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Separate maintenance: Not quite divorced but not really married

What happens when you don't want to continue living a joined life with your spouse but divorce isn't really an option either?

For some couples, divorce is a violation of their religious beliefs. Others simply decide that they're better off staying legally married for economic reasons. Insurance and taxes are often serious considerations for many, especially older couples or couples where one spouse has serious health problems and relies on the insurance provided by the other spouse's employer.

If either of those situations apply, you may want to consider an option that falls somewhere between marriage and divorce. In Michigan, that option is called an action for separate maintenance, which is somewhat similar to a legal separation in other states.

In order to file for separate maintenance, you have to proceed just like you would with a divorce by filing a petition with the court. Your spouse has the option of filing a counterclaim for divorce. Assuming that he or she doesn't file the counterclaim, separate maintenance allows the court to proceed with a number of steps:

-- Your debts can be divided, allowing you and your spouse to each become separately responsible for your own bills.

-- Your property and assets can be divided. Once the separate maintenance begins, your spouse doesn't have any legal right to anything new that you acquire or any money you put into savings.

-- Alimony is available. The court may award it on either a temporary basis, for the purposes of rehabilitation so that the receiving spouse can go back to school or get back into the workforce, or a permanent basis if the court thinks it is necessary.

-- Custody and visitation issues can be decided, if there are minor children involved. Child support can also be allocated to the parent with primary physical custody.

It's important to understand that an action for separate maintenance doesn't end your marital bonds, no matter how long you remain separated. If you later decide to divorce, you have to start an new action.

For more advice, consider talking to a divorce attorney to see if an action for separate maintenance would be to your benefit.

Source: FindLaw, "Legal Separation vs. Divorce," accessed March 17, 2017

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