Legal Separation - Separating Before Divorce

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid


Why should I consider a separation from my spouse before I file for a divorce?

A separation could provide insight into how you will support yourself and your children, if you have any.  A separation could also help determine what to do about marital property and debts.  Separating before filing for divorce allows both parties a chance to work out disagreements regarding those issues before filing an action in court.  This may help the parties come to a stipulation instead of going through a difficult trial.    

Do I need to legalize the separation or file anything in court?

No.  You can separate by:

  • moving out
  • separating bank accounts
  • creating a custody and visitation schedule for children
  • establishing boundaries with your spouse

How do I legalize the separation?

You may file a petition in court for legal separation if you are planning to be separated for a long time and want the court to address support, property or debts during the separation.  However, this process is similar to filing for divorce and may take a long time.  At the end, you will still be married.  If you want to divorce in the future, you will need to file a new action.  This can be costly because you will pay for two different court proceedings.

Will I be responsible for debts acquired by my spouse after the separation?

The Court may look at why the debt was incurred in determining whether it should be considered marital debt.  For example, if it was for normal family expenses, the court may be more likely to allow it as a marital debt. If it is a debt incurred because the spouse hired an attorney to represent the spouse in the divorce, it may not be allowed as a marital debt.

What is the difference between a legal separation and annulment?

Annulment means the marriage was never valid and should never have happened.  Annulment happens in very limited situations.  Those situations include marriages prohibited by law or where either person was already married to someone else.  If you believe your marriage needs to be annulled, you should contact an attorney. 

When should I consult an attorney about a separation?

There are many factors that may make separation difficult.  If the separation creates new issues with your spouse, you should consult an attorney.  If you are a victim of domestic violence or feel you may be in danger, you should contact Iowa Legal Aid for more information. 

  • Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans.
    • To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275. 
    • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or 
    • apply online at
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.
Last Review and Update: Nov 01, 2022
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