Every once in a while, someone decides to file for divorce after a long separation and discovers a big surprise. Shannon Cavers, who writes the always-interesting Houston Divorce & Family Law Blog, had a post about the situation last Spring. In her post, Shannon mentioned a couple who had been separated for 22 years. During that time, the wife bought a house. Because the marriage had not been legally ended by divorce, the house was technically a community property asset which would be divided by the court. The wife evidently thought it was unfair that she had to share some of her house equity with the husband she had not lived with for 22 years.
In California, and perhaps other states, the values of the community estate are set at the time of separation, but that's not the case in Texas. Here in Texas, the community estate can change right up to the date that a settlement agreement is signed or the court announces its decision.
I have seen separations of 2 or 5 or 10 or more years. In each case, there are issues of potential or perceived unfairness if the court just divides everything in existence at the time of the divorce, regardless of whether the items were acquired before or after separation. In those situations, the house and retirement accounts are usually the biggest assets, but there may be investments that have grown in value or someone could have won the Lottery. The community debt situation may have drastically changed, either increasing or decreasing. If your spouse runs up a lot of credit card debt between separation and the date of divorce, you may get stuck for some it.
What can be done to avoid an unhappy result? Here are a few ideas.
File for divorce when you separate. That's pretty obvious, but some people don't want to divorce for various reasons. Some people will stay married legally so that their spouse can keep insurance coverage. There may be other religious or moral or legal reasons to stay married.
Sign a partition agreement. The parties can divide their assets and liabilities and cover future assets, just like a pre-nuptial agreement sometimes does. A verbal agreement won't work and writing an informal agreement between the parties probably won't stand up, either. A properly drawn partition agreement will protect both parties, but they each need to have attorneys to advise and assist them.
Reach an agreement and rely on the honesty and dependability of your spouse. That's usually a bad idea.
My suggestion: Unless there's a need to keep the facade of a marriage, you should go ahead and get divorced. Both parties stand to lose if they just wait around.