Knowledge Base

Separating in Massachusetts?

November 1, 2009

Written by Dr. Lynne C. Halem, Director CMDR


Contrary to public opinion, there is no such legal act or document in Massachusetts which constitutes a legal separation.  Whereas it is certainly true that many people live separate and apart, the court does not, in and of itself, present any mechanism for formalizing this act or subjecting the involved individuals to special terms.

Ironically, the label for a divorce agreement in Massachusetts is “Separation Agreement,” a source of confusion to many people.

There are many reasons why people separate.  The oldest reason is based on religious beliefs that forbid divorce.  Here, individuals, who feel they are unable to stay together and unable to divorce, live permanently in separate households.  Others decide to separate because they are unsure of their relationship.  Perhaps they still care for each other and do not wish to consider divorce, but, for whatever reason or reasons, find living together untenable.  At times there are other people involved in their lives; at other times they are unhappy or perplexed that their relationship is troubled.  They reason that giving each party some space will provide time to think and maybe even rekindle the old feelings that first led to their wanting to be together.

Then, too, there are others who realize that divorce is inevitable, but they are not quite ready to move in that direction; it is too intimidating, too final. 

For all these couples and others who decide to live separate and apart, questions should arise as to how to structure their separation.  At the Centre for Mediation & Dispute Resolution, we believe that clarity on details saves problems down the road.  A contractual understanding by the separating parties avoids anger and mishaps that, by their very misunderstanding, can trigger divorce.


Let’s be more specific.  When you and your spouse decide to separate, you need to determine:

  • Where each one will live and for how long (the latter pertains to the lease or other contractual agreements you need to consider).

  • How much you can afford for a second residence or will living with family or friends be your choice?

  • What kind of parental schedule will be in effect for being with the children?  Where will you see or take the children?

  • Who is responsible for what bills?

  • Where does income get deposited?

  • Who pays what credit card(s)?  Are there limitations on purchases?

  • Are retirement accounts maintained at current level?  Savings accounts?  Education investments?  Health insurance?

  • Are you allowed to date?  Will you go together to therapy?  Individually?

And so the questions can pile up.  Different questions arise for different couples.  The main point is that the financial situation should be maintained as close to the status quo as is possible.  No withdrawals from investments or securing of debts without mutual agreement.  In short, no surprises.  Whether you hope to reconcile or not, a peaceful and successful separation has beneficial effects.  This, of course, pertains equally to personal interactions.  If you agree to work on your marriage during separation, it would certainly not be helpful to find out your spouse is dating.  Openness and clarity are critical components of a successful separation.

To achieve this goal, mediators at the Centre for Mediation & Dispute Resolution have had much success in helping couples to ask the right questions and provide answers that will ease the pain of their separation and at least ensure that no harm is done.  A clearly and thoughtfully crafted separation agreement does not entail a major investment in time or money.  It can, however, reap untold benefits and, at the least, provide a measure of peace and security while you are dealing with the emotional issues of the separation itself.



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