A recent study concluded that while the vast majority of married couples who separate will eventually divorce (within three years), approximately 15% remain separated indefinitely, even past the 10-year mark.
Why would a couple choose to do this? Or, to put it another way, are there actually advantages to long-term separation over divorce?
More on the study's findings
First, let's take a closer look at the results of the study conducted by Dmitry Tumin, a doctoral student in sociology at The Ohio State University, and Zhenchao Qian, a sociology professor at OSU.
The researchers reported that an overwhelming majority, nearly 75% of separated couples who either remained separated without divorcing or later reunited were Black or Hispanic. Moreover, those in long-term separations were more likely to lack a college education, be “more disadvantaged,” and have more children than those who ended up getting a divorce. Interestingly, the study found no statistical correlation between religious affiliation and the decision to divorce or remain separated.
Financial considerations in long-term separation
Overall, according to Qian, financial considerations seem to play the most important role in whether a couple remains separated for the long term. Several economic issues in particular may influence a couple's decision to stay separated without a divorce, either living separately or under the same roof. These may include but are not limited to the following:
Insurance/health care coverage: Remaining married generally means that both parties keep any insurance or health care coverage they maintained as a married couple; this, of course, can be a huge benefit, particularly if one party might otherwise have difficulty obtaining and maintaining insurance or health care coverage. Some couples may also decide to incorporate insurance and/or health care coverage into a separation or divorce agreement.
Income tax benefits: Staying married means the couple can take advantage of certain income tax benefits, including possible increases in deductions.
Social Security benefits and/or pensions: In the case of a ten-year or longer marriage, an ex-spouse qualifies to receive a share of the other ex-spouse's Social Security benefits; some couples parting on good terms may even decide to hold out for an extra year or more in order to reach that ten-year threshold or otherwise agree to special arrangements regarding an ex-spouse's pension.
Mortgage/home sale: Selling a family home or unloading a mortgage may not be in a separated couple's best financial interests; doing so might place an undue burden on the one responsible for a mortgage, or perhaps the market is down and they would have to forfeit the opportunity to get a better price. Some couples may even choose to continue living together on the same property in order to avoid a financial loss involving the marital home.
Potential financial pitfalls in long-term separation
If you're separated or considering a separation, keep in mind that the financial benefits could be outweighed by the potential hazards, including economic ones. Debt is sometimes shared by married couples, depending on the laws of the state where they reside, which could mean that a thrifty spouse may be on the hook for half of the spending spouse's credit card debt, even long after they've separated. If the spending spouse falls behind on payments, both spouses' credit rating may be affected.
Moreover, each spouse's assets could dwindle or increase dramatically over the course of a long separation. If the partners eventually divorce, the spouse who is better financially positioned when the divorce occurs could be ordered to pay much more alimony than they would have if the divorce had occurred at the time of separation, even though the receiving spouse contributed no financial, emotional or physical support during that period.
Other potential dangers include estate disputes due to heirs' lack of awareness that the deceased never officially divorced, as well as the possibility that an estranged spouse could move away and be hard to locate if one of the partners finally decides to divorce.
Non-financial reasons for long-term separation
Sometimes the decision to stay separated may have more to do with social considerations; some couples simply prefer to continue conducting their lives as Mr. and Mrs. Married, whether or not their friends and family know the truth. Couples with children may feel that separating is less confusing or easier for their offspring. And many couples just don't “get around to” divorcing, seeing no real benefit in doing so, particularly if they don't expect to remarry.
Regardless of the reasons, a couple's decision to stay married, separate, reconcile, or divorce is intensely personal and often based on many factors, especially financial, but remember—the possibility of a once-amicable separation turning unpleasant is very real, and this is something every couple should consider when deciding their course of action.
For those interested in learning more about legally ending a marriage, LegalZoom offers an uncontested divorce.