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Break up to make up

Years ago, there were only two reasons couples legally separated: for religious reasons and to preserve health benefits.

Now, however, an increasing number of couples are legally separating in the hopes that they can reconcile. At least that’s the word from attorneys Alexander Nirenstein and Fred Ruotolo, who head a boutique family law practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“Sometimes, people truly want to reconcile, but they need some kind of a break,” Nirenstein said. “A legal separation is not taking it as far as divorce. Even though they might test the waters as to how this might work out, it’s just more palatable.”

Separation is a relatively simple legal process. In Arizona for example, both parties must agree to the separation and petition the court to recognize it.

“The legal separation is what we call a financial divorce,” Ruotolo said. “As far as your pocketbook is concerned, it’s very similar to a divorce.”

Creditors are notified, meaning that a wife who is worried about her husband’s spendthrift habits is not liable for his debts after the separation.

“That makes people a lot more comfortable that they can get down to the emotional aspects of their relationship,” Nirenstein commented.

It’s also a way to live apart from each other without the embarrassment of announcing a divorce to friends and family members.

“It’s a much nicer thing to tell people [than a divorce],” said Nirenstein.

As part of a legal separation, the couple lives apart, but is still married. Property rights can be terminated, and provisions on child support and custody, as well as spousal maintenance can be put in place during a separation. If the couple does end up divorcing, many of the provisions can simply be extended into a divorce agreement.

The separation trend is already popular in Hollywood, where celebrities such as Whitney Houston, Tom Arnold and Harrison Ford’s wife, screenwriter Melissa Mathison, each filed for legal separations.

“It’s becoming more prevalent,” Nirenstein said. “Obviously, more sophisticated clients have been inquiring about this a lot. But it’s becoming more of a general concern for all our clients recently.”

Some couples who separate find that once they have addressed the financial issues, they are better able to address issues within the marriage.

From an attorney’s standpoint, handling a legal separation is generally less confrontational than representing a client in a divorce, the two attorneys agree.

“The way we’re able to deal with our clients in these situations makes it a much more successful representation,” Nirenstein said. “Parties are more amicable. They perceive there being less risk involved. They are not heading into an ugly divorce trial. It’s a lot less confrontational, a lot more civilized.”

Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: nora.tooher@lawyersusaonline.com