In Pennsylvania, you can be single, married, or divorced, but there is no law that allows you to be “legally separated.” When couples decide to separate, however, they face many of the same legal issues divorcing couples do, including how to divide property, cover expenses, and ensure the children continue to spend time with both parents.
One way to tackle these issues is to enter into an agreement, commonly referred to as a "separation agreement," with your spouse. This is a legally binding contract (which means both parties are legally obligated to follow it) that describes specific rights and responsibilities.
You'll likely need the help of an experienced family law attorney who can inform you of your legal rights, and draft (write) the agreement. Once it’s drafted, you (or your attorney) can present it to your spouse. Your spouse will either agree to all of your terms, or suggest some of his or her own. The goal is to negotiate amicably so that the two of you end up with a contract you can both live with.
What Your Separation Agreement Should Cover
Separation agreements typically cover the following issues.
Division of Property
When spouses separate, one person usually leaves the family home; by way of example, let's call this person Spouse A. When Spouse A leaves, he or she may want to take some items along such as furniture, art, jewelry, or electronics. If so, you should address this in your separation agreement to avoid any confusion regarding the ownership of these items.
You should make it clear that you’ve agreed to let Spouse A remove and use certain items temporarily, but that you aren't agreeing that these items belong to Spouse A permanently, and this arrangement should not be considered a formal division of property if you divorce in the future.
Alimony and Child Support
A separation agreement can address the issues of alimony (also called spousal support or spousal maintenance) and child support during the period of separation. Whether one spouse is entitled to spousal support depends on a variety of factors that courts consider on a case-by-case basis. Spousal support is not appropriate in every separation or divorce. For more information on spousal support, see Understanding and Calculating Alimony in Pennsylvania.
The issue of child support is different from spousal support. Unlike spousal support, child support is mandatory. In Pennsylvania both parents (whether married to one another or not) are obligated to support their children.
Pennsylvania uses strict guidelines to calculate a minimum amount of child support. Your separation agreement should provide for an amount that does not go below the guidelines. The guidelines are based primarily on the parents' combined income, but parents must also provide health insurance for their children.
For more information on child support and alimony in Pennsylvania, click here.
Custody and Visitation
As with support, custody and visitation arrangements can be made through a separation agreement. In this way, parents who move out can be assured that they will maintain frequent and meaningful contact with their children. Parents can work out a visitation schedule based on the particular circumstances of the family. However, the primary focus must always be on what is in the child’s best interests.
In many cases, child support and visitation issue can be complicated. If you're overwhelmed, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.