divorce settlement hindsight advice
August 6, 2012 4:21 PM   Subscribe

About to start discussing divorce details. What do you wish you known, what would you have done differently, what do you regret, what are glad you did?

We've been separated for about 17 months. Two kids, 18 & 17, college money has been set aside. Neither of us is out to get the other. I stayed home 18 years, now working fulltime temp. I need health care insurance, as I had cancer 10 years ago. We have little debt, just a low mortgage, nothing else. I have an appointment with a certified divorce financial planner. We'd like to do this without court or lawyers. We live in Washington state. Communication is strained, but that is not new to us. Advice please!
posted by jennstra to Work & Money (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I was very glad to have a good lawyer to advise and advocate for me; with kids and college funds involved that makes it even more important. Good lawyers can make it less likely to end up in court and tell you about alternatives like mediation or collaboration that may be available to you.
posted by TedW at 4:39 PM on August 6, 2012

My ex helped me find and buy my own house and helped me move out. I thought it was going to be an amicable, reasonable, non-hostile divorce. Everything changed as soon as I went to a lawyer to start the ball rolling. I remember my lawyer asking me, "What is with this guy?" after some of the more infantile, vicious, ugly things he did.

Ex got the meanest, most expensive divorce attorney in town. I got creamed.

I wish I'd known: when/if you move out, take everything you want with you. He might change the locks and you will never get the rest of it.

I moved out at the height of the market. Ex stayed in the house, reducing its value (by not cleaning up after the cats or taking out the garbage) while the market tanked over a period of about a year. This cost both of us tens of thousands of dollars - to rehabilitate the house, to fix the DIY mistakes he made, and a lower selling price. He didn't care how much money he lost, as long as it was costing me too.

I refused court-ordered maintenance, even though I was a full-time student. I thought it was a show of good will and hoped he would reciprocate by not being adversarial. I was wrong.

I hope your future ex does not act this way, but be aware that things can get very ugly very quickly. Protect yourself.

Good luck and happiness in your new life.
posted by caryatid at 5:36 PM on August 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I did it without a lawyer. I made an effort to be nice, polite and accomodating and make the ex feel okay about things. He wanted to give me more out of one paycheck and less out of the other: No problem! He wanted to do it in a way he had control over which was convenient for him: Sure thing, no big. He gave me thousands more than I was legally entitled to. Squabbling with him over petty details would have cost me big time.

If you haven't read it before, I highly recommend "Getting to Yes". Ignore historical baggage, hurt feelings, etc. Keep your eye on the prize. Do whatever is in the best interest of your future.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 5:39 PM on August 6, 2012

These forms may be useful, especially if you file/petition on your own without a lawyer's help (I did in Texas... it wasn't so bad, and I only paid the $215 filing fee required in my state).

Your divorce financial planner should help you with this, but write down EVERY asset and EVERY debt, including the amounts, and which of you agrees to be responsible/retain each one. If you and your husband can agree how to divide your assets and an amenable custody agreement, that's 90% of the work done already.

By writing down every asset/debt, I mean:

- account numbers, whose name it's in (yours, his, both); current amount (cash/debt owed); if it's a debt, the date of final payment (like for cars/mortgages) is very helpful

- descriptions of your vehicles, including license plate #, who it's registered to, and whose name is on the title

- descriptions of any real assets/furniture/property that you will take separately, and he'll do the same obviously

- WHO IS KEEPING THE HOUSE. If you can't agree on that, you're kind of in a bind. If you keep the house, will you be paying him a cash settlement amount for his share? I kept ours, and we calculated how much I owed him based on house payments made until date of filing/some percentage of "equity" based on some BS number we agreed on that basically zeroed out his debt; suggest y'all think about that and what numbers you'd both be happy with, settlement-wise.

- if he has a 401(k) or either of you has inherited anything - land, assets, cash money, art, jewelry, etc. - you need to agree on payouts for that stuff if possible before filing the paperwork. (for example - if he agrees to let you have your home if he can keep 100% of his 401k, and that's OK with you both, spell that out; if he has to cash in part of his 401k early, there are tax implications, etc. - this stuff is what keeps people in court arguing and earns lawyers plenty of $$$$).

I'm not sure if this is true in Washington state, but in Texas, which is also a marital community property state, I did all the filing/paperwork myself and I didn't know that all of our bank accounts, 401(k), savings, etc. would be "materially frozen" upon filing for divorce. What that meant for me (and might mean for you - apologies, I've scoured online and can't find the answer easily) is that you'll get a piece of paper that looks like a sort of temporary restraining order on assets only.

This prevents either of you from closing a major account (banking, savings, college tuition, etc.) or transferring major assets (like car title/mortgage loan) to another person, financial institution, LLC, or similar; this protects you both from "hiding" assets, selling them, acquiring major debt in your spouse/child's name, etc. until the divorce decree is finalized. It's smart and protects both of you, but if y'all decide ahead of time to put the house up for sale and THEN you file? The courts might have a problem with that - I'm not sure what you are planning to do with your marital home, but legally, it's half yours, half his, and that's true even if only one of your names is listed on the mortgage.

I refi'd mine in my name only (mortgage was in ex-husband's name only) after our divorce; we had to sort all that out ahead of time, obviously. What I hadn't anticipated was the banks/lenders/mortgage people refusing to speak to me on the phone or release paperwork to me without his written consent beforehand, which kind of sucked - even with the divorce decree, I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get everything redone in my name, and it cost me plenty of money.

So, TL;DR - yeah you don't need a lawyer, but you need to agree in writing ahead of time to every single thing you guys decide to do in regards to property, asset, and debt division, plus custodial and child support agreements. I had no kids, but we owned a house; both of our cars were in our individual names and owned outright. We had no problems with our no-fault divorce because we hashed it out (painfully) ourselves.

That said, when you do file for divorce? Take 5-6 original copies of EACH THING YOU FILE and ask the clerk at the records building to stamp and date EACH COPY INDIVIDUALLY. Otherwise, you'll have to pay for "official, court-approved copies - NOT NOTORIZED PHOTOCOPIES!" for every single thing you end up having to file/provide documentation for; it's a real PITA and takes awhile to get those certified copies from the clerk, so do it each step of the way and save yourself the hassle.

Also: take LOTS of extra change for parking meters anytime you have to go to the courts/records/clerk buildings to do any paperwork or make any appearances before a judge. It's one of the places you can count on spending more time than you'd planned to, and you do NOT want to jump out of line to run and beat the parking meter enforcement people writing you a ticket. You won't make it in time, and they aren't going to stop writing a ticket because you're crying with divorce paperwork in your hand (trust me!).

One last thing: one of you will have to show up in court somewhere between 90 days and 1 year after the filing date before the judge to read a short final statement and receive the divorce decree; you don't have to BOTH be there, but someone has to unless one or both of you retain a lawyer and have them represent you there. So, y'all might want to decide ahead of time who is prepared to do that bit. (My ex-husband traveled 26 days out of every month for work, so I handled that part.)

If you end up handling the court appearance yourself, I suggest having a friend(s) on call that day to offer support. Even if you hate each other, it's a very emotional event and you can't predict how you'll physically and emotionally react.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 5:41 PM on August 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

If you get a lawyer, watch for the tendency to escalate conflict - keep them under control. This is probably the biggest risk with using lawyers. Know what you are going to pay, and be confident about that being good value for you in your situation.

If you DIY (which is my preference, and essentially how I did it - the ex had one though), have a lawyer check the final documentation before signing anything, it is too important to get it wrong. To elaborate I consulted a lawyer initially, then did all the negotiating and correspondence myself. A few letters I ran past my lawyer, but the big deal was for him to clear the property settlement before I signed. However I am used to working with contracts and legal agreements, so I was confident of nothing slipping by me, and as I said above, no way was I going to sign anything without my lawyer's OK.

If you can, I suggest you sit down with the ex, and try and agree on the the issues before lawyering up. You can present it as a cost saving measure, as keeping conflict away from the lawyers will put a lot more money in both your pockets. I am sure you have heard the horror stories of couples who fight through their lawyers, and the financial and other costs that result.

Good luck!
posted by GeeEmm at 5:42 PM on August 6, 2012

I too, believed that things would be amicable. I too, did not get a lawyer. And I am still paying for it years later. Get a lawyer. Nice ones that genuinely want to help you protect yourself and not just cause rancor must exist!
posted by PaulaSchultz at 6:23 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

We divorced amicably (no kids) and I filed a quitclaim to let him have the house for a small amount of extra cash from our liquified savings accounts. I'm GLAD I didn't listen to every female family member I had who railed at me to keep the house. He made much more than I did and I couldn't have afforded the house on my own. I didn't take spousal support because without that darn house, I could easily support myself in an apartment.

I regret not taking more with me. I could have taken anything I wanted, but I chose to leave some behind thinking he'd have memories of our life together. He sold/got rid of most of the furniture, tossed everything else and started over. That was the only time I felt like a sucker.

We downloaded documents from LegalZoom and went without lawyers, representing ourselves in court. But if we had kids I definitely would have retained an attorney. I regret not having an ally waiting for me afterward to take me to lunch or something. I tried to be all tough and broke down after we parted ways after court.

Note: Do not have your kids go to court with you as an ally even if they want to support you. As a late teen I went with Mom on the day my parents divorced and I still regret it.
posted by ladygypsy at 6:27 PM on August 6, 2012

Part of our agreement was that since I'd been on his insurance before we divorced (I was a stay at home mom), he would pay for private insurance for me for the first year while I searched for a job with benefits. I had a preexisting condition, could get virtually no one to insure me, and ended up going a year and a half without benefits. I would definitely look into what insurance options will be available to you and figure out how to incorporate it into the agreement.

I also agreed to not take my share of the retirement that he had accumulated during our eleven year marriage. Was a bit chagrined (!) when he married his mistress and will end up leaving it to her.
posted by Jandoe at 6:54 PM on August 6, 2012

Repeating what many have said above; despite all efforts to end "amicably," divorce can get really, really ugly because of the emotional response of going from an intimate relationship to a business relationship. We did ours without lawyers but I also made sure we got the court-ordered mediation which was a big help (and a helluva lot cheaper than lawyers) since we both had to answer to a third person and not each other.

It sounds like your case might be more serious because you have a need for insurance (and maybe your kids too?). If you can't afford the expense of a lawyer, a legal aide group might be able to help out or at least advise.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 7:42 PM on August 6, 2012

I had a mediated divorce, and had a separate attorney review the document. Think about life insurance in favor of the kids, stipulating the kids' share in his and your wills, custody of photographs (scan them), and some additional equity to you, to get re-established in the workforce. Make a list of every account #, and the balance of the account, including taxes on the house, utility bills, etc. Ask around and see if you can find a lawyer who will help you achieve a fair settlement. Don't be so nice you get screwed; money is very useful.
posted by theora55 at 7:42 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you choose to use attorneys, see if there are attorneys who practice collaborative law in your area. I've seen this done with each party having an attorney, or using a joint mediator; sometimes one or both parties also utilize a divorce coach. The cost for added professionals is higher, but the long term cost should be lower than it would be if you end up with shark attorneys who grease the wheels toward litigation.

The National Family Resiliency Center has some helpful online tools and printed publications and may be able to suggest professionals in our area.

Good Luck!
posted by sb3 at 9:01 PM on August 6, 2012

I am in the final stages of a divorce which I keep telling everyone is amicable, because I still can't stop being "the good guy(or gal in this case). I did this without attorneys because I just couldn't afford them. All of the paperwork has been very easy. In my state they offer very good classes in Pro Se divorce at the courthouse.
I did not ask for spousal support, which every attorney, friend and divorced alimony paying male friend told me to do ( married 25 years), but for me I knew that the amicable would quickly turn unamicable if I pushed for it.
I ended up with one of our houses and he took nearly all of the rest, other than some art and my own family heirlooms. For me it has been important that my daughters be provided for, so I have had him legally promise them their inheritance.
I guess I am one of those "too nice and screwed" divorcees, but in the long run I think it is important to me to just get it done.

Good luck and I hope for the best for you.
posted by Isadorady at 12:42 AM on August 7, 2012

Keep in mind that when they refer to "the Poor" in the United States, they're not statistically talking about an equal allotment of men and women. Statistically, they're largely talking about women. Single women. Many of them divorced single women. Moreover, there has been more than one study illustrating how common it is for women to get "punished" for negotiating. This is not because women aren't capable; it's because women aren't socialized to negotiate. One result is that they often avoid it, and therefore when they need those skills, they don't have them. Moreover, women *are* heavily socialized to be nice at all times. In a divorce situation, as many of the (dozen) commentators have noted so far, lots and lots of women get screwed, and these factors only begin to skim the surface of why.

So I think your question is an excellent one.

My primary advice is to BE INFORMED. My secondary advise is BEWARE. Men are typically socialized to compete. Men are typically socialized to negotiate. And men are typically socialized to not have any clue as to what they're feeling and how that might be motivating their actions.

In a divorce that's a lethal combination. What you're hearing here is commonplace, "I never thought he'd [insert low-down dirty thing here]."

In addition to some of the excellent advise about getting names, numbers, and other key financial information, I'd say take that information to a lawyer, and ask what the law provides for you given your circumstances and your state. I'd then get a second opionion. (First consults with lawyers are usually free, so you can learn a lot with no investment or commitment. So I'd consult two if I were you. I'd also see an accountant.)

Armed with information, I'd then attempt to resolve the divorce through binding mediation or some other non-litigation-oriented means. Divorces take time. In a down economy, with lots of state cutbacks, courts across the country have been devastated, and backlogs of several years are becoming increasingly common. For you, this means more money and time.

Practicalities aside, the emotional toll of a divorce is frankly devastating. Men often rush through the grieving/learning/recovery period, and women tend not to. Go through the rigamarole of a typical divorce and you will suffer. And suffer. And suffer. Everything from self-recrimination, to anguish, to unbearable loneliness, to feelings of failure unrivaled by anything else you can imagine. The divorce process prolongs these feelings. For years. For some of us, it doesn't seem to matter that the marriage may have died years earlier. The grief is not about the ex-husband necessarily, it's about so many other things. Societal feelings of failure, maybe, earlier hopes and dreams. The awkwardness of suddenly considering dating again. The fear that you'll be alone for the rest of your life. Or the fear that even if you don't remain alone, you may well screw it up again. Even if you don't really think you screwed it up the first time. Whatever happens, you may want to engage a counselor too.

As for mediation and such, you won't skip the dire emotional states, but the process itself doesn't take that long, so the damage it does is inevitably less.

Finally, once you have educated yourself, and decided how to proceed, behave impeccably. Don't scream or yell at him. Do insult or goad him. Don't say anything bad about him to your children. Don't do this to be nice. Do this so you'll have as little regret as possible at the end of it all, no matter how you behaved while married.

This can be an enormously difficult process. Take care of yourself.
posted by Puppetry for Privacy at 1:55 AM on August 7, 2012 [9 favorites]

*Don't insult...."
posted by Puppetry for Privacy at 1:57 AM on August 7, 2012

Get a lawyer. Your own lawyer.

That is the best advice I have.

It is ironic how people say they can't afford a lawyer up front, but somehow, they can afford to complain about how they got screwed during the divorce proceedings because they did not want to get a lawyer.

Also, don't kid yourself: How you behaved in your marriage absolutely will play a part in how your STBX will act and react to everything you do. You are naive to believe otherwise.
posted by PsuDab93 at 6:37 AM on August 7, 2012

When I was served divorce papers by my ex, I hired an attorney who was a mediator, hoping to keep things civil and fair. Big mistake... my attorney was unwilling to fight or even take a stand on many things, which meant I pretty much got creamed. Since then, I've advised people that if they hire an attorney for a divorce, hire a bulldog. Better to be holding your attorney back than trying to light a fire under him/her. Decisions made in a divorce are permanent.
posted by summerstorm at 9:29 AM on August 7, 2012

What I wish I'd known: It doesn't matter what the divorce decree says, loans stay in both names until refinanced. My ex had to sign off on my car being sold, and he had to refinance the house he kept. Three years later, he still gets contacted FIRST about my student loans, despite us sending them the legal documents that say he's not responsible. What we misunderstood was that apparently it just means for example if I default on my loan and they collect the money from him, he can then sue me for it.

My ex husband did hire a lawyer but since we had both agreed on how things would be split up and already had filed for divorce, I don't know what he got out of it. You definitely can do it without lawyers as long as you guys do agree on the terms.
posted by jesirose at 11:45 AM on August 7, 2012

One last tip: if you can, pre-draft any forms you think you'll file and seek out a paralegal or "free consultation" attorney and have them eyeball your work for an hourly fee.

This will make you 100% confident that you can get this shit done yourself, without accidentally screwing yourself in ways you cannot understand. Both the petitioner and respondent get court-sealed copies of every document filed, so you cannot hide any proceedings from each other. Knowing that might make this less scary for you.

I suggest filing as soon as is practically and responsibly as you feel able to, though, directly after you do 1) asset/debt negotiation and 2) my final suggestion here.

My father says the definition of eternity is the time between the day you realize it's time to divorce and the day it's finalized; that time is made INFINITELY smaller - and the terror/change more manageable - once a deadline's been secured.

(and pick a time when you won't have to file taxes together again - it already sucks for most couples; when you're divorcing, it's unbearable.)
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:12 PM on August 7, 2012

Thank you for all of the advice and encouragement. We meet tomorrow for the first discussion. It is time to wade through the muck toward my future. The decision was made years ago to end our marriage, it took way too long to muster the courage, but I am no longer lonely, feel so good about myself and know that my life is better. I will arrive at our meeting feeling stronger with your collective wisdom.
posted by jennstra at 10:45 PM on August 7, 2012

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