Here are the chronological steps most unmarried couples follow after their decision to separate. Keep in mind that the more you are able to divide the emotional from the practical aspects of separation, the more likely you are to reach a fair and amicable settlement (easier said than done, we know). If you are the one initiating the dissolution or you sense that the sky is about to fall, it is highly sensible to take pre-separation precautions—especially if the breakup is not mutual. Steps 1 through 8 list the pre-breakup tasks that may apply to your situation. Steps 9 through 14 cover the series of practical (especially property-related) issues, as well as emotional challenges, you may face once the bad news has been declared, or if you are undergoing an interim "trial" separation.
- Consider the children. If you have children, bend over backwards to reach amicable and realistic decisions about their custody and care. Remember, children are the truly needy members of your family, and they should come first. Getting the help of an experienced family mediator is often essential. See the article Child Custody, Visitation, and Support Issues of Unmarried Couples on this site for more on this subject.
- Review any living together, house ownership, or property agreements you have. In the best case scenario, you already have a written agreement that covers division of property and separation issues. If so, read it carefully, and determine what must be done in accordance with that agreement.
- Organize financial documents and records. Locate the critical documents of your joint financial lives, make copies, and store them in a safe place. This includes joint bank and brokerage accounts, property deeds, business records, insurance policies, credit card information, tax returns, title certificates for cars, investment records, promissory notes, and wills
- Protect physical assets. Secure valuable items of personal property, such as precious art or irreplaceable family heirlooms, if you believe your partner may try to sell or take them. For example, ask a trusted mutual friend to hold your artwork and family silver.
- Make an exit plan. Start thinking about who is going to live where. If you have a friend or close relative you can easily stay with for a while, make some tentative arrangements. Be careful, however, that you don't vacate your residence to such an extent that your partner could claim you've abandoned all rights of possession of your property. Continue to pay your share of the expenses, even if you aren't living there, until you and your partner agree otherwise in writing. And continue to pick up your mail and check on the condition of the property.
- Research the law in your state regarding the key elements of unmarried dissolutions. Start by reading the article Legal Issues When an Unmarried Couple Breaks Up on this site. If you have children or significant assets (especially if you have not signed written agreements), you may need to do more research (start by reading Child Custody, Visitation, and Support Issues of Unmarried Couples on this site, or consult an experienced family law attorney.
- Stop spending money. Avoid any new financial ventures with your partner, such as putting large sums of money into his or her business or into a joint bank account, agreeing to jointly incur a big debt such as a major renovation, or taking out a new line of credit on your house.
- If you are concerned about domestic violence, take steps to protect yourself. While you're still living together, have a departure plan and place to go on short notice. Alert a friend or neighbor of the possibility that you may show up without warning. To facilitate a quick exit (if necessary), keep a set of keys and some cash either on your person or with a friend. If your partner has moved out, change all the locks and consider buying an alarm system; get a new (unlisted) phone number. Call the police if you feel threatened or have been a victim of violence. This is important for your physical safety, but will also be useful evidence if you want to obtain a temporary restraining order (TRO)—a decree issued by a court that requires the perpetrator to stop abusing you.
- Immediately close all joint credit cards and bank accounts. If you have joint financial assets (for example, a joint brokerage account) you don't want to risk losing, immediately put them in a blocked account that requires both signatures for a withdrawal. Another article on this site, Solutions for Property Division Problems When Unmarried Couples Split Up, discusses how to deal with joint bank accounts, joint credit accounts, and other assets and liabilities.
- Pay the bills. Make a list of the bills it is essential to pay, such as home insurance, utilities, and the car and mortgage payments. Create arrangements (together if possible) to keep these bills current. If money is tight, decide jointly which bills can be postponed.
- Figure out who is going to live where in the short term and write up an agreement on how you are going to handle the costs and logistics of your decision. If you jointly own a house and one of you has agreed to move out, make it clear that a temporary departure is not a permanent abandonment of the residence. Also, decide whether the temporarily absent partner should pay any portion of the mortgage or insurance costs. If you are renters, you may need to decide whose name is going to stay on the lease and who is entitled to a return of the security deposit. You may have already addressed issues, such as who gets to keep the house or apartment, when you moved in together, using one of the living together agreements discussed on this site. Put your agreement in writing. See the Short-Term Agreement Regarding Separation and Housing shown here as a template for preparing an agreement to handle your interim housing affairs, including who lives where, splitting household expenses, and the like.
- Make some reasonable, practical decisions about the furniture and personal possessions. You may have already addressed these issues (what property is separate, what is jointly owned, who gets to keep what if you break up) in a property agreement. Whether or not you have a written agreement, don't feel compelled to sort everything out the moment you break up. Unless an object was clearly purchased by one person alone and was never gifted to the other partner, deciding who gets what may not be so simple. Valuable items, such as precious art or irreplaceable family heirlooms, should be handled with some thought. If one of you fears that the other may take or sell your personal belongings, it may be a good idea to put your possessions into a limited-entry storage locker for a few months or have a friend store them for you. (If you're really concerned, you might do this as one of your pre-breakup tasks as we recommend above.) If you want to be a real stickler, prepare an Agreement to Protect Property During a Breakup, such as the sample shown here.
- Deal with pets. Don't let your own emotional turmoil put your pets' well-being at risk. Unless your dog or cat clearly belongs to one person, follow a “best interests of the pet” approach, and attempt to agree on a living arrangement that is really in the animal's best interests. If one of you is getting custody of your pet, you should either make a financial adjustment (to allow the other party to buy an equivalent new pet) or agree on regular visitation.
- Try to assess whether there are longer-term disputes, but acknowledge to each other that it is okay to disagree for the time being. If you can both admit that there are conflicts that must be resolved a little later (perhaps using an outside mediator), you will feel far more at ease—and less desperate to sort everything out the day you leave.
For advice a sample settlement agreement, see Property Settlement Agreements for Unmarried Couples Ending Their Relationship.