How to leave your husband
Though the impulse to flee immediately may be strong, patience and quiet financial planning will pay in the long run.
By MP Dunleavey
Your marriage is crumbling, and you know it. You dread staying another minute. How do you leave?
Slowly, carefully and counting every dime, says Violet Woodhouse, a divorce lawyer in Newport Beach, Calif.
"When the emotional drive to leave is so strong that you just want out, you need to step back," Woodhouse says. "You're not being rational at that point, and it can damage you financially."
Take the time -- two to six months -- to plan an exit strategy that will protect your financial security. Surviving divorce is misery enough; you don't want to suffer unnecessary financial hardship on top of it.
Woodhouse remembers a client who came to her hoping to leave her husband immediately. "She wanted to file then and there," says Woodhouse, the author of "Divorce & Money: How to Make the Best Decisions During Divorce."
"I told her that made no sense. She had two kids to think about. I said she had a lot more work to do."
Like Woodhouse's client, many women are so upset that it's difficult for them to make their financial well-being the priority it should be. That's one reason for this sobering statistic: After a divorce, a woman's standard of living is likely to drop by more than one-fourth -- 27% -- according to a landmark study in 1996 by Richard Peterson, then a sociologist at the Social Science Research Council in New York.
- If you're one of the country's 5.4 million stay-at-home mothers, you face the additional hurdles of re-entering the work force, paying for child care and assuming other family expenses on your own.
- Many women rely on their partners to run the money, so they lack basic financial skills, Woodhouse notes. "If the writing is on the wall and you haven't been involved in your financial life, you need to get involved now."
Here's what to do:
Keep it to yourself. In a pre-divorce situation, there is a fine line between deception and self-preservation. Though you may intend to leave, Woodhouse cautions against telling your spouse before you are prepared. "It would create a great deal of turmoil," she says.
Sneaky? Maybe, but the end of a marriage can easily turn into a financial and emotional train wreck if you're not careful. To leave on the best possible financial footing, with the lowest risk of sudden punitive action by your spouse, keep your plans to yourself until you are strong enough and secure enough to walk away.
Open a separate bank account. You will need to start saving whatever you can, as soon as you can. Any funds you take from a joint account, Woodhouse says, you must disclose later during the divorce process. Tapping a joint account "should be a last resort," says Woodhouse -- one that you take just before you leave.
Copy documents. Before you leave, make copies of every document you can find, from account statements to tax returns to mortgage documents to certificates of ownership to warranties on your appliances. "Do not attempt to determine a document's relevance or importance," Woodhouse says. "You don't know what might come in handy later."
You may even want to hire a professional to make a copy of the hard drive of your home computer and photograph certain personal belongings or valuables. These steps can help protect you if money goes missing during the settlement process.
Karen Kerbaugh, an administrative assistant in Haltom City, Texas, got married in 1996, "and from almost the first month I realized I had made a grave mistake in marrying him," she says.
Although she wasn't deliberately planning to leave at first, in hindsight, she says, "I was subconsciously plotting my escape."
Here is Kerbaugh's hard-won advice, based on what she did and what she wishes she had done:
- Create a detailed budget of your post-divorce life. What will your new expenses be? Where will you live, what will you drive, how much will child care cost? Where can you cut back? Although Kerbaugh made sure she could handle all the big expenses (rent, car payment, utilities), she says, "I didn't know the fine art of budgeting." Know how you will earn the income you need (more on that to come).
- Establish a credit record apart from your spouse. If you don't have a credit card in your own name, now is the time to get one. Read "9 ways to build credit from scratch." Request a copy of your credit report; you are entitled to one free copy per year from each of the three credit bureaus at the government-run AnnualCreditReport.com. Review it carefully and fix any errors.
- Muster support on the side. "While I didn't talk openly about the troubles we were having, my close friends and family knew enough about what was going on to be there for me when I needed it," Kerbaugh says. She ended up staying with a friend for a month after she left her husband.
Not so long ago, the only way to handle legal matters, such as a divorce, was with the help of a lawyer. But now there are cheaper options.
"In a settlement, you're entitled to half the retirement accounts, but many women forget that they must continue saving -- or they don't realize that they aren't saving enough," Gichon says.
Aim for 10% or more of your gross pay. If that's too high, save whatever you can.
Try not to borrow. Divorce is expensive, not just because of lawyer fees and court costs but also because the price of starting a new life is often higher than you think.
"You have to think through where you're going to get the money," Woodhouse says.
Most women who leave a spouse or partner end up borrowing from friends or family, using credit cards or tapping into savings or some other asset.
Though borrowing from someone you know is probably cheaper than using a credit card, it's still debt. It's preferable to use savings, if you can -- again, your own, not joint assets. (Woodhouse says to avoid cashing in investments because of tax complications.)
Boost your income. Once you establish how much you need to live, decide whether you can earn enough to cover it. This is especially important if you've spent a year or more out of the work force, Woodhouse says, or if you have to find a new job.
Daphne, a reader on the Women in Red message boards, advises taking any classes you need, sprucing up your résumé and buying a new suit or briefcase before you leave so that you pay for these things from joint funds.
Woodhouse recommends sending out feelers to see how much your skills fetch in the market today or at another company. "You have to be realistic," she says.
Don't count on alimony. Should you factor alimony or child support into your potential income stream? Going by the odds alone, that's a dicey proposition and may be more so given the economy. "You have to assess your risk," Woodhouse says. "Look at who you're married to, how reliable they are, what their attitude is. Then decide whether you can count on them giving you any money."
If you're the primary breadwinner, you could be the one paying alimony.
Last, as daunting, time-consuming, convoluted and unappealing this preparation may seem, it's worth it, Kerbaugh says.
"If you take the same determination that you were once willing to expend on your failed relationship and apply it to living by yourself," she says, "you will succeed."
Reposted from an article updated May 26, 2009
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