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Deciding what to do when you separate

This advice applies to Northern Ireland

When you separate from your partner, you'll 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 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.

You need to have been married for at least 2 years before you can get divorced or dissolve your civil partnership, so there's usually time to work things out. 

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

Don’t try to agree anything about your separation without speaking to someone first. 

You can contact the Domestic and Sexual Abuse helpline 24 hours a day on 0808 802 1414.

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

It’s better if you and your partner can agree about your separation arrangements before you go to court - it’ll save you money on legal fees.

If you’re struggling to decide, you should try mediation to see if you can reach an agreement with the help of a mediator.

Find out how mediation can help you separate.

If you agree about your separation arrangements

You should write down what you decide and sign it. 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 to a solicitor.

You can find a solicitor on the Law Society website.

Making a matrimonial agreement

If you haven’t started getting divorced or dissolving your civil partnership, you can ask your solicitor to write your arrangement as a ‘matrimonial agreement’ - also known as a ‘separation agreement’.  

It's 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 matrimonial agreement isn’t legally binding and it can be challenged by your ex-partner when you go to court to get divorced or end your civil partnership.

However, a judge will normally recognise it as a formal agreement if:

  • 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

Once you’ve started the process of getting divorced or ending your civil partnership, your matrimonial agreement can be made a ‘rule of court’. This finalises your arrangements in law.

If you can’t agree with your ex-partner

It’s best to speak to a solicitor if you and your partner haven’t been able to discuss or agree the arrangements for your separation, or your agreement’s broken down.

You’ll need to go to court so a judge can decide for you, but a solicitor will be able to advise you on what to do next.

You can find a solicitor on the Law Society website.

If you’ve got children

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

If you’re not married or in a civil partnership and you can agree with your ex-partner, you don’t need to go to court to decide about child arrangements.

You’ll need to go to court if you’re getting divorced or ending your civil partnership.

It’s still worth trying to agree things with your ex-partner first.

You’ll find a list of the sort of decisions you need to make about your children in form M4 - statement of arrangements for children. This is one of the forms you have to fill in when you start getting a divorce or legal separation, or ending your civil partnership.

It includes things like:   

  • who your children will live with

  • how much contact you’ll have with your children if you’re moving out of the home - and where you’ll see them

  • how much child maintenance is needed

It’s a good idea to talk to a solicitor if you’re making arrangements about child maintenance.

You can find a solicitor on the Law Society website.

Read more about making child arrangements or what to do if you think your ex-partner is taking your children away.

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 get free advice from Child Maintenance Choices if you need help agreeing.

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, for example whether you’re married or your name is on the deeds.

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

Managing your money 

There’s no easy way to work out how to divide your money, but if you and your ex-partner can figure it out between yourselves it’ll be cheaper than asking a court to help you decide.

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.

Dividing up pensions 

If you’re married or in a civil partnership, you’ll normally be entitled to a share of your ex-partner’s pension when you divorce or end your civil partnership.  

Dividing up a pension can be complicated so it’s a good idea to talk to a solicitor.

It’s important that you’re honest with your ex-partner about your finances. Talk to an adviser at your nearest Citizens Advice about what to do if you think your ex-partner is keeping money from you.

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 own your own home and get help with your rates, you should tell the Land and Property Services. Talk to the Housing Executive if you get Housing Benefit for rent or rates.

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 - this normally won’t be more than 30 minutes, but it could still help

  • 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

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 2 years.

You’ll need to go to court to do this.

You can get a legal separation instead (also known as ‘judicial separation’) if:

  • you haven’t been married for 2 years

  • you don’t want a divorce because your religion disagrees with it

  • you’re not sure you want to get divorced

You can still get divorced or end your civil partnership after getting a legal separation.

Find out how to end your marriage.

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