This was originally published on Divorce and Your Money here.
Informal separation occurs when you and your spouse live apart, but do not pursue formal separation or divorce. Informal separation could be thought of as a trial separation. In other words, you and your spouse are testing what it might be like to live apart. Sometimes, informal separation allows space for you to repair your marriage, while at other times, it may lead to a permanent separation or divorce. Many times, informal separation has a set amount of time, such as six months.
If your informal separation leads to a divorce, the separation period may have an important impact on it. The separation date can influence the way property is divided, the calculations of spousal and child support, and other issues related to the divorce. However, all states do not recognize separation dates. If there are major changes to your life outside of the separation (e.g., your spouse receives a bonus at work, or you lose your job), it could impact your final divorce settlement.
Divorce is permanent. It is a big step. If you are not ready to face the dreaded D word (and everything that comes with it), informal separation may be a way to give you and your spouse some breathing room. Then you can figure out the next phase of your relationship.
Separation is not a copout, and it is not “divorce light.” Just because you choose to separate, that does not mean that you are delaying the inevitable. Your separation may provide the time and space you need to start improving a broken relationship. It is not easy, but for some, it better allows the possibility of getting back together. In fact, according to a marriage therapist in the Wall Street Journal, some couples have a 50% chance of getting back together.
There are some substantial considerations. For instance, what you are you going to tell your family and friends? Is dating allowed during the trial separation? Are you allowed to communicate and talk with your spouse outside of therapy or essential conversations? While there are many considerations, it can be very valuable to take the time to reflect on these issues.
When getting informally separated, it may be wise for you and your spouse to sign an informal separation agreement. This document would help outline your specific expectations while living apart (e.g., bills, spousal support, basic custody arrangements, and other key details). You may also want to consult a family law attorney to help draft an informal separation agreement.
The biggest risk is that the informal separation agreement will turn into a formal separation agreement. In other words, the details you negotiate today are used to determine the relevant support if you pursue a formal divorce. For example, if you share custody during an informal separation period, it will be difficult later to convince a judge that you deserve sole custody of the children.
That said, an informal separation agreement can help protect you by ensuring that the relevant expenses are paid, particularly if you do not have substantial income. Then you can continue living your life, at least to some degree.
There are many legal and practical benefits to remaining legally married, as opposed to being legally separated. Through separation, you can maintain your health insurance benefits, file joint taxes, and keep other marriage-related benefits. Furthermore, if your religion frowns upon divorce, informal separation could become a permanent solution without having an official divorce.
Informal separation can serve as an important glimpse into what divorce could be like. It could show you that life on your own is not what you really want, and it may serve to mend the marriage. On the other hand, if things are really broken, an informal separation may show you that it is time for a divorce.