The spouse and the house
February 3, 2011 11:04 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with the guilt of leaving a spouse with a house they can't afford?

I am seriously considering divorcing my husband (who I have been with since we were both 17, married for 3 years). I think now that we are in our late 20s, we have just grown into incompatible people.

I've been going back and forth (with my own therapist & in couples therapy) with whether there is any way we can make this work. I do think that the end result, though, is that I just don't want to be in this marriage anymore. He wants to have kids in the next couple of years, and while I very much want to have kids, the thought of raising a kid with him fills me with utter dread and terror. I'm going to try not to get too much more into the reasons for the possible split, because that in itself could be a novel.

So, I do feel like in my heart I know the right thing to do. But he does not agree, and he doesn't want to split up. So, right there, I feel guilt because we've been together for all of our adult lives ... and honestly, neither one of us has ever had a breakup like this before.

And the biggest issue to me, which probably doesn't sound like it should be a big deal on paper, is that we own a house together. Technically, it's his mortgage, but both our names are on the deed. I want nothing to do with the house. If I leave, I just want the few things I brought into the household, my personal savings, and my paycheck.

However, he cannot afford the house without me. I've gone through the budget a bunch of times, and there's no way he could do it. And I just feel like he bought this house for both of us, and I'd be leaving him with this thing he can't manage on his own and that could ruin his credit and lifestyle, in addition to basically having his heart broken.

I just don't know what to do. Originally I figured that if I left, I could give him some money out of my own paycheck every month for a few months to ease the transition, but I'm not even sure that would be enough. I don't think he could sell the house easily, and he might not even get enough to pay off the existing mortgage.

My therapist keeps telling me that if I decide to leave, that I can't make him my responsibility -- but I can't be a total jerk. I feel like an asshole already for wanting to leave at all. No one has been able to come up with a solution for what he could do with the house if I left. I want to leave and not have any continuing stake in his life, but I also don't want to smash his heart (and plans for the future) and leave him broke. Deep down, though, I almost think that he is so resistant to splitting up because of the house and because he doesn't know what to do about it if it was just him. And part of me is afraid that if I stay in the house for awhile after we split, that it would just be a horrible scenario. So, if we split, I have to leave pretty much right away.

I'm sure this cannot be a unique situation, but I just want a feel for whether I am being totally heartless, whether this is something I should not be worrying about, and maybe get some reassurance that it will work out if I do leave him with the house.

Because...I mean...a house is no reason to stay together. I know that. Is there anything I can do or suggest assuming that it comes to splitting? Or is this one of those things that I just need to let him figure out?
posted by catfood to Human Relations (39 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think this is why they have divorce lawyers. Perhaps you should talk to one.
posted by phunniemee at 11:06 AM on February 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

If the house was for the both of you, but you are no longer a couple, it could be a painful reminder for him. Selling the house and moving may help him move on. It sounds like leaving the house may be in his best interest, too.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:07 AM on February 3, 2011

Response by poster: I've already talked to a lawyer, but thanks. He would be left with the house, as it's his house / his mortgage and he makes more money than me. He can't afford it. Hence, my feelings of guilt.
posted by catfood at 11:08 AM on February 3, 2011

Response by poster: filthy light thief -- I do agree, but I'm not sure he'd be able to sell the house quickly.
posted by catfood at 11:09 AM on February 3, 2011

If the genders were reversed you'd certainly be expected to cover your share of the mortgage until the house sold, especially since you are the one initiating the divorce. He may not be your responsibility, but the house certainly is – presumably, you made the decision to buy it and take on a mortgage for it together, as a couple, so it could be the house you lived in together, as a couple.

Can you stay with friends or family until the house sells?
posted by halogen at 11:10 AM on February 3, 2011

This is also one reason why people rent out their homes, work with the bank to secure a short sale, or refinance due to divorce. You're assuming that he is going to be solely responsible for the mortgage and the sale/payment of the home, but you may have some legal financial liability since you are married. Even if you want nothing to do with the house, it may legally be partially your burden.

Talk to a lawyer.
posted by mikeh at 11:11 AM on February 3, 2011 [7 favorites]

Also, ask yourself this: is it worse for him to have to determine how to make the house situation work, for which there are many options, or to be in a marriage that isn't working?
posted by mikeh at 11:12 AM on February 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Unless it is a one bedroom house, he could get a roommate instead of selling, or until he can sell.
posted by kimdog at 11:13 AM on February 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: You can probably help best by getting your stuff out quickly and with as little fuss as possible, and leaving the place very clean, so that he can find a roommate (assuming there is a spare bedroom) to help with the mortgage. Or leave it very clean so he has a jump on readying the house to sell. Either way, approach the situation like a very responsible tenant.

And I just feel like he bought this house for both of us, and I'd be leaving him with this thing he can't manage on his own and that could ruin his credit and lifestyle, in addition to basically having his heart broken.

You have to let him go, to fly or sink on his own. He might be able to borrow money to help him out in the short term while he decides what to do. He will make it through this. He doesn't need you. He very well might put the blame on you if things go to hell, but he does have options and his friends and family will help him see that. You are going to be the bad guy to his camp, period. Accept that and don't leave these long ties dangling, trying to do something to save his perception of you. Cut yourself loose and go.
posted by griselda at 11:16 AM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: as it's his house / his mortgage and he makes more money than me.

I think you need to reframe this. Your name is on the deed so it is 50% your house - even if you don't want it you are entitled to your share of the "equity" (if there is any). Conversely, like mikeh says you may have some legal financial responsibility even though your name is not on the mortgage.

You are not the first person to be in this situation - there are even realtors who specialize in quick sales due to divorce.
posted by muddgirl at 11:18 AM on February 3, 2011

There are lots of feelings of guilt that go along with leaving a significant other, you're just focusing yours on this house.

Look at it this way, you're leaving him with an asset that is presumably worth a significant amount of money, and you're not seeking any return on the investment you've made into this property thus far. You're kind of doing him a favor.
posted by amro at 11:18 AM on February 3, 2011

Without knowing where you live, I would suggest that the odds are good that as a spouse who is a joint owner of the house by virtue of the deed, you are on the hook for more legal and financial implications than you think you are. Guilt issues aside, you really REALLY need to speak to a lawyer in your jurisdiction.
posted by modernnomad at 11:31 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

He can find a roommate. Until then, you are liable for your half of the mortgage payment. You could probably mitigate some of your guilt feelings by helping him find a roommate. (Craigslist is a good option).

Divorce sucks. There is no way around that. But you seem to be dealing with this in a very ethical way. Instead of focusing on your guilt feelings (which are normal), remind yourself that you are doing your very best by him, and yourself. Falling out of love with someone doesn't make you a bad person!
posted by xenophile at 11:33 AM on February 3, 2011

Best answer: Something else I thought of:

There is a certain dignity in letting your former SO dislike you for a while. Sometimes we try so hard to be the good dumper that we invalidate the other party's need to be angry and heartbroken. This sort of thinking: "If I continue to pay a portion of the mortgage to show I care, he can't be mad at me ..." If he is in a place where he needs to blame you, do him a favor and let him. It might hurt on your end for someone you cared for to be so unhappy with you. It's okay. Hopefully he will heal with time and get through his heartbreak and life will get better and he will stop being angry at you. It might take a long time. But be honorable and let him be angry and heartbroken with honesty.
posted by griselda at 11:37 AM on February 3, 2011 [21 favorites]

He can get a roommate. Best of luck.
posted by santaliqueur at 11:38 AM on February 3, 2011

What he could do is to rent somewhere cheaper himself and rent out the house. E.g., let's say he has $2000 income after basic expenses, and the mortgage is $2300. He can't pay it. But a cheap studio apartment rents for $600, and he could rent out the house for $1400.

So, he rents out the house, and after the tenants' rent, he still owes $900 on the mortgage. He moves to the studio, where he pays $600. Now, he pays $1500 on housing every month.

If you want to do the math right, include the security deposit he'll have to put down and some vacancy rate. It would be kind for you to give him the rent to cover the gap for a few months while he puts this (or another) plan into action.
posted by salvia at 11:38 AM on February 3, 2011

Best answer: Your question was:
How to deal with the guilt of leaving a spouse with a house they can't afford?
The best way to deal with the guilt is to act honorably. In my book, that means taking responsibility for half of the house. You are a married couple. You bought the house together. Your name is on the deed. The fact that only his name is on the mortgage strikes me as a technicality. Your attorney may be encouraging you to take advantage of that technicality, but luckily your conscience is still active enough that you know you should do otherwise.

What does it mean to take responsibility? I wouldn't suggest that you actively participate in the sale of the house. Clean breaks are better. But I think that the divorce agreement should leave you with 50% of the financial liability if the house is underwater and has to be sold for less than the mortgage amount. Of course, if there is a profit you could share in that, too.

These numbers, obviously, can be tweaked to reflect your different financial circumstances, what the source of the original downpayment was, etc. But the principle remains the same: that you accept and honor the responsibilities that you took on when you were married.

That's how to deal with your guilt.
posted by alms at 11:41 AM on February 3, 2011 [15 favorites]

The thing is, if you guys are splitting mortgage payments 50/50 (and presumably share equity 50/50) after you have moved out and are paying rent, your ex-partner has a bit of an advantage: he pays 50% of the mortgage and gets full use of the house. You pay 50% of the mortgage plus your own rent.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:47 AM on February 3, 2011

Response by poster: We don't split mortgage payments right now. He pays the mortgage and I pay the other household bills, and we wind up coming about even.

I will, after hearing many of these responses, see about having a consultation with a different lawyer, because I thought it was a bit weird that she said I wouldn't be on the hook for the mortgage.

The logistics are still nauseating. This is terrifying for me, too, and I feel like I need a solid plan that we'll each be able to take care of ourselves.
posted by catfood at 11:51 AM on February 3, 2011

I guess we don't know the specific circumstances for your relationship, but having been in your future ex's position (kind of), it seems like the best thing to do would offer to pay for at least some reasonable period so he's not underwater (3 months? 6?). I was stuck with a house I couldn't afford on top of having been left, and it was... rough. If you can do something like one lump sum payment, that would do a lot to avoid the "long ties dangling" that griselda mentions.

On preview - what alda said, mostly.
posted by frankdrebin at 11:53 AM on February 3, 2011

Best answer: and I feel like I need a solid plan that we'll each be able to take care of ourselves.

I think this is something you should explore a bit more with your therapist. You don't owe him a soft landing - you really don't. I think it will be hard enough for you to take care of yourself.

Think this thought to its logical conclusion. Let's say everything is conspiring against you, and there is absolutely no one to rent the house or the spare room, and you can't find a single seller. Are you going to remain married to your husband just to protect his finances? Do you see how that is completely unfair to him? Instead of letting him get on with his life, you are prolonging the pain and misery.
posted by muddgirl at 11:56 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is the house really the whole problem?

Could it be standing in for other issues you haven't dealt with? Why have you become "incompatible people"? Why does the thought of having kids with him fill you with "utter dread and terror"?
posted by Carol Anne at 11:57 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

the logical thing for him to do is just to sell the house if he can't afford to keep it. That's easily accomplished.

That's hardly the case in today's housing market. If the house is worth less than its purchase price and/or if the local housing market is severely depressed, coming up with a realistic sale price (much less a sale) can be amazing difficult.
posted by lhauser at 11:59 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Technically, it's his mortgage, but both our names are on the deed.
it's his house / his mortgage

You say that you've already talked to a lawyer about this, so I assume you're getting accurate advice. That said, the way you've put it is a little odd. Are you saying that the house and mortgage are not part of the marital estate, or just that he is likely to retain possession of the house? (It's his house but your name is on the deed? His mortgage but secured by a house with your name on the deed? I'm not saying this isn't the case, just that it sounds odd.)

The reason I ask is because it seems like you're concerned that if you divorce him, he will keep all of the assets and all of the liabilities because you don't want the house. But he's not likely to want the house either since he can't pay the mortgage and may end up having to work out some sort of short sale, and may have to make up the difference on the mortgage.

If that's the case, is there a reason you aren't splitting the liability from the house? You might not be obliged to do so, but that doesn't mean you can't offer more in the divorce settlement if you think it is fair. (Talk to your lawyer first!) You can't and shouldn't feel obliged to carry on in a marriage you don't want to be in, but I'm reading some further feelings of guilt (perhaps unwarranted feelings of guilt!) about coming out of the divorce financially intact while leaving him holding the bag, and that might be something you can manage with a good settlement.

A word of caution, though. If you already feel guilty about leaving, it's easy to beat yourself up into thinking you also ought to feel guilty about the finances by exaggerating his losses or your own advantages. Talking about what you think is financially fair with a third-party--like your lawyer--familiar with the details of the situation can be a great check against this impulse. And honestly, if I had to bet, I'd say that impulse is what is driving the sense of financial unfairness here.
posted by Marty Marx at 12:04 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Please ignore all the advice telling you what you do or do not have in terms of interest in this property. Take your own advice to see another lawyer.

Your interest in the property is specific to the real estate and domestic laws in your jurisdiction and to your situation. Whatever you decide to do to end the situation in a moral way, you need to be prepared for the legal repercussions. A good lawyer will help you with both pieces.

IAAL, IANYL, TINLA, Do not take legal advice of the internet.
posted by freshwater at 12:29 PM on February 3, 2011 [12 favorites]

He's a grownup. He can deal with an issue like whether he can afford the house he's in, and what to do about it if he can't afford it.

The point of a divorce is you are no longer responsible for the other person. That's what you have to keep remind yourself. You're not responsible for their happiness (actually you never were) and, unless they can't support themselves, you're not responsible for their finances. And in this case, he makes more money than you.

On the side note: the house may be in his name, but you are probably entitled to 50% of any increase in its value since you got married, no matter whether because you or he made mortgage payments or because the house went up in value. But IANAL.
posted by musofire at 1:00 PM on February 3, 2011

Best answer: Yes, what freshwater said times a million. The laws on this vary so much from state to state that you need to be 100% clear on what your legal rights and responsibilities are as well as what your moral rights and responsibilities are.

It is hard to sell houses now, and that's an issue in many divorces. So helping your ex keep from going into foreclosure with the house you currently both own might be a moral and perhaps a legal responsibility for you. On the other hand, maybe he can find a roommate or the two of you can rent the house to another party or who knows?

But yeah, you have to be part of a plan to work this out. You can't just walk away morally, in my opinion, and you may not be able to walk away legally, so get another legal opinion.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:06 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: (Side note: Marty Marx, my husband and I are both on the deed to the house but only my husband's name is on the mortgage. We opted to qualify on a single income for a variety of reasons at the time, so the mortgage is in his name only. This is a moderate hassle since I pay all the bills and they're sooooooooo tetchy about talking to a random person whose name isn't on the account! But it's not odd at all, we know several couples who, for one reason or another, have done this. And she may well NOT be responsible for the mortgage if her name isn't on it, but it'll depend on state law, the divorce settlement, all kinds of things.)

"I can't make him my responsibility -- but I can't be a total jerk. I feel like an asshole already for wanting to leave at all. No one has been able to come up with a solution for what he could do with the house if I left."

Look, basically one of three things will happen: You will agree, through divorce lawyers or in divorce mediation, that (1) You will put the house on the market and you will each pay a particular share until it is sold (you may pay less because you are moving out), splitting the equity in some fashion that you agree to; (2) You will agree that you will leave entirely and he will become entirely responsible for the house, to sell or keep as he sees fit, in whatever fashion he sees fit (with a roommate, whatever); in many cases he'd buy out part of your equity but probably not here; (3) You will agree to an arrangement where for a defined period of time (perhaps a year), you pay a portion of the housing costs to assist him in his transition, whether he opts to sell or keep the house.

You don't need to be a total jerk, and you don't need to make his life your responsibility. You CAN divorce someone with fairness and dignity. Once you decide for sure that's what you want to do, you may wish to talk to a divorce lawyer (or three and pick one you like) and get your ducks in a row, then tell him in a gentle way, perhaps at a therapy meeting, and then be very clear with your lawyer that you don't want to screw him, you want to be fair, but most importantly you want to get OUT. Then you wait for him to pick a lawyer and ideally he also goes the "be fair and be done" route and your lawyers come to a settlement. If, however, he picks a bulldog and chooses to fight you tooth and nail, it's good to have leverage (like your name on the deed to the house and ex not knowing you don't want it) so your lawyer can use the leverage to help you come to a fair settlement and get out.

And find a couple of sensible friends who are aware your goal is "be fair and be done" who can unemotionally help you see if a particular thing you guys agree to is fair to him and to you; you will have trouble seeing this because you will be so emotionally involved. It's good to have a friend who says, "No, look, this IS fair to him, you're not being a horrible person."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:26 PM on February 3, 2011

Best answer: Act honorably. It's easy to feel less guilt when you're doing nothing wrong. In my jurisdiction, which is a community property state, the debt and the equity apportionment is not clear cut, and facts can be used to rebut the presumptions created by things like title documents and mortgages.

Husband may have to lose the house, possibly be negotiating a short-sale with the bank. But those things happen. One option might be to consider offering some cash so that he has time to plan the move. You should also consider talking to your husband about how to handle the dissolution of your marriage; if you figure out between yourselves what you think is fair and reasonable, then you can offer to pay the costs and have a lawyer prepare a formal agreement spelling out what each of your rights and duties will be.

Sorry you're going through this. I hope it all works out for you.
posted by Hylas at 1:31 PM on February 3, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback, everyone. I realize I probably sound bitchy with the way I talk about it as "his" house and "his" mortgage. Obviously I didn't feel very good about the concept of ditching him with the liability, which is why I asked the question. I want to do the right thing. Not to make myself feel better, necessarily, but because he doesn't deserve to be screwed over.

Could it be standing in for other issues you haven't dealt with? Why have you become "incompatible people"? Why does the thought of having kids with him fill you with "utter dread and terror"?

The house is a great symbol for a lot of our relationship -- I feel like he's extremely dismissive of my opinions and feelings, and he always has to be right. I never wanted to buy a house, but he kept pushing until I went along with it because he found ways to dismiss every single one of my reasons to not buy a house. However, in the end, I accept the responsibility for just going with the flow for the last 10+ years to avoid these unwinnable arguments. Basically, I don't feel like we're partners at all, and the thought of having a kid with him makes me sick because I'm already stressed out all the time with him around, and I can't imagine the extra pressure of taking care of a child on top of that.
posted by catfood at 1:33 PM on February 3, 2011

Eyebrows: But it's not odd at all, we know several couples who, for one reason or another, have done this. And she may well NOT be responsible for the mortgage if her name isn't on it, but it'll depend on state law, the divorce settlement, all kinds of things.

I wouldn't comment twice, but if it seemed like I was making a call about what assets she does or does not have, I want to clarify that I'm in full agreement with freshwater: Ignore legal advice from the Internet.

I didn't mean to say she is responsible for the mortgage; it was the conjunction of the statements about who owned the house, was on the deed, and was on the mortgage that made me wonder whether there might have been some confusion about what her lawyer said or meant, but my remark was that, whatever her legal obligation, she can still work with her lawyer to come up with a more generous settlement if she thinks it fair.
posted by Marty Marx at 1:42 PM on February 3, 2011

Honestly, I give you credit. I think it's a good thing to worry about his needs, as you recognize that your actions will cause pain. Ask him what he thinks would be fair. Offer to give him some financial support for a limited period. In the long run, divorce is expensive, in terms of money and emotional toll. But it has to happen, and he will learn to cope.
posted by theora55 at 1:50 PM on February 3, 2011

His household and utility expenses alone will be much less than with you around so you should not really factor the full amount. Also he can refinance to make the monthly mortgage payment smaller. He can easily make it work so he doesn't lose everything until he decided to liquidate.
posted by JJ86 at 2:00 PM on February 3, 2011

My friend bought a house with her fiance. Things went south. She did not want the house - he did. Neither would be able to afford the house as a singleton, especially he who is sole parent of a young child from a previous relationship. They worked with the bank, filed for a financial hardship (for him), refinanced the house so that she was no longer responsible for the mortgage, she paid a sum of money to the bank to help sever the financial relationship, and he now has a paying roommate.

I wish you the best of luck.
posted by jillithd at 2:08 PM on February 3, 2011

i stayed trapped in a marriage for years ... i felt GUILTY all the time about everything.

it wasn't worth it - and it's not going to get better later. just dig in and be kind as possible.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 5:03 PM on February 3, 2011

Would a lesser of two evils be for YOU to keep the house? If you can afford it, maybe living there even though you don't want to for a while is better than the guilt of saddling him with it.
posted by Brittanie at 5:57 PM on February 3, 2011

First of all, I am not a lawyer, accountant, etc and this is not legal advice or actual advice of any kind, just something to consider.

I'm not saying you need a new lawyer, but you might want to clarify with them your responsibility towards the mortgage if your husband defaults. While it is likely that, however your property is settled in a divorce, you will not have to pay your husband anything, especially since he makes more than you and no children are involved, the flipside is he does not have to pay the mortgage either.

If he wants to make you suffer it may be possible for him to ruin your credit and subject you to lawsuits from corporations with massive legal departments. Your best bet is to liquidate the house and split the gains or losses, then go your separate ways.

Again, verify specifics with your lawyer.
posted by Yorrick at 6:45 PM on February 3, 2011

Just wanted to agree with your therapist (and disagree with hal_c_on) that you are not responsible for your husband's future. This does not mean that you might not have certain joint financial responsibilities. It also doesn't mean that you aren't allowed to leave in a way that feels fair and reasonable to you. But going forward, he will have to make his own choices (or rather will continue to make his own choices).

Second, be prepared for him to get nasty. I have seen divorces where both parties start out with good intentions towards the other and then one gets hurt and it turns nasty. If your husband is resisting divorce then he may choose to make your life difficult as soon as he knows you are serious. While you need to be fair to him, you also need to make sure you protect yourself.
posted by metahawk at 10:10 PM on February 3, 2011

Best answer: I have been the other person in this situation - the husband who got left with a house he could not afford.

The advice to lawyer up is sound, as is the reminder that since you are married you both share the responsibility for the house, and you have a right to half its value. This is also true for anything else you or he own: that whole "all my worldly goods with thee I share" bit can seem a bit of a pain come divorce time. Especially for the person with more stuff. I'd just add the following observations:

1. If you leave, please make it a priority to get every bit of your stuff out of the house as soon as you can. It is indescribably painful for the person left behind to have to live with these reminders. It took my ex many months to finally get most of her shit out of the house, even though I bent over backwards to try to facilitate and expedite the operation. She never did take it all. She left me with some stuff, and the words "Oh, I don't need that. You can keep it." This tardiness and insensitivity about something so profoundly painful has been a major part of the reason that I still hate her, even now, almost fourteen years later. Take it all, even the stuff you don't want.

2. Please do understand that if you divorce, everything that you and he own - all of your assets - will go "into the pot", and be split. It is far, far better to try to reach an agreement together on how to divvy up the pot than to force a legal battle that will inevitably result in lawyers taking a healthy slice of it.

Good luck. You both have some painful times ahead.
posted by Decani at 1:57 AM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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