Long-Term Separation

For the poorest of Americans, divorce remains a luxury item.

Long-term separations are the alternative for poor couples who cannot afford to legally end their marriages, according to research presented tot the American Sociological Association.

In the longitudinal study conducted by Ohio State University and published in August 2012, researchers surveyed more than 7,272 people on a regular basis from 1979 to 2008. Most people in the study who separated reported getting a divorce within three years of the break up; however, about 15 percent of the survey participants who separated did not get a divorce within the first 10 years of their separation. Primarily, researchers found, finances reinforce the decision to enter a long-term separation: the couples simply could not afford to divorce. The married-but-indefinitely-separated group generally had only a high school education, were black or Hispanic and had young children.

The cost of divorce was one of the most significant reasons behind couple’s decision to remain separated. Depending on the jurisdiction, even the simplest divorce generally costs at least a few hundred dollars in court fees, and any complicating issue raises the cost significantly.

Moreover, there are also financial benefits to remaining married that couples, especially those with children, hesitate to forego. These include shared health care coverage and joint tax returns, among others. In addition, older couples may not want to lose their retirement benefits or claim to their shared real estate. ‚ÄúThose with young children may find it difficult to support themselves and their children if they divorce,” said Zhenchao Qian, study co-author and professor of sociology. “Divorce may not protect them because their spouse may be unwilling or unable to provide financial support.”(While there are some financial benefits to long-term separation, there are also risks in remaining legally married, such as being liable for a spouse’s debt or having to share earnings from windfalls like a lottery win, which are considered marital property.)

In the past, separations were usually linked to strict divorce laws that required one spouse to prove the other did something wrong — they could have cheated or abandoned their partner. But today, as laws around “no-fault” divorces have become more lenient, researchers from the study suggested long-term separations are mostly done to avoid the financial stress of going through a divorce.

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