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When you think of a married couple separating, you might assume it's an informal process that's simply meant to give some time apart to determine whether to reconcile or divorce. In actuality, there are different types of separation with varying levels of formality and rights.
There are informal arrangements that require no legal intervention, such as a trial separation. Alternatively, some states allow something called legal separation, which is a formal process that's similar to a divorce. In a legal separation, spousal support and child support may be available, especially if you live in different households.
What Are Your Rights to Support During Separation?
A trial separation is one way to temporarily part ways, and it requires no court intervention or formal spousal or child support. You're still considered fully married from a legal and financial standpoint, so any arrangements with spousal or child support must be made and agreed upon by both of you.
If you take the step of legal separation, it's more formal like a divorce—though a key difference is it's reversible, and neither spouse can remarry while separated. In states where legal separation is an option, one spouse must initiate the process by filing a legal petition. A judge oversees the proceedings and issues a separation order that's binding.
A couple that's in agreement on how to handle everything can submit a separation agreement to a judge for consideration to include in the separation order. When there's not an agreement, a judge decides how to handle the details.
Similar to a divorce, the judge will oversee the dividing of property and debts, along with determining if there should be spousal support and/or child support. You can receive both if your situation warrants it. Just know that if you and your partner remain living in the same home, a judge may be less likely to award support than if you live separately and no longer have someone to share expenses with.
Short- or long-term spousal support, also called separation maintenance (or alimony in a divorce) may be required if one partner is financially reliant on the other. You may also be entitled to spousal support if your marriage lasted a certain period of time, or because of a variety of other factors. Child support may be required, particularly in situations where one parent lives alone with the children and bears the brunt of expenses.
If your order says you're responsible for these costs, they're legally required and enforceable.
Spousal Support vs. Child Support
Depending on your circumstances, you may be entitled to spousal support and/or child support during a legal separation.
Spousal support, or spousal maintenance, is intended to help the adult who was financially dependent on the partner, regardless of whether there are children. For example, if one person was unemployed to stay at home and raise the kids, and now separated and without income, they need financial assistance until they can get a new job. State rules vary by how much and how long it must be paid, and a judge determines the appropriate amount—if any—after reviewing your situation.
Child support is common when a couple has minor kids, and it exists to ensure the basic needs of the children can be met in the face of a split home. It's typically required to be paid by the non-custodial spouse to the custodial spouse (the parent whom the kids will primarily live with). However, if custody is more equal, there may be a different arrangement.
The judge will likely look at factors such as how many kids you have, each person's income and how much time each parent spends with the kids when calculating the child support order.
It's best for spousal support and child support to be requested before a judge issues the final separation order, as it can be difficult to modify or request it later—but it might be possible.
How to Budget Without Support
Beyond the emotional and logistical challenges, one of the hardest parts of separation is managing your finances. If you're used to being a two-income household, and each person is now living solo, your money won't go as far.
Here are some steps to take to ease the burden if you're not getting any financial support:
- Review how expenses have changed. Once you've separated, look through your recent bank statements and identify recurring bills. Even better if you can do this with your partner to establish clear roles and responsibilities, especially with debts. See if any expenses are no longer needed, or if there are some your partner can take over. If there were bills you were splitting, see if you can agree on a solution, like you pay one bill in its entirety while they pay another in its entirety.
- Cut where you can. If the separation puts a financial strain on you, and you're not getting any spousal or child support (or it isn't enough to cover your financial needs), it's critical to trim unnecessary spending. Review your recent statements to see if you have any subscriptions you can cancel (even temporarily) and identify other areas for cuts. For example, say you're spending more on food delivery than you realized; you can switch to more grocery shopping and home cooking until things stabilize.
- Create a new budget. Now that you've sorted out which expenses you're in charge of and slimmed down expenses, set up a budget that reflects your new circumstances. It can be temporary, and it will help you live within your means and ensure you can pay your bills without going into debt.
- Look for other sources of income. If you can't make ends meet even with cuts and budgets, aim to boost your income rather than taking on debt. This could mean taking extra shifts at work, doing odd jobs like babysitting or mowing lawns for neighbors or using gig-economy apps to do tasks like food delivery or dog walking.
If your ex was ordered to pay required child or spousal support and is failing to do so, you have legal recourse. You can file an enforcement action with the family court you've worked with. If a judge reviews it and finds your spouse is in contempt of the order, they can penalize them with sanctions, fines or jail time.
While this may not help you with your finances in the short term, it may allow you to see a light at the end of the financial tunnel when you receive back payments.
Check in on Your Credit
The legal separation process can be tricky, as assets, debts and responsibilities are divided much like in a divorce. Even if your spouse is being helpful with financial matters, it's easy for bills to fall through the cracks during this transition period.
Some couples will continue to have joint expenses, such as a mortgage bill. If your partner is in charge of payments for accounts that have your name on them, it's wise to ensure they're following through. Whether a bill goes unpaid due to malice or mistake, late or missed bills can damage both of your credit scores. During this separation process, it's wise to periodically check your credit report and your credit score to make sure no accounts have inadvertently gone unpaid or that there are any other surprises.