A separation agreement is a legally binding document made between a married couple who are not yet ready to file for a divorce but have decided they want to live apart from one another.
Separation papers signed by both spouses include financial disclosures and address issues such as child custody, spousal support, and living arrangements. The couple is still legally married and can even take advantage of certain insurance and tax benefits.
You may want to use a separation agreement if, for example, you and your spouse have decided to live apart to see if a divorce is really what you want, or if you plan to separate and need to formally agree on how you will divide assets and handle child support or alimony.
As a reference, a separation agreement may be known by different names in other states, including:
- Separation Papers
- Legal Separation
- Separation Letter
- Marriage Separation Agreement
For additional information, see our complete guide to what is a separation agreement.
How To Write a Separation Agreement
A written separation agreement should identify the following elements:
- Names and address(es) of the couple that wants to separate
- Date of marriage
- Date of separation
- Confirmation that the couple meets the residency requirements for their state
- Reason for the couple’s separation (legal grounds for separation vary by state and may include grounds such as irreconcilable differences, general indignities, adultery, etc)
- Whether the separation is temporary or permanent
Division of finances:
- Division of real property, including primary and vacation homes
- Division of assets, including cars, collections, antiques, furniture
- Division of financial investment accounts including stocks and bonds
- Division of financial obligations like mortgages, loans, bills, debts, and taxes
- Division of marital property versus prior personal property
Division of shared responsibilities:
- Child custody and living arrangements (if the couple has children under the age of 18)
- Visitation schedules for the non-custodial parent
- Plans for child care (e.g., medical insurance, family involvement, school obligations, etc.)
- Child support and/or spousal support
- Division of unexpected medical, educational, or other expenses
To write legal separation papers online, download our fillable free separation agreement template below in PDF or click “Create Document” to access our step-by-step document builder.
What To Include in a Separation Agreement
When writing your separation agreement, you should include detailed financial plans such as the following:
- Arrangements regarding primary residence, including plans to sell and immediately divide proceeds, plans to sell the home after a set period of time, or plans for one spouse to assume the home, including mortgage, if any, and/or buying out the other spouse
- Distribution of vacation homes, timeshares, or other real estate
- Assignment of assets and debts
- Plan for who keeps personal items and timeframe for collecting
- Provisions for temporary financial support
Above all else, there are five critical items a separation agreement must have, as applicable, to be valid:
- Distribution of marital assets and debts
- Child support
- Child custody
- Spousal support
Additionally, you should consider including arrangements for potential future situations that may occur after the separation:
- What is to be done in the event of the death of either spouse
- Expectations for incorporation of a new relationship or cohabitation by either spouse
- Design for significant changes in circumstance, such as a change in income
- Conditions that allow for variations in arrangements
- Consequences for breach of the separation agreement
Tips for Writing a Separation Agreement
Additional expenses for child care
As you write your separation agreement, take into account additional expenses you may incur for child care. In addition to potential expenses for private school and contributions to college funds, children often require payment for non-budgeted extracurricular activities, such as school sports, school trips, school events, private lessons, etc.
Be sure to specify who is responsible for such expenses. Alternatively, you can consider having a 50/50 arrangement or opening a joint bank account used solely for those purposes.
Omitted assets or property
Issues related to property division are generally straightforward and your written agreement will reflect that. However, it’s best to include provisions that address the distribution of forgotten assets including non-disclosed or omitted property. These written provisions, a 50/50 division, for example, will help you avoid having to go to court in the future.
Seek advice if necessary
Depending on your family’s needs, writing some aspects of your separation agreement can be challenging. If your agreement’s legal or tax-related consequences are complicated, be sure to seek financial advice from an accountant or legal advice from an attorney.
As you write, remember that rules regarding separation agreements differ from state to state. Be sure you are using the rules in your state and have determined how they may affect your written agreement.
Not all states have laws that recognize legal separation, i.e you cannot petition the court to be separated legally. The states that don’t acknowledge legal documentation of separation are Florida, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Mississippi. In those states, writing a separation agreement is still a valid means of dealing with finances, support, and child custody issues.
Sample Separation Agreement Template
Below is a sample of a separation agreement available to download in PDF or Word doc format.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, in most states, you can get a divorce without a separation agreement. However, each state handles separation proceedings differently. Some states require a legal separation before a couple can file for divorce, while others do not.
State law also determines whether a separation agreement is simply signed between the couple or filed with the state. For more specific information about the separation process, check your state court or government website.
Yes, you can file a separation agreement without a lawyer. Even if separation agreements aren’t required by the court in the state where you live, you can still use the document as part of a formal lawsuit when you want to file for legal separation with the court. Most of these forms are available for free on the state or county court websites.
Yes, a separation agreement must be notarized and contain the signatures of both parties to be considered legally binding. Any notary public can perform this function for you. Note that both spouses do not have to show up at the same time to sign in front of a notary. Each spouse can sign in front of separate notaries.
You can write your separation agreement yourself or have an attorney draft it for you depending on your needs.
Using our separation agreement template as a guide, discuss how you and your spouse will divide both physical assets and responsibilities going forward.
Most couples won’t agree on every aspect of the agreement immediately, so prepare for this process to take some time. If needed, you and your spouse can fill out two separate versions and then come together to discuss and negotiate.