The New York Times ran an interesting article on long term separations – or the “un-divorced” as the writer, Pamela Paul calls it – as an alternative to divorces. It raises some interesting points about the benefits – and the complications – of a long term separation. In a state such as Pennsylvania, where separation can be grounds for seeking spousal support and child support, long-term separation may have both strategic and practical benefits to a dependent spouse by potentially providing years of support.
Additional benefits also may include the continuation of medical and tax benefits. For some cases, medical coverage is a critical aspect due to a major medical condition or insufficient income to obtain independent insurance coverage, while most people benefit from filing their taxes jointly.
Issues to consider, particularly in Pennsylvania where there is no “legal separation” per se, is that being separated has no legal effect on things like Social Security, insurance benefits, estate benefits, or retirement benefits. Some retirement plans designate the spouse as the beneficiary of the plan, therefore, if the spouse dies during the period of separation, the benefits pass to the other spouse as if the separation never occurred. In Pennsylvania, until a grounds order is entered, you are married and death benefits, property rights, etc. will pass to the surviving spouse by operation of law.
Long-term separation is often a convenient arrangement, rather than a desired situation. In many cases, it forestalls the inevitable divorce, but on the other hand, it may just be a way to deal with a marriage that he ceased to work in a traditional sense, but that those involved find too much invested to sever the legal ties to one another. Like all things, there is no cookie-cutter approach to long-term separation; each situation requires careful consideration of the benefits and risks (ex. Joint taxes maximizes tax benefits, but also can exposure each party to liability for what is disclosed in the return). Finding the balance between an unhappy happy and a tolerable (if not happy) separation is not easy, but it could the best solution for some people.