I want a ‘kitchen-table’ separation without using lawyers. Is that a good idea?


Dear Quentin,

For the last decade of my 22-year marriage, I have been living inside a silent divorce, as psychologist Esther Perel calls it. We are roommates and co-parents, but there is no marriage. Despite this, my highest priority is for us to continue to live and parent under the same roof until our children are off to college in a few years. My goal now is to sever our financial relationship, aligning it with our nonexistent emotional and physical relationship. 

We live in Washington state, which is a no-fault, community-property state. I believe a legal separation agreement — rather than a separation case filed with the court — would allow us to split our current assets and stop the accrual of marital property, and could also serve to set the terms if we decide to divorce later on. 

We have a reasonable chance of coming to an agreement ourselves and would like to see if we could approach this as a “kitchen table” separation, using a mediator if needed. I have heard of kitchen-table divorces, but not a separation where everyone continues to reside in the same home. I hope it may be a way forward for us, but am unsure if I need to retain an attorney or if we can do this on our own. It is unlikely my spouse would retain representation.

What do you recommend? 

Sad But Resigned

“It is not a failure to bring in an attorney. Women suffer a greater decline in living standards after a divorce than men, and sound legal counsel should always be on the table as an option.”

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Dear Sad,

I commend you for taking the high road, endeavoring to navigate a legal separation — assuming you will eventually move toward a divorce — with grace and dignity. Of course, many separations and divorces start out with the best of intentions, only for things to get sticky when it comes to real estate, retirement accounts, life insurance and other assets. 

Our assets don’t just represent our financial well-being (or lack thereof), they also remind us of all the blood, sweat and tears we have put into building our lives. Even if, to other people, our house is a piece of real estate, it is, to us, a symbol of so much more — our hopes and dreams, and those are all the more complicated when they are wrapped up with another person.

Yes, a kitchen-table separation is feasible in Washington state as a way to divide assets, arrange custody of and access to children, and to set any child support or alimony. But an actual divorce, whether negotiated by a mediator or a lawyer, is obviously the only way to terminate a marriage. Not everyone decides that’s necessary. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. 

It is not a failure to bring in an attorney. Women suffer a greater decline in living standards after a divorce than men, and sound legal counsel should always be on the table as an option. Securing your financial settlement that will ensure your long-term financial independence is the No. 1 priority. Conflict or disagreements may be an inevitable part of that.

Gray divorce is on the rise

Gray divorce, as it’s called for people who are entering their empty-nest years, is on the rise, and women aged 50 and older initiate divorce in 66% of cases, according to research by AARP. There are theories as to why women are more likely to instigate divorce. Chief among them: Women may be less willing to settle, especially as more gain economic independence.

You are in a strong position to have the life you deserve, both financially and emotionally. Not everyone has that option. In 29% of marriages, both spouses earn about the same amount of money, while the husband is the primary or sole breadwinner in 55% of marriages and the wife is the primary breadwinner in just 16% of marriages, according to the Pew Research Center.

Post-divorce, women experienced a 45% decline in their standard of living — as measured by an income-to-needs ratio — compared with a 21% drop in men’s living standards, a separate 2021 study found. But there was good news for women: “These declines persisted over time for men, and only reversed for women following repartnering,” the researchers wrote. 

“Gray divorce is often financially devastating, especially for women,” they added. “Although repartnering seems to reverse most of the economic costs of gray divorce for women, few form new co-residential unions after divorce.” The study is a “cautionary tale about the financial aftermath” of divorce. Separating is a big financial decision, and it requires advice and counsel.

I hope the gods are on both of your sides as you and your husband begin negotiations.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

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Previous columns by Quentin Fottrell:

‘I cashed in my retirement account to buy our home’: My husband left me and our two kids and won’t pay the mortgage. What now?

My wife and I bought a beautiful lakeside home for $700,000. It’s now worth $1.2 million. Do we sell now to avoid capital gains?

‘I do not trust many people due to unfortunate life experiences’: I’m leaving all my estate to charity. Should I make a will or a trust?


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