When you're better off apart
KAREN SAUNDERS-KILDARE WANTED TO TAKE CARE OF SOMEONE, WHILE HER HUSBAND attended college, she took on the role of primary household earner and handled all of the couple's finances. When her spouse completed his studies and landed a job, he also took an interest in another woman.
Three years of marriage ended in a devastating divorce that left Saunders-Kildare heartbroken and just plain broke. Divorce was the worst thing that happened to me financially," says Saunders-Kildare, 42, whose second marriage to a man 10 years her junior ended in 2000.
Saunders-Kildare says her husband stuck around long enough to get his college degree and charge several thousand dollars to her credit card. He didn't make a single mortgage payment, yet he left the marriage with furnishings and half of the equity in the home her parents helped them purchase. "I was done. I was robbed blind," says the Lincoln, Nebraska, teacher.
Now, she's starting to recover. Saunders-Kildare refinanced the mortgage so she could buy out her husband's share of the house (valued at $106,000) and pay off $5,000 in credit card debt and legal fees. She says she's no longer hitter and admits that she rushed into marriage because she was pregnant with their son, who is now 5 years old. (She also has a 15-year-old daughter from her first marriage.) Saunders-Kildare faces some rather daunting challenges as she attempts to rebuild her financial life. She earns $32,000, so she has a small amount of savings for future goals such as her retirement and her daughter's college education. "I'm a fighter," says Saunders Kildare. "I wake up and say, 'Wow, I'm still standing. I have a job; life goes on."
There is life after divorce. It is a dramatic shift, however, from life as a couple. Statistics reveal that half of all marriages end in divorce, and when a woman's income significantly declines, so does her standard of living. Flying solo presents myriad challenges. "[Approximately] 5% of divorce is about child-sharing issues and the other 95% is about money. The problem is that there isn't enough to go around," says Ginita Wall a San Diego CPA and certified financial planner who specializes in divorce issues. "Divorce is the biggest financial transaction in your life."
DON'T BE TAKEN BY SURPRISE
Divorce usually doesn't happen overnight. In fact, you may be the one to initiate the proceedings. Either way, the decision to split should not be a hasty one, "You don't wan t to operate without a game plan in the heat of the moment," says Kathleen Williams, president of Oklahoma City-based Williams Financial Services Group Inc.
First, gain an accurate financial picture so that you know the best way to divide year assets. You'll need records to determine the amount of income that must be set, aside for alimony or child support and who will be responsible for those financial obligations. You can build your case by rounding up documents such as tax returns, deeds, contracts, insurance policies, bank and brokerage statements, and outs tan ding credit card bills.
Wall also recommends canceling all joint credit cards. Even if the court rules you aren't responsible for charges made after you separate, the credit card company can hold you liable while financial matters are being sorted out. If you don't have credit in your name, apply for it immediately.
Experts advise taking inventory of all household contents. Prized possessions have a history of disappearing in divorce cases. Judges often enforce the status quo, says Wall, so engage in activities now--like going back to school or getting braces for junior--that you will need or want to continue after you part ways. It's also important to learn about the laws of your state to protect your separate assets. In most states, money brought into the marriage (plus gifts and inheritances) remains separate property if you can verify its source. Save all the documents you will need to claim your property.
CONQUER THE PROCESS
* Don't go it alone. At a minimum, you'll need a topflight attorney, a financial advisor, and a certified divorce planner. The best recommendations may come from friends and family who have been through the divorce process. You can also consult www.divorcemagazine.com or the College for Divorce Specialists (www.cdscollege.net). "Assume everything is fair game, no matter who ovals it," says Mari Adam, a certified financial planner with Adam Financial Associates in Boca Raton, Florida.
"Divorce isn't fair," says Wall, a director of Women's Institute for Financial Education (www.wife.org) and board member for the GE Center for Financial Learning (www.financiallearning.com). "It's fought in an arena that you don't really understand, with money you don't really have, and you're fighting for a prize that can't be enough. Figure out what's most important and let the rest go."
* Think twice about the house, Women often want the house, which can be a big mistake, says Kay Maxwell, a certified financial planner with Maxwell Financial Services Inc., a Dallas-based registered investment advisor. "You have to ask yourself if you can really afford the house. It's not just the mortgage, but the maintenance, taxes, and all the hassles," she says. Furthermore, weigh keeping the house against other assets, You may be better off selling the house and dividing the proceeds.
* Be careful about waiving rights. So much is final in the divorce process, with the exception of child support. If you waive your right to alimony-often awarded for marriages of 10 years or more--you'll never get that option again. But be aware that alimony is considered taxable income. You should consider taking your alimony as a lump sum instead of monthly since 50% of ex-spouses default on alimony payments.
* Be thorough when you review other income-producing arrangements. Understand that all child support agreements aren't ironclad. "Child support can be taken away in the next month," says Adam. (Child support payments are not taxable income or deductible,) If you're fortunate enough to get a chunk of your ex-spouse's retirement account, make sure it's under your control. "It has to last," she says. "What matters is that the money should be able to produce income for you."
The hard work doesn't end once your divorce is final. Without question, you'll need to overhaul your finances. If you've never structured a budget, now is the time. You may find that the reduction in income leaves you with less wiggle room, so you must be prepared to do more with less. "You may have to take your children out of private school, choose a cheaper summer camp, or otherwise downsize," says Adam. "You may find that you need to take a job if you weren't working before, or take a second job."
* Re-evaluate your insurance needs. If children are dependent on both parents' income, you may need to increase your existing life insurance coverage. If you are the primary caregiver, disability insurance provides income protection should you be unable to work.
* Revise records. If you haven't done so already, update your will and any other documents that name your ex-spouse as beneficiary. Any financial documents or credit cards with his name on it will be legally available to him, and you might be financially liable.
CONCENTRATE ON YOU
* Don't forget to plan for your financial future. "Investment priorities may or may not fail by the wayside during the first couple of," years. You must focus on retirement because you are now responsible for yourself," says Maxwell. It may sound a bit harsh, but don't let your children's future needs derail retirement financing. You may be tempted to jump through hoops in the interest of your children, but. that may not be what's best for you. "Talk to your child honestly about what you can and cannot do," says Adam. "Talk to counselors at school and start researching scholarship possibilities. If you start early enough, you can groom your child for scholarships."
* Divorce is about change. You're starting a new chapter in your life. If you want to increase the likelihood of a happy ending, approach the process with your head instead of your heart.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
1. Take care of yourself before you start taking care of others. unfortunately, half of all marriages end in divorce, which under-scores the importance of being in control of your finances. Gain an accurate picture of your financial report card by looking at tax returns, deeds, contracts, and insurance policies.
2. Videotape and take inventory of all prized possessions (they have a of disappearing). This is helpful for insurance reasons or in the event of divorce. Also learn about the laws of your state so that you can protect separate assets.