Divorce Equals Division

Did you ever notice how the words “Divorce” and “divide” both start with the same three letters, the same root?  Divorce can be seen as a time to “divvy-up” assets, debts, photo albums, relatives, and even friends.  You can almost picture a black jack dealer with a green eye-shade laying the “alternate weekends” card in front of dad, and the “pool club membership” in front of mom.

That’s really not the tricky part.  Taking what you want, or need, and leaving the rest where it is – well, that’s something most of us learned (or should have learned) in kindergarten.  If two adults can’t do the dividing themselves, the judge will step in and divide it up for them.  Usually it is just a matter of simple math.  The house has $300,000 in equity. If we sell it, each party can have $150,000 to go buy a condo and start again.  Easy math. Predictable outcome.

But, what if the house is worth more to the parties than the $300,000 in equity? What if giving up my right to $150,000 is nothing compared to my need to stay next door to my neighbors who have protected me during this awful ten year marriage, for example?  How would you go about quantifying that for a judge?

Or, what if there are two drivers and three vehicles? What if one is the jalopy we keep in the garage in the hopes that enough tinkering will someday bring it back to life as a classic?  It might only be worth $75 to a judge’s balance sheet; but it might be worth thousands to the people who saw it as an investment in their someday retirement.  While a judge could arbitrarily assign it to one party or the other, allocating a $75 dollar offset somewhere else; the owners might want to see it through to completion before relegating it to a junk heap.

The division of divorce is simplistic. It is the multiplication which can be elegant, and beautiful.  Instead of seeing each asset and person as a dividend to be chopped into smaller equal shares; consider looking at them as opportunities to multiply.

Here are some quick examples.  Two parents have a marital residence and a time share vacation home.  Even if they decide to sell the marital residence, they don’t have to give up the vacation time share.  It might be transferred to the children.  In the case of minor children, the transfer would be in name only. In the case of adult children it could be an acceptable conveyance by the terms of the management company. The children get a week at the time share and mom visits them there for the first half of the week and dad shows up for the second half. The kids go from vacations with two unhappy parents; to separate vacations with one happier parent. A larger, not smaller, outcome.

People who are worried that the friends will choose one spouse or the other can use the same multiplier logic by demonstrating in advance that they will be comfortable in each other’s presence.  No one needs to choose sides. No one has to pick which spouse to invite to a dinner party, if the dinner party will go just as smoothly with both people there.  Even better, showing that you will accept each other’s new boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, will go a lot further towards helping your friends keep all of their invitations wide open.  Now you have gone from keeping half of your friends, to keeping all of your friends, and the new people as they come into your lives. Multiplied.

The family boat does not have to be sold if the parties can agree to sharing the use and costs of maintaining it. In fact, not only do you get to keep using your boat (on alternate weekends, maybe) but now you are only responsible for one-half of the upkeep.  So, you have multiplied the part that you like, while dividing the burden.  A better outcome, all around.

Of course, no judge would order a couple to share custody of a boat. That can only come from people who are willing and able to work together.  Trained mediators, professionals who practice collaborative divorce, and even marriage therapists can sometimes help identify opportunities to multiply instead of divide.

WHAT WE LOVE: There is almost always another way of seeing what is directly in front of you.  You just have to be willing to look for it.


Who do these agreements benefit?



I have clients who are in a hurry to finalize their divorce agreement, even though the date of their hearing is months away.  I also have clients who are avoiding me rather than have to commit anything to paper yet.  I have clients who want to know the details of the spouse’s financial picture before completing their own financial affidavit, and others who bring me everything I request promptly, clearly, and in a completely organized fashion,


 You might want to guess that the people who are most compliant are doing so because they are the ones with the most to gain financially. It might seem obvious that my stragglers, or my suspicious clients, are the ones who are likely to get raked by the end of this.


Ironically, if anything, it is usually the opposite case.  I have a man right now paying his wife about twice as much as he should be paying her while the divorce is pending. He does not want to be paying her anything, but when I ask him to sit down with me to sort out the financial picture he gets agitated and hangs up the phone.  Then he sends her another check, because he does not know what else to do.


A client’s level of cooperation is more typically a reflection of who they are than what they want.  People who have spent their lives balancing their check books, watching the interest rates on their credit cards, and checking their credit scores are people who want to know their financial picture.  It might be that they are going to be worse off at the end of the divorce than they are now, but if they can be told, for example, “you will be living on $500 a week  until you get a better job,” then they know how to start planning.  It might not be what they want to hear; but at least they know what they are up against.


It is similar to the feeling of relief when the doctor diagnoses your mysterious pain.  Once you find out that the sharp pain behind your eye is a sinus infection, you can stop worrying that it might be a brain tumor.


On the other hand, there are those who find a mysterious lump while taking a routine shower, and become too terrified to go to the doctor.  “What if it is cancer?” they ask, and decide they do not want to know.  They would rather live with a fear than risk learning the truth.  They can themselves that the fear is just hypochondria.  Once they have a diagnosis, though, that safety net disappears.  Too often we hear stories of people who ignored a lump – hoping it would go away, hoping they were just over-reacting – to their own detriment.


The ostriches of the legal world are not much different than the ostriches of the medical world.  My clients are afraid that once we all get a clear picture of their financial situation that things are going to get worse quickly.  Maybe they think of a divorce decree as similar to a terminal diagnosis.  Instead of fearing the sentence, “it is inoperable,” they fear the sentence, “all of your earnings, for the rest of your life.”


So, although an agreement might ultimately benefit the payor spouse, that is not who is always the most cooperative. And even if the ultimate agreement will set the payee spouse in a comfortable situation, that is not always the one in a hurry to settle. 


Who is most likely to get it done quickly and cleanly? The person who wants to finish the divorce and start a new life.


WHAT WE LOVE:   The diagnosis is usually much less severe than what your imagination creates.

Empty Nesting, Not Just The Kids

With September comes a new batch of empty nests all across the country.  College bound kids and newly employed young adults troop off to their dorms and apartments leaving holes in their parents’ lives.  And, sometimes, in their parents’ walls.  The parents who are left behind see the sweet victory of fulfilling the promise they made long ago to newborn babies. They have brought these precious lives all the way to adulthood safely, given them the wings they need to pursue their own adventures, and settled them in where they will begin their new lives.


These parents may also experience the terrifying dizziness of wondering who they themselves will now become, once the need to constantly parent is gone. 


There are families in which the process can be gradual.  First an oldest child leaves for college while younger siblings like water seeking its own level rush to occupy the large spaces he leaves behind.  By the time a second or third child leaves the nest, impatient parents have had a taste of their own freedom and are ready for more.  There are parents who divorced when the kids were still small, and have gotten good at being single parents, but would be even happier as just plain single adults.


Less fortunate are the parents who have waited “until the kids are grown” to finally get that divorce they have needed for so long.  These people run the risk of losing several identities at once.  “If I am not a parent, at least I am a spouse.”  Or, “if I am not a spouse, at least I am a parent.”  Gives way to, “If I am neither parent nor spouse what am I? What purpose do I have?”  Waiting for the double-whammy may feel safe in a procrastinating sort of way; but it might inadvertently cause a bigger rupture at the end.


The truth of the matter is that just as no one is ever fully prepared for all of the highs and lows that parenting brings; no parent is ever fully prepared for the vertigo of seeing tail feathers fly out your front door.  NO matter how well you prepared for your days of independence.  No matter what precautions you took to have a clean slate once the fledglings took flight.  A new chapter of your life begins. Single, married, or widowed. College tuition to pay, or loans to co-sign.  Friends to travel with, or bills to sort out.  The world looks different when it belongs to you alone.


The best advice I have seen empty-nesters follow is to downsize as soon as practicable.  Just as Joni Mitchell and Sting lament of the bed being too big when a loved one is gone, having a big empty house with bedrooms that look like shrines to childhood actually does no one any good.  Your kids will benefit more from you having a larger purse and a smaller house than the other way around.  This is not to say that you should sell their belongings without their permission.  You might even be willing to spring for a storage unit for a few years; assigning each child a reasonable amount of space.  By changing your own perspective; and showing the kids that you  are not wallowing in depression while you wait for them; you allow for everyone to spread their wings and fly at the same time.


WHAT WE LOVE: Each stage of our lives gives us new ways of re-inventing ourselves into the person we want to be next.