I don’t think there’s anyone among us who doesn’t have a story about 2008. Whether you lost a significant chunk of your retirement savings (at least temporarily), watched your parents struggle, or saw your colleagues panic and your friends lose their homes, it was a devastating period. The market has been volatile ever since even as it slowly and surely climbs to new highs. However, there’s a situation many people—especially older couples—face all the time that has the power to bring on even greater long-term financial devastation. What is this monstrous risk? Divorce.
Denise emailed me last week, and I was surprised to hear the elation and relief in her voice. “I’m finally doing it,” she said. “I’ve wanted a divorce for years, but I finally got the courage to make the leap. Even better, Doug feels the same, so I think it will be pretty easy. Amicable even.”
Before the words were out of her mouth, I felt my stomach drop. I hated to burst her bubble, but I also know the reality all too well. When couples divorce, no matter how “amicable” the situation may be, financial distress is inevitable. Add even the slightest bit of hostility to the mix, and you can be sure that distress will increase.
While I wish there was a way to ease the road ahead, or at least add even a tiny sugar coating, the fact is that there’s rarely a way to avoid the personal financial downturn that comes with divorce. No matter how much you’d both like a different outcome, this will be your “personal 2008.” Your assets will be divided in half. You will have two households to support, two retirements to fund and, if children are involved, two “family” vacations to pay for—all further compounded by legal fees to iron out custody details on top of everything else.
Don’t get me wrong: I would never wish for anyone to stay in a marriage only for financial reasons. Life is too short for a couple to stay in a non-productive, dysfunctional relationship. However, the sooner both parting parties face the fiscal realities of divorce, the sooner they can begin to make the appropriate adjustments to move forward financially. It’s a tough mandate considering the emotional turmoil in motion, but it’s a must.
Rather than breaking the news to Denise on the phone, we scheduled a meeting to look at the details. When we sat face to face, here’s what I shared:
Be prepared for a lifestyle change. I’ve seen people stuck in faulty assumptions, unable to let go of lifestyle changes, even keeping an unaffordable house “for the kids’ sake.” Often, downsizing in every way is not only optimal, but mandatory. If your happiness is based on living in the same place and affording the same luxuries, you’re in for a rude awakening. This shift is huge, and you need to understand the ramifications at the outset.
Be realistic about your budget. Yes, this includes supporting two households, and that will eat up a major chunk of any expendable income, but mortgage and rent are not the only factors. As soon as you have a clear picture of your monthly income, you’ll need to create a budget that matches that number to avoid an increase in debt due to overspending.
Include retirement in your planning. Couples who remain together can anticipate the reduced expenses that come with a single dwelling and shared expenses. Going solo means you’ll need even more to support your non-earning years. If you’re over 50, consider making “catch-up” contributions to your retirement. If that’s not possible, at the very least, be sure you are contributing every month to help ensure you don’t outlive your assets as a single.
Don’t count on the promises of your attorney. While I do hope that most divorce attorneys are striving to act in your best interest, we’re all optimists at heart and, even more so, some attorneys will tell you only what you want to hear. Wait until your case is closed to spend money that’s not yet in your pocket. Once your Marital Settlement Agreement is final, you’ll have an accurate sense of your financial capacity. Until then, keep your wallet closed as much as possible.
- Keep an eye on the details. If you’re on your spouse’s health insurance plan, those benefits may end when your divorce is final. If you decide to sell your home post-divorce, you may face capital gains taxes if the appreciation is greater than $250K. However, if you sell “incident to divorce,” you and your spouse may both qualify for a $500K exemption from capital gains instead of just half that amount. (A transfer is incident to divorce if it occurs within one year after the marriage ceases, or if it is related to cessation of the marriage.) Details add up and have a major impact on your financial health—now and down the road. Work with a professional advisor to be sure you know which decisions matter most, and when.
When Denise and I finished talking, she wasn’t on the same cloud nine. Reality checks are rarely comfortable. But she did tell me she felt much more prepared for what was to come. “It may not be as easy as I thought it could be,” she said, “but I’m still certain we’ll all be happier over the long term. I know I have some serious homework to do!”
If you’re facing divorce, I urge you to take a close look at your finances and make the best possible decisions as you walk this new path. Whether you’re wearing rose-colored glasses or are mired in the common distress and shock of it all, taking time out to review the money side of the equation may make it much easier to find joy as you enter a whole new phase of life.