Revisiting Your Divorce During the Recession

When a divorce is final, the spouses or a third party like a judge or arbiter have made decisions about how assets, debts, and cash flow will be handled.  It’s common to have requirements to sell a home and divide the proceeds, refinance debt to remove one spouse from a loan or credit card, or have alimony (also known as spousal maintenance) paid by the spouse who was the primary earner.  I’ve said that there are few things in life as final as Final Orders in a divorce.  But that’s not always the case.

These “final” decisions are based on many factors – how long a couple was married, what the financial resources are to both parties going forward, and what’s deemed fair in that particular state and courthouse.  These factors usually incorporate what has happened historically in the economy, which is assumed to be a foundation for what will happen in the future. 

In the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, some people are exploring reopening their financial settlement.  Maybe the house that was to be sold when the kids moved out is now underwater.  Maybe the credit card to be refinanced can’t be.  Maybe one of the former spouses has lost a job or has had earnings reduced. 

So when is it reasonable to restructure a divorce settlement from several years ago?  Ethical, intelligent people in the family law arena struggle with how to address this in the current environment.  Answers and outcomes vary widely.  There is a long list of considerations, but here are a few.

–         The first and biggest is whether or not the divorce decree allows for changes.  If alimony was part of the settlement and specified as non-modifiable, that is probably not worth pursuing. 

–         If the reasons you want to revisit your settlement are factors that impact your ex as well as you, think carefully about why your divorce would be worth modifying after the fact.  For instance, if your income is down, but your ex has also lost earnings, it might not make sense to revisit alimony.

–         If the factors that negatively impact you are outside the control of your spouse, a judge might not rule in your favor.  For instance, if the house was to be sold and proceeds divided, but more is owed on the house than it would sell for, forcing a sale won’t get either of you a great outcome.  But if the house could be sold for less than originally anticipated and you’d each get some money and you’d now be off the mortgage, that’s worth approaching your ex about.

–         If you want to make a change because you believe in your heart that your long term well being will always be the responsibility of your former spouse, think again.  This is true in any economy.  Unless you are disabled, it’s probably in the best interest of you, your ex, and your kids that you assume that you are responsible for making your financial future a good one.  When people tie their futures to each other through a marriage, they agree to weather storms together.  When they untie their futures through a divorce, they can each assume the autonomy to make their own choices and live with the consequences of their life decisions.  Looking to someone else to solve your problems is seldom healthy emotionally or financially.

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Divorce – Recession Style: Income and Expenses

Divorce is never easy, but add on top of the emotional trauma, the uncertainly of a recession, it gets more difficult.  The next few postings here will deal with some financial issues in divorce and how they’re impacted by our current economic landscape.

If both spouses are able to make ends meet comfortably on what they individually make after a divorce, income doesn’t really come up as a bone of contention.  But if they can’t, then alimony – also called spousal maintenance – becomes an issue.  In divorce cases involving alimony, generally every state looks at the reasonable income of each spouse and their reasonable expenses to figure out what the amount of spousal maintenance might be.  The word reasonable – for both income and expenses – is key.  If I’d like to leave my financial planning firm and try to become an actress, a judge probably isn’t going to require my ex to pay alimony to make that possible.  Also, the courts don’t generally want me to live a substantially better lifestyle than my ex if we’ve been married quite a while.  (All this doesn’t take kids into account.  More on that in a future posting.)  And most people, after a divorce, have to cut back their lifestyles since most marriages don’t have enough excess cash flow to support an entirely separate household. 

So on the earnings side of the equation, in this economy, some people are taking a pay cut or losing their job.  And people entering the work force aren’t having an easy time of it.  Divorce isn’t intended to be a free ride or windfall to either spouse, but courts also don’t want people to have to stay married to survive.  People who aren’t going through divorce are making some temporary compromises in their career paths.  They’re taking a job to get their foot in the door at a company they’d like to work for long term.  Or they’re taking a job they’d otherwise never consider to put food on the table.  So people in the midst of divorce realistically may have to make some of the same choices.  That may lower how much one spouse will pay in alimony, but that certainly doesn’t eliminate the possibility of spousal maintenance being paid.  This may also be a time when people who wanted the security of knowing the amount of alimony was locked into their divorce decree may want the flexibility of having it subject to modification if circumstances substantially change. 

Unreasonable spending levels are one of the factors that caused the recession.  So this is a great time for everyone – in or out of divorce – to get back to sanity in their expenses.  But it should be an equitable approach to cutting back.  It’s not reasonable to have one spouse living in the penthouse with a view of the park while the other is living in a cardboard box in the park.