A marital separation traditionally was used to reevaluate the future of a marriage or set the stage for a divorce. Family-law experts are seeing a trend among married couples wishing to split which may interest residents here in New York — legal separation without divorce.

Experts say some couples choose to separate physically while retaining the legal and financial benefits of a marriage. Money is not the only reason a couple chooses to stay married and live apart, but it can factor into the decision to avoid divorce.

Marital separations become legal separations when a couple agrees to a legal contract that addresses the financial and personal obligations of each spouse. Assets and bills are divided in a legal separation agreement. Provisions are made for alimony and child custody, support and visitation.

A legal separation agreement can act much like a divorce settlement, minus a court decree. The contract may also preserve important financial benefits, especially for a spouse who might lose health care coverage or tax advantages through divorce.

Divorce attorneys do not recommend living separately from a spouse on a long-term basis without a legal separation agreement. Spouses who part informally sacrifice the protection a legal separation can provide.

Spouses are linked by liability. Creditors do not care if spouses cohabit when it comes to collecting what is owed. One spouse could incur debt that the other partner will be responsible to pay unless a formal agreement helps to limit the obligation.

State laws regarding legal separation agreements vary. Some states require couples to enter a separation agreement before divorce. Other states acknowledge the agreements without demanding couples have them. A few states altogether dismiss the contracts.

Spouses who believe that all the financial perks of marriage apply after separation may find that is not necessarily true. Some health insurers view a separated couple the same way as a divorced pair and refuse coverage.

Tax laws at the state level will influence whether the Internal Revenue Service views separated spouses as married or unmarried. Check state laws pertaining to legally separated couples before deciding to file a joint tax return. Some states’ tax laws consider separation as an unmarried state.

Source: forbes.com, “Legal Separation or Divorce: Which is Better Financially?” Jeff Landers, Jan. 10, 2012