Guide to Legal Separation vs. Divorce in Washington

A divorce typically means you sever all ties with your spouse except the children you may share. Legal separation is a little different, as some parts of your lives (such as your health insurance coverage and your name) could stay connected. 

Washington uses similar processes for legal separation and divorce, and the state makes it easy for people to transition to divorce from legal separation. Here’s what you need to know about how legal separations and divorces work in Washington. 

What’s the difference between legal separation and divorce in Washington?

Key differences that set a legal separation apart from divorce in Washington include the following:

  • Status: When you’re divorced, you’re considered a single person who can remarry. When you’re legally separated, you’re still married to your spouse, so you can’t remarry. 
  • Benefits: Organizations like the Social Security Administration don’t recognize legal separation when determining benefits. Some insurance companies don’t, either. Since you’re still legally connected, you may have access to assets you’d lose through divorce. 
  • Viewpoints: After a legal separation, you may still be considered married by your church or religious organization. 
  • Names: The Washington divorce process allows parties to return to their pre-married names. The legal separation process doesn’t have this option, as people are still married. 

Some Washington couples consider trying a trial separation before they get divorced. But you’re not required to separate before you get divorced, and you’re not required to eventually turn your separation into a divorce. You can keep the two options entirely separate if you choose. 

During a legal separation or divorce, courts can make binding orders about property and debt division, spousal support payments, child custody, and child support. Whether you choose legal separation or divorce, the court’s rulings are binding. They will not change unless you go back to the courthouse and file paperwork for an amendment. 

Washington’s no-fault status means people can ask for a legal separation or divorce without disclosing why they want to split up. They can tell the courts the union is broken, and that’s enough to get started. Washington laws don’t allow bad behavior to influence things like asset splits or benefits after the divorce. 

What’s the process of filing for legal separation vs. divorce?

Legal separation and divorce involve Washington courts. You must file paperwork, deliver copies of forms to your spouse, and attend a hearing (or trial). 

Start by finding the courthouse in your county. Some have customized forms they’d like people to use; others have unique steps and requirements. Contact the clerk at your courthouse to make sure you understand your location’s specific steps before you get started. 

Then, follow the steps we’ve outlined here: 

File for legal separation 

You can’t just move out of your shared home and consider yourself legally separated. You must file documents with the courts and move through a well-defined process. 

The following steps are typically required:

If you’ve been legally separated for six months, you can convert your decree into a divorce. The court won’t reexamine issues you settled within the separation, but you’ll have the opportunity to formally end your relationship and return to your single status. 

To do this, complete a Motion to Convert Legal Separation Order to Final Divorce Order (Dissolution Decree) and a Notice of Hearing. You can mail these documents to your partner and fill out a Proof of Mailing or Hand Delivery. Attend a brief hearing, and you’ll emerge with a divorce decree. 

File for divorce

Filing for divorce involves many of the same steps you’d take for a legal separation. Just a few key forms separate them. 

The following steps are typically required:

When is legal separation the best option?

People often choose a legal separation when they’re unsure if their union is really over. By splitting your financial assets and child-rearing responsibilities, you give yourself breathing room to work with your partner. You could reconcile and step back into married life in time. Sometimes, this step is all that is needed to reaffirm a commitment to the marriage.

Your religious background may also play a role. Some traditions don’t allow divorced people to participate fully in church ceremonies. If you’re interested in retaining your close connection with the community, a separation could be a wise step. It may give you the space you need to be happy while maintaining certain traditions in your life.

Legal separation in Washington also allows you to preserve health insurance benefits, life insurance payouts, and other financial data. If you’d like to offer your spouse these benefits, despite your split, a legal separation allows you to do so. Considering the entire family’s health, finances, and future may prompt you to take this step.

When is divorce the best option?

A divorce is a final, permanent step that severs legal and financial ties between married people. If you know your union is truly over and would like to move forward as a single person, divorce is the best option. You can marry someone else, make independent decisions, and never speak with your partner again about anything that doesn’t involve your shared children. 

Divorce can also be a good step for people who need to be financially severed from their partners. If you don’t want your ex to have access to things like your life insurance when you die, divorce is a better choice. A divorce can also ensure that your partner can’t keep tapping into things like your health insurance benefits. 

Ultimately, if you would no longer like to be tied to your ex, divorce is your best bet.

FAQ about legal separation vs. divorce in Washington

We’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions about the differences between legal separation and divorce in Washington. 

Is it better to separate or divorce?

It depends. A legal separation gives you time and space to work on your marriage. Sometimes, this pause helps you determine whether it’s time to truly divorce or get back together. And even if you intend to permanently separate, you retain some important marital benefits.

A divorce is a more drastic step that’s typically appropriate for people who know their union can’t be saved, no matter how hard they might try to do so. 

Which is faster, separation or divorce?

Washington requires a 90-day waiting period for divorces. The laws allow people to examine their reasons for splitting, and they can change their minds before the break is final. Notably, a contested divorce takes a lot longer than an uncontested one in any state.

What about waiting periods? According to this site, maintained by the Northwest Justice Project, there is a 90-day waiting period for separation in Washington as well. However, various counties, such as Yakima County and Snohomish County, cite much shorter waiting periods or even no waiting period at all for separations. Check with your individual county to be sure.

How long can you be legally separated in Washington?

Legal separations don’t expire. You can remain legally separated for as long as you want. Some people keep their separation status indefinitely. If one spouse dies, the other is legally untied from the marriage. But until then, your status as separated stays in place unless you proceed to divorce. 

Can you be legally separated and live in the same house in Washington?

Washington laws don’t contain rules about where separated people live. You could choose to share the same home with your ex, even after your separation. 

But these arrangements could be hard to manage, as you don’t share the same financial information married couples do. Your separation agreement should clearly state who owns the house, who pays the bills, and how maintenance issues are handled. If you muddy the waters, you may have to go back to court to clear things up. It’s worth the time and effort to spell things out clearly so there isn’t ambiguity about financial responsibilities and ownership.

If you’re considering a legal separation or divorce in Washington and have questions, Hello Divorce can help. We offer legal coaching sessions for a flat rate as well as a lot of other legal services that may be appropriate for your situation. To learn more and ask questions, schedule a free 15-minute phone call with a friendly account coordinator.


Family Law Handbook: Understanding the Legal Implications of Marriage and Divorce in Washington. (July 2019). Washington Courts. 
Legal Separation: General Info. (July 2022). Northwest Justice Project. 
Divorce: The Basics. (July 2022). Northwest Justice Project. 
Court Forms: Legal Separation. Washington Courts.
Divorce, Legal Separation, or Invalidity. Pierce County.
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