Financially Preparing for Divorce
A Certified Divorce Financial Analyst Gives the Dos and Don’ts
For individuals contemplating divorce, there are two significant dates to consider. They are January 1st and April 15th. Studies show these dates are the most common to start a divorce.
On January 1st, we’re contemplating the direction of our lives. When displeased by our environment, the season and all its newness are conducive to change.
On April 15th, all that has been kept in the dark will finally be brought to light. Assets and spending habits are discovered during the process. Non-financial partners who were unaware of the magnitude of these things may feel cheated or lied to. For the first time, they’re seeing, live and in living color, where the money is, where it was, and where it went.
Probing conversations can become heated. Heated arguments lead to the need for changes in the marriage. Eventually, they result in divorce.
More Questions than Answers
If you find yourself in this precarious position, or if you’re frustrated to the point of wanting to walk away, don’t fret.
The array of issues to consider and agree upon can feel like a whirlwind even with the assistance of a group of professionals around you. Rash decisions are the most common reason individuals get hit with large tax bills or find themselves in financial trouble post-divorce. But this can be avoided.
Divorce is the single largest financial transaction (and the most stressful) of a person’s life, yet is the area most people least financially prepare. Preparing for it is your responsibility. As you get ready to meet with your attorney and financial advisor, here are some dos and don’ts for your financial strategy in divorce.
- Make a list of all assets and liabilities.
Be sure to document the types of accounts they are in (i.e. note the IRA or 401K, do not note is as “Retirement Account”), as this makes a huge difference with regards to access to cash, taxation, penalties, and so on.
It also includes all retirement plans through your spouse’s employer (401K, pension, profit sharing, etcetera).
- Copy all financial records and tax returns.
The financial process of a divorce is very paper intensive. Become friends with the manager at your local FedEx office. You will want duplicate copies of ALL financial records for you, your attorney and your advisor.
Many people skip this step because everything is online. They later regret not hitting the print button when the accounts get closed, and access becomes difficult. Print everything. You’ll be glad you did.
If you hate budgets, create a spending plan. Yes, it’s the same thing with a different name. But it’s vitally important to your future as your entire income and spending patterns are about to change.
Divorce is expensive, regardless of how amicable it may be. Having a solid grip on your cash flow is a must.
- Obtain your credit report.
You need to know any lingering debt obligations you may have (On paper, so print it!) forgotten. The most common types are store lines of credit that are paid off but still open.
Your credit report will make you aware of those and any other surprises you’ll want to get a jump on.
Men especially will tend to acquiesce to the other spouse when dividing up the property, including household items, to get the divorce process finished quickly.
At the time, this seems like an easy way to get the divorce completed. Instead, it’s both a financial and positional setback as it sends the message you do not deserve what’s yours.
Additionally, it costs more to furnish a household than most realize. It can significantly add to the overall costs of divorce.
- Understand your Social Security benefits.
If you are at or near retirement age, it’s critical to understand how your divorce will affect your social security benefits.
If your ex-spouse was the higher earner, you’re still entitled to the spousal portion of their benefits, provided you do not remarry.
Social Security benefits can be complicated. Be sure and discuss these with your financial advisor or CDFA during the divorce process.
- Make any significant financial moves.
Before completion of your settlement, do not start randomly paying off debt or moving investment accounts to other firms. You may end up paying off debt with your own money that could have been split with your ex-spouse.
Avoid any activity that could give the appearance you’re trying to hide funds.
Moving accounts could be seen by the courts as an attempt to protect funds to keep them from being found during discovery. Keep your accounts as they are. Close joint accounts. And pay off your debt in an agreed process.
A divorce decree can be thrown out based on the appearance of financial deception.
- Keep joint accounts or debt.
Part of your divorce decree needs to require that all joint accounts be closed, and all joint debt be paid off at the time of the settlement.
Failure to do this opens you up to financial liability.
While you should not go about this on your own, it is vital that getting these accounts closed be included in the process (and in the decree, if needed).
Often, clients preparing for divorce will feel the need to increase their income based on the results of their spending plan (budget).
While this is a prudent move (making more money is always better), be sure that any moves do not involve relocation or drastic changes in your life’s patterns.
These changes could adversely affect child custody. They can even affect getting your divorce finalized!
The divorce itself is a major life changing event. Do not add to your stress by taking on a second major event at the same time.
Be sure to discuss the division of your assets with a CDFA.
People will often split assets in what seems to be the easiest manner possible. Doing so can be to their detriment when it comes to taxation and their access to funds.
After the costs associated with divorce (i.e. attorney fees, moving, furnishing a new household), taxation is the second largest financial setback endured.
- Keep the home if you cannot afford it.
It will be important to determine who is keeping the home. If the house will be sold, do it early in the process.
The tax exemption for capital gains is cut in half after you get divorced. So, if selling the home is at all a possibility, it could make a world of difference getting that done before your decree is signed.
Keeping a home you cannot afford will become a major burden. Creating your spending plan early in the process can help to clarify if keeping the home is financially possible.
Divorce is an incredibly stressful process that often leads to rash decisions. They can negatively impact an individual’s long-term financial success. All of it can be avoided by financially preparing for it with these tips. And bring in professionals to help you where you need it.
Do not let emotions, frustration, or the myriad of other factors included in the divorce process drive you to make choices that you will later regret.
Understanding your options and how they fit in your financial landscape will ensure you make the best decisions possible and emerge from your divorce with your finances intact.
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In a vehement slap in the face to men and their finances, divorce courts follow a completely flawed decision process in their approach to marital property division. Based on the way the courts treat property, recommending men stand by for unfair treatment is considered solid, traditional divorce advice for men.
Marital property affected by this includes:
- Cars, Boats, RVs
- Savings Accounts
- Investment Accounts
- Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)
- Military Pensions
- Business Interests
- And a host of other things with monetary value
How property is divided depends on your state. It also sometimes further depends on your region in your state. At the most basic level, states either follow community property or equitable distribution guidelines.
Today only nine states follow community property law. Alaska is potentially the tenth state to follow community property law, whereby their law requires both parties to agree to a community property doctrine.
Under these rules, all property acquired during the marriage is marital property and is divided equally at divorce.
These states are primarily in the west and trace their history of community property law to Spanish law. It’s ridiculous that these states are so vastly different from the rest of the country and only because their laws are based on the rights of previous colonial owners.
In contrast, the remaining states in the country divide property following the principles of equitable distribution. Property acquired after marriage is divided equitably, not necessarily equally. Sounds reasonable, right? The reality is, though, that equitable nearly always turns out to be equal. In most divorces across the country, courts simply add up assets and split them down the middle. Little to no effort is made to determine a value to guide a fair, equitable distribution. Chances are your attorney will advise you to just accept half and move on.
Most people are not alarmed in their initial reaction to equal division of marital property. After all, the property was acquired while married. Both parties contributed to the family, either through time or money, so equal is likely, right?
Charitable organizations often use this standard when considering incoming monetary donations, time offered, talents and services rendered, or treasures given. You can donate any or all of those categories, and it is considered giving.
Perhaps, this system of assessing value (or a similar one) is used as a rubric by the courts in making an asset-splitting decision. Dare they not delve deeper into the guidelines of equitable division?
Not all contributions to a marriage are equal. The courts look at time spent with children and other activities to determine custody. What prevents them from taking an alternative, more reasonable, view of marital contributions when deciding property division?
The Value Contribution Method
Marriage is very similar to a business partnership. In business terms, a partnership is very easy to define. When business partnerships dissolve, the division of assets is NOT a rubber stamp, 50% division. Instead, each individual’s contribution and shares of ownership determine where the proverbial cleaver should land. Marriage should be viewed the same way.
On one’s wedding day, the property line was drawn. From that point forward, each party contributed value to the marriage and earned associated “shares” in the marital partnership.
Everything each spouse contributed has value and not just through a paycheck. Staying at home to care for the household and children has value. It’s not difficult to associate a dollar amount to this value.
Courts could look through the history of the marriage and assign value to each party’s contributions. Then, they could determine the number of shares each partner earned in the marriage prior to separation.
The cost of childcare for a minimum wage earning household, as an example, is not the correct value to associate with a stay-at-home parent in a physician’s home. Their income and standard of living should assign an associated increase in assumed value for childcare and home care.
By looking through the history of the marriage and assigning value to each person’s contributions, courts could very easily determine the number of “shares” each partner earned before the divorce.
Courts could publish guidelines considering local rates and percentages based on household income. They’d vary based on the district and local economic factors.
This value can easily be determined by comparison of:
- Local childcare
- House care
- And other services in the area
With lawyers and their opinions out of the picture, these guidelines would set the tone for the proceedings.
In instances where the differences in income are extreme, adding a percentage based on a standard of living may still result in a large disparity in share distribution. While the math may be true, there is some value in the initial creation of the partnership.
Courts could, in these cases, consider each partner to own some percentage of share, say 20% each, at the start of the marriage. The value contribution method could be used to divide the remaining 60% of the partnership.
A Property Dividing Example Using This Method
To help illustrate this method, let’s use a fictional example. Values are notional and provided only to help illustrate the approach.
Consider a household in which the husband earns $200,000 per year and the wife earns $50,000. His job may require long hours, so the wife assumes all of the household duties as well as childcare for their children.
In their region, childcare and home care services average $20,000 per year. Due to their 25% higher than average household income for the region, the associated child, and home care value is increased to $50,000 based on their standard of living.
Each share of their hypothetical partnership is worth $1,000. The husband earns 200 annual shares from employment. The wife earns 50 shares from her job and 50 shares from the value she contributes in child and home care, totally 100 shares.
At the time of the divorce, he has double the shares of his wife, so he should receive double the property. The division would be 66% to the husband and 33% to the wife respectively.
The courts may have a guideline for no-fault marriages preventing either spouse from receiving less than 35% in order to prevent an extreme disparity in distribution. Under those guidelines, the wife would receive 35% and the husband 65%.
The example is not intended to be sexist. The data in America today shows a difference in salaries between husbands and wives that corresponds with the associated range in time use as well. The goal is not to leave one partner impoverished, a result that could easily be corrected by setting a minimum division percentage. But it does allow courts within states to apply the data readily available in their geographic region to each individual case to produce property divisions in divorces under equitable distribution jurisdictions that are fair, logical, backed up with solid data, but not necessarily equal.
Many states already use a data-driven system for alimony and child support. Maryland, for example, has an extensive calculator for both that pulls from many databases. Their approach is far better than other states that simply apply a fixed percentage based on income alone.
The problems in our family court system today are numerous. Fathers are penalized, in final decisions, by the time they spent at work in their past providing for their families.
A value-share approach is fair and reasonable when determining property division. Its division can be purely and simply numerically based and follow the example set in business partnership breakups. It requires up-front work in the establishment of guidelines, but the data is available. And the problem is not difficult to overcome.
The result will be a better, more rational, and a more logical division of property under equitable distribution standards instead of the generic 50-50 split that rules our flawed family court system today.
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I’ve been a parent for over half my life. That includes a ten-year marriage. I wasn’t yet divorced when the diagnosis came down. At the time, I was a med student focused on building a career and living out my surgical dreams as a physician. Taking care of my kids’ financial needs was the cornerstone of my overall focus. Nothing else mattered.
Since then, life has changed quite a bit. Lymphoma came down on me hard and put the kibosh on my plans for my future. Stymied by a foe I could not even see, I began the ongoing fight for my life, for my right to exist. All of it, while raising seven kids by myself.
How Do I Do It?
The old adage rings true. It really is something I take one day at a time. In the beginning, I was counting favorable minutes just to get through each set of 24-hour blocks.
Pain is the universal constant. In my personal blog I talk about this in depth. Pain is truly the only aspect of the human condition we can all relate to. Divorced folks know the sting of failure well. So deep is it that it leaves a permanent scar across our very soul. We think about the future differently, learning from it and vowing not to make the same mistakes.
I felt it when my marriage ended in 2012. It’s not so different from physical pain. Like it, there are levels from tolerable to sobbing. Begin by not masking the ache.
Pain and cancer go together like Forrest and Bubba. Cancer causes the worst combination of electrical charges coupled with pressure building inside my bones.
Opioids are for instances in which I can no longer walk. My advanced case means my illness has spread from my lymph nodes (where it originated) to my spine, bones, and liver.
I wait until this point precisely because I’m a mother. I have to be present for my children. They see it and can predict with good accuracy when the time is coming. The pain reaches the point of crescendo then begins to die down. It’s a less-than-terrific cycle with unpredictable duration.
Take advantage of every good moment. Don’t just live in moments. Instead, revel in them. Absorb events through the pores of your skin into your very being, your energy. Feel the charge, as the hairs stand tall on the back of your neck when recalling the memory.
Every divorced person should have a stash, a mental file filled with joyful days. When the pain creeps up, put yourself back in there. Feel your child’s hug. Laugh aloud at the joke at the comedy club. Let it happen. It’s not a cure to emotional or physical pain, but it helps me get through.
Seek help. Part of the reason my disease progressed as far as it has is because I spent eight years in denial over it. Erroneously, I believed anything capable of killing me would’ve already done so. I was wrong.
Heed the warnings of your insides. Intuition is real. Don’t wait until a manageable problem becomes a catastrophe. I had to wake up out of my delusion to acknowledge that my body was fighting. Once I could name it, I could begin to aid in the solution.
The same was true with the end of my marriage. I’d ignore symptoms of my emotional distress. My gut would turn in protest of my emotional turmoil, and that would lead to more pain.
Now, I no longer wait for problems to become mountains. A therapist helped me figure out that I was clinically depressed. She said cancer causes it. I’m not sure about that. But by addressing the problem, I could treat it. I opted for regular counseling sessions in combination with antidepressant medications, so far so good.
Write about it. Writing is a cathartic exercise. The action in and of itself forces the writer to spew forward their thoughts. It creates a space in which the mind can meditate and make sense of life’s challenges.
I’ve kept a journal since my teens. I still have them. The act of bringing it all up and out of my body liberates me from the dramatic aspects of what’s happened. Because I’ve been able to work out my life on paper, I can focus in on the present. Rearing five daughters (three of them teens) and two sons requires 100% of me.
Meditate. I don’t mean the religious kind. If you’re into that, great! If not, then relax. You can do this, too. The point of meditation (for me) is to bring the boil down to a simmer, so to speak. I use lots of visualization, so bear with me.
I begin by lying in my bed with my eyes closed. Next, I picture my day’s challenges. I try to recall what I’ve already written down and what I’ve forgotten about. Then, I think about what common threads these challenges had. Was it all work-related? Was I overwhelmed by activity? Was I in pain? What lay at the center of my day’s issues?
Once I’ve identified my true problem, I make a mental note to remove some of it the following day. For example, if it’s my kids’ issues, I sit them down and clear the air. If it’s my ex, I’ll call him in the morning (wait until the drama dies down a bit) to address the issue. If its work, I spend fewer hours at it and exhaust less energy. If it’s pain, I treat it right away to avoid waking up with it.
The goal of all of this is to avoid having the same troubles two days in a row. By doing this, two peaceful days will become three. Three will become four. Then, you’ve gone a week.
I’ve recovered from the end of my marriage. I may not recover from cancer. But by acknowledging my body’s signals, treating pain accordingly, being present in the moments that take my breath away, seeking professional help when I need it, and journaling regularly I’m changing the vibes around me. Meditation helps me change the outcome of each day in hopes of relieving some of the pressures over time.
This can create long-lasting balance both inside and outside.
Today, I’m all about positivity. I feel more energized and am stronger. There’s no telling what will happen. But these things keep me grounded and focused. They’ve helped me recover from the end of my marriage and charge me up to fight cancer. The key in all of this is focus and balance. When used together, they create a big picture mentality that can restore your faith in yourself.
Rebuilding isn’t easy, especially with all my challenges. Honestly, the work I’m doing to rebuild my life, after divorce and sickness, is the most difficult thing I’ve done. I aim for a clear head coupled with a balanced life. It’s slow at first, but by setting the tone for each day (one day at a time), the healing will come.
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Resurrecting Yourself in the Age of Technology
I can’t see shit.
Literally. The moment I take out my contacts I’m operating purely by The Force. I can’t imagine what life would be like if I’d been born in another time. Surely I’d have been a liability to my tribe. Would it have been days, hours or just minutes that I’d lasted, weeding the garden, schlepping water from the well, before the saber-toothed tiger ended it all?
And my bloody demise would have relieved my tribe, whistling and looking the other way as I disappeared into the brush. One less mouth to feed that couldn’t pull her weight in weed removal or even master the ancient art of beverage serving.
So truly I am beyond grateful for technology. But to go beyond grateful, sit back and think. Think how truly fortunate we are to be alive at this particular point in history. From time immemorial to the present day, through floods and plagues of Biblical proportions, you have the cosmic luck to be alive in the age of the selfie.
But isn’t this supposed to be about relationships?
So let’s say, hypothetically, that you just came skidding to a fiery, smoky halt after your last relationship. You may be feeling like a failure, but are you, really? Sure, you may need to take a moment and collect yourself. To take stock of what went wrong. To assess the role you played in your relationship’s demise. But have you truly failed?
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
Be wary of labeling yourself a failure when performing an autopsy on your relationship. So you’re divorced, but is it really the end of days? Did you survive the heartbreaking effects of an affair? You feel as though your heart stopped – but did it? How will you transform your negative experience into a happy ending in your next relationship? I’ll tell you how, by choosing the shortest distance between two points. By being wholeheartedly honest with yourself. By being raw.
At this point, the only technology you’ll need is a pencil and paper. Take a moment and purge. List your faults. List hers. List what you loved. List what you would never want to repeat. Pour it all out until you feel like you’re grasping at straws, then write more. Why? Because you have within you the courage to continue.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. ― Rush
Continuing means you must realize that you have made that choice. The choice is to take with you the lessons you want and leave behind those you don’t. It’s painful work, looking at yourself and the part you played. But it’s worth it. In order to continue, you must progress. The only way to progress is to learn. Seems simple enough when in school. Learn the lesson, take the test, advance to the next grade. It’s not so obvious when your heart is burnt to a crisp and looking at what caused the wound hardly seems cathartic.
In his best-selling book Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill tells the story of a man who, overcome by a sense of defeat, sold his claim and all of his mining equipment. He up and quit. Hopped the train and went home. Turns out, he was a mere three feet from gold. Three feet from realizing his dream of wealth, success and achievement.
So while the listing of your faults, and hers, and the things you loved and would never repeat about your now-deceased relationship may seem laboriously unpleasant — do the work. You’re clearing away the failings in search of the true nuggets of wisdom. What seems tedious at the moment is far simpler than carrying excess weight onto your next relationship. And as difficult as that may seem at the moment, you will have one. Before you pack up and hop the train hope, realize that you are likely three feet from relationship gold.
To err is human, to forgive, divine. ― Alexander Pope
Let it go, the weight from your mistakes – and hers. It’s too much to carry. Tell yourself that you both did your best with what you brought to the table. Then let it be. Repeat as many times as necessary until you believe it. And let it be. Take stock in the fact that in your next relationship you will do better, because you’ll know better. And let it be. Forgiveness is a release for all parties involved.
Take your list. One last time. Take everything except for what you think will be useful in your next relationship. And burn it. The paper. The pencil. The desk you wrote it on. Take with you only that which suits you. It’s your life and you get to decide both your attitude and how you would like to live it.
Shake it off. ― Taylor Swift
So get up, soldier. You’re not standing, blind, in some potato field in the Dark Ages. The only tiger that could possibly take you out of the game right now is the one reading this article. Look at everything at your fingertips!
Been out of the dating scene for a while? No worries! There’s an app for that. Mortified about what to say, where to go or how to make her toes curl? Google it. Considering a new haircut? Try it on, virtually. Want a new jacket? Schedule a noon drone drop. Want to date an older woman this time? Slide the bar and peruse your search options.
I’m telling you. We’re living at the golden intersection of possibility, connectivity and technology. I can see that without my contacts in. You have choices, so try something new. You may find you’re three feet from gold, while sitting in the bathroom stall at work. Just make sure you choose the right direction.
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Experiencing Reverse Firsts with Kids:
Your First Holiday with Kids. The first series of Reverse Firsts is always the most difficult. As I mentioned in last week’s article Fa La La La Laaaa… @#$# the Holidays! a Reverse First is any holiday you celebrate during the first twelve months of being newly divorced. The Holidays are traditionally bookended by Thanksgiving and New Year’s and include any capital-lettered holiday you celebrate in between. But honestly, let’s discuss any holiday that warrants arm wrestling your ex when the winner gets to take the kids. By the time January 2nd rolls around, you’ll have this approach down pat. For arguments sake, this approach will work as long as your kids still believe in the Tooth Fairy. After that, you’re on your own.
Divide and Conquer. Your first option when it comes to any holiday is to divide and conquer. And by this I mean the day itself, not your ex. What this means is that both you and your ex, and presumably your extended families, get to see the children on the day in question. While this sounds like a win-win for the adults it can be exhausting and confusing for the children, particularly if they are still quite young. Dinner times need to be negotiated. If the unwrapping of gifts are involved, schedules can be very tricky. If a tradition such as a parade or the attending of a service needs to be factored in, your entire day may be spent looking at your watch, clipboard in hand as you wave people on to the next event.
If your children are under the age of 10, the idea of divide and conquer will be even more difficult for them to understand. Offering explanations to the escalating question of “why” can be extremely difficult when family is watching. Consider the holiday from their point of view when answering why they have to leave now when they just got started playing with their cousins, or just unwrapped the coolest toy ever, or they’re just having fun and don’t want to stop. Travel time can be a hassle, weather conditions may come into play and children who fall asleep in the car will not be at their finest when they wake up in a new location, out of sorts, tired and wondering where the other parent went.
If you think you are going to outsmart your ex by taking them earlier rather than later, remember that they will likely be exhausted from the night before. Anticipation of the big day may have kept them awake later than normal. Do your little angels morph into screaming hot messes of taffeta and shirttails when told they have to leave? Do they throw caution and their little backs to the wind when told it’s time to go? The question of “why” now carries much more weight, more syllables and is likely asked at a pitch that makes cats leave the room.
If you think taking them second is the way to go, remember that there will be no naps that day. Let the full implications of that statement settle in before you make your decision. Consider also that whatever festivities you have in mind will have to follow their earlier predecessor. While your little bundles of joy may not be able to fully and adeptly make comparisons, keep your self and your own sanity in mind as you field questions that start with ‘well how come you’re not” followed by any number of innocent queries. Is this is a box you want to unwrap at Grandma’s house?
Concede. If the picture of sugarplum meltdowns sounds a bit much for you this year, there is the option to concede. Concede the holiday completely to the ex in the name of peace and tranquility for your children. Allow them a full day of relaxation and enjoyment and allow them to just be where they are. No schedule, no split day. Just presence. The tradeoff for conceding an entire holiday is that they really do grow up so fast. Phrases like, “No that was the one we spent with Mom, not you.” will happen. While this may be par for the course when the ex lives in another city or state, it may be very difficult to spend a holiday in the same zip code as your children and know that you won’t get to see their smiling faces. Which leads me to our third option. Dust off your tutu and get ready to declare it so.
Declare It So. The silver lining to your first set of Reverse Firsts when your children are young is that you get to make the new normal. You get to decide which traditions stay, which go and the level of enthusiasm and normalcy with which these changes are presented. I call it the Tooth Fairy Effect. Whether your child comes to you the next morning having found a nickel or a hundred dollar bill under her pillow for her lost tooth, your reaction is the same. Your reaction is that she has shown you the most exciting thing ever. And based on your reaction, she will agree. Declaring it so means that you are declaring your own market rate as it pertains to holidays. If you want to celebrate 1 day or 1 week later, then so be it. Just do it with all the enthusiasm and gratitude you can muster. And if you need to wear a tutu, so be it.
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