When Marriage Lasts Forever (Sort Of)

Jan 16, 2014 • Legal

separated, not divorced

An amusing story started making the rounds last week about a woman in the United Kingdom who attempted to sue her attorneys because they failed to convey to her that getting a divorce would effectively terminate her marriage. According to the Independent, Jane Mulcahy, a Catholic, didn’t know that judicial separation was an option. She feels her attorneys were negligent in that they failed to make this option available to her when she approached them for counsel in getting out of her marriage.

The case, of course, was dismissed. But it provides a very interesting springboard to discuss the difference between separation and divorce. Four years ago, the New York Times reported on a very intriguing trend here in the United States: a lot of people were deciding to pursue indefinite separation instead of getting divorced. This doesn’t appear to have been related to religion, or even trying to keep it together “for the kids” — many of the couples did move out and begin dating other people. They simply didn’t make the final step toward divorce. Why?

For some, it’s the perks: filing taxes jointly (and you can read how marriage impacts your standing with the IRS on this great column by Kelly Phillips Erb), keeping one’s spouse-provided insurance coverage, access to a spouse’s Social Security payment, and so on. Divorce, after all, is complicated and expensive, and sometimes agreeing to separate without divorce so a spouse can continue to receive medical insurance is a lot cheaper than alimony.

Of course, there are two big issues — for one, if you’re separated, you can’t remarry. For another, you are still very much legally and financially bound to your partner. If your spouse incurs a mountain of debt, that’s not just his problem — that’s your problem, too. And for as long as you remain married, your assets are community property. And as the author of the piece, Pamela Paul, points out, varying state laws can impact what happens to property after the death of a spouse: “In New York State, for example, a spouse, even if separated, is entitled to a third of the partner’s estate.”

One of the best known cases of indefinite separation is that of Warren Buffett, the fourth wealthiest man in the world, who married his first wife Susan in 1952 — and remained married to her until her death in 2004. Susan thought that her husband would eventually amass enough money to shift his focus to the family. But Warren wasn’t interested in ever stopping, so after their kids left the nest, Susan packed things up and went to San Francisco in 1977, where she would remain for 27 years. They talked on the phone all the time, but as his biographer Alice Schroeder illustrated, being alone was difficult for Warren.

“He wandered aimlessly around the house, barely able to feed and clothe himself,” she writes in The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. Things got so bad that Susan almost moved back, but then she had a brilliant idea. She asked a sommelier and hostess friend, Astrid Menks, to go check up on him. Menks and Warren, who’d known one another from a stint of Susan’s as a nightclub singer, found they got on great. That was the whole point. The ménage à trois remained amicable — they went out together and even sent out holiday cards signed, “Warren, Susan and Astrid.” Warren Buffett finally married Astrid Menks in 2006.

In the end, choosing how to end a relationship is a lot like choosing how to start one: it depends a great deal on trust and what works for us.

Header imager by josh.