Legal Separation: What is it and Why Does it Matter?

May 10, 2024

Before terminating a marriage, many married couples elect to physically separate. In this context, physical separation often includes moving out of a shared residence, winding up joint bank and debt accounts, and deciding how certain financial responsibilities will be allocated until the marriage is, ultimately, terminated.

Misconceptions Surrounding Legal Separation

In many instances, it is not uncommon for spouses who have physically separated to also believe that they are “legally separated”. Nor is it uncommon for spouses who have physically separated to believe that, as a result of their physical separation, the benefits of a “legal separation” inherently inure to them—specifically, that they no longer owe any legal rights or duties to one another, and that they are no longer responsible for any obligations of the other spouse.

The Reality: Legal Separation in Ohio

But is this accurate? Do the above-described circumstance, in and of themselves, constitute a “legal separation”?

In Ohio, the answer is resoundingly no. The mere physical separation of married spouses does not result in a “legal separation” in the eyes of the law.

However, as a direct result of these common misconceptions, this article will examine the concept of the legal separation, discuss the process to obtain a legal separation, and explore some common scenarios where a legal separation may be a worthwhile option.

Process and Implications

In Ohio, a legal separation is a distinct legal process available to a married couple who would like to remain legally married, but who would also like to have a legally-recognized demarcation in terms of their legal rights, responsibilities and obligations to one another and to their minor children, if applicable.

Ultimately, the end result of a legal separation proceeding is an order from the court deeming the married couple legally separated, resolving any custody issues, and otherwise addressing any property division and financial issues. Thus, in connection with a legal separation proceeding, the court must address all of the same issues as it otherwise would in connection with a divorce or dissolution proceeding. Yet, in contrast to a divorce or dissolution proceeding, at the conclusion of a legal separation proceeding in Ohio, the marriage itself remains intact.

Process of Legal Separation

As set forth above, obtaining a legal separation in Ohio is not as simple as physically separating from a spouse. Instead, to obtain a legal separation in Ohio, a spouse must file a Complaint for Legal Separation against his or her partner in the relevant domestic relations court. If the legal separation is contested—and ultimately, if the parties cannot resolve the dispute by agreement—then legal separation lawsuit will follow the same route as a divorce action, including regular court proceedings, the option to conduct discovery, and, if necessary, a Trial.

In contrast, if, at or around the time of filing, the parties have already reached a written agreement which addresses all matters at issue in their legal separation proceeding, including any custody issues, property division and financial issues, then the legal separation lawsuit will follow a route more akin to a dissolution action. Under this scenario, the parties may only have to attend one court proceeding—a Final Hearing—during which the parties will have to provide brief testimony to the court as to their agreement and certain other basic matters.

Considerations for Legal Separation

When might it make sense to consider a legal separation as opposed to simply terminating the marriage via divorce or dissolution? Common contexts for a legal separation include the following:

  1. When one or both spouses have religious objections to terminating a marriage;
  2. When a legal separation would afford both spouses continued access to advantageous employer-sponsored benefits, including the continued availability of affordable health insurance coverage;
  3. When the physical separation of the spouses occurs later in life, and when remarriage is otherwise unlikely.

Caveats and Downsides

Notably, as to point #2 above, while a legal separation, for some time, commonly operated as an effective loophole in Ohio to bypass a spouse’s loss of dependent status for health insurance purposes, this is, unfortunately, no longer always the case. Indeed, depending on the health insurance plan at issue, there may even be additional, unique stipulations in place, other than marital status, which impact a spouse’s continued eligibility for dependent coverage on his or her spouse’s health insurance plan. To this end, if continued dependent coverage is an important factor in the matter at hand, it may be prudent for the parties at issue to investigate and preemptively become aware of the terms and conditions of the particular health insurance policy, so as to avoid any unexpected or unintended circumstances.


Irrespective of any potential benefit for a married couple of a legal separation, there is a unique, rather substantial downside to pursuing a legal separation as opposed to a termination of the marriage: in particular, if one of the spouses ever wants to subsequently terminate the marriage for any reason—most often, to get remarried—then he or she will have to come back to court in order to obtain a divorce or dissolution from his or her spouse. In this way, depending on the circumstances, obtaining a legal separation can end up only being step one in a two-step process. Moreover, when pursuing a divorce or dissolution after already having obtained a legal separation, it is not uncommon for spouses to attempt to renegotiate certain aspects of their custody, financial, and property agreements, thus leading to further uncertainty and possible acrimony, even if those efforts to renegotiate are, ultimately, unsuccessful.

At KJK Family Law, we are experienced in dealing with all legal processes available to spouses, including the unique nuances of a legal separation. For further guidance on these and other related matters, please contact Janet Stewart Scalley (js@kjk.com), or another member of KJK Family Law by calling 216-696-8700.