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When spouses begin to live apart with the intent to end their marriage sometime in the future, they have separated. Separation can mean several things. Most states require a couple to live separate and apart for a period of time, usually 6 months, before a divorce action can be filed. Additionally, divorce is complicated and expensive and the couple may want to delay the process for a time beyond the waiting period with a prolonged separation. Some couples may have intertwined business interests that make an immediate divorce difficult to obtain. In all these situations, a separation agreement can provide a measure of security to the couple concerning their rights and obligations to each other in the interim before a divorce is filed.

A permanent separation between a married couple who do not intend to divorce and that is sanctioned by a court is a legal separation. In that case, the separation agreement divides and settles the ownership of property, right to income and issues concerning children without the spouses losing their marital status. Typically, however, separation agreements are "made in contemplation" of divorce rather than as permanent legal separations.

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