorced, they are not allowed to get remarried (to other people) until or unless they obtain a "decree of dissolution of marriage" (divorce).

So why would you choose legal separation over divorce if the process is much the same? Sometimes, couples pursue legal separation because their religious or cultural beliefs do not condone divorce. In other cases, a couple may use legal separation as a way to qualify for or maintain access to certain spousal benefits (this must be done carefully). Finally, some couples just need a softer transition between marriage and divorce, and legal separation can provide that.

Regardless of whether you pursue divorce or legal separation, it's important to be legally thorough and to ensure that your rights are protected throughout the process. For these and other reasons, you should seek the help of an experienced family law attorney.

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Cooper, Tanis & Armas, P.C.
42 Garden Center
Broomfield, CO 80020