Separation is more than just a state of mindit's a legally defined term. While the law varies by state, in general, people are separated when they no longer live under the same roof, says Nicole Sodoma , a divorce attorney with Sodoma Law.

In North Carolina (where Sodoma practices), for instance, the law is that both spouses must live apart, with at least one person having the intention of no longer being married. You also have to be separated for 365 days before you can file divorce papers. Not every state requires legal documentation showing that youre separated, however, and requirements on how long separation must last before divorce papers are filed also differs depending on where you live.

Once you no longer live in the same house, there are real consequences, Sodoma says. For example: Can you change the locks on the home if your partner moves out? If they come back to the house, do you have to let them inespecially if their name is on the mortgage? Can you date or is that considered adultery? Can you get a new credit card? Again, the answer depends on the state you live in, so let this serve as a reminder to seek third-party help (like an attorney or mediator) before you separate so that you can fully understand the rules and what youre getting yourself into.

In some states, applying for legal separation in family court requires you to work out terms that you might not expect to have to deal with just yet. We're talking custody arrangements, spousal support, finances, etc. (The upside is that this can simplify a divorce down the road, should you get to that point.)

There are different ways to do separation, like having a trial separation or "permanent separation." However, those are not legal terms, so your actions aren't mandated by law, which means you're also not protected by it if your spouse were to do something shady.

The upshot is that you can safeguard yourself by approaching separation with intentionand possibly even save your marriage in the process. I think separating without a plan is foolish, says Becky Whetstone, Ph.D ., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas. Its an extremely stressful time for both individuals, and people in distress do not make wise decisions. The end result is they usually end up making a situation that could have been managed and improved, much worse, she says.

Jumping in without a plan may mean you get divorced too quickly or reconcile without working on the core issues that pushed you apart in the first place. To ensure you've really thought it through before you decide to separate with your partner, here are some frequently asked questions you might want to consider.

Should you live separately?

Yes. Under the legal definition, you two will occupy different residences.

What ground rules should you lay out?

Sodoma recommends figuring out how the finances will be managed, including who is paying what bills. Remember that what you decide now could set you up for precedent should you get divorced. (For instance, you say youre going to continue paying the mortgagewell, the idea that you could afford it on your own could factor into your divorce settlement.) Also, work out a custody agreement for children, as well as how youll share pets. Depending on your state, you may be required to work these things out anyway.

How often should you keep in contactand how often?

This really depends on why youve separated. There are several reasons, including trying to motivate someone to change, for safety reasons, because youre miserable, to get clarity on if they want to be in the relationship, or to initiate divorce, says Whetstone. If its not a heated situation, you may be okay maintaining regular contact. If it is heated, then you need some space so that you can be a better decision maker, says Whetstone. In that instance, avoid contact unless its for a child-related reasons, she advises. Talking to a marriage therapist can help guide you in making these decisions and help you determine if you can save your marriage (if thats what you want).

If getting back together is an option, when should you check in to make a decision?

While celebs might make you think that all separations (and divorces) are made with mutual love in mind, the reality is that mostly the decision to part is one-sided, says Whetstone. That means that the other person is probably really suffering, and the initiator should keep that in mind. She says that three to six months of a separation is enough to endure. If one partner is wishy washy on getting back together, I tell them, if at the end of six months, they still dont know, then we will mark that as a no, I dont want to reconcile or work on the marriage, default decision. Its vital that the rejected person be spending the energy they have on mental and emotional health, she says.

Were definitely getting divorced. Do we have to wait until the legal separation period is over to start the process of divorce?

Nope! One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they wait, says Sodoma. During that period of separation, so much can change financially that the lawyer cannot undo , and it can be more straightforward and often less expensive to resolve those issues in advance, she says. Some examples of things that can go financially wrong during separation: you notice that suddenly theres now a credit line on the retirement account. Or, your joint checking account has $5 in it. How those things happened would need to be traced back in court in order to determine who is responsible, and that process can be costly. So much can surprise you. I always say the people we marry are not the people we divorce, says Sodoma.