Disadvantages to Long-Term Separation

For some couples torn between thoughts of divorce and lingering hopes for reconciliation, a trial separation may seem like a logical first step. But what is becoming more and more common are situations where couples decide to just remain separated, even after they realize their marriage is beyond repair. Oftentimes, couples choose long-term separation rather than divorce for financial reasons, such as tax breaks and health care coverage. They may co-parent and still consider themselves on “friendly terms”, making the thought of divorce unnecessary and unpleasant. What they don’t realize is that what may seem like a smart financial decision can lead to a wide variety of problems in the future.

Long-term separations lasting months or years without a formal legal agreement defining terms can create huge issues. If a couple isn’t divorced, their lives remain intertwined both legally and financially. If one spouse goes on a spending spree and loads up on credit card debt, both parties may be responsible. Living apart forfeits your control and knowledge of day-to-day buying, selling, or investing. And should your spouse run into legal problems with finances (lawsuits, tax issues on joint returns, etc.), your assets may also be at risk.

It is important that couples understand how other issues may determine financial security in the future. Inheritance and social security benefits may be affected by the length of a marriage.

While each state has different laws regarding distribution of property, it should be noted that Maryland is an “equitable property” state. This means all marital property acquired during the marriage is divided equally (but not necessarily 50-50), based on a variety of factors, such as the length of the marriage, income, and standard of living. However, during a long-term separation without a formal legal agreement, one spouse could move out of state or even out of the country, opening up a host of legal problems.

During a long-term separation, a spouse may also have time to hide assets in anticipation of eventual divorce, making them suddenly unavailable when it comes time to negotiate a divorce settlement. And what can start as a friendly separation and time apart can easily lead to communication breakdown. If one spouse is primarily dependent on another financially, this can lead to disaster with little recourse. There’s not much that can be done if phone calls are not returned or checks are not received.

The longer couples remain separated, the more financial circumstances may change. Divorce settlements are partly based on current financial situations. If a spouse loses a job, goes on disability, or suffers a health crisis, the amount of alimony or child support is often decreased. After a separation, one of the parties involved may need to lower living standards, making it difficult for this person to receive alimony based on the previous married lifestyle. And the longer a separation lasts, the easier it is for the spouse to argue that the estranged party can live on less.

There are also emotional issues involved in long-term separations. When it’s clear that it’s time to exit the marriage, there can be a level of peace that comes with getting on with life. Separations that last years leave both parties in limbo and legally ending a marriage can lead to a new beginning. And if, during a separation, one party happens to meet someone new, it can complicate divorce proceedings further.

The reasons for initial separation are as varied as marriages and couples. Sometimes they do work and lead to eventual reconciliation. But the longer a separation drags on, the more the legal and financial hurdles increase. The initial expense and difficulty of a legal divorce can alleviate long-term obstacles and offer protection for both parties.

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