Friday, November 6, 2009

Divorce and the Stay-at-Home Mom

Many reviewers of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide have singled out the book’s financial chapter, "Money Matters," for particular praise. (Thank you to Alexis Turner of The Well-Read Mom for her recent recommendation, posted on her blog as “SAHP Points to Ponder.”) The advice in this post is from my friend Andrea and appeared in that money chapter. I’m posting her words-of-wisdom here so they'll be more easily available to women who might need them. Although Andrea is very open about discussing her divorce, and her subsequent transition from well-to-do stay-at-home mom to less well-off, self-supporting single mom, her last name wasn’t used in the book, and it isn’t here, in order to protect her children’s privacy.

After earning her college degree, Andrea married at age 25 and stopped working, as an administrative assistant, when she had her first child the following year. Her second child arrived 17 months after that. Almost eight years into her marriage, Andrea discovered that her husband was having an affair. By age 35 she was divorced and living on her own with two children.

"Coming from a long line of solid marriages, divorce was something I never expected to touch my life. But it arrived smack at my doorstep when my husband found himself unable to resist an old flame who got a job working at his company. He and I spent months in couple’s therapy and the better part of a year trying to get past this bump in the road of our marriage. In the end, he couldn’t get past her. So I got a backbone and started divorce proceedings.

When I was warned that getting a divorce could take up to two years, I laughed at the absurdity of it taking so long. Well, two years later, the final papers were finally signed. I lived through a hell I wish on no woman (well, maybe just one woman), but I’ve come out stronger, wiser and even better off emotionally than I’ve ever been.

No one plans for divorce, wants it, or comes out unscarred from it. Sadly, the statistics are such that being as naïve as I was about it happening to me was foolishly unrealistic. You have insurance for your house and car. Here’s some insurance for yourself:

Handle the Household Finances: You’re essentially the Chief Operating Officer of your household—become the Chief Financial Officer as well. Being unaware, uneducated, and uninvolved with how your family’s money is handled, where it goes, and how much even exists is simply ignorant. In a divorce situation, it can cost you hours, and thousands of dollars, to sort through bills, estate planning papers, insurance, investments, you name it. To protect yourself and your children (as it’s often the mom’s job to do this in a divorce), you need to take care of your family’s finances yourself, or else have a strong handle on what’s happening with your household’s money.

Keep Good Records and Files: Be vigilant about good recordkeeping—of household bills, legal documents, insurance policies, mortgage papers, tax returns. In general, it’s a good idea to have proper files, but if your marriage goes off course, such records will make the legal process much smoother.

Have Some Money of Your Own: If at all possible, keep a fund tucked away for yourself that is accessible only by you. Add to the account, in any amount, regularly. Divorce attorneys generally require a sizable retainer up front. If you wind up never needing an attorney, all the better. You can someday splurge on yourself for saving so well.

Own a Car in Your Name: If your name isn’t on the title to your car, and the break-up with your spouse gets acrimonious, you could lose access to the vehicle during or after the divorce. If your household owns more than one car, try to have at least one (preferably paid-off) vehicle titled in your name.

Keep Your Résumé Current: Every little thing you do as a stay–at–home mom (such as when you organized the community yard sale) builds your skills set. Even if you’re only volunteering, you can list those efforts and achievements on your résumé as examples of your marketable experience.

Know that Alimony Isn’t Automatic: Divorce settlements aren’t always as supportive as you’d expect toward a spouse who either left her career to care for children, reduced her working hours, or never had as lucrative a job as her mate’s. A typical alimony award extends for roughly half the duration of a marriage.

You’re a Partner, Not a Dependent: Just because you’re not earning an income doesn’t mean you’re not an equal contributor to the family. You work for your family and your home is your office. You need to have an equal say and awareness in all financial decisions."

About three years have passed since Andrea contributed to my book. Although her ex pays child support, she no longer receives alimony and is working two part-time jobs that are conducive to her children's schedules. Her ex and his girlfriend live in a luxury, waterfront home; Andrea and the kids live in a modest house. Following are three more "cold-water-in-the-face" realities about stay-at-home motherhood and divorce:

Education Costs: Because parents are not required to support a child past age 18, a father can legally refuse to finance or contribute to his child's college education. If you’re a stay-at-home or divorced mom who’ll want her kids to go to college, do what you can to ensure that money is being set aside.

Health Care and Insurance: Once a divorce is final, a woman will no longer be covered by her ex’s employer-provided medical insurance. (Hopefully, the employed ex will still cover the kids.) Unless she finds a full-time job with benefits, or provisions have been made in the divorce agreement for providing or financing her health insurance, a newly single, former stay-at-home mom has to buy insurance for herself on the individual market. Unlike with an employer sponsored plan, which cannot discriminate, the individual insurance market can pick and choose who it will insure. A woman’s weight, age, reproductive capacity, mental health and medical history (those nasty pre-existing conditions!) will be examined in order to determine whether a policy will be issued and at what price. Alas, the divorce-related counseling visits with the therapist, and the anti-depression and anti-anxiety meds a woman may have used to cope as her world crumbled, could become a death-knell to obtaining coverage. One of the many reasons I’m for healthcare reform (e.g. no discrimination against “pre-existing conditions”)—and a public option people can buy into—is because women are much more likely than men are to be uninsured—or lose their health insurance—due to divorce or underemployment. Remember, the family-friendly jobs many mothers need are low-paying and don’t come with benefits.

Gender Bias: Amazingly enough, marital infidelity is not considered a big deal anymore. Adultery alone will not result in the philander being financially punished or inconvenienced for his (or her) deeds. Similarly amazing is that a stay-at-home mom's education, age and attractiveness can be considered by a judge and a dueling couple's attorneys when negotiating an alimony settlement. A woman who already has a college degree isn't considered as needful as one who has to go back to school in order to earn an income after a divorce. (Never mind that this woman might have married right out of college and spent the past decade caring for children rather than building a résumé.) If that college grad mom is also young (20s to mid 30s) and physically appealing, she can be viewed as having time to make up for the years she was out of the job market and, save that, she's still sexy enough to land another spouse. Yes, I was stunned when a friend shared that tidbit about her divorce.

Postscript: While this blog post is all about women and divorce, it should be noted that much of the above applies to stay-at-home parents in general, whether the person is female or male.


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