How to separate in a marriage

Updated April 17, 2017

Separation is one of the first steps in a divorce, which is an emotionally painful time. While states have different divorce laws, there are general tips and instructions applicable to all separations. If you have specific questions, please consult an attorney practicing family law in your state.

Assess. The better you understand the situation, the better your separation plan will be. Your situation might be simple: you already own two houses, with no pets or children; one of you moves into one house, one of you stays in the other. You divide the money down the middle, squabble over the painting you bought on a trip together, shake hands and walk away from the marriage. Or it may be complicated: You only have one residence, you have a child and two dogs. One of you owns a business. Someone in the family has an illness and needs special care. You have huge credit card bills. Anything that complicates your life will make a separation more difficult. If you decide to consult an attorney, the more information you gather in advance, the less you will need to pay the attorney.

Gather information and make plans before you tell your spouse about your desire to separate if you have an unpleasant relationship. Vengeful partners may refuse you the information you need, or they may hide assets.

Understand your assets. How much money is in the bank? Are any accounts in one name only? If you have loans, including a mortgage, what are the open balances? Do you own any investments? What are they worth? If you have a car, what is it worth? Do you have copies of at least your last three years' income tax returns? Does one of you own a business? If so, you need those tax returns as well. Make a copy of your partner's recent pay stub. If your partner does not cooperate with you, it can be very hard to gather this information if you are the one who leaves. Make copies of any financial information beforehand. Leave the copies with a friend or relative. Many states require a financial disclosure form when a couple separates. If you talk to an attorney at this point, get a copy of the form. Or you may be able to get a copy at your county courthouse. If you fill in the blanks, you will not miss information and regret it later.

Dream. What would the perfect separation look like to you? Who would move out? If you have children, how would you divide up childcare and custody? When would you like to be legally divorced? If your partner makes more money than you, how much money would you want from your spouse and for how long? Don't worry at this point about how realistic your plan is. Just try to imagine how you would live once you and your spouse are no longer sharing assets. Write down everything you can think of. Sleep on it.

Look at your dream plan again. You know how much you and your spouse earn. Can you afford the dream plan? Maybe you need to trim it. Keep in mind that the closer the split is to 50/50 the more likely it is that your spouse and the judge will agree to it.

Familiarise yourself with your state's divorce laws. Obviously, this is a huge subject. The books "File Your Own Divorce" and "How to File for Divorce in" (your state,) published by Sphinx Legal, will save you a great deal of time and money. The reason you want to be familiar with divorce law early on is that your divorce agreement will probably look a lot like your separation agreement.

Opt not to hire an attorney if there is very little property to fight over and, if you and your spouse are easy-going, you may be able to reach an agreement yourselves. Even if your situation is complicated, if you are willing to familiarise yourself with your state's family law and follow through with the legal procedures, you take a risk but you can save a great deal of money by foregoing an attorney. If you plan to retain an attorney, talk to the attorney before you talk to your spouse.

Draft your separation proposal, with your attorney, if you have one, spelling out things such as the length of the separation, how to put the house on the market, parenting plan, and anything else important to you.

Plan ahead. Before you discuss the separation with your mate, have an exit strategy. Have money in your pocket. Perhaps even withdraw 50 per cent of your joint bank account(s). Have a place to retreat to--your parents' house, a friend's apartment, or a hotel.

Discuss the marital separation away from your children.

Stay calm when you introduce the plan to your spouse. Most likely, you will not be able to agree on a plan for your separation at the first meeting. Agree on a time and place to get together again and discuss the situation when she has had time to think about it.

Assessing the situation and planning for the future may have been difficult, but sitting down together with your former partner and dividing things up will be even more challenging. Expect emotions to be raw. Take things slowly. Don't feel pressured to agree to anything on the spot. You always have the option of walking out of the room or out of the building. If you have one, you have the option of saying, "Have your attorney call my attorney."

Expect emotional turmoil. Separation and divorce can be wrenching. It can be hard to believe them when well-meaning friends tell you that things will get better. But, one day, you will look back and see that it really has got better.


Physical separation is not the same as legal separation. If you intend to be divorced, in addition to one of you moving out, you have to begin the legal proceedings as well. Things to know about hiring an attorney: Ask your divorced friends about their attorneys, including their hourly rates. If one name comes up several times, be sure to interview that attorney. If you interview an attorney, even if you decide not to retain him or her, your spouse cannot hire that attorney. Some attorneys will charge you their hourly rate--hundreds of dollars--to interview them. And, if you hire them, you need to pay them thousands of dollars up front.


In an ideal separation and divorce, both partners cheerfully cooperate with each other. In many cases, however, one or both sides fight bitterly, sometimes even dishonestly. Protect yourself by gathering as much information as you can before you need it. Keep important documents such as birth certificates and passports, as well as money, at a friend's house. Domestic violence rates increase during separation. If you have any concerns about your spouse becoming violent, contact a nearby battered women's shelter. If possible, do not introduce the idea of separation and divorce when you or your spouse is overtired, ill or intoxicated.

Things You'll Need

  • Access to a photocopier
  • Safe place to store things
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