While divorce will for most people trigger enormous emotional and financial stress, separating without the formality of divorce can also be financially disastrous.
This was highlighted in a recent case concerning a couple married for only three weeks and separated for almost 30 years afterwards. Litigation is ongoing.
If one person moves out they are allowed to come back and are free to stay when they choose, said Hazel Wright, a partner and family mediator at Hunters Solicitors.
And the partner who stays in the house is not allowed to change the locks. “The only way to remove this right is through divorce or an injunction,” said Ms Wright.
Shared accounts, debts and assets
Ms Wright said: “It may be that the person who is staying in the home will want to keep up with the mortgage payments and the party who has moved out and has to pay rent will ask why they should.
“If the payments stop the house could be repossessed and both individuals will see their credit rating destroyed.”
An individual has the right to claim against the estate of their spouse or civil partner even if separated and could demand a continuing income in addition to a “chunk of the capital”, said Ms Wright.
The danger here is that the estate cannot be finalised if the executor does not know how much income is required. This is a real risk in long term separations, according to Ms Wright.
In these cases, the other beneficiaries would need to “buy the partner off”. Instead of offering a continuing income, the spouse’s share might need to be capitalised.
Ms Wright said it was crucial to make a will. Those who have an estranged spouse should use it to explain why they do not want them to be a beneficiary.
A halfway house
Ms Wright suggested that a judicial separation, a more formal agreement made by the court, could be an option for couples wishing to split but not divorce, perhaps where it is financially beneficial to remain married.
She said it was “almost” a binding financial arrangement which would allow couples to divide assets and property, but no pension sharing can take place.
Ms Wright said: “It’s so important for couples who split up to sort out their relationship before moving on and starting their new life.”