A marital separation is a court order that outlines the rights and responsibilities of each spouse, allowing them to remain legally married but live separate lives, explains About.com. Couples can enter into a trial separation while deciding whether or not they want to permanently separate; a permanent separation, where assets and debts acquired after the separation are separate property or responsibility of the spouse that incurred them; and legal separation where the court rules on assets and support, Nolo says.
A divorce and legal separation are similar, but there are a number of advantages for those who choose to be legally separated rather than divorced, says About.com. For example, a legal separation allows the couple to spend time apart to decide if a divorce is right for their situation. It also allows for both spouses to continue insurance coverage. Many religions accept legal separation, even when they do not accept divorce in their beliefs.
There are other legal reasons a separation may be preferred over a divorce, notes About.com. Military spouses still retain their benefits when legally separated, and there may be Social Security benefits for those who have been married at least 10 years. If the couple decides to divorce, the couple can use the terms of their legal separation as their divorce settlement.