Trial Separations: Not Required but Often Helpful

While some believe that trial separations are mandatory before a divorce can be legalized, the truth is that they are not actually required, though they can be very beneficial.

Prior to choosing divorce, many couples engage in a trial separation period. (This applies to both married couples and those who have been living together in a long-term commitment.)

Types of Trial Separations

Many separations are initiated informally when one or both parties decide to live apart from each other, either for a specified length of time or indefinitely. During this period, the couple figures out how to divvy up financial obligations and parenting responsibilities, if children are involved. Some couples actually go on in this state of informal separation for many years, with no inclination to move towards a legal divorce.

Other couples choose to begin their trial separation a little more formally by drawing up a contract between themselves. This document may delineate how they will handle finances, children, or assets during the separation. While such a contract may be reassuring, it is not necessary legally binding.

The most formal type of separation (and also the most infrequently used) is a complaint for separation support, also known as a legal separation. This document addresses support and parenting issues. While a judge has no authority to handle property division in Massachusetts Separate Support matters, s/he can be instrumental in developing guidelines that could help the couple manage their financial situation.

Background of Trial Separations

Historically, Massachusetts has been heavily influenced by religion and most religions discourage divorce, so separation was a way for people to move on with their lives within the confines of their religious beliefs. There was less stigma associated with couples separating when they reach the point of no longer being able to live together peacefully.  For some, this is still a powerful influence.

Also, in the past many couples chose to separate rather than divorce because of their children; they did not want their kids to be the only ones among their friends whose parents were divorced. Nowadays, however, divorce is much more acceptable and commonplace socially, and most children know many divorced families.

Reasons for Trial Separations

Motives for entering into a separation can vary widely. In some cases, it may be a way for one party to let the other down gently by suggesting that they enter into a trial separation to work through issues. One spouse may have no intention of working towards a reconciliation, but the trial separation gives the other spouse time to get used to the idea of divorce.

In other situations, one or both spouses may be at a difficult point in their marriage that is causing them to be unsure about the next step. One example might be a spouse who finds out that the other person is having an affair. Spending some time apart can help clear one’s head, sort through emotions, and reach a decision more clearly.

Sometimes couples find during separation that absence makes the heart grow fonder; they begin to appreciate the other person more when they realize all that the person does. Other times, a separation confirms that the marriage is indeed over and that it is time to move towards divorce.

It is best, whenever possible, to go into a trial separation with an open mind.

Purpose of Trial Separations

A separation allows a couple to begin to understand the realities of what life would be like if they went through with a divorce. As they begin delineating responsibilities and establishing parameters such as who will pay the bills or have the kids, they can see if this is really the life they want to live, or if instead they should try again to make the marriage work.

The separation phase also allows boundaries and expectations to be put into place. If one spouse moves out, the other should know that his or her privacy will be respected. Children should have some sense of predictability. For example, they should know who will be there for them when, and where they’ll sleep.

During the separation, any assets that are accrued by either spouse are still considered marital property and as such, are held jointly. Also, insurance and retirement beneficiaries should not be changed during the separation period.

Benefit of Mediation in Trial Separations

Regardless of where a couple is at in considering whether to separate or proceed to divorce, it does not hurt (and usually helps immensely) to have a consultation with a professional Mediator. This allows for an objective third party to guide both parties in negotiating the terms of a trial separation, and to bring up factors they may have overlooked.

If a couple is not quite sure they are ready to separate but knows they have serious issues to address, they also have the option of going to Marital Mediation. By working through surface issues, they can learn what their real problems are and gain a better understanding of the other person, potentially resolving some of the deeper-set difficulties.