Divorce Guilt Can Break Your Bank

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Divorce attorney Morgan Leia Richardson’s advice to men: don’t let “provider” guilt rope you into a bad divorce.

Andy was desperate: he owed more than half a million dollars in back child support and alimony and his ex-wife was seeking enforcement, including a violation for failure to pay, which would land him in jail for up to six months. They had been divorced for about ten years and at the time, he agreed to pay through the nose.

“I felt bad,” he explained. “I was the one leaving the marriage and at the time I was doing really well at work.” His guilt and a rushed desire to settle landed him with high payments and no assets (he gave her the house too). His payments became untenable when the economy soured and his job was cut.

“After a while you start to feel like a wallet,” he said. “You have no control over the decision-making for your child or how she’s spending the money. You just pay.”

This isn’t the only case where I’ve encountered this type of divorce guilt that can plague the male primary income earner — particularly when he’s the one seeking the divorce.

In Andy’s case, the court reduced the arrears and lowered the payments to a reasonable amount — in large part because the “child” was now an adult. But not before Andy spent a decade fighting against compounding debt, bill collectors and bad credit.

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Other examples come to mind: a few years ago, I had a client who needed post-divorce help to overturn his agreement to pay more than 65% of his annual income in perpetuity for the care and maintenance of his ex-wife’s six cats. You read that right: six cats! Guilt over leaving the marriage had played a large part.

Even a fellow-lawyer—I’ll call him Bill—told me about his rushed divorce agreement. Bill wanted to get it over with, and despite his first-hand experiences as a litigator, he let his guilt be his guide. “After a while you start to feel like a wallet,” he said. “You have no control over the decision-making for your child or how she’s spending the money. You just pay.”

At some point, there must be a discussion in the relationship: are we having children and who will care for them? And if the answer is that the wife will stay home, then how long, and does she have a plan to work as the child moves from tender years to tween?

But the best intentions can go awry. In Bill’s case, he agreed that his ex- could stay home for a few years, but she later refused to revisit the decision. “Then what?” he asked. “Do I file for divorce because she won’t work, when there is a three-year-old at home?”

In thinking about that question, my answer to him, and you, is “Yes,” and here’s why:

  1. Maybe if he filed for a divorce at that time, his wife would have realized the severity of her refusal to work at a time when she may have wanted to save the marriage. A discussion might have facilitated her returning to work.
  2. Alimony (called maintenance in New York) is calculated (generally) in part based on the recipient’s age, training, ability to work and the duration of the marriage. If Bill’s wife still didn’t want to work, his numbers would be that much lower because she would have been that much younger, only a few years out of the work force, and the duration of the marriage would have been shorter.  Now, with a 12-year-old in the house, his ex- has been out of work for more than a decade – she handicapped her re-entry into the working world and upped the duration of alimony.
  3. Assets: shorter marriages tend to generate fewer marital assets that must be divided or provided for – including the marital home. Here in New York, a court is more likely to sell a marital home, even where kids are in the house, if the kids are younger and the marriage is short. If there is a child attending high school, many courts will maintain the “status quo” and let Mom stay in the home until all the kids graduate (or turn 18), and then order the sale of the house.

Of course, early in the marriage my friend Bill wasn’t emotionally interested in filing for a divorce. I’m not a therapist and I am not advocating you end your marriage prematurely because of financial reasons—I’ll leave that to another blogger. But I am pointing out issues that should be considered when you decide to work and “be the provider.” And, at the end of the day, don’t let your guilt lead you into bad decisions in your divorce.

Lel4nd

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About Morghan Leia Richardson

Morghan Leia Richardson is a divorce attorney and mediator in New York City. She is experienced in litigation and family law issues that accompany Divorce, such as Custody, Child Support, Father's Rights and Marital Property issues, including asset discovery and protection. Morghan was graduated from Tulane Law School in New Orleans, during which time she worked as an extern for Federal Magistrate Judge Louis Moore in the United States Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, and served as a Managing Editor for the Tulane Maritime Law Journal. She is licensed in Maryland, D.C. and New York. Morghan worked for national litigation firms before starting her Queens-based law practice. She juggles her job as an attorney with her other job as single mom of two preschool-aged boys. Her firm is Richardson Legal PLLC and she blogs at The Divorce Artist.

Comments

  1. Huh? As the “other blogger” — I have never advocated for premature divorce for any reason. Not sure where that is coming from.

    I find some of the word choice here offensive:

    “he agreed to pay through the nose.” — Need some context. $500,000 sounds like a lot to most people. If that sum was to have been paid over 10 years and he earned in the high six-figures, it may have been totally reasonable. In that case, few would agree it was “through the nose.”

    Interesting points about leveraging divorce threats to motivate SAHMs to get jobs and better men’s chances for better divorce settlements. These are important issues that few people think about — until of course they face divorce. BUT — what is the point of this article? Encourage men to get over their divorce and fight for reasonable settlements? Or to offer men tips to encourage their wives to get jobs so everyone fares better financially in the event of divorce? I’m confused ….

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  2. Hi Emma!

    The premature demise of marriage is absolutely the net effect of your proposal that marriages expire after a ten year term. Every marriage hits a time when one or both spouses want out. In a healthy marriage, the couple keeps working at it. If that troubled time coincides with your ten year mark, how many marriages would be abandoned that might have otherwise survived and thrived? I’m more than a little surprised that you have not contemplated that result.

    For many personal and professional reasons, I dislike the idea of a term marriage. But, despite our different views on the subject, I think we find common ground in the idea that people need to be living more intentional lives, particularly when it comes to marriage.

    I always welcome your criticism of my writing, as you are a skilled writer and a friend. Your comment reads a little on the defensive side. Divorce is one area of the law where emotion can seriously impact the process and the end result. Men who are primary providers for their family sometimes experience so much guilt that they try to “over provide” in the divorce. The consequences can be drastic. I’m not inclined to re-write my piece in the comments, so I’ll stop there.

    I do think the idea of intentional lives and intentional marriage may be something worth exploring in other future blogs.

  3. I was under the impression that laws were drastically different here in California. Do you have a comment on that, Morghan?

    Thank you for broaching this subject. It’s obvious (to me) that it’s a delicate and sensitive topic.

  4. Thanks Burton! I am not licensed in California, so I really can’t speak to the laws there, but I understand that there are some very good efforts at getting couples to mediate. Mediation is the far superior option in resolving divorce and family disputes because it gives couples a world of creative options to resolve their issues, rather than the more limited court response (that often suits no one).

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