What You Need to Know About Trial Separation

What Is a Trial Separation?

A trial separation is an informal agreement in which a married couple spends time away from each other. The arrangement is for a specific period of time, and is not a legal separation. This means the couple remains legally married even though they are physically separated.

A couple may choose to undergo a trial separation before initiating divorce proceedings, or the process can lead to a reconciliation. In either case, a separation allows spouses time away from each other to consider their relationship, values, and long-term goals.

How to Begin a Trial Separation

The trial separation begins as soon as one spouse leaves or moves out of the marital residence. The spouse may choose to move in with a family member or friend, or they may sign a new apartment lease. Before you choose this informal arrangement, it is best to work out various aspects such as living arrangements (rent or mortgage), visitation, and expenses.

The couple may decide to begin the trial separation process when attending marriage counseling sessions. Depending on how things progress, they can choose to reconcile and live together or initiate divorce proceedings.

Do You Need a Separation Agreement in a Trial Separation?

The trial separation doesn’t require a court order. It can last as long as the couple wants (a few weeks, months, or even years). A separation agreement is not required to live temporarily apart as a couple.
An oral agreement on childcare, rent, and finances is enough. Keep in mind, however, that it will be difficult to enforce an oral agreement in court.

Characteristics of Trial Separations

Trial separations are versatile and much less formal than a court process like divorce. A couple can decide the general terms of their agreement and take advantage of its flexibility to make things easier for everyone involved.

The characteristics of a trial separation include:

Temporary Arrangement

The trial separation arrangement is often temporary. The couple chooses to be separated for a while to work out their various disagreements or “cool off.” They may decide to reconcile in the future.

The trial separation may also turn into a divorce or legal separation.

Stay Legally Married

The couple stays legally married and can file legal documents as a couple. Any property accumulated by either of the partners during the arrangement is considered shared or marital property.

Legal Filings Are Not Necessary

Since trial separation is an informal process, it doesn’t require the filing of any legal papers. This allows a couple to explore their options without the legal ramifications of court agreements. For example, support payment and child custody are issues that the couple should work on during the trial separation process. Likewise, property division is usually not part of trial separation.

One of the prerequisites in states that allow no-fault divorce is that the couple should be physically separated from each other for a specific period of time (minimum number of months). Because a trial separation is not a legal separation, that time spent away from each other counts toward the separation requirement for no-fault filing. This depends on the rules of each jurisdiction.

Key Rules for a Successful Trial Separation

While it is tempting to prolong your trial separation indefinitely to avoid the complexities of a potential divorce or couples therapy, you should set some ground rules before beginning. This will allow you to make the most out of your trial separation and work toward a solution, rather than simply lengthening your time spent apart.

Set an End Date

Trial separations cannot go on endlessly. It is important to set an end date. The separation arrangement can be for a couple weeks or months. Most couples opt for six months. If you are apart for a longer period, the chances of getting back together diminish.

Living Arrangements

If you decide to separate, someone has to move out. Which partner will that be? While you do not have to be too specific about where you each will live, be sure to outline which spouse will be moving out when the separation begins. That way, you will avoid confusion and get the process going much faster.

Paying the Bills and Spending

You will have to pay bills even when you are living apart. Set rules about who will pay what bills. Apart from paying bills, you will also need to determine how you will spend the joint marital money. Set limits on how much each other can spend. If you are not clear about your finances, it could create big problems in the future.

Dating During Trial Separation

Dating others during trial separation will be hard on your marriage. You and your spouse need to discuss rules about dating others. If you are not on the same page about this, it can destroy any chances of reconciliation.

Spending Time with Kids

After you decide to separate, you should set a schedule for spending time with your children. Talk about whether you want to see your kids daily or weekly. Discuss how you will handle vacations and holidays that come up when you are separated.

Following a schedule that you both agree on will give your kids a sense of safety and security. Also decide how you want to parent the kids in the absence of your spouse.

Get Professional Help

Get help from a professional marriage counselor if you are serious about reconciling with your partner. It is also advisable to talk with a divorce lawyer during a trial separation. This will enable you to be prepared if you want to initiate divorce proceedings.

How Will a Trial Separation Affect Your Divorce?

A trial separation will enable you to evaluate how an eventual divorce will affect your family and finances. However, keep in mind that things can change once you actually decide to initiate a divorce, because an informal trial separation is not legally binding. For example, if one of the spouses keeps the kids during the trial separation, it doesn’t mean that the kids will be given legal and physical custody to that spouse.

By the same token, the temporary arrangements made during a short trial separation will not have an effect on property division, custody, and support. If the separation is for a longer period, the judge will consider it during divorce and custody proceedings.

Trial Separation Checklist

If you are wondering how to proceed with a trial separation, consider the following:

Separation Decision

  • Before you choose to opt for trial separation, you can share your plans with family or close friends. This is important for emotional support and safety. If you decide on leaving the house, you should determine where you will be staying.
  • Write down your expectations from the separation decision. Writing down your expectations will enable you to decide whether you want to reconcile or initiate divorce proceedings.
  • Managing finances is a big factor to consider during a separation. If you are not working, you may have to think about getting a job.
  • Decide how the property will be separated. The division of property includes furniture, cooking utensils, and other items. Make a list of items and evaluate what you need.
  • If you jointly own services with your partner, like an Internet package, you should decide whether you want to disconnect the services.
  • Make a list of financial and marriage documents. Keep a copy of these documents. You will need them if you opt for divorce or legal separation.

Plan the Basics

  • If you have decided to opt for trial separation, you should inform your spouse about the decision. Talk openly about why you want to take some time off and separate. Avoid accusations and a harsh tone. It will only make matters worse.
  • List the different aspects of your marriage that make you happy and unhappy. Think carefully and evaluate each one of these factors. This will enable you to make the important decision of whether you want to divorce or reconcile with your spouse.
  • Discuss your expectations of the trial separation with your spouse. You can also ask your spouse about their expectations.
  • Separate your finances. This will help avoid disputes during the trial separation.

Informing Your Spouse

  • Choose a calm time and inform your partner about your decision to opt for trial separation. Discuss why you want to go that route.
  • You can both agree to go to marriage counseling. This will help you understand new things about your relationship.
  • Remember that one of you will have to leave the house if you opt for trial separation. Living in the same house might damage the relationship further.

Benefits of Trial Separation

A temporary separation enables couples to realize what they will be losing if they don’t work on their marriage. A separation also allows the couple to assess the situation in a calm and mature way. This enables each spouse to make important decisions without the cloud of conflict hanging over their head.

The separation can further enable partners to let go of biases and trivialities they have for each other, allowing them to focus on what is important in their relationship.

Even if it ends in divorce, a trial separation is beneficial. It gives the couple ample time to decide on child custody, property division, and support.


A trial separation is an effective way to work through relationship problems, experience single life, and help you and your partner decide if divorce is in your future. Although a trial separation is an informal, personal process, you should consult an experienced divorce lawyer before agreeing to its terms. The lawyer will provide advice and support if the separation arrangement is the first course of action before a divorce.

Your attorney can also inform you how the trial arrangement will affect you, your family, and your property. They will represent you in court if you decide to proceed with the divorce filing, or can simply provide legal counsel as you undergo the separation process. Contact an attorney today so you can get all the assistance you need for your trial separation.

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