As couples begin planning for their separation, most couples want to know, who is going to pay for all the bills?

It’s no secret that the DC Metropolitan area is not cheap for any family to live. In one of the most expensive areas to live in the country, it surely is daunting to manage and pay for two different households. This alone often keeps a couple together in the same home longer than they may wish to be simply because they can’t afford to live in two separate residences. Thankfully, the courts in Virginia recognize a couple as separated even while residing in the same home as long as they are basically living as roommates. Whether this option is feasible from an emotional and mental perspective is a very personal question.

From a financial perspective, it may be ideal for a couple to stay living under the same roof while waiting for the requisite time period to run (6 months with a property settlement agreement or 1-year when you have minor children or no property settlement agreement).  The first consideration is how you want to handle your bank accounts.  You may have previously had a joint bank account from which all the bills were paid.  Remember that once separated, the income you earn is now considered separate property rather than marital property so you will want to open a new bank account where your post-separation income can be stored.  However, you may wish to continue to have a joint operating account from which the utilities, mortgage, HOA, insurance, expenses related to the children can be paid each month.  If you decide to pay from your own separate accounts, it is wise to consider if you will both be contributing equally to the mortgage or if one person will be paying all or more of it.  In cases where only one person may be paying the mortgage, that person may be at an advantage if the case ends up in court for equitable distribution and he/she tries to recoup some of the principal paydown in court. The paying party may try to claim more equity than the non-paying party because they are paying down the mortgage principal during the separation period and that is a “separate” contribution.  Despite one party paying for the kids’ expenses and utilities, the party paying the mortgage may argue that he/she should get extra equity due to his/her direct contribution to the principal paydown of the mortgage.  Marital and separate contributions to the principal paydown of the mortgage and how the equity is then split is a common consideration by the court in cases of equitable distribution.

More often than not, the parties will split the utilities, insurance, and cellphone bills unless one party moves out.  You may also agree upon who is going to pay outstanding credit card balances or other lines of credit.  If one party moves out, it is common that the party remaining in the home covers the utilities.  It is important to note that if one party moves out, this may trigger the other party to either file immediately on grounds for abandonment/desertion in a circuit court or for child support and spousal support in a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.  In doing so, the amount of child support owed will be retroactive back to the date of filing.  Therefore, it’s wise to make sure that if you are the payor spouse that it is clear that when giving money to the payee spouse that you are transferring money each month for child support of the children so that you may get credit if you end up in court.  Your spouse may also be able to receive money for helping him/her to pay the utilities or mortgage by seeking spousal support.  One party moving out can certainly change the available ways to obtain support through the courts.

Whether you are separating in the home or into two separate residences, you should speak with a family law attorney to discuss how to plan this part of your divorce.  Our firm is available to help you navigate the next steps in your divorce.

Alisa practices family law as a divorce lawyer from the Fairfax and Manassas offices in the Circuit and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts for Fairfax County, Prince William County and Loudoun County.