After several years of marriage, you and your spouse are thinking about parting ways. When you are preparing to end a marriage, you will have several options to choose from. Three of the most common include separation, annulment and divorce.

You and your partner are probably researching these options and trying to decide which one is best for you. Every breakup is different, and couples should choose the option that best fits their unique circumstances. Separation, annulment and divorce may seem similar at first glance, but they have very important distinctions.

Separation

A separation means that a couple is still legally married, but living separately. Couples often take the step of separating before making a permanent split or attempting reconciliation. There are two types of separation: Legal, and informal. In a legal separation, a couple will acquire a court order that stipulates each spouse’s rights and responsibilities. An informal separation occurs when a couple decides to live separately without creating a legal document.

Annulment

An annulment essentially erases a marriage in the eyes of the law. It is similar to a divorce in that it is a court order that ends a marriage; it is different in that it treats the marriage as if it never existed. A marriage can only be annulled if it was not legally valid in the first place. To meet this standard, the marriage must have been based on fraud, concealment, duress, misunderstanding or lack of consent.

Divorce

Divorce is the most common and most permanent method of ending a marriage. It is a type of court order that legally terminates a marriage. A divorce does not erase a marriage like an annulment does. In an annulment, couples do not need to reach an agreement regarding property division, spousal support or child custody. A divorce decree must address all of these concerns before the split can be finalized.