Dos and don'ts of marital separation

Any separation for more than a few months can put you in a very vulnerable situation financially.

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I applaud all those who try to repair their marriages. Getting divorced is a tremendous amount to handle legally, financially, socially, and emotionally, and it isn't something to take on unless you're absolutely sure there are no other viable options. But while you're working on your marriage, should you physically separate?

Physically separating can certainly give each spouse time and space to decide whether the marriage can or should be saved.

Whatever the reasons for your time apart, my concern as a divorce financial advisor is that any separation for more than a few months can put you in a very vulnerable situation financially. To protect yourself, I urge you to follow these "dos and don'ts."

If you are considering a separation for more than a few months, you need to:

  • Get up to speed on marital finances. If your husband has handled the finances in your marriage, you can find yourself totally out of the loop if you separate. You won't know what he's earning, spending, investing, buying, or selling. Avoid that dangerous situation!
  • Obtain credit cards in your own name. Good credit is the foundation of your financial well-being as a single woman. If you don't have credit in your name alone, get it done as soon as possible.
  • Close all joint credit card accounts. During separation, you can still be held responsible for debts your husband incurs, particularly if you don't have a legal agreement that specifies otherwise. If he racks up debt on a card you hold jointly, he could be putting you in a potentially devastating situation.
  • Consult a divorce attorney and draw up a legally binding separation agreement. If there is room for only one thing on your to-do list, this should be it! A separation agreement spells out the terms under which you will live apart while still legally married. It is absolutely critical for protecting yourself financially during a separation of any considerable length.

Among other things, the agreement should cover:

  • liability for debts incurred during the separation
  • how you will divide marital assets, including access to liquid assets to pay bills
  • child and/or spousal support
  • health, life, and other insurance needs
  • division of retirement savings
  • a waiver of inheritance, if you wish to give up claims to each other's estates

In addition, it can serve other purposes. For example, you may have religious reasons not to divorce, or you may be mindful of the timing of a divorce as it affects taxes, Social Security and/or military benefits, health insurance coverage, or other financial matters.

Separation may be just what you and your husband need to work on the marriage. Or, it may be the next stage of a permanent estrangement. Even if you are hoping to reconcile, be aware that your husband may be preparing for divorce. With that in mind, there are a few important "don’ts" to adhere to while separated:

  • Don't get into a new relationship. Taking up with someone new while you are still legally married will not help your divorce settlement negotiations one bit.
  • Don't overspend. As tempting as it can be to treat yourself to something nice while you're on your own, this is not the time for major purchases or luxury travel. If your separation leads to divorce, you don't want to be accused of dissipating assets.
  • Don't overshare on social media. Separation is a time for absolute discretion on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Finally, I'd say don't get comfortable. If it becomes clear that your marriage is over, then don't linger in separation limbo. As wrenching as it can be, getting on with your divorce means getting on with your life. You may feel as though you haven't "really" been married in years, but as many divorced women will tell you, making it legal represents a powerful, and positive, turning point.

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Article copyright 4/4/2017 by Forbes.
The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Neither Fidelity Investments nor your employer can guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or data.
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