Many couples in Massachusetts describe themselves as “legally separated,” but the law does not recognize this status at all. From a legal (and tax) perspective, it doesn’t matter whether you are living with your spouse or whether you consider yourself as living separate lives. If you’re not divorced, you’re married.
However, there are steps that spouses can take to protect their rights and finances when they plan to live apart or even if they contemplate potentially one day returning to a life together.
One Spouse Can Request Separate Support
Although Massachusetts law doesn’t recognize legal separation for a married couple, the law does offer a process for one spouse to ask the court to order the other to pay “separate support” which is similar to alimony. Since this requires significant court interaction, most parties do not seek separate support unless they are planning a long-term separation, but there is no requirement that the parties must live apart for a certain length of time. In fact, it is possible for one spouse to seek separate support while they continue to live together, so long as that spouse has proper grounds for receiving support.
The law specifies three situations where the court may order support:
- When the spouse seeking support has been deserted by the other spouse
- When the spouse requested to pay support has failed to provide “suitable support”
- When the spouse seeking support has “justifiable cause for living apart” (regardless of whether they actually do live apart)
The situations that provide just cause for living apart would include wrongdoing such as cruel and abusive treatment or confirmed habits of intoxication. An attorney could review your situation and determine whether you have grounds to seek separate support.
Legal Agreements Can Protect Spouses’ Rights During Separation
An agreement on separate support protects spouses’ rights and finances from the time it is executed, so it is very helpful to have any time a couple is planning to live separate lives. An agreement is a contract between two spouses that can establish key terms such as how property will be divided up, who is responsible for which debts, whether one spouse will pay support, parenting time and obligations regarding children’s support.
Having an attorney negotiate and prepare an agreement can provide stability and predictability in a strained relationship, and can prevent one party from taking actions that harm the financial interests of the other.
Understand Your Legal Position and Take Steps to Protect Your Future
A long-term marital separation puts you in a precarious position if you have not taken the right steps to protect yourself. If you don’t have agreements in place, your estranged spouse still has joint control of your finances and is the person who controls and inherits your property if something happens to you. You remain obligated on debts and tax liabilities incurred by your spouse. The law still sees you as a legal unit, even if you feel as though you have cut ties forever.
The best thing you can do is to talk to a knowledgeable family law attorney who can review the details of your situation and expectations and recommend a course of action to protect your future. To speak to an experienced legal advisor at Koiles Pratt Family Law about your best options, contact us today.