Gristmills are still scattered across Virginia1, though they have had little or no role in grinding our wheat into flour for about a century. We mention gristmills because, in the third century a Greek philosopher2 came up with the catchy phrase, “The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind small.” That has come down to us as, “The wheels of justice grind slowly.” And with a property settlement agreement – aka separation agreement — that proverb proves its worth.
Legal Separation in Virginia
The Greeks gave us lots and lots of myths, but the law does, too. A myth exists that Virginia has something called “legal separation.” It does not. You and your spouse are either legally married or you are divorced.
You can be married but separated, though. A vital ingredient in getting the gristmill of justice to grind out a divorce for the two of you is the separation agreement. It is the framework on which all matters of the divorce are hung:
- Equitable property division
- Child custody and support (if applicable)
- Parenting time (if required)
- Spousal support
- Division of debts and assets
Whether you call it a separation or property settlement agreement is of no consequence to the law. In fact, in Virginia Code § 20-155, “Marital agreements,” it says exactly that:
Married persons may enter into agreements with each other for the purpose of settling the rights and obligations of either or both of them … A reconciliation of the parties after the signing of a separation or property settlement agreement shall abrogate such agreement unless otherwise expressly set forth in the agreement. (emphasis added)
Do I Have to Sign the Separation Agreement?
You might think, based on the wording of the law, that the separation agreement is something you both worked on as a team. Nope. Either one of you can draft a separation document to say very nearly anything you want — “My oaf of a spouse agrees to get nothing from this trainwreck of a marriage and I get it all” — but that does not mean it is an agreement.
For a separation agreement to be an agreement, you both have to agree. And unlike a complaint filed by your spouse’s attorney (which gives you three weeks to respond), no time limit exists on a proffered draft of a separation agreement. Two more differences:
- Formally served — The motion for a divorce must be served to you; the separation agreement can be delivered in any ol’ way
- Bill of Complaint — That catchy title only works with the complaint; the separation agreement will have a title of “property settlement agreement,” “separation agreement,” or some configuration including those words
Is a Property Settlement Agreement a Contract?
Marital agreements, prenuptial agreements, post-nuptial agreements, and separation agreements are all legal contracts.
When religious figures preside over marriages, they almost always say that marriage is a contract. They do not mean it only spiritually. Your marriage ceremony itself is a legal contract, with witnesses, a license, an officiant, and weird Uncle Elwood over there in the corner.
No one can compel you to sign any contract, and that is true of marital agreements under Virginia Code § 20-151. That omnibus law prevents shotgun weddings, feeling coerced into premarital agreements, and being intimidated into signing a separation agreement.
The proffered separation agreement is an offer, not a sealed deal. Talk to your family law attorney. Go through the document carefully and decide what you like and what you do not like.
You and your attorney can prepare a response to the initial draft of the agreement in your own sweet time. Nobody can rush you (remember the Greek philosopher).
The beauty of a separation agreement is that it signals an uncontested, no-fault divorce. You probably want to maintain that goodwill and allow your attorney to respond diplomatically. That means you also do not want to drag your feet too long, either.
An experienced divorce lawyer will begin any response by highlighting all the areas of genuine agreement. You are fine with this and that, they are really superb ideas that show a lot of thought.
The benefit of pointing out all the areas of agreement is that they can be dispensed with immediately. Concentrate on ironing out the remaining issues.
If, after informal discussions and a little negotiating, you two still cannot arrive at a separation agreement, you are moving toward a contested divorce. Your attorney (and your spouse’s attorney) will explain the much higher stakes involved in that choice.
That may get you both back to the document in hand, which can undergo as many drafts and revisions as you both require until you arrive at a property settlement agreement you both can sign in good conscience.
That document — mutually agreeable and signed by both of you — is the one rendered to the court, whether your attorney handles everything through motions and affidavits or you choose to. And with that, the mill of justice finally stops grinding.
At The Firm For Men, we have experienced lawyers ready to handle every aspect of every type of family law matter. We work with Virginia’s men on separation agreements, divorce, custody issues, and more. Contact our Virginia Beach divorce attorneys today or telephone us in Virginia Beach at (757) 383-9184 to schedule an initial consultation.