Most people don't realize it but there is a difference between being separated and a legal separation. No matter how long you and your spouse live apart, unless you have filed for a legal separation with the courts, in most states it will never be a separation in the legal sense, and you both remain responsible for liabilities created by the other.
DIY Legal Separation
It is possible to do a legal separation yourself. There are laws that regulate legal separations and those laws can vary from state to state. In fact there are some states that in which legal separation is not an option. Those states are Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Florida and Delaware.
A legal separation is not the same as a divorce. If the decision to separate is an option agreed upon by both parties, there are a few things that need to be decided before the separation papers are filed with the court.
Try to Reach an Agreement
Like a divorce, if the two of you can't come to an agreement before filing for the separation, the court will decide it for you. Make a list that covers the following items and discuss them with your partner: dividing the responsibility for debts; how you will divide real and personal property; who will pay for health/life insurance, including deductibles and co-pays for both yourself and the children; how will you maintain pension plans and retirement accounts; who will be the custodial parent if children are involved; what days and hours the other parent will be allowed to visit; and finally, will there be spousal support.
Once you have made your agreement, it is a good idea to get it notarized. It can be used in divorce proceedings as evidence of what you and your spouse agreed upon and can be used to establish some of the terms of your divorce.
The Necessary Forms
You can pick up the necessary forms for a do-it-yourself legal separation at the county clerk's office. Most counties have their own websites where you can print out the forms you will need. If your county does not offer this service, you can download them directly from the Internet, where there are a number of websites that offer the forms for free.
If You and Your Spouse Don't Agree
If the forms are signed by only one petitioner, the petitioner who signed the form has to serve the petition and a summons on the spouse who did not sign before the county clerk will accept it for filing. There will be a filing fee that needs to be paid at the time the forms are submitted.
If you file the petition and have to serve it on your spouse, your spouse will be given a certain amount of time to respond with the following options: do nothing, agree with the terms contained in the petition, respond with a statement that they want a divorce instead of a separation, or respond that they disagree with the petition, indicating what parts they want changed.