When marriages begin to crumble, couples will often test the waters to see if the spark is truly gone and divorce is their best option by living apart temporarily. These short-term experiments can often last longer than originally intended, so it is prudent to enter into an official agreement to help protect yourself from any financial or legal liabilities that may arise. This is just one of the many uses of a legal separation.
Laws regarding legal separation vary by state, but it is generally a mechanism to reach certain binding agreements on property division, child support, maintenance, custody or any other issue usually brought up in a divorce while still remaining married. It essentially gives you the legal status of being divorced while retaining the title of married. It also isn’t permanent and can be reversed if you and your spouse come to realize that your problems aren’t as bad as you thought.
However, these protections offered by a legal separation are very important, because without resolving these issues, you can still be held responsible for your spouse’s debts and other financial or general obligations while you are living apart. If you were in charge of the family accounts and your spouse racks up a ton of debt once you are gone, creditors can come after you for repayment.
Additionally, the agreements made in a legal separation can often be converted directly into a divorce if that is the route you decide to take. This can be beneficial toward separating earlier in states that require a waiting period before divorces can be finalized. It can also simply the process by getting all of the contentious issues resolved before having to go through a ton of divorce litigation.
However, you must be careful that the agreements made are acceptable for a complete dissolution, even if you are not sure that is what you want. Some states allow a legal separation to be unilaterally converted into a divorce, meaning your spouse may have the option of finalizing the agreement — even without your consent. If you signed the separation agreement without really worrying whether it is fair, you may get stuck with a divorce settlement that you didn’t intend.
This is why that you should still seek professional counsel for a legal separation, even when you’re unsure if a divorce is on the horizon or not. Since the agreement can often be formalized into an official dissolution of marriage, and sometimes by just one party, most attorneys will approach a legal separation the same as a divorce.
Some states also offer other legal and tax benefits to separation over divorce, such as being able to keep the spouse on an insurance plan, the ability to file taxes jointly and the freedom to do what you please with property as soon as asset division is formalized.
Other reasons people will often choose a legal separation include religious or moral opposition to divorce. This method offers a way out of the legal obligations of marriage without breaking their beliefs. A couple may also simply want to spend an extended period of time apart while always keeping the option of getting back together available.
Every couple going through problems has completely different dynamics affecting their decision, and it can be very complicated with what they want. Legal separations offer a chance to take a step back and re-evaluate the marriage to see if it is worth trying to salvage, while still protecting yourself legally and financially.