Legal Separation vs. Divorce California

Legal separation and divorce are very similar in California. They involve the same forms and paperwork, and the fees are very similar. But they come with differences involving status and eligibility. Knowing what those are could help you decide which option is best for you.

Legal separation vs. divorce in California: What's the difference?

A legal separation and a divorce both end your marriage. But a few core differences remain between them. 

Those differences involve the following:

  • Status: At the end of a legal separation, you're still legally married. At the end of a divorce, you are not. 
  • Requirements: To divorce, one or both spouses must have lived in California for the past 6 months, and you must have lived in the county in the case in which it's filed for at least 3 months. For a separation, one of you must live in California now, but there's no time requirement. 
  • Waiting: Couples can divorce if they've been married for 6 months or longer. Couples can legally separate at any point. 

Which one should you choose?

Courts offer legal separation and divorce as separate options because one or the other might be best for couples that need to split up. 

Couples choose legal separation due to the following:

  • Residency requirements: Some couples want to split up, but they haven't lived in California long enough to ask for a divorce. 
  • Marriage date: Some couples want to end a marriage that's younger than 6 months. They may opt to separate instead. 
  • Future plans: Some couples aren't sure if their marriage is truly over, and they use a separation as a trial to determine their next steps.

Couples choose divorce due to the following:

  • Permanence: They may want to cut ties with the other partner due to issues like abuse or disloyalty. They want a divorce to ensure they don't need repeated communication with the spouse. 
  • Relationships: After a divorce, couples are free to remarry other people. For some, this is a major draw. 


Comparing California requirements 

California courts exist to help residents complete legal issues. The courts require people to meet specific requirements to prove that they're eligible to file cases with the courts. 

Only one requirement exists for legal separation. One of you must live in California right now. It doesn't matter how long you've lived in the state. 

Several requirements exist for divorce. They are as follows:

  • 6 months: One of you must have lived in the state this long. 
  • 3 months: One of you must have lived in the county handling your case for this long.

Comparing California costs

Divorces and legal separations involve paperwork, judges, and more. Fees can help courts pay for their staff.

Filing paperwork to start a divorce or separation costs between $435 and $450. Responding to that paperwork comes with a filing fee of $435 and $450. Again, you may be able to apply for a waiver if you can prove financial hardship or limitations.

Anytime people can't agree during either process, they will pay for lawyers. The complexity of the case determines the expense, not what type you ask for.

Comparing separation vs. divorce procedures 

The process you'll follow for separation and divorce is exactly the same but watch the boxes closely. On some forms, you'll be asked to specify whether you need one or the other. 

Start with these forms:

  • Petition—Marriage/Domestic Partnership (FL-100)
  • Summons (Family Law) (FL-110
  • Proof of Service of Summons (Family Law — Uniform Parentage — Custody and Support) (FL-115
  • Response — Marriage/Domestic Partnership (FL-120

Someone you trust or hire must deliver (or serve) these papers to the other party. That person responds with a similar set of paperwork. 

Next, you both fill out sets of paperwork regarding financial data:

  • Declaration of Disclosure (FL-140
  • Income and Expense Declaration (FL-150
  • Schedule of Assets and Debts or a Property Declaration (FL-142 or FL-160
  • Optional: Property Declaration (FL-160
  • Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure (FL-141

If you have children, you'll need more paperwork, such as these forms:

  • Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) (FL-105)
  • Optional, Child Custody and Visitation (Parenting Time) Application Attachment (FL-311

If you come to an agreement, write it down using a template like this. Attach these forms and file them with the court:

  • Judgment (FL-180
  • Child Custody and Visitation (Parenting Time) Order Attachment (FL-341)
  • Child Support Information and Order Attachment (FL-342)
  • Spousal, Partner, or Family Support Order Attachment (FL-343)
  • Property Order Attachment to Judgment (FL-345)
  • Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure (FL-141
  • Appearance, Stipulations, and Waivers (FL-130)
  • Declaration for Default or Uncontested Dissolution or Legal Separation (FL-170)
  • Spousal or Domestic Partner Support Declaration Attachment (FL-157)
  • Notice of Rights and Responsibilities (FL-192)
  • Stipulation and Waiver of Final Declaration of Disclosure (FL-144)

If you don’t agree, you may need a hearing or judgment to let the court decide. 

Comparing timeframes

Divorces can be lengthy when couples do not agree. The more times people must get together to argue with one another, the higher the price.

The same can be said for a separation. When you don’t work with your former partner, the process will take longer. 

Which should you choose?

Ending your marriage isn't easy, and your case is as unique as you are. In some cases, a separation is the better choice. In others, a divorce works a little better. 

If you're absolutely unsure, start with a legal separation. You can change to a divorce at any point. You won't have the same option with a divorce. If you start with divorce, there's no moving back to a separation. 

Watch: How to Get a Divorce in California



Legal Separation. Judicial Branch of California. 
Divorce/Dissolution. The Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara. 
Getting a Divorce in California. Judicial Branch of California.
Divorce Specialists
After spending years in toxic and broken family law courts, and seeing that no one wins when “lawyer up,” we knew there was an opportunity to do and be better. We created Hello Divorce to the divorce process easier, affordable, and completely online. Our guiding principles are to make sure both spouses feel heard, supported, and set up for success as they move into their next chapter in life.