The New York Times reports on married couples who separate, but choose not to divorce:
Society is full of whispered scenarios in which spouses live apart, in different homes or in the same mega-apartment in order to silence gossip, avoid ugly divorce battles and maintain the status quo, however uneasy. In certain cases, the world assumes a couple is divorced and never learns otherwise until an obituary puts the record straight.
Separations are usually de facto, rarely pounded out in a contract, and family law is different state to state. But even long-estranged couples are irrefutably bound by contractual links on issues like taxes, pensions, Social Security and health care.
Divorce lawyers and marriage therapists say that for most couples, the motivation to remain married is financial. According to federal law, an ex qualifies for a share of a spouse’s Social Security payment if the marriage lasts a decade. In the case of more amicable divorces, financial advisers and lawyers may urge a couple who have been married eight years to wait until the dependent spouse qualifies.
For others, a separation agreement may be negotiated so that a spouse keeps the other’s insurance until he or she is old enough for Medicare. If one person has an existing condition, obtaining affordable health care coverage is often difficulty or impossible. The recession, with its real estate lows and health care expense highs, adds incentives to separate indefinitely.
Others believe separation is easier on the children than is divorce. A 48-year-old social worker from Brooklyn, separated eight years, traded places with her husband in the same home, so that their children would not have to shuttle from one home to the other. The couple had an apartment where each would live when not at the family home.
“In hindsight, it was probably more confusing for the kids,” she said. “But we did it with their best interests in mind.”
But long-term separation can create big problems. If a couple isn’t divorced, their lives are still legally and financially intertwined. If your estranged husband goes on a spending spree, you’re responsible for the ensuing credit card debt. If you win the lottery, that’s community property. [Maybe – see Souder v. Wereschuk, 2004 ABCA 339 – DJP] Finances can swing wildly, creating an alimony boon or a bombshell should one partner eventually want a divorce.