After the Divorce

Things to consider to help you stay financially and emotionally secure.

As a divorce lawyer, there is no question in my mind that when women cheer at movies like Waiting to Exhale there is a root cause: Revenge. And they cheer loudly. It makes men uncomfortable, wincing and shifting in their seats. When the character Bernadine raged, gathered her cheating husband’s clothes, piled them in the car and lit a match, Hollywood fulfilled the fantasy of millions of women getting a divorce. But even more than revenge, women want justice. And they need to feel empowered.

Why do women feel they can relate to taking such drastic action to regain control of their lives? Sadly, in many cases their relationships have been scarred by domestic abuse. The statistics are serious. Statistics show nearly one third of American women report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. Intimate partner violence is primarily a crime against women. In 2001, women accounted for 85 percent of the victims of intimate partner violence (588,490) and men accounted for approximately 15 percent of the victims (103,220). As many as 324,000 women each year experience intimate partner violence during their pregnancy. In 1994 under the Victims of Crime Act, the Violence Against Women Act was passed. This law made “gender motivated crimes” a “violation of women’s civil rights” and gave the victim the “legal right to sue the perpetrator.” Additionally, many states are now enforcing mandatory arrest laws which require police to arrest someone while on a domestic violence call, assuming that there is “probable cause.” Restraining orders are available to provide safety from physical abuse, threats and harassment.

Additionally, many stories of divorce seem to include men who are searching for a second adolescence, leaving their 40-something wives for younger models, keeping the family assets and saying goodbye. Divorcing husbands take with them their assets of education, degrees, professional certifications, their good business name and preference in the labor market. Statistically, men’s standard of living rises sharply in the first years following divorces, while women’s and children’s plummets. This situation is caused by inadequate alimony and child support payments. A woman with small children is in an especially difficult situation, shouldering most of the child-rearing obligations. Divorced men, meanwhile, are freed from family responsibilities and able to improve their financial situation. Women are awarded custody of the children approximately 72 percent of the time. Joint custody was the second most common arrangement at only 16 percent. Women experience an income drop of about 30 percent, while the divorced male will experience about a 10 percent drop in income.

Only through realistic and adequate spousal and child support awards can equality in the living standards of divorced men and women be ensured. Yet, women often don’t feel comfortable taking an aggressive position. Most women are not comfortable with the idea of facing their husband as an adversary. They are not comfortable with the judicial system. Dealing with a divorce is emotionally draining. And at the hardest time in their lives, they still can’t see their estranged husband as the enemy, even if he may be hiding assets. They feel frightened and abandoned. Your attorney should be consistently looking out for your best interests, especially if you are too emotionally involved to think clearly. Your attorney should be skilled at negotiating a settlement but should also have the ability to aggressively litigate if necessary.

It may be possible to compile a list of divorce attorneys by asking friends, family, coworkers and associates, but you may be reluctant to consult acquaintances and family if you do not wish to have your situation widely known. If divorce is a sensitive subject for you to discuss, there are professional organizations to consult. The Nassau and Suffolk Bar Association’s Family law section, the bar association of your state and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers can help you locate good divorce lawyers. Your lawyer should have experience in divorce law. You should feel comfortable working with your attorney and he/she should be available to answer questions and respond to your concerns. Failure to return phone calls is the number one complaint against attorneys.

Your lawyer should be a source of guidance in financial issues, as well as legal representation. To negotiate alimony and child support that will be sufficient to allow for a reasonable lifestyle after the divorce is finalized, it is imperative to have your attorney carefully review a list of expenses that you compile reflecting a realistic amount. Living costs must be analyzed for the last 12 months. This may mean going back to credit card receipts and monthly statements to break down the charges by category. To reduce the likelihood of future court actions, it is important to compile an itemized list including: food, utilities, telephone, clothing, entertainment, vacations, laundry, dry-cleaning, home maintenance repairs, car maintenance and fuel, mortgage payments, real estate taxes, rent, auto loans, other loans, cable TV, pet care costs, gifts, education expenses, childcare expenses, cleaning services, membership dues and other living costs. Also, important to consider are auto insurance, homeowner insurance, healthy and disability insurance and umbrella liability insurance premiums.

Talk about writing a new will with your attorney, as your previous will probably names your spouse as a primary beneficiary. Also, update your durable power of attorney and a healthcare proxy. You may want to consider a Living Will.

Look into existing IRA, 401K or other accounts. You may need to designate a new beneficiary if your primary beneficiary is your ex-spouse.

Part of your divorce agreement should require your spouse to provide a pre-set amount of life insurance on his life to protect your alimony/child support payment. These payments would cease upon the death of your ex-spouse. By having life insurance in place, you would receive the death benefit which can be used to offset the lost payments.

There are many other financially-related details which must be considered during the divorce proceedings. The successful fight for an equitable distribution of assets is crucial to ensuring a better future for women. Every woman owes it to herself to understand her options and make informed decisions. Only then can she see that justice is done and have the chance to rebuild her life and successfully move forward.