Deciding what to do when you separate

This advice applies to England. See advice for See advice for Northern Ireland, See advice for Scotland, See advice for Wales

When you separate from your partner, there are things you'll need to work out.

The partner you’re separating from could be your husband, wife or civil partner - even if you’re not divorcing or ending your civil partnership straight away. You need to have been married for at least 1 year before you can divorce or end your civil partnership.

It could also be a partner you live with or have children with, but who isn’t your husband, wife or civil partner.

When you separate from your partner, you might need to work out things like:

  • where your children will live and how often they’ll see the parent they don't live with

  • where you’re going to live

  • how to divide up any money or belongings you share

  • whether you’ll be able to afford to pay the bills once you’re living separately

If you’re in the UK as a dependant on your partner’s visa, you’ll also need to check if you can stay -  check if you can stay in the UK on a visa after separation or a divorce.

Don’t feel pressured into a decision that’s not right for you. You’ll have a better chance of reaching an agreement if you wait until you’re ready to talk.


If your partner makes you feel anxious or threatened, you should get help

Don’t try to agree what to do about your home without speaking to someone first. 

If you’re a woman affected by domestic abuse, you can call Refuge on 0808 200 0247 or use the Women's Aid online chat at any time. 

If you're a man affected by domestic abuse you can call Men's Advice Line on 0808 801 0327 between 10am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

 If you’re unsure about what to do next, contact your nearest Citizens Advice.

Agreeing your separation arrangements

You don’t have to go to court to decide what to do when you separate unless you really can’t agree with each other.

It can be cheaper and quicker to figure out the arrangements yourselves, but even if you do agree, it’s a good idea to talk to a solicitor.

If you agree about your separation arrangements

You should write down what you decide. It can be in any format, but you might want to say that you agree to:  

  • live apart

  • not annoy or harass your ex-partner

  • pay your ex-partner financial support or maintenance

  • pay child maintenance towards the cost of looking after your children

  • see the children on certain days

Once you’ve written down your agreement, it’s a good idea to talk about it with a solicitor. You can find a solicitor on the Law Society website.

If you don’t divorce or end your civil partnership straight away

You might be able to ask your solicitor to write your arrangement as a ‘separation agreement’.

You can get a separation agreement if you haven’t started to divorce or end your civil partnership. This might be because:

  • you and your ex-partner don’t want to divorce or end your civil partnership right now

  • you can’t get divorced or end your civil partnership yet - for example, because you’ve been together less than 1 year

A separation agreement is a good way of making sure you’re clear about the terms of your separation until you get divorced or end your civil partnership.

A separation agreement isn’t legally binding when you divorce or end your civil partnership.

This means you might not be able to make your ex-partner stick to something you agreed to.

However, during the process of divorcing or ending your civil partnership, a judge will normally recognise it as a formal agreement if:

  • it’s fair, and you and your ex-partner can show you understood what you were agreeing to - for example, if you got legal advice

  • it’s been drafted properly by a solicitor

  • you and your ex-partner’s financial situations are the same as when you made the agreement

A solicitor can then make your separation agreement legally binding by turning it into a ‘consent order’ - as long as both you and your ex-partner agree to do this.

If you can’t agree with your ex-partner

You should try mediation to see if you can reach an agreement with the help of a mediator.

A mediator is someone who can help you sort any differences you have with your ex-partner about money, property or children.

You usually need to show you’ve tried mediation if you apply to the court to either:

  • decide how money is split between you and your ex-partner when you separate

  • make a decision about your children - for example who they will live with or how much contact you’ll have with them

There are some exceptions that mean you don’t have to try mediation before applying to court - for example, if you’ve experienced domestic abuse.

Check how mediation works.

If you’ve got children

It’s best to keep arrangements about children informal if you can.

This is because courts normally won’t decide who a child lives or spends time with if they think the parents can sort things out between themselves. This is known as the ‘no order principle’.

However, you’ll normally need to go to court if:

  • you’re worried about your children’s safety

  • you or your children have experienced domestic violence

  • you feel vulnerable or controlled by your ex-partner

  • you’ve tried mediation and still can’t agree

  • your ex-partner won’t let you see your children

Child maintenance

You're both responsible for the cost of looking after your children after you separate - even if you’re not married or in a civil partnership.

If you’re the parent who moves out, you might have to pay maintenance to the parent who looks after the children.

It’s usually best if you can arrange this between yourselves - this is called a ‘family based child arrangement’.

You can find out more about making a child maintenance arrangement on GOV.UK. If you’re finding it hard to come to an agreement, you can use a family mediator.

If you can’t come to an agreement yourselves, you can use the Child Maintenance Service on GOV.UK. You’ll have to pay a fee to apply.

Read more about child maintenance.

Deciding what to do with your home

There are very few circumstances where your partner can make you leave your home. They can’t change the locks or force you to leave, so try to take time to figure out what you both want and need.

Read what to do if your partner is trying to force you to move.

Normally, you’ll need to decide whether:

  • one of you stays in the home while the other moves out

  • you both move out and end your tenancy, or sell your home

  • one of you buys the other out so they own the home

  • you both stay in the home and live separate lives

What you do will depend on what you can afford and whether you’ve got children.

It might also depend on whether you have rights to stay in the home after you separate.

Read more about what happens to your home when you separate.

Managing your money 

You and your ex-partner might be able to agree between yourselves how to divide your money. Even if you do, it’s a good idea to talk to a solicitor once you’ve decided what you want to do.

When you’re deciding how to divide your money, you’ll need to work out how much money you have in bank or building society accounts, savings or investments.

You’ll also need to include any debts you share, like credit cards or loans.

Find out how to divide your money and belongings when you separate.

If you don’t think you’ll have enough money 

If you’re married or in a civil partnership you can ask for financial support from your ex-partner as soon as you separate. This is known as ‘spousal maintenance’ and is a regular payment to help you pay bills and other living costs. You can't get spousal maintenance if you weren't married or in a civil partnership.  

Find out how to arrange spousal maintenance

You might also be able to get help paying your rent or mortgage. 

Who to tell that you’ve separated

If you pay council tax, you should tell your local council - you’ll pay less if you live on your own.

You’ll also need to tell your local council you’ve separated if you get Housing Benefit or council tax reduction.

If you get benefits, being part of a couple might affect how much you get. You should tell the office that deals with your claim that you've separated as soon as possible - most benefits have a 30-day deadline.

If you get tax credits, you should tell the HMRC within 30 days.

Paying for solicitors

You’ll usually need to talk to a solicitor at some point during your separation. To help keep your legal bills down, you should:

  • try to agree as much as you can with your ex-partner before you go to a solicitor

  • read as much as you can about separation - you could look online or go to the library

  • find out if any solicitors near you offer free advice

  • ask your solicitor if they’ll work for a fixed fee - this way, you’ll always know exactly how much you’ll have to pay

Read more about the help you can get with legal costs

You might be able to get legal aid to pay for mediation when you separate, but it’s hard to get it for solicitors' fees - even if you’re on benefits.

You can usually only get legal aid if you or your children have been victims of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse includes controlling behaviour, like stopping you from withdrawing your own money.

Check if you can get legal aid on GOV.UK.

If you’re ready to end your marriage or civil partnership

You can start to divorce or dissolve your civil partnership if you’ve been married or in a civil partnership for at least 1 year.

When you divorce, it will help if you and your ex-partner have already agreed what will happen to your children, money and property.

If you don’t agree, you might need to go to court so a judge can make a decision about what you should do. This is known as a ‘court hearing’.

You can find out ways to end your marriage or civil partnership.

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Page last reviewed on 23 July 2019