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What Is a Separation Agreement?
A separation agreement is a legally binding document drawn up between the parties in a marital relationship. The agreement is something that both people in the marriage use to formally divide their assets, debts, and other marital responsibilities so that each party experiences a fair separation from the other. While a separation agreement is commonly used in times when a couple knows they are heading for divorce, it's also used by couples who merely want to separate for a period of time with the intention of reconciling.
This private document may include items like child support and visitation, alimony, and the dividing of property. An attorney may submit a completed separation agreement to the court before divorce proceedings begin so it can become a part of the judge's final divorce decree.
Because a separation agreement is a legal document, both parties in the marriage should carefully consider their positioning and work hard on coming to a complete agreement to prevent any future issues or questions as to what's fair and how they plan on working together during their separation.
The Difference Between a Separation and a Divorce
Some people may look at separation and divorce as essentially the same thing, but there are differences between the two. Although a separation can be the first step toward a divorce, it's not an actual divorce, and it is treated differently in court. While a separation agreement is a legally binding contract, you wouldn't usually have to go to court to finalize the agreement because a separation is not something that a judge has to be involved in to enforce or rule over.
A separation is when you and your spouse remain legally married but have decided to no longer engage in a marital relationship. The married couple may enter a separation intending to reconcile after some time apart. Some couples may separate first, knowing that if they aren't able to work out their differences, one or both will file for divorce. Sometimes, a couple chooses to separate, knowing that they'll remain legally married.
On the other hand, a divorce often involves time in front of a judge to finalize a divorce decree. When a divorce is granted, the couple in the divorce is no longer married and, therefore, will no longer be a husband or wife to their partner.
Reasons To Consider a Separation Agreement
There are many reasons why a couple may consider a separation. Some of the situations that may call for a separation agreement include:
- A married couple who want to separate for the time being, but intend to remain married. This is common as married couples figure out what their next steps are. They may not be sure what the future holds but would like to try to work out their differences while living apart temporarily. An agreement works out well because while separated, there are agreed-upon provisions in place for responsibilities that the couple shares.
- A married couple who have decided to divorce. A separation agreement is helpful for a couple who have made the hard decision to go through with a divorce because they already have agreed on how they'll handle their assets, debts, liabilities, properties, and other responsibilities, including their children. In this case, the separation agreement is typically merged with the divorce proceedings to become part of the judgment.
- A married couple who want to separate but remain married. For one reason or another, a married couple may wish to maintain their legal relationship status but live separate and apart. In this case, a separation agreement still helps to divide up responsibilities.
Benefits of a Separation Agreement
The benefits of a separation agreement include:
- Flexibility: Rather than allowing a court to decide how your divorce will go, you and your spouse are able to come to an agreement and include conditions that are fair to you both.
- Cost: If you're able to agree on certain items that are included in the separation agreement, that usually means less time in court for litigation or other divorce proceedings.
- Time: When you have a document in place that outlines the terms of your separation and specifies how you'll separate marital finances and responsibilities, you'll end up spending less time figuring it out in front of a judge.
- Privacy: Unlike divorce proceedings, a separation agreement on its own does not have to be filed with the court. It remains a private legal document that nobody has access to unless you grant them the authority to view your agreement.
What To Include in a Separation Agreement
A married couple can feel free to include anything they want in a separation agreement as long as it's something to which both parties can really agree. Consider including these items in a separation agreement:
- Spousal support: If one party in the couple has made sacrifices or contributions to the family that has kept them from earning as much money as their spouse, they may agree on spousal support (also called alimony). This is usually something that's agreed upon when the couple is used to a certain lifestyle. Chances are that if the separation agreement includes details about the amount and length of spousal support payments, it'll be included in the divorce judgment.
- Child support: Child support details should include an amount, specific payment dates, how long the payments will go on, and even details of a child's health insurance. However, even if a separation agreement includes details about child support and it's used during a divorce, a court can make its own judgment in the best interest of the child.
- Assets: Assets can include personal property like real estate and other items that the married couple owns together.
- Debts: A married couple typically has larger debts like a mortgage, car payment, or credit card bills. They may also have other financial obligations, like ongoing monthly subscriptions, that they have to share.
- Benefits: Chances are that the spouses have each listed the other as the beneficiary on their benefits like their pension, IRA, 401(k), and other retirement plans. A separation agreement may serve to release each other from receiving the benefit should something happen to their spouse before they are officially divorced.
- Taxes: Taxes can be a complicated part of a divorce. A separation agreement can include what will happen with taxes during the annual filing.
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What Makes a Separation Agreement Valid?
A separation agreement is usually only considered valid if it:
- Is fair to both parties. When creating a separation agreement with your spouse, make sure you're separating assets and other items in a way that's fair to both parties. It does not have to be completely equal, but it cannot be unjustly one-sided, or a court may throw out the agreement during divorce proceedings.
- Has both spouses' signatures. Both parties must sign the separation agreement, and neither one can be under pressure or duress while doing so.
- Was drafted with two attorneys. It's not against the law to have the same attorney as your spouse when drawing up the separation agreement, but it's highly recommended to use separate attorneys. If both parties use the same attorney, a judge may later question the validity of the separation agreement during the divorce and inspect it closer for unfairness.
- Discloses all details. A separation agreement should disclose all assets and debts or it may be deemed fraudulent.
A separation is never an easy decision, but a separation agreement can help make the transition a little easier. Learn more about contracts before getting started, then work together with your spouse to come to a mutually beneficial decision about how to move forward.
Meet some of our Separation Agreement Lawyers
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I am a licensed attorney and a member of the California Bar. I graduated from the University of Dayton School of Law's Program in Law and Technology. I love IP, tech transfers, licensing, and how the internet and developing technology is changing the legal landscape. I've interned at both corporations and boutique firms, and I've taken extensive specialized classes in intellectual property and technology law.
Jo Ann J.
Jo Ann has been practicing for over 20 years, working primarily with high growth companies from inception through exit and all points in between. She is skilled in Mergers & Acquisitions, Contractual Agreements (including founders agreements, voting agreements, licensing agreements, terms of service, privacy policies, stockholder agreements, operating agreements, equity incentive plans, employment agreements, vendor agreements and other commercial agreements), Corporate Governance and Due Diligence.
I am an unabashed contract law geek with a passion for delivering contracts that protect your business within your risk tolerance. Contracts should be clear, concise, and able to be understood by the end user. I promote Plain English contract drafting. I also pay close attention to the boilerplate traps that trip up many agreements. Some of my most frequent drafting projects are entity operating and shareholder agreements, bylaws, asset purchase agreements, commercial leases, EULA, Terms of Service, Privacy Policies, Confidentiality agreements, employment agreements, and more.
I hold a B.S. in Accounting and a B.A. in Philosophy from Virginia Tech (2009). I received my J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law in 2012. I am an associate member of the Virginia Bar and an active member of the DC bar. Currently, I am working as a self-employed legal consultant and attorney. Primarily my clients are start-up companies for which I perform various types of legal work, including negotiating and drafting settlement, preparing operating agreements and partnership agreements, assisting in moving companies to incorporate in new states and setting up companies to become registered in a state, assisting with employment matters, drafting non-disclosure agreements, assisting with private placement offerings, and researching issues on intellectual property, local regulations, privacy laws, corporate governance, and many other facets of the law, as the need arises. I have previously practiced as an attorney at a small DC securities law firm and worked at Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLC. My work experience is dynamic and includes many short-term and long term experience that span across areas such as maintaining my own blog, freelance writing, and dog walking. My diverse background has provided me with a stong skill set that can be easily adapted for new areas of work and indicates my ability to quickly learn for a wide array of clients.
Texas licensed attorney specializing for 20 years in Business and Contract law. My services include General Business Law Advisement; Contract Review and Drafting; Legal Research and Writing, including Motion Practice; Business Formation; Article or Instructive Writing; and more. For more insight into my skills and experience, please feel free to visit my LinkedIn profile or contact me with any questions.
Creative, results driven business & technology executive with 24 years of experience (13+ as a business/corporate lawyer). A problem solver with a passion for business, technology, and law. I bring a thorough understanding of the intersection of the law and business needs to any endeavor, having founded multiple startups myself with successful exits. I provide professional business and legal consulting. Throughout my career I've represented a number large corporations (including some of the top Fortune 500 companies) but the vast majority of my clients these days are startups and small businesses. Having represented hundreds of successful crowdfunded startups, I'm one of the most well known attorneys for startups seeking CF funds. My engagements often include legal consultation & advisory roles, drafting of NDAs, TOS & Privacy Policies, contracts and corporate law, business strategy advice & consulting, in-house counsel, Founder & entrepreneur guidance and other roles as needed by my clients. I hold a Juris Doctor degree with a focus on Business/Corporate Law, a Master of Business Administration degree in Entrepreneurship, A Master of Education degree and dual Bachelor of Science degrees. I look forward to working with any parties that have a need for my skill sets.