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Separating from your Spouse: What it Means and Things to Consider

Things at home are rough. You’re trying but it doesn’t seem to be getting better. Maybe you’re wondering if some time apart would do you good.

Separation is a pretty common first step before divorce, though it’s not a guarantee that divorce is on the horizon, either. Whatever it ultimately means, separating for any length of time is emotional. According to the Holmes Rahe Life Stress Inventory, separation from a spouse is the third most stressful event in a person’s life.

Our #1 rule: be kind to yourself during this time. And #2: be aware of the legal effect you might intentionally or unintentionally be causing if you do separate.

So before moving forward with this big step, let’s talk about what separation means and 3 things to consider before you do.


There are 3 types of separation. The first two are physical and the third is legal.

All three have the ability to affect your rights.


A separation isn’t the same as divorce. In simple terms, separation means that you and your spouse are living physically apart. That might be in separate houses or maybe just in separate bedrooms.

The first type of physical separation is a temporary or trial separation. If you and your spouse need a break, you might decide to live apart while you figure out what’s going on. A temporary separation generally doesn’t change anything legally, but it’s always a good idea to check with a lawyer to be sure.

Here’s one caveat: while a trial separation probably won’t affect a future divorce, the date of your separation might. If for example, your spouse starts a relationship with someone else, the fact that you were separated could impact your ability to use adultery as a grounds for divorce. On the flip side, let’s say you’re the one who starts dating. Since you’re still legally married, it might be considered adultery. Again, each state is different, so find out the laws that affect you.

The second type of physical separation is a permanent one. This is when you live apart from your spouse with no intention to reconcile. What’s usually important here is the date. You’ll want to know whether your permanent separation has any impact on assets and debts that are acquired after that time. In some states, assets and debts are considered “marital” until the date of divorce, no matter how long you might have lived apart. In others, assets and debts acquired during that separation period belong only to the spouse who acquired them. This can be a pretty big deal, so it’s wise to find out which laws apply to you.

The third type of separation is legal separation, which is allowed in many but not every state. A legal separation gives you a court order addressing things like which one of you has the right to live in your home, alimony and support, and child custody. If you don’t want to divorce - or aren’t ready yet - but need some rules put in place, legal separation can be the way to go. But because a legal separation still involves the court, it often isn’t much cheaper or quicker than a divorce.


In both physical and legal separations, you’re not divorced and cannot remarry.


Now that you know the different types of separations, here are 3 things to consider before either of you moves out of your home:

1. Discuss how you’ll handle your finances. It’s expensive to maintain two homes. If you’re going to separate, have a plan for who will pay which bills, whether you’ll continue to share a bank account and credit cards or each have your own. You can have a lawyer draw up an agreement for you or you can do this cooperatively.

2. If you’re the one moving out, make sure you have an agreement with your spouse about when you’ll see your kids. If you don’t, you could find yourself at his or her mercy as to when you spend time with your children. That’s not good for you and it’s especially not good for your kids. Write out a specific plan, with which days of the week the kids will be with you. If you can’t do this on your own, consider seeing a child therapist together to get help working out a plan. In a legal separation, you’ll want this in a court order. In a physical separation, it can be a little more informal, but getting it in writing is a good idea.

3. Have an agreement to respect each other’s space. If you’re the one moving out, let your spouse know in advance before you come over. Consider knocking or at least texting your spouse when you arrive. If you’re the one staying in the house, discuss whether it’s ok to change the locks. Unless you have a court order giving you exclusive rights, your spouse probably has a right to come back to the house even after he’s moved out. So be careful what you leave lying around. And don’t throw out or remove your spouse’s things from the house. But it is ok to put them away in another room so you don’t have to look at them every day.

This is a hard time, but I know you’ll get through this. Take things one day at a time. And remember, the more courteous you can be towards each other - and to yourself - the better off you’ll be.


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