When my husband files for divorce, what is my next step?
August 14, 2012 6:47 PM   Subscribe

YANAL, but I need some direction. I think my husband is going to ask for a divorce, and I am clueless as to the next steps. He significantly outearns me...

US citizen, been married 12 years. Married young when I was 20. Husband was not a US citizen, I sponsored him and he became a US citizen 4 years ago. Husband is 10 years older than me and is a physician, and has earned a significant amount of money. I am a medical resident and have just accrued >$200,000 in medical school debt, none of which he helped pay. I have no savings to my name, just live paycheck to paycheck off my resident salary.

I don't receive any monetary support from my husband. Yes, it is true that I will make a physician's salary once I finish my medical residency. Currently however we live in two different states and he has chosen to drift from me and live his life separately... this has been going on for awhile, and I have been trying to fix things but he doesn't seem interested in preserving this marriage.

I think he is going to serve me with divorce papers soon. I want to try to fix the marriage but he seems to have disdain for me, and there's only so much I can do.

What do I do if he files for divorce? I cannot afford a lawyer, I have so much medical school and credit card (because he barely pays anything to support me and he hasn't for years) debt. How do I afford a lawyer? Is it common to get free consultations?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Which states are you in?
posted by J. Wilson at 6:58 PM on August 14, 2012

In some states, the money he earned while you were married belongs to both of you - the term is "community property." So, it's important to figure out if you're in a community property or separate property state.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:24 PM on August 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry you are going through this. It sounds tough and I hope you have a support system.

My friends have all gotten free consultations when their wealthy, but tight-fisted, husbands indicated the marriage was over. The lawyers have had no problem deferring payment until the ex-wives received their settlements. Probably it would have been cheaper to pay-up front, but their lawyers essentially floated them loans of several thousand dollars with the risk of no payout at all. This, however, is in Ontario which has pretty codified property division and spousal support. You may be eligible for spousal support retro to when the marriage broke down, so a good lawyer could gain you thousands. As mentioned above, the state matters A LOT when it comes to divorce, he will obviously be choosing the state that is most favourable to his finances; you need to be proactive before you are served. If you do ever reconcile you can pause/stop the process, but who moves first has huge implications if the divorce becomes necessary.
posted by saucysault at 7:30 PM on August 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

You cannot afford not to consult a lawyer. You are talking about MASSIVE amounts of money here: his salary, your debt, your salary, whatever property you may have in common. You desperately need advice because:

1) He may be legally responsible for your med school and other debt.
2) You may be eligible for spousal support.
3) You are likely entitled to a percentage of his pension as a marital asset.
4) You may be entitled to a percentage of his savings.
5) He may be required to pay your legal bills.

Some, all or none of the above may apply. But you need, immediately, to get out of the mindset of "how can I make this cost as little as possible while I sit here and wait for him to screw me?" and into the mindset of "how can I get the absolute best advice about these large sums of money and protect myself financially?"

Also, stop looking at this as "I have all this debt, I can't afford this" and be realistic. You are not paying back your med school loans while doing your residency, you do have income, and you will be much better off financially in the medium to long term if you protect your legal rights with good representation.

In this vein, see a lawyer, immediately. The above list? You may be WAY better off filing in one state than waiting for him to file in another. Lawyer up, protect yourself.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:35 PM on August 14, 2012 [45 favorites]

Lawyer lawyer lawyer. Now now now.

If he truly has disdain for you, he probably also underestimates you. He will likely make you a terrible offer and expect you to accept it out of lingering affection and mutual cordiality. Fuck. That. Do your homework and find sharp, experienced, well-connected and diligent legal representation immediately and follow his or her advice. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:59 PM on August 14, 2012 [16 favorites]

Keep in mind, very little you can do about personal debt such as your medical loans if they are solely in your name - people often forget the vows "... For better or for worse." This carries some legal weight as well.

Alimony is based on your reduction or inability to earn $$ - however a judge will be fully aware that you will earn a physician's salary soon, and you might not be eligible for alimony.

Balance your expectations & Consult a lawyer - you need one to help you with at least the initial facts (you can hire by the hour).
posted by Kruger5 at 8:46 PM on August 14, 2012

Here is the metafilter wiki on finding a lawyer. One of those links leads to the American Bar Associations family law pages.

Better to spend money now than regret it later.
posted by annsunny at 8:46 PM on August 14, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
my husband is in NY and owns property there (bought after our marriage, and my name is not on the deed), i am in northern new jersey. We were married in NJ if that matters
posted by mathowie (staff) at 8:52 PM on August 14, 2012

Sister. Lawyer. NOW.

It may be more advantageous for YOU to file. But you MUST have a lawyer's advice.

Best of luck to you.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 10:08 PM on August 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Whose name is on what doesn't necessarily mean it's not marital property for the purposes of the divorce. Don't despair. Medical school loans look *huge*, but in a couple years you're going to be doing great, and you're going to have this giant load off your shoulders and be able to find someone who really appreciates you, which it sounds like this guy hasn't in a long time. If he's not paying for your support now, then you really don't need him. Yes, it is reasonably common for divorce lawyers not to ask for payment up front. Talk to a couple different attorneys, if you can, to find someone you feel like you have some rapport with. You're going to be fine--more than fine, you're going to soon feel better than you have in years.
posted by gracedissolved at 4:00 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

To mention to your lawyer, because green cards have not come up: Keep in mind that even sponsoring your husband's right to live and work in the US via your marriage might have a large effect on his earning power. 'Marriage fraud' for green cards happens, or you may need to withdraw your affadavit of support if that's still in effect
posted by quercus23 at 4:00 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

See a lawyer. Pay a small fee for a consultation. It will be worth it.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:53 AM on August 15, 2012

Nthing lawyer. This is what lawyers are for and you cannot afford not to have one in the long term. Even if you have to borrow money to pay the fees, what's another few thousand on top of 200K plus?
posted by Aizkolari at 6:58 AM on August 15, 2012

Don't just get a lawyer, get a shark.

You may come out of this financially for the better. Don't wait to get screwed over, or for your estranged husband to call the shots. There's nothing you can do to salvage the relationship, get the upper-hand in the divorce.

Your husband may have assets you don't even know about. How would you like half of the retirement accounts? How about some spousal support until you're done with residency? How would you like that med school debt eliminated?

Oh SO many good things may come of this financially.

It hurts now, but in a few years from now, you'll be glad you didn't let your emotions dictate a financial arrangement.

Hang in there!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:13 AM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


Find a lawyer who is licensed in both NY and NJ, there may be an advantage to filing in one or the other state.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:13 AM on August 15, 2012

(1) Contact the nearest law school. (2) Contact the nearest civil legal aid agency. Either or both may have pro bono family law clinics. Both should at least have referrals for you. If you don't qualify for free services, you absolutely need to scrape together a couple hundred bucks to lawyer up to protect yourself.
posted by moammargaret at 7:16 AM on August 15, 2012

Not a lawyer, talking off the top of my head.

Generally speaking, it's easier to actually get a divorce in NJ (or, any other state) than it is in NY. NY has some pretty boneheaded code on the books that requires people to do an extended, painful dance before the divorce is granted.

Generally, in NY, wives of wealthy men tend to get a fair or better-than-fair shake in terms of support and division of assets. BUT - you MUST get an experienced divorce lawyer to fight for it, it's not automatic. The judge will have a lot of leeway within the law to set down the terms of the divorce.

I know less about NJ, but I can say that it's not hard to find a firm with divorce law experience in both states. And, they'll generally work on contingency, especially if your husband is wealthy.

I suspect that filing first will be a big advantage for you, but you MUST get a lawyer to confirm this, because it isn't going to be true for all cases. After you explain the details, your lawyer will have a good answer for what to do.

Find that lawyer now! Don't worry about it being expensive. I'd shy away from the "law school" option. You don't want trainees on this, you need a lot of experience in your corner. The best divorce lawyers will not only know the law and best strategies, they'll also know the judges from already going before them, and that will help refine their strategy in ways that less experienced lawyers just can't do.

Good luck!
posted by Citrus at 8:25 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is not what lawyer you can afford, but what lawyer he can afford. So you need to think of not your money paying for the lawyer but his money because trust me, the amount of potential assets and earnings is enough to get you an attorney/shark worth being your advocate.
posted by jadepearl at 8:34 AM on August 15, 2012

Did you know that NJ is one of the only states in which you can be awarded alimony FOR LIFE?

Lawyer up, asap.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:12 AM on August 15, 2012

What do I do if he files for divorce?

An important question to ask yourself is "What do *I* want to do" in terms of getting a divorce. Do you just want to get it done and over with? Do you feel as though he owes you money? Are you up for long and drawn out battle?

Yes, do consult a lawyer, but also consult friends, family and yourself. Do what's best for you, do it amicably as possible and then get on with your life.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:58 AM on August 15, 2012

Start collecting account numbers for any and all assets. You should get 1/2 of his assets, but he has had plenty of time to hide as much as possible. You may be able to get copies of his tax returns even if you didn't file jointly. Get the best lawyer you can; being in 2 states makes this more complicated.

If you can go see him, talk to him, and ask him to work on the marriage, that might help. For that matter, ask him to buy you a ticket.

It's possible to have a fair divorce if both sides are honest. Keep your emotions separate from your real financial need. Many people feel that they don't care about the money while they deal with the hurt. Caring about the money is common sense; marriage is a civil partnership and has always had a financial component.

I'm sorry you're going through this.
posted by theora55 at 4:25 PM on August 15, 2012

Obviously, you need a lawyer. But maybe for more reasons than you think.

The school debt thing really makes me wonder - would you have not taken those loans had you not been married? Did you marry because you were counting on his income to finance your education?

The part that really seems off to me though, is that in a normal marriage, the bills come in and your combined income pays for them. I don't think I'd ever toss my wife's student loan bill at her and say - hey, this is yours to pay, too bad if you can't afford it. Would you do the same with groceries? Or the electric bill? If so, sounds like you were "roommates" and that "marriage" might be kinda hard to support in court - as in maybe a marriage for citizenship thing. But I'm no lawyer. Just going on some info from friends experiences here in NYC/NJ.
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:45 PM on August 15, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
i went to medical school 5 years after we married, so i did not marry him for the sole purpose for his income. But I come from a conservative culture and our marriage was arranged (but not forced, i was happy to get married - traditional/cultural views at the time, husband is the primary breadwinner). Has our marriage had issues for a long long time (probably since I went to medical school, I started getting cut off )? it has, but the idea of divorce was always frowned upon culturally. But now it's just seems like there's no interest anymore on his side in fixing things, and maybe i'm just too tired of fighting so much.

I am curious if you think this makes a difference in the divorce proceedings. i do not feel that there was any immigration fraud or marriage for citizenship.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 9:37 PM on August 15, 2012

I am curious if you think this makes a difference in the divorce proceedings. i do not feel that there was any immigration fraud or marriage for citizenship.

I'm not sure if you're addressing me specifically, but I don't think it makes a difference. I don't know if your cultural norms have any sort of legal bearing. Again I'm not a lawyer and I'm only going on anecdotal information but I think you'll have to spend considerable time defending your marriage as valid, just to get divorced. Not that I think you shouldn't get divorced, of course but I think you're in a tough situation.
posted by blaneyphoto at 10:23 PM on August 15, 2012

I don't think you'll have any problem getting a fair divorce, just because he's an immigrant. People do this all the time. I'm not sure the people making a fuss about the immigration thing are aware, but while it isn't trivial, foreign physicians are capable of getting visas/green cards/citizenship without marrying a US citizen and do so in fairly large numbers. Marriage would speed things up, I suppose, but lots of people go through the regular route and I don't think there's going to be any particular presumption of fraudulent activity.

It sounds like they drifted apart and the husband stopped paying for stuff. That happens all the time. It's sad, but OP, please don't get hung up on this. Make sure your attorney knows about his status in case it comes up, but don't think you're going to be left completely in the lurch because of this. I think the likelihood of it impacting any property division is minimal.
posted by gracedissolved at 10:48 PM on August 15, 2012

About the concern of fraud... Since you have been married 4 years, I don't see that as a concern any longer (a red flag is divorce within 1-2 years after getting citizenship).

I would really be careful about some of the "advice" given here, such as retain a shark of a lawyer to go after every penny he's got. He had money to do exactly that - and you will both end up in a long, drawn out divorce where both lawyers will be happiest the most.

For much of your divorce, the law will decide what your entitled to. What you need to figure out *before* you speak to an attorney is: what is the absolute minimum I need and want from him. I assume you have no kids. Then, you can decide how much more do you want from him, above and beyond. This step should be in consultation with your attorney.

You mentioned you come from a culturally conservative background. Therefore you may also want to consider if the divorce is long and drawn out, will that affect your opportunity to get married earlier rather than later (should you desire to get married, that is).

When culture, tradition, family is involved, I would argue typical divorce advice should take into account these additional factors for a more sound decision.
posted by Kruger5 at 6:28 AM on August 16, 2012

I am curious if you think this makes a difference in the divorce proceedings.

No I do not. I want to be perfectly clear here. I told you what I told you because I think it's vital that you know, explicitly and in detail, your rights and the legal norms for your state. That does not mean you need to exercise them to their full extent, or at all. My mother and father were divorced in a state with statutory child support. My father had a trust fund. My mother had a job as an assistant editor. She chose not to pursue any child support from him at all.

You can make similar choices, but if you don't know what the choices are, you're just letting him call all the shots. There is nobody to look out for your best interests except you.

If you are culturally hesitant to file first, that's OK. My advice would be to go see a lawyer simply to find out a) what are the advantages of filing first, and b) what are the consequences of waiting for him to file first. You're a doctor; you know how this decision tree works, and you know you need to be able to estimate all likely outcomes before committing to a course of action.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:35 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

My personal research on this topic, ie talking to several immigration lawyers, leads me to believe that you will not have to spend any time defending your marriage as valid in order to get divorced. Divorce is a state matter, immigration is federal, they don't care. Depending what stage in the immigration process your husband is in, it might present a problem for him, but not for you unless the govt decides to go after you for marriage fraud - unlikely.

It is basically impossible to withdraw an affidavit of support but that wouldn't become an issue unless he applies for government benefits like welfare.
posted by bq at 6:35 PM on August 16, 2012

I am in an amicable divorce and even we had a lawyer. Totally worth it when there's support and retirement assets and debt involved.

Call your local Bar Association and get a recommendation. Some lawyers will do a free half-hour or hour consultation, others will charge for it (say $250 - $500 for an hour of thoughtful advice).

In either case, just do it. If you can't get a free consultation, it is absolutely worth it to find a way to cover the cost for an issue like this. The issues at stake here, whether you or he decide to pursue them aggressively or resolve them amicably, require a pro to sort out. And you won't know where to start until you talk to one.

In short: talk to a lawyer ASAP.
posted by zippy at 2:34 PM on August 21, 2012

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