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|Marriage and other
equivalent or similar unions and status
|Validity of marriages|
|Dissolution of marriages|
|Private international law|
|Family and criminal code
(or criminal law)
Legal separation (sometimes "judicial separation", "separate maintenance", "divorce a mensa et thoro", or "divorce from bed-and-board") is a legal process by which a married couple may formalize a de facto separation while remaining legally married. A legal separation is granted in the form of a court order.
Furthermore, in cases where children are involved, a court order of legal separation often makes temporary arrangements for the care, custody, and financial support of the children ("for the time being"). Thus, part of the court order determines child custody. Some couples obtain a legal separation as an alternative to a divorce, based on moral or religious objections to divorce.
Legal separation does not automatically lead to divorce. The couple might reconcile, in which case they do not have to do anything in order to continue their marriage. If the two do not reconcile, and they wish to proceed with a divorce, they must file for divorce explicitly.
A mensa et thoro separation
A mensa et thoro is a legal Latin phrase which means "from table and bed", often translated as "from bed and board", in which "board" is a word for "table". Separation a mensa et thoro is essentially a separation that is sanctioned by a court order, meaning that the spouses may legally live apart, but they are still legally married. The legitimacy of any future child born to the couple remains intact, and the spouses may not legally remarry. This type of separation allows the couple to live apart without concerns about being taken to court for "desertion". (In some jurisdictions, provable "desertion" is legal grounds for a divorce.)
There are several reasons why a couple might seek a mensa et thoro separation. In some legal jurisdictions, including entire countries, it can be difficult to get a full and final divorce, but if the spouses are already separated a mensa et thoro for an extended period of time (for example, three years), the court may decide to grant a full and final divorce. When the requirements of burden of proof for a divorce are difficult to meet, in most jurisdictions, an a mensa et thoro ruling assures the couple a slot in the court's schedule whenever they file for a full divorce, by showing that they were both serious about their separation.
Sometimes, an a mensa et thoro separation is used when one partner is said to be emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive, keeping the marriage in existence while the two spouses are physically separated. This physical separation may give the two of them a chance to work out the problems in their relationship, while residing in legally sanctioned separate dwellings. Spouses may also request an a mensa et thoro separation to protect themselves from accusations of desertion or abandonment—such as in cases where one must depart from the other for an extended period of time.
In specific countries
In Canada, the terms "legal separation" or "judicial separation" are often used informally to describe a situation of de facto separation, where the couple has formalized certain agreements or entered into a contract. However, this situation is different from the specific legal status of legal/judicial separation, which exists only in some jurisdictions, and requires filing the courts for it. For example, there is no such thing as legal separation in Canada, but the term ‘legal separation’ has gained widespread use to describe the contract that is created between two spouses at the time of their separation.
Under the law of some states, a separation can occur by judicial decree, or by an acknowledged ('notarized') agreement of the parties.  In some states, there must be grounds or a cause of action to get a judicial decree of separation, such as "cruel and inhuman treatment ... abandonment ... neglect or refusal [to] support ... adultery by the defendant, [or] confinement of the defendant in prison ...." Reconciliation is allowed, so therefore separation is revocable; state laws may require "the joint application of the parties, accompanied with satisfactory evidence of their reconciliation ... by the court which rendered it, subject to such regulations and restrictions as the court thinks fit to impose."
The laws of some jurisdictions, such as Italy, require a period of legal separation before a decree of full and final divorce can be issued.
- "Understanding Legal Separation". womansdivorce.com. Retrieved April 3, 2009.
- See, e.g., N.Y. Domestic Relations Law § 200, found at New York State Assembly website, accessed March 17, 2014.
- See, e.g., N.Y. Domestic Relations Law § 170 (5), (6), found at New York State Assembly website, accessed March 17, 2014.
- See, e.g., N.Y. Domestic Relations Law § 203, found at New York State Assembly website, accessed March 17, 2014.
- "Italy Divorce law". international-divorce.com. Retrieved March 1, 2009.