No state requires spouses to live together while married. The marital contract isn’t dependent on couples sharing the same roof. Unless you or your spouse files a legal document with the court, such as a settlement agreement to finalize a legal separation, the court isn’t aware that you’re no longer residing as a married couple.
Legal Separation vs. Informal Separation
The issues involved in remaining separated for 14 years, without proceeding to a divorce, depend on whether you ever formalized your separation. In states that recognize legal separation, your separation decree most likely addresses all issues between you, such as custody, support and marital property. If this is the case, you remain married in name only. However, seven states -- Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Idaho and Florida -- do not recognize legal separation at the time of publication. If you live in one of these jurisdictions and you have not filed for divorce, your marriage continues just as if you still lived together. The same applies if your state recognizes legal separation, but you never took advantage of that to file a separation agreement with the court and receive a separation decree.
Read More: What Are the Benefits of Legal Separation Vs. Divorce?
Even if you live in one of the 43 states that recognize legal separation, and even if you have a legal separation agreement filed with the court, you are still legally and technically married. If you become romantically involved with someone other than your spouse, that is adultery. If you should decide to divorce at some point, and the process is contentious, it’s conceivable that your spouse could use your adultery against you. Some states weigh marital misconduct when deciding issues such as alimony and property distribution. If you live in one of these jurisdictions, and if your divorce gets ugly, your spouse could use your adulterous relationship to try to tip issues of property and alimony in his favor.
State laws vary a great deal regarding marital property. In some states, marital property is everything acquired from the date of the marriage to the date one spouse files a divorce complaint. This includes both assets and debts. If you live in one of these states, and if you have not filed for a legal separation, you remain jointly responsible for any debts your spouse runs up. Your spouse is also entitled to his share of any property you acquire on your own during your informal separation. When one of you files for divorce and asks a court to distribute marital property, some states will look at the circumstances and acknowledge that you did not intend to remain married after 14 years apart. In this case, the financial impact of staying married for so long without a legal agreement in place might be mitigated. The court might mark the cutoff date for acquired marital property and debt as the time you established separate residences.
Some upsides exist to long-term separation without a divorce decree. For example, one spouse can continue coverage on the other’s health insurance policy. This is usually true even if you have filed for a legal separation. You can also collect Social Security benefits based on your spouse’s contributions if you have remained married for 10 years or more without divorcing.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.