He sent me a Virginia separation agreement — what do I do now?

Talking about getting a divorce is not really good preparation for what it feels like when your husband starts to move your divorce forward. No matter how you feel about the divorce, it’s uncomfortable, disconcerting, and downright alarming when you find out that he’s been to see an attorney and is starting the divorce process in earnest.
A lot of times, when I meet with a woman whose husband has already taken the first steps, she is panicked. No matter what, the divorce process is overwhelming and intimidating, but these women tend to feel the fear a little bit more than others. I can understand why. When your husband suddenly moves things forward, even if it doesn’t exactly come as a major shock, it can make you feel like you’ve lost control. It’s the difference between being on the offensive or the defensive line.
In a lot of ways, there’s good news there. He’s had to make some choices first, and now you get to respond, rather than the other way around. You’ve got a little bit of feedback, a little bit of extra insight into what he’s thinking and how he plans to move forward. You can use that to your advantage, for sure. There is a lot of information that can be gleaned from the steps your husband takes at the beginning that can ultimately help shed light on your case and what you might expect to see at some point in the future.
So, if you’ve received a draft of a separation agreement from your husband, take a deep breath. It feels uncomfortable, but it isn’t the end of the world. He got the first word in, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get the last word. You’re okay—as long as you don’t do something foolish, like sign it without having it reviewed by an attorney first. Don’t do that. No, seriously—definitely don’t do that. Bad things can happen if you sign an agreement without having it reviewed first.
Don’t be the ostrich burying your head in the sand. When something like this happens, I always tell my clients to look at the bright side, and use it as a chance to hone in on the type of case you plan to present. There’s still time to plan, so it’s okay to take a couple of deep breaths, do some research, and make a plan before moving forward.
Concentrate on the good, and come up with a plan for how to get the results you want out of your case.

My husband sent me a separation agreement. What does that mean?

The good news? There’s a lot of that! If your husband has sent you a separation agreement, it’s a great sign.
Think about it. When he walked into his attorney’s office, he had a couple of choices. He could either draft an agreement, moving forward with an uncontested divorce, or he could plan to move forward on a contested basis. Whether he has fault based grounds or not, the litigated divorce process is open to him—though he may have to wait to file until you’ve been separated a year. He chose to negotiate, rather than to litigate, which says a lot about his mindset in relation to your entire divorce.
This is a great sign. It means that he’s open to negotiations, and that he’s willing to participate in a divorce process that takes everyone’s best interests into account. It says a lot about what he’s expecting out of the process, and should make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Okay, maybe that’s going a little bit far—but it DOES give you a lot of insight into his mind and how he’d like to handle the entire divorce. Given the choice, I’d pick an uncontested divorce every single day of the week, if it were me.
I know that divorce isn’t easy, but your husband has started the process in the easiest way possible. And, if you’re successful at negotiating a result, you’ll save money, time, and a lot of stress. This is a very good sign.

How do I know for sure that what I got was really a separation agreement?

A lot of people ask about what they’ve received, because they aren’t really sure what it is. Is it a separation agreement?
It’s easy enough to tell. If your husband (or his attorney) did something, you’ve either received (1) a complaint, or (2) a separation agreement.
A complaint is a formal document that opens up your case with the court. It’s the document that is filed in a contested case (or, in an uncontested case, it’s filed after the agreement is negotiated but before the divorce is finalized). At this stage, if you haven’t signed an agreement, you’re receiving a complaint because your husband is moving forward with a contested divorce instead. A complaint would be formally served on you, so you’d either have personal service from a process server (your husband can’t serve it on you), or it would have been posted on the door of your house or apartment. Besides that, when you looked at the document, you’d see that there’s a paper noting that you have 21 days to respond, and the document itself would bear the title of “complaint” or “bill of complaint”. It’s pretty easy to tell.
A separation agreement, on the other hand, is just a contract drawn up by your husband’s attorney. It wouldn’t have to be served on you; it would probably either be mailed to you (or to your attorney, if you’re represented by counsel), or handed to you by your husband. It would have a heading, too, and even though separation agreements can be called all sorts of different things, it should be relatively easy to tell. It would say either “separation agreement,” “marital and separation stipulation agreement,” or even “property settlement agreement.”

What do I do now? Is there a time limit to respond?

If you have received a separation agreement, there’s no specific time limit to respond. You can take your time getting your ducks in a row before you decide what to do next. Of course, you’ll probably want to respond (because if you don’t, eventually he’ll have to file for a contested divorce, and that would cost more money for everyone involved), but you don’t have to rush.
It’s a good idea, at this point, to talk to an attorney. Whether or not you ultimately plan on hiring one, an attorney can take a look at your agreement, give you an idea of what you might reasonably expect to receive, and point you in the right direction. You don’t have to hire an attorney if you don’t want to, but it’s a good idea to talk to someone about your options moving forward.
If your husband has drafted a separation agreement, it’s definitely a good sign. You’ll want to be sure you come up with a plan for what to do next, but you’re definitely in the right place and asking the right questions. For more information, to attend one of our divorce seminars or to schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.

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