How to not get screwed in a divorce?
October 17, 2014 5:26 PM   Subscribe

I would like to get married soon but there's one thing I'm worried about: my SO has been unemployed for the large part of a year, and I'm not certain he'd have a job when we would want to get married. I live in a equitable distribution state. I'm worried I could get really screwed over if we divorce and am looking for anecdotes/advice (not legal) on how to handle this.

For a variety of reasons I don't really care if he ends up not working and then taking care of babies or whatever while I continue to pursue my career; I don't really like working that much either and he does do some stuff around the house and cooks/cleans, etc. I assume if the situations were reversed he'd feel the same. I don't have significant assets (he has none currently, but could stand to inherit significant money in the future, while I do not stand to inherit anything) but I do have good future earning potential.

I feel like if he were raised under different circumstances, his future earning potential would be as great or greater than mine, however, he has none of the built in stress/paranoia that comes from being raised in a poor household and is kind of going with the flow right now ... aka applying to what looks good, not building skills, relaxing, doing basic chores. Worst comes to worst, I don't want to be paying alimony and child support to a man who could out earn me fairly easily.

I don't expect this to happen, but I know the whole prenup thing is pretty contentious, and I just want to know exactly how screwed I'd be if for example we get married while he's unemployed, he never works again, and then I have to divorce him. Not looking for legal advice, just anecdotes from people who have experienced something similar.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm certain this is the type of situation where sitting down with a good family attorney for a few hour consult and being apprised of your rights and risks in your jurisdiction would be just the ticket! They do this, call around and make an appointment!!

I think a divorce attorney will also ask you why you are marrying someone you sound resigned to eventually divorcing (I'm wondering, too) so maybe find someone cool with your perspective.

Overall, it sounds like you deeply resent and and are fearful about his relationship with money. That's a giant neon flag, and I also think you should not never no no nope please don't marry in this situation.

Additionally, don't count on his inheritance. Really.

A lawyer can tell you how much you'd be on the hook for in your jurisdiction if you do decide to marry this guy anyway.
posted by jbenben at 5:43 PM on October 17, 2014 [11 favorites]

If you're read the various threads about what it's like to marry a guy who doesn't like working, I can see why you're feeling this way. I think I second everyone else when I say don't get married if you're this worried about it and suspect you'd end up getting divorced already. I think you know it's also unlikely that he is going to outearn you from what you say here. If this really bugs you, don't get married.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:55 PM on October 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

if you insist on marrying someone who has a very different relationship to money as compared to your own, and you have reason to believe your income is/was/will be significantly different from the person, GO TALK TO A FAMILY LAWYER and learn what your rights and obligations could be.

yes prenups can be contentious, but they are also the best way to protect both parties and make sure that if there is a divorce later, it happens with a minimum of uncertainty and hostility.

i don't think it's messed up to contemplate divorce before marriage. i am not your lawyer or a family lawyer myself, but i am *a* lawyer and i would not marry in your situation without talking to a professional for advice first and probably getting a prenup. in my own life i doubt i would marry without a prenup because i have significant assets.

i also think if your relationship cannot handle a frank discussion about a prenup and financial differences and expectations about who supports whom, then you are not ready to marry that person. "I assume if the situations were reversed he'd feel the same." but don't assume, ASK. have a conversation about it.

"i don't really care if he ends up not working and then taking care of babies or whatever while I continue to pursue my career"...high likelihood that if this happens (he doesn't get a job, or makes way less than you, yes it's possible you'd be paying him support upon separation unless he inherits such a sum of wealth that he has no need to work. talk to him about this and see how he feels about it, if he could see himself being the homemaker while you go to work.

"if he were raised under different circumstances, his future earning potential would be as great or greater than mine, however, he has none of the built in stress/paranoia that comes from being raised in a poor household"
have you had a conversation about this with him? has he said something to make you think this, or are you making an assumption because he has a different attitude/behavior than you? i dunno, i wasn't raised poor but i hustle to make what i can, not out of stress or paranoia though...more because i find it satisfying to measure my success in that way as opposed to a different way.

it's important that the two of you better understand each other's goals about money and career before you get married, regardless of if you get legal advice before getting married.
posted by zdravo at 6:01 PM on October 17, 2014 [10 favorites]


I have a friend who got married. His wife was very traditional and decided to stop working. That was okay at first when their kid was young, but as the kid was older he wanted his wife to start working. Nope, she didn't want to.

After about fifteen years he got dick of it and filed for divorce. Judge said, "husband has always worked, wife has never worked, you have to keep supporting her and alimony the rest of your life."

Now this was Mass which had terrible divorce laws, plus my friend was depressed and had a bad lawyer. But it was just the situation you are describing and he got hit just the way you are worried about.

That's just one anecdote, not to say it would happen to you. Talking to a lawyer would be a good idea and maybe reconsider the marriage thing if divorce concerns are already so present for you.
posted by alms at 6:07 PM on October 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

Lawyer and pre-nup is definitely the way to go here.
posted by quincunx at 6:18 PM on October 17, 2014

The way you protect yourself is with a lawyer and pre-nups not so much with anecdotes.

That said; anecdotally your questions just screams "I don't want to marry this guy" at me. If you're looking for permission not to marry him, well, consider that permission granted.
posted by Justinian at 6:30 PM on October 17, 2014 [28 favorites]

he has none of the built in stress/paranoia that comes from being raised in a poor household

This doesn't directly address your questions, but the book Crossing the Tracks for Love: What to Do When You and Your Partner Grew Up in Different Worlds does a bit to address money (and other) mindsets that it's useful to be aware of when you and your partner grew up in different economic classes. It could be good to read together to get some discussions going.
posted by kmennie at 6:33 PM on October 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Different jurisdictions, different rules, but when my parents divorced my mother was awarded MORE than half the joint property because the judge determined that her earning ability had been hamstrung by the years she had taken off working to look after the house and children, and so she was starting from a lower rung in her career than she would be at without that contribution to the marriage, and lower than my father's career stage.

I think she ended up with something like two thirds of the money they got from the sale of the house. My father was royally pissed off.
posted by lollusc at 6:34 PM on October 17, 2014

[Ugh. Apologies for the typos.]
posted by alms at 6:35 PM on October 17, 2014

The prenup thing shouldn't be contentious. To quote myself:

There is a 50% chance your marriage will survive, and a 50% chance your marriage will end in divorce. You cannot predict which one it will be. You think you know, but so did everyone who ever got divorced. You are not more special, more blessed, more prepared or more in love than they were. You may or may not be luckier.

Given this absolute reality, the pre-nup allows you create a contingency for marital breakdown at the moment in time when you have each other's best interests at heart. It does not make it easier to get divorced. It does avoid the scenario in which you are trying to rip each other's throat out with lawyers.

If you love your partner and want what's best for them come what may, love the prenup.

And if you can't work out something equitable, don't marry. Because as you've already figured out, if you two don't draft your own prenup, your prenup is written by your state.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:39 PM on October 17, 2014 [18 favorites]

If you marry someone lazy, and have babies the work load multiples by several times. Then it's just way more obvious they're lazy and were raised spoiled and if he's not working...and you're on maternity leave doing may kill him. Because he will seem like the most useless thing ever. A prenup will not fix this. I don't see how a motivated woman can marry an unemployed unmotivated guy. Home work is likely already heavily skewed toward you.
posted by Kalmya at 6:45 PM on October 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

Here's my nightmare anecdote - my cool friend (female) married a sweet guy. They had a couple of kids while she got her PhD. Along the way he lost his minimum wage job and could never find another one. Frankly, he didn't try that hard, working wasn't really his thing. He stayed home with the kids. She taught while finishing the Phd, made enough to keep them afloat. Once she finished school she started working two full time jobs to start digging them out of debt. He was depressed. Probably bored. Starting having online affairs while "watching" the kids.

The way it looks now my friend's future is full of shared custody, child support and alimony as far as the eye can see. The whole thing is a disaster for all concerned.

Why don't you two just keep living together a while longer, see how things go? And don't have any kids, prenup or no prenup, until you figure out whether you are good with potentially supporting this guy for life.
posted by Cuke at 7:10 PM on October 17, 2014 [12 favorites]

Talk to a lawyer in your state. I just got divorced last month in a community property state, and what my lawyer told me was that it's very difficult to get judges to award spousal support unless you've been married for a long time and the spouse has been out of work for a good reason - e.g. taking care of the kids, going to school, disability, etc. Unlike child support, it is definitely not something that is automatically granted in my state; your spouse would have to present a case for it. But you need to talk to a lawyer in your state. It was easy to get a free consultation. If you're in Wisconsin, ask me for my lawyer's name. If you're not, google "[your state] bar association" and look for their referral page.
posted by desjardins at 7:29 PM on October 17, 2014

Aside from the legal ramifications, it sounds like you are really uncomfortable with his approach to work and to finances. That stuff is dealbreaker territory for any relationship. Yes, you can protect yourself with a prenup, but why not also avoid all the stress of walking into a marriage under terms that are untenable for you. Talk to your SO about what your expectations for the future are, see what his are and see if they match. If not, you could try couples counseling to see if either or both of you can readjust your expectations or priorities. If you can't it is probably easier to walk away from a relationship now rather than after you're legally married.
posted by goggie at 7:30 PM on October 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure I would be comfortable marrying someone who I already thought this would be a problem with. I mean, presumably you know whether he's temporary unemployed for sincere reasons or "lazy", whether he's broke vs. bad with money, and whether he's the type of person who would take advantage of you in the manner you suggest (not work during your marriage and then take you to the cleaners).

Obviously people change in a divorce, and I think prenups can be a smart thing, but a prenup predicated on already having an inkling about "what if it turns out you're a lazy freeloader" seems unwise.
posted by Sara C. at 7:34 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

From my husband, who isn't your lawyer: If you are really worried, you should meet with a lawyer in your jurisdiction, but if you balk at the expense, you would probably get some peace of mind from reading something like Family Law in a Nutshell. The Nutshell series is aimed at law students, but is still pretty accessible, and it will give a sense the general shape of family law in the US. That might go a long way to addressing your worries about alimony and child support.

As for our experience, we had significant disparities in assets and employment prospects when we married. We decided to enter into a prenup for just the reason DarlingBri offered, and it has worked out well. As our relative fortunes have changed during the course of our marriage, there's been some comfort in knowing that we committed to taking care of each other, "come what may," on our terms.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 7:37 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine (female) married a guy with high earning potential who didn't like to work. They had a kid together. They divorced in a state with pretty good marriage laws, and she had a really great lawyer. So it's kind of a best-case scenario because after spending thousands on the divorce, she's not paying the ex alimony, and the ex is supposed to pay half of everything for their kid.

Except that you can't get blood from a turnip. Friend now has to choose between getting crappy stuff for the kid that the ex can afford to pay half of, or else paying the whole difference herself between what the ex can afford half of and what would really be best for the kid, or else duking it out in court (mediation is ordinarily an option, but her ex won't do anything unless a judge orders him to).
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:08 PM on October 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Prenups can be thrown out by the judge, and no lawyer can give you more than a vague idea of what might happen in the future. There are too many variables, and in some places the courts have wide latitude to order support and divide property if the divorce goes to trial.

The best way to avoid getting screwed in a divorce? Don't get married.
posted by jingzuo at 10:16 PM on October 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Get a consult, but understand that ENFORCEABLE pre-nups are rarely recommended for non-rich people. Figure $10k+ of legal and accounting fees (all paid by you), six months or more BEFORE the wedding. Figure on limited protection for the income gains you make in your career, or assets you buy with those income gains -- pre-nups are to protect what you already have. Figure NO set-offs for husband's inheritance or your lack of prospect for inheritance. Figure on a fixed minimum spousal support or property settlement that for the higher earner in a middle class family in an equitable distribution state could easily be higher than the court would award in the absence of agreement -- especially if you find a judge (not unlikely) who is biased to regard lower-earning husbands as moochers, not noble contributors to hearth and home. And finally figure that the biggest drivers of the flow of assets and dollars in the divorces of non-rich people are the kids: where they live, what they cost, who spends the most time with them, etc. -- and pre-nups NEVER can affect those determinations.
posted by MattD at 5:41 AM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Except that you can't get blood from a turnip.

Yes! If you marry someone that doesn't work, a prenup isn't going to help you raise a kid in two households on the salary of one. You'd still be doing that. It happens anyway-- one half of a couple becomes unemployed or underemployed while you have kids. Doesn't matter if that person wants to be employed or not; you're still broke if you divorce.

I would be concerned, though, about the whole idea that he doesn't feel urgent about working plus there is the idea of an inheritance on the horizon. I don't know if the one is because of the other or what but it bears examining. Inheritances have a way of not materializing and unless they are in like the high seven figures, they don't undo the financial repercussions of being unemployed. But the anticipation of an inheritance really does seem to be demotivating for a lot of people. Plus if he suddenly inherits, and you've been supporting the household the whole time, watch for some resentment when that turns out to he HIS money.
posted by BibiRose at 7:07 AM on October 18, 2014

You would be financially vulnerable in this situation. Your question points to a fundamental difference in how you both view work and money and pretty much assures that there will be friction, unpleasantness that may well lead to divorce in the future.

Before you get married, go to a pre-marriage class, so you can hash these things out together. It doesn't make you shallow to want your potential spouse to be able to work and to earn at your level or higher.

What I suspect is that you've gone down this road to a far degree and have realized that you're bumping up against a deal-breaker. THAT'S OKAY! Good for you!

If your reservations are such that you want to put this on hold, or cancel or even break up, own that. I would much rather back out at the last minute than divorce shortly after marriage.

Anecdote: I have a gorgeous girlfriend who is very driven and successful in business (she was also my boss.) She loved a guy and they planned to marry. During their engagement, he faffed around playing golf every day, claiming to be 'working' on his new real estate business. Since it was commission only, and in commercial real estate, you could be working a deal for months, she went with it. He hadn't earned a dime in 6 months. She had reservations, but the wedding was planned, she had the dress, yada, yada, yada. So she married him. Three weeks later, she found out that he wasn't golfing with prospects, he was just golfing. Oh and having an affair too, while he was at it.

She filed for divorce. It took about 7 months for everything to be settled. She had to pay support during their separation AND 7 months of spousal support after the divorce was final.

So this is a very real possibility.

Again, get some pre-marital counseling, or take a class through a church as well as consulting a family lawyer.

If he starts to get shirty about why you're protecting your assets because he brings WUV to the table...well, that's a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

Here's where the rubber meets the road. Even if you decide that you want a marriage where one person works and the other stays home and manages the household, he needs to be ready, willing and able to puck up slack if you get hurt and can't work, or if there's a financial goal you both want to achieve. His unwillingness and inability to make a living wage is a deal-breaker. Not because a man should bring home the bacon, but because in the partnership I envision it doesn't work for me.

If this resonates with you. Call it off, put it on hold or slow it down until you feel 100% comfortable.

If you want a script for how to broach the subject:

"Skip, I know that there's been a lot of stress due to your unemployment. I don't think that now is the time for us to marry. I am deeply uncomfortable about the amount of effort you're putting into you job search and the types of jobs you're applying for. I don't mind making more money than you do, but I do mind that you're not making an effort to at least make a substantial financial contribution. I envisioned us working together to achieve our financial goals, not with me supporting the both of us. This is serious and before we take one more step towards marriage, I need us to participate in pre-maritial counseling so that we can both be comfortable with our relationship to money. I love you, and I need this to feel comfortable marrying you."

Good luck.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:52 AM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's fine to marry someone with lower earning potential or have them stay home for years, if they have a good work ethic in general and don't sit on their ass. You want to be his wife, not his mother.

I will always outearn my husband, it's the nature of the industry. He followed me with no job (because he had no work permit) to further my career. He works a physical job and when he got ill he took a year off because he was physically incapable of working his job.

After nine years of marriage he is deserving of alimony in the event that we divorce. I know he would burn it being a ski/surf/whatever bum and move back in with his parents but that's the breaks. I just see this as an incentive for us to work on our marriage because I know the alternative is financial catastrophe. No crazy work hours, keep myself in shape, etc.

I agree with MattD and think it is unlikely that a pre-nup will protect you. Only thing that will help is pre-marital counseling, time, and trust. Don't go into marriage unless your partner has a work ethic that you can live with, even if your partner winds up not working. That's the road to pain.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:10 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

So, he comes from money, expects an inheritance, and isn't too concerned about finding a job. What's he living on now? Sounds like either he's living off his family's money, or you are already supporting him. Once you're married, and pretty much have to support him, what incentive is there for him to really change?

I'd say yes, definitely prenup, but just look up the horror stories. It's very likely it would do little to protect you.
What you haven't said is why you want to get married. It sounds like there wouldn't be much advantage for you. So I'll suggest something different from everyone else. If what you want is the wedding, the commitment, the idea of being married, why not get married, but don't make it legal? Much like what same sex couples have had to do until recently, you could have the ceremony, the vows, get power of health for each other, even change names - whatever is important to you - without worrying about losing your ass in a divorce. I guess it's something to think about, along with what marriage really means to you and why you want it.

Whatever you do, you do need to have these discussions with your boyfriend about expectations, finances, and the future. And I think even if you don't get legally married you should talk to a lawyer or at least some sort of family financial planner about your options and the legal ramifications of however you decide to combine your lives.
posted by catatethebird at 9:07 AM on October 18, 2014

From your description, it sounds like he isn't concerned about not having a job. It almost sounds like he just expects you to take care of him. It would bother me a lot if my spouse just took for granted that I would earn the money for the family.

I'm not sure if you will be able to save yourself from paying spousal support in the case of divorce. I think this is just a risk you will have to take if you marry him and need to decide if it's worth the risk. I don't know you or your relationship. I've seen couples where it works out well and others where it turns out terribly. I've seen it work out well in cases where neither partner cares too much about money or stresses out about it. I've seen it work out poorly in cases where it turns out the non-working spouse was basically freeloading off of the working spouse.
posted by parakeetdog at 10:49 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

The judge would deem him under-employed and tell him to get a job or lose any support.
posted by myselfasme at 4:26 PM on October 18, 2014

Why don't you take it as a given that you will get screwed over if it comes to a divorce and then decide if it is worth the risk. I don't think a prenup is going to protect you from the real damage that a divorce is going to inflict on you and your family. I realize I sound dreadful, but I think you really need to hash this out with your SO to a point where you feel comfortable taking the risk, else don't get married.
posted by Pembquist at 4:40 PM on October 18, 2014

The judge would deem him under-employed and tell him to get a job or lose any support.

Not necessarily: when I was going through this, my lawyers told me that I was likely to have to pay ~$3500/month to my under-employed husband (who did not pay anything towards our expenses). Oh, and also give him half of everything I'd saved for retirement. < /anecdata>
posted by sfkiddo at 4:48 PM on October 18, 2014

I was in a similar situation before I married my husband. He came from a more affluent background and had a more relaxed relationship with money (while also having a higher earning potential due to his affluence/potential career path). I came from a lower middle class background. We signed a prenup, and I advise you to do so as well.

My husband did not work at all during the first three years of our marriage and I supported our household while studying. After graduating he did still refuse to work. We were going to divorce over this when he finally saw the light and obtained a job (on his own), where he now earns twice as much as I do. We are still married now, and far happier. Having a prenup made this whole mess far less messier.
posted by cobain_angel at 6:38 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's another thought for you. Inheritances can be exempt from being divided as marital assets in a divorce. So if you're thinking that there may be a light at the end of this tunnel, in that at least you can share in the inheritance (should it ever materialize) that may not be the case, especially if HE decides to move on after receiving his disbursement.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:42 AM on October 19, 2014

Inheritances can be exempt from being divided as marital assets in a divorce.

THIS MAY BE TOTALLY DIFFERENT IN A COMMUNITY PROPERTY STATE. About half the advice on websites is useless for community property states. Talk to a lawyer.
posted by desjardins at 10:35 AM on October 19, 2014

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