The term “divorce” has a very distinct legal meaning, yet many people fail to understand the difference between separation and divorce. Often the meanings of the two concepts are blurred together.

To illustrate, a conversation around a water cooler somewhere in Ontario might go as follows:

MAURICE:   Did you hear the news? Moe from marketing and
Sylvie from accounting are separating!

MARTHA:    That’s funny, I heard they got a divorce.

MAURICE:   What’s the difference, all I know is that
she’s getting the house and he’s getting
a lawnmower.

MARTHA:    I don’t know the difference either…
at least it was one of those new cordless

To alleviate the confusion between the terms ‘separation’ and ‘divorce,’ it is helpful to begin with section 8 of the Divorce Act, which allows either or both spouses to apply to the Court for a divorce when there has been a “breakdown of the marriage.”

Parties must apply to the court if they want to be divorced. So, if Moe and Sylvie are separating but are not applying to court, then it would be appropriate to say they are “separated” but not “divorced.”

To obtain a divorce, the parties must first be “spouses” within the meaning of the Divorce Act. This definition excludes people merely living together and “common law” spouses and means that the two persons must be legally married to one another. The issue of whether two people are legally married is an entirely separate, and sometimes complex, issue that will be canvassed in a future blog.

The Divorce Act also states that to be granted a divorce order, there must be a “breakdown of the marriage.”

According to the Divorce Act, a “breakdown of the marriage” can only be established where:

1. the spouses have lived separate and apart for at least one year immediately preceding the determination of the divorce proceeding and were living separate and apart at the commencement of the proceeding;


2. the spouse against whom the divorce proceeding is brought has, since celebration of the marriage,

(i) committed adultery, or

(ii) treated the other spouse with physical or mental cruelty of such a kind as to render intolerable the continued cohabitation of the spouses.

It is not possible to be divorced unless the parties fit into one of the above three categories.

While separation is necessary to establish first ground of marital breakdown, it is not relevant to the less commonly used grounds of adultery or cruelty.

“Separation” under the Divorce Act doesn’t just mean physical separation. The Act states that “spouses shall be deemed to have lived separate and apart for any period during which they lived apart and either of them had the intention to live separate and apart from the other…”.

Therefore, in addition to living apart for one year, the Divorce Act adds the additional element that at least one of the parties must have had the intention to live separate and apart from the other.*

Of interest, subsection 8(3)(ii) of the Divorce Act allows spouses to resume living together with the intention of trying to resolve their marital differences without interrupting the 1 year period, so long as it doesn’t last longer than 90 days. This subsection is consistent with other sections of the Divorce Act designed to encourage the spouses to reconcile. For example, the Divorce Act places duties on legal advisors and the courts to advise and assist spouses in reconciliation where appropriate.

The distinction between separation and divorce can also be relevant to the division of family property. In fact, determining the date of separation is often crucial for dividing marital property under the Family Law Act.

“Separation” is given the following meaning by the Family Law Act:

The date the spouses separate and there is no reasonable prospect
that they will resume cohabitation.

This definition implies that equalization of family property can occur whether or not the spouses are divorced. Going back to the water cooler conversation, just because Moe and Sylvie seem to have sorted out their property issues doesn’t necessarily mean that they are divorced or that they will ever get divorced in the future. Perhaps the two had settled all of the issues stemming from their separation in a separation agreement and were content not to apply for a divorce.

It is helpful to remember that while the concept of separation is often relevant to obtaining a divorce and to the determination of the valuation date for the purposes of equalization, it is legally distinct from divorce.

Who knows when this distinction might come in handy around the water cooler!

*[While there is an entire body of case law examining what constitutes living separate and apart for the purpose of establishing marital breakdown, a review of such law is outside the ambit of this blog posting. For an extensive review of the factors courts in Ontario use to determine whether parties are living separate and apart, the decision of Greaves v. Greaves [2004] CanLII 25489 (ON SC) provides a helpful starting point.]

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