In helping women navigate financially-complex divorces, I often consult with wives who are in a kind of ï¿½separation limbo.ï¿½ Theyï¿½re living apart from their husbands, and no one appears in any hurry to file for divorce. These separations seem to have no end (either reconciliation or divorce) in sight, and they havenï¿½t been made official in any legal sense. Now, Iï¿½m not talking about a few weeks to rebound after an intense argument, or even a few months to get perspective on the relationship. Iï¿½m talking about separations that last a year, two years or even longer.
On one hand, I can appreciate how a situation like this arises. Over time, you and your spouse become resigned to your incompatibility, but have the means to live apart within your legal marriage. Living separately didn’t begin on any date you can pinpoint, it just sort of evolved, as you spent more and more time apart. Years go by, and living separately can seem like the path of least resistance. By just drifting apart, you might avoid a lot of upheaval, unpleasantness and turmoil in the short-run.
However, itï¿½s the long-run that concerns me. And to be frank, I think it should concern you, too. Why? Because without a formal legal agreement that defines its terms, long-term separation can be a recipe for financial disaster.
Here are ten reasons women need to be wary of long-term separations: Legal Separation or Divorce: Which is Better Financially? Jeff Landers Jeff Landers Contributor
1. You have no control over how your husband is managing marital assets.
If you are living apart, then you can be totally out-of-the-loop financially. You donï¿½t know what your husband is earning, spending, investing, selling or buying. And, if you live in a Community Property state and he’s getting into debt during your long separation, guess what? So are you. In Equitable Distribution states, this may only be true if it’s joint debte.g. joint credit cards. (See this earlier post for a discussion about the difference between Community Property and Equitable Distribution states.)
2. Long-term separation provides a perfect opportunity for him to hide assets.
While you may see no urgent need to put a legal end to your marriage, your husband could be planning for exactly that. He could easily use your time apart to make sure that certain assets are conveniently unavailable when it finally does come time to negotiate a divorce settlement agreement. A long separation makes it easy to miss important signs that your husband may be hiding marital assets.
3. If your husbandï¿½s circumstances change, your eventual settlement could be much less. Your divorce settlement will be based, in part, on the current financial circumstances. If your husband loses his job, becomes ill, goes on disability or experiences other changes during your prolonged separation, the amount of alimony and child support you could expect to receive could be significantly impacted.
4. Your husband could move out of state . . . or even out of the country.
Laws governing virtually all aspects of the divorce process vary significantly from one state to another. Many states have passed severe limitations on the amount and duration of alimony that judges can award. During a long-term separation, your husband could move to a state which has enacted such laws, and have plenty of time to establish residency there. (Most states only require 6-12 months of residency to file for divorce.) Worse still, he could move overseas, making for any number of dreadful legal tangles.
5. Alimony laws could change in your own state.
Your husband might not need to move to find alimony laws more favorable to him. Check what’s going on in your own state. Alimony “reform” measures have been gaining momentum in state legislatures across the country, and for the most part, this hasn’t been good news for divorcing women.
6. You (or he) could meet someone new.
While it may contribute to your happy, fulfilling future, entering into a new relationship while you are still legally married will not help your divorce settlement negotiations. And remember: If he is in a new relationship, he might be dissipating marital assets by buying his girlfriend gifts, taking her to expensive restaurants and posh vacation resorts or actually supporting her.
7. Your standard of living could be lower.
During a long separation, you may be forced to lower your living standards. This could make it more difficult to get alimony based on your previous marital lifestyle. If youï¿½ve been making do with less, your husband can argue that you obviously donï¿½t need as much to live on as you had while you and he were together. If itï¿½s been going on for years, a judge is more inclined to agree.
8. If your husband gets into legal trouble with his finances, you’re likely to be liable, too.
No matter how separate your day-to-day lives become, you’re still legally married. Without an agreement that specifies otherwise, this means that if your husband is sued, finagles on joint tax returns or engages in other kinds of financial misdeeds, your assets are at risk. The implications for your financial security could be tremendous. (Note: If he runs into trouble with the law in other ways ï¿½DUI, bank robbery, etc. ï¿½heï¿½s on his own!)
As Marilyn Chinitz, Partner at Blank Rome, explains, a legal separation agreement can help you mitigate some financial risk.
ï¿½Although separating certainly can have benefits, living apart from your spouse without a formal written separation agreement can put you at risk. If you separate, you still remain liable for your spouseï¿½s debts and legal issues in which they are involved notwithstanding the fact that you are not living together,ï¿½ she says. ï¿½A written separation agreement would appropriately address those issues providing for indemnification for example, or limiting your liability for debts incurred by your spouse during the separation. If your spouse fails to pay certain marital debt, because you are still married although not living together, the creditor can seek remedies against you for the joint debts. Informal separations without a document detailing the terms of your separation, that is , how you will share the marital assets, what do you do about joint credit cards, who pays maintenance and how you will distribute assets acquired during the separation, can cause difficulties down the road leading to litigation.ï¿½
9. Silence may be golden, but it can also be expensive.
Separations can begin amicably enough, but what happens if communication breaks down entirely? If you are financially dependent on your husband and donï¿½t have a separation agreement, thereï¿½s not much to fall back on if he stops sending checks and wonï¿½t return your calls. Protect yourself with an agreement that gives you access to liquid assets.
ï¿½Indeed, as time goes on, communication and cooperation with your estranged spouse may no longer exist. Your agreement should give you ready access to liquid assets- you may need these assets to pay bills,ï¿½ Marilyn explains. ï¿½Most importantly, if you separate without an agreement, you may not receive your share of the marital assets acquired which may be depleted or lost because you were unaware of how your estranged spouse was managing the funds or marital business.ï¿½
10. Getting on with your divorce means getting on with your life.
Iï¿½m not a therapist, and I donï¿½t play one on T.V. But Iï¿½ve seen time and time again how, once their divorces are finalized, women find themselves strengthened and energized in ways they didnï¿½t even think possible. We think of divorce as an ending, but the new beginning it also represents is a significant turning point for many. Even if you feel as though you havenï¿½t ï¿½reallyï¿½ been married for years, donï¿½t underestimate the power of making it legal.