For couples who are experiencing marital problems but are not ready to file for a divorce, separation is a sensible alternative. Understandably, one of the first questions that comes up when spouses make the mutual decision to spend time apart is what happens next. While the final choice is always up to the individuals involved, separation – whether it’s legal or informal – is more likely to end in divorce, but it is by no means a guaranteed outcome.
In a 2012 study that examined the marriages of 7,272 participants, 79 percent of couples who chose to separate eventually got divorced. However, since the decision to end a marriage cannot be measured objectively, it is hard to determine a firm causal link between separation and divorce. After all, it is possible that many of the couples who took part in the study were already headed for divorce before they decided to separate.
Ultimately, every marriage is a unique case, and it is up to both spouses to set the terms of their separation and choose its outcome. Separation is by definition a step toward the legal dissolution of a marriage, but it does not have to be synonymous with a divorce down the road.
Because putting a marriage on hold feels personal, spouses may not realize that separation can take many forms – all that can potentially affect ownership and division of assets if one spouse consequently files for divorce. For example, in a permanent separation, where the couple has no written agreement, all debts and assets incurred are still shared. By contrast, a legal separation works out issues like child custody, property ownership and alimony in court. Since laws regarding living apart vary from state to state, consulting an attorney prior to separating can help couples find the right option for their circumstances.