Can’t Afford Divorce — What About Separation?

Posted October 1, 2012 in Divorce by


Question: Why does divorce cost so much? Answer: Because it’s worth it.

Unfortunately, for many at-odds couples who can’t untie the knot fast enough, legal and accounting fees that can soar into five figures in a contested divorce may prove to be a high barrier to clear. With too many cash-strapped families suffering from the recession and suffering from each other’s company, spouses who can’t afford an official divorce are making due with long term separations, according to a new study.

The study, conducted by the Ohio State University, looked at over 7,000 people who have completed a National Longitudinal Survey, which includes information about their marital status, since 1979. The results showed that couples who separated but didn’t divorce tended to be from low-income households.

Eighty percent of couples in the OSU study who separated went on to get divorced. Of the 15 percent who neither reconciled nor divorced, almost three quarters were black and Hispanic, many with low incomes and low educational levels. The study’s author noted that the cost of raising children also played a role in couples who did not ultimately divorce.

“Long-term separation may continue to be the norm for the disadvantaged unless they can see a better alternative, both in terms of spousal availabilities and economic independence,” said Dr. Zhenchao Qian, an OSU sociology professor and one of the study’s authors.

Makes sense — no court dates, lawyers or costs necessary. However, the problem with an informal separation is that there’s no way to enforce whatever agreement that the feuding pair arrives at over children, finances, home ownership or anything else.


Legal Remedies at Hand

Terry Szucsko

Short of a divorce, there are some legal remedies that spouses can seek to make their agreements binding. Couples can get a legally recognized separation in most states, excepting Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Texas. The agreement covers child custody and support payments just like a divorce, the only real difference being it doesn’t officially end the marriage.

Another option is a postnuptial agreement, which serves as a legal contract and can divvy up assets (but is not binding for child care or support payments).

However, both options usually require assistance from an attorney, which means splitting families might not save a whole lot of money. “If you’re just going to get a legal separation because you think it’ll cost less money, you’re probably wrong,” says Terry Szucsko, a family law attorney in San Francisco. “If anything it might even cost more because if later on down the road you want to get a full dissolution, you might have to file more paperwork and go through more processes.”

As for postnups? “Although postnups are not disfavored in the eyes of the law at all, they just require a little bit more thoroughness in preparing them,” Szucsko says. “Both sides must be represented by an attorney at that point so that’s not going to save you any money.”

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The attorney says he sees two major reasons why couples who can afford representation might opt for a legal separation in lieu of divorce. One is religion, if they come from a faith that frowns on divorce but still need a way to untangle themselves from each others lives.

The other reason? Health insurance. “One of the advantages is if you’re covered under your spouse’s health insurance you maintain that status,” says Szucsko. “If you were to get a divorce you would no longer be covered.”

Get an estimate of the average cost of a divorce in your area by using the Attorney’s Fee Calculator on

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