A trial separation may allow the spouse who wants the divorce (whom I call the “leaver”) to experience some of the feelings of being separated without making a final decision to divorce. The main advantage of a trial separation, of course, is that it’s easily reversible. You can try it for a while, go through counseling, and then reconcile, or you can try it for a while and then proceed with divorce.
If you and your spouse separate, you can do it one of two ways: an informal separation or a formal legal separation. An informal separation is basically whatever the two of you agree for it to be. Typically, one of you would stay where the two of you were living before, and the other would move into some other quarters. You typically wouldn’t make any formal property division, but you would agree (again informally) on some kind of working arrangement about possession of things like cars, the bank accounts, the credit cards, and the stereo.
A formal legal separation is more permanent, more complicated, and more expensive. It’s also much less common. It’s nearly as expensive as a divorce (sometimes more so, because it’s less common, so you have to pay your lawyer to scratch his or her head and figure out how to do everything). And often people who get a formal legal separation wind up having to go through all the pain, time, and expense again later to get an actual divorce.
So why would anyone go through a formal legal separation?
- Some states require that a couple seeking a divorce have been separated for some period of time, so maybe it’s needed for that.
- Some couples need to be separated, but they need to remain legally married, perhaps so one can continue to be insured for medical or other purposes by the other’s company. Formal legal separation makes this possible.
- Sometimes there’s no question that the couple is moving toward divorce, but they know it will take some time to work everything out. If their incomes are substantially different, it may be worth it to develop a written separation agreement so the person paying alimony can deduct the alimony on his or her tax return. The paying spouse might be able to pay the receiving spouse more than enough to pay the tax on the alimony, and still come out ahead.
- Sometimes one of the spouses has a religious objection to divorce. A formal separation may allow the spouses to remain married even as they live apart.
Beyond that, there may not be much of a reason to go through the time, pain, and expense of a formal legal separation. Better perhaps to agree to reach a working arrangement for an informal separation. You can then follow it up directly with either reconciliation or divorce.