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Dividing up money and belongings when you separate

This advice applies to Northern Ireland

The two biggest financial decisions you’re likely to make when you separate are what to do with your home and how to divide up any pensions - if you have them.

You’ll have to finalise your financial arrangements in court when you get divorced or end your civil partnership. It’s still worth trying to reach an agreement with your ex-partner first. This could save you thousands of pounds in legal fees.

It’s important that you’re honest about your finances. If you’re not honest and your ex-partner later finds out you tried to hide something, they could go to court and ask for more money from you.

If your ex-partner normally handles the money

If you can, go through your finances together. If this isn’t possible or you’re nervous about sorting out money with your ex-partner, ask your ex-partner if they’ll go to mediation with you.

Mediation’s a cost-effective way of trying to solve differences over money and property.

Find out more about mediation.

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

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.

Working out what to do with your home

What you do with your home depends on what you can both afford to do once you’re living separately, how much value (‘equity’) there is in the home and whether you have any children.

Your ex-partner might be able to continue paying the mortgage on your home, or at least pay something towards the repayments, after they move out.

However you’ll need to come to a more permanent agreement if they eventually want a clean break - perhaps so they can rent or buy a home of their own.

Check what help you can get with money

You might be able to get help with your living costs when you separate from a partner. This could make the difference between being able to stay in the home and having to move out.

Read about benefits and help with rates.

You might also be able to get financial support (also known as ‘spousal maintenance’) if you were married or in a civil partnership.

If you want to stay in the home and buy your ex-partner out

You might be able to buy your ex-partner out so that you own the home by yourself. However, even if you can reach an agreement between yourselves about this, the mortgage company will want to know you can afford the mortgage payments on your own.

This can be very difficult if you don’t work, or you only work part-time because you look after the children.

If you can’t afford the mortgage payments, ask your mortgage company if they’ll let you switch the mortgage to interest-only. This should reduce your monthly payments.

You could also try getting a guarantor mortgage - this is where a friend or relative guarantees they’ll pay your mortgage if you’re unable to pay. Speak to a mortgage or financial adviser if your mortgage company doesn’t give you this option. They might be able to recommend other things you can try.

If there’s no way you can buy your ex-partner out, you could try coming to another arrangement. They might let you keep their share of the house in return for not paying an child maintenance, for example.

This could be difficult to arrange so you should get advice from a solicitor first.

If you want to sell your home

Talk this through with your ex-partner. It might make more sense for one of you to stay in the home if there isn’t much value in it. Value is how much money is left from a sale after you’ve paid off your mortgage.

If your home sells for £250,000 and you have a mortgage of £200,000 on it, the value is £50,000. You'll probably have to pay other fees out of that £50,000, such as to solicitors and estate agents, so you could end up with less. 

Talk to an estate agent if you want to get an idea of how much your home is worth. It’s a good idea to get 3 different valuations so you’ve got a range of sale prices to choose from.

Once you know the value, try to reach an agreement with your ex-partner about what you’re going to do. Then talk to a solicitor.

Working out how to divide up the value between you is complicated and depends on a number of factors including:

  • how much you both earn

  • If you have any other money or property

  • your needs and responsibilities, for example if you have children

  • how long you’ve been married or in a civil partnership

  • how much you’ve each contributed to the relationship - financially and emotionally

A solicitor will be able to tell you if it’s worth selling your home.

Dividing up your pension

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

You should try to reach an agreement between yourselves about what you want to do with a pension, but it’s best to speak to a financial adviser.

A solicitor might also be able to help you, but they’ll often recommend you speak to a financial adviser first.

How you divide a pension can depend on how much the pension is worth. The most common way to share a pension is to move some of your ex-partner’s pension into a scheme of your own. This is known as ‘pension sharing’.

Pension sharing can only be done when a judge grants a ‘pension sharing order’ during your divorce or civil partnership dissolution.

Read more about what happens to pensions when you separate on GOV.UK’s Pensionwise website.

If you’re worried about the cost of a solicitor

Try to agree as much as you can with your ex-partner before you go to a solicitor. This will help you keep the cost of legal fees down.

Some solicitors might offer 30 minutes of free legal advice. Use this time to find out as much as you can. You’re unlikely to get detailed advice, but you should get an idea of how complicated your case is and roughly how much it’ll cost you.

You could ask your solicitor if they’ll do the work for a fixed fee so you know from the beginning how much your legal fees will be. They don’t have to agree to this.

Dividing up other finances

To divide up everything else, make a list of the things you and your ex-partner own, including:

  • personal belongings, for example furniture or jewellery

  • pets

  • money in bank accounts (joint accounts as well as your own)

  • savings and investments

You don’t have to list all your belongings. It might be quicker just to include things over a certain value, or things you really want to keep.

You’ll also need to include any debts you have with your ex-partner, like a bank overdraft or hire purchase agreement.

If your debts are shared, you’ll both be responsible for the whole amount - not just your half. This means if your ex-partner stops paying the debt off after you separate, you’ll have to settle the debt by yourself.

Even if you and your ex-partner are talking to each other, it’s a good idea to make sure you have a plan for paying off your shared debts. If you’re worried your ex-partner can’t or won’t pay, you should talk to a solicitor.

If you have joint accounts with your ex-partner

You can continue to use a joint bank account with your ex-partner after you separate, for example if you’re sharing childcare costs.

However it’s probably better to close the account and open separate ones to prevent any disagreements about money.

If you think your ex-partner is about to withdraw money from a joint account, you can contact your bank and ask to freeze the account. This stops anyone withdrawing money - including you.

If you’re worried that doing this will upset your ex-partner, you should talk to an adviser at your nearest Citizens Advice first.

Deciding who owns something

There’s no easy way to decide who owns something from a relationship. You’ll need to sit down with your ex-partner and go through things one-by-one.

Try to agree as much as you can. If you have to spend your time in court deciding who gets to keep something, you could easily spend more on solicitors’ fees than the item is worth.

It can help to write on your list how much you think each item is worth. That way, if one of you wants to keep a more expensive item, the other person could take a number of smaller items of the same value.

Decisions about furniture and white goods

If you’re trying to put a value on things like furniture or white goods, it’s a good idea to estimate their new value - rather than how much you could sell them for now.

A 10 year old sofa that you shared with your ex-partner might only be worth £100, but the cost of replacing it if you have to move into a new home would be a lot more.

What to do next

If you agree with your ex-partner

You don’t have to write a complicated agreement. If you can agree the main points of your separation, write them down so you can see what you’ve decided.

You don’t have to do anything else until you go to court to get divorced or end your civil partnership, but it’s normally a good idea to take your agreement to a solicitor.

If you’ve already started getting divorced or ending your civil partnership

Ask your solicitor to draft a ‘consent order’. This is a type of contract that can be made legally binding by a judge.

Once the agreement’s legally binding, your arrangements will be final and you’ll be able to take your ex-partner to court if they don’t stick to something you agreed.

If you haven’t started getting divorced or ending your civil partnership

You should still go to a solicitor even if you haven’t started getting divorced or dissolving your civil partnership.

They’ll be able to draft something called a ‘matrimonial agreement’ - also known as a ‘separation agreement’. This isn’t legally binding, but you can normally use it when you go to court court as long as your financial circumstances - or your partner’s - haven’t changed.

You can search for a solicitor on the Law Society website.

If you can’t agree with your ex-partner

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.

You can apply for a financial order at any time after you’ve you’ve filed a petition to end your marriage or civil partnership, but it’s best to do it before you receive your decree absolute or final order. The longer you wait to apply after separating, the less the judge might award you.

You might be able to get legal aid to pay for mediation when you separate, but it’s very hard to get it for legal costs - 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.

Find out more about legal aid on NI Direct.

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