The vast majority of couples that separate do go on to divorce — 80% within three years, according to a recent study by researchers at Ohio State University. A small percentage (about 5%) of separated couples ultimately reconcile. But 15% are still separated and not divorced ten years later.
According to the study, those who remain separated and don’t get divorced are more likely to have lower incomes and education, be racial and ethnic minorities, and have young children.
Why do couples remain separated but delay the divorce process? And what are the negative effects of staying separated for years or even decades without a legal divorce?
Why couples may not divorce right away
There are financial reasons that some people may not get divorced right away. These may explain why the Ohio State researchers found an economic difference between those who remain separated and those who get divorced more quickly.
- Income tax benefits. Married couples filing jointly may be in a lower tax bracket than if they divorced and filed separately.
- Maintaining health insurance. A person cannot keep their divorced spouse on their health insurance plan. If one spouse doesn’t have health insurance, losing it can be a big expense.
- Inability to sell their home or purchase/rent another home. Who gets the house is a big issue in many divorces. Selling the home, one person finding a new home, or both people finding new homes can be a financial challenge.
But in my experience, one of the most common reasons people remain separated — regardless of their economic situation — is that they lose the urgency for divorce once they’ve separated out the logistics of their lives. They don’t want to go through the stress, the expense, or the effort of a divorce process.
That’s completely understandable, especially when many people don’t know that an uncontested divorce is a possibility.
The problem is that sometimes separated couples aren’t aware of the risks of a long separation.
Potential drawbacks to long separation
The State of Georgia doesn’t require a specific period of separation. It’s enough to have had a “suspension of marital relations” with the intent to separate.
So what are the risks of a long separation?
Your financial assets could be at risk
Your separation doesn’t change the fact that you’re married in the eyes of the law. And that means your assets are still considered marital assets. That includes retirement accounts. Say you’re thinking, now is a great time to get serious and save for retirement. That might be true, but everything you save will likely be divided with your spouse when you divorce.
Spousal debt is also shared. So if your spouse acquires debt during the separation, you may end up responsible for it. And your spouse’s activities could impact your credit score.
Your financial situations could change
A court makes decisions about your marital finances at the time of divorce, not at the time of separation. Things like alimony and child support are based on what you both earn and what your assets are when you’re divorcing.
So imagine a situation where you separate, and you and your spouse have a general agreement about sharing the cost of raising your children. Years into that separation, your spouse loses their job and becomes apathetic about finding something new. They stop helping to pay for the cost of raising your kids.
You don’t have a divorce order that requires them to pay child support. And when you do ultimately get divorced, they have very little income. The court will expect them to find gainful employment, but the amount they’re required to pay in child support is minimal and makes it hard for you to cover costs.
Your spouse could move away
Especially if you don’t have children (or even if you do), your spouse could decide to relocate to a different state or another country.
If you lose touch with your spouse, they may be difficult to locate when you’re ready for a divorce. That can make the divorce process difficult, though not impossible.
Your spouse could also get residency and file for divorce in another state. You would then have to get counsel in that state and possibly travel there for the divorce proceedings. Plus, the divorce laws in that state could be better for your spouse and worse for you.
You could create problems for heirs
Some people remain separated until their deaths, never getting a legal divorce. If neither wants to get remarried, they may assume there’s no problem with just remaining separated.
But a long-term separation like that can create confusion and conflict among heirs. Sometimes they’re not even aware that the couple wasn’t actually divorced. In Georgia, a spouse is entitled to one-third of the deceased’s estate, and it doesn’t matter if they were separated.
A deceased person’s children or romantic partner may be surprised to learn that the spouse they haven’t seen in 20 years is entitled by law to a significant portion of the deceased’s estate.
Separation isn’t always bad
A short separation–a few months–can sometimes be helpful for divorcing couples. The couples I’ve seen who were able to separate out the daily and financial logistics of their lives without involving the court tend to have less conflict.
When they’re ready to get a legal divorce, the process is relatively straightforward. They can have an uncontested divorce because they’ve agreed on and put into practice many of the terms of the divorce.
Whether you’ve been separated or not, we can help you reduce the drama and conflict in your divorce. We work with divorcing couples to keep things amicable and come to agreements that work for both parties. Contact us for a Strategy Session.