When Things Fall Apart: The Cost of Divorce

The last thing I ever expected out of my otherwise well-planned life was a divorce. I didn’t expect my marriage to last just 10 years and to be a single father at 37. Living through the financial impact of divorce has been like watching a tornado destroy what little I had built in my 15 years since finishing college.

Almost 17 years ago, I fell in love with a smart, beautiful, fun woman. I was a future architect living in Baltimore, fresh out of school making $23,000. We dated for six years, mostly long-distance, and nearly all of my disposable income went to pay for phone calls and flights to visit her while she attended college 1,000 miles away. I pinched pennies and lived an ascetic existence on tuna noodle casseroles.

She liked nice things, but wasn’t a princess. I considered myself a value shopper—the type of person who likes to save, but occasionally spends money to buy quality things. To wit: I paid for her engagement ring by selling a mutual fund I had bought five years prior. Before we got married, we went through Pre-Cana, a life preparation course couples must take before getting married in a Catholic church. We discussed the goals we shared, lifestyles we wanted, our careers, kids—the usual stuff—and more or less agreed on things. I knew we were a little different in our handling of money, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome. We were in love and we got hitched.

Married life was good for about six years. We rented a place in Baltimore and lived off my salary while she was in law school. By then, I had a graduate degree and was making about $44,000. We went on simple, fun dates and traded reasonable gifts. Shopping was rare because we couldn’t afford it. Eating out was a well-enjoyed date night treat. Our spare dollars were socked away for trips to visit family, and we bought a few loose stocks with bonus money.

My wife finished law school, and not being a cutthroat type in a cutthroat market, she struggled to find a job she liked in the Baltimore and D.C. area. The implicit brass ring from law school was for her to take over her dad’s small practice, or perhaps open a branch office. After a couple years of underemployment (her friends were averaging $80,000 a year, while she was at $35,000), I got a transfer with my company to work in Jacksonville, Fla. so she could move back to her hometown and work for her dad. She’d have mentorship, familiarity, no competition, stability.

Six years in, I was doing well as an architect. The market was hot and I had just received an awesome pay raise by switching jobs. I now made nearly $70,000. Against my better judgment, we decided to upgrade and purchased a spectacular home at auction—offloading our very affordable home at the height of the real estate bubble. Our new home would now eat up 55 percent of our income. It was as if my raise never happened.

Although she was barred in two states (that’s a good thing for an attorney), my wife worked for peanuts for her dad doing small town law, never making more than $52,000, and more often $40,000, while we learned that her friends with less experience made $120,000. The promise of firm equity kept me going, but we planned to have children to fill the new house we bought, and I worried that we wouldn’t be able to afford the life we wanted if my wife didn’t start earning more.

When our daughter was born in 2008, my wife never went back to work full-time. This wasn’t planned—it was a unilateral decision that I objected to.

While we were married, my wife was dealing with mild depression, but it was manageable with meds you have heard of. After our daughter was born, things started to turn south. To summarize the last four years of her medical history (and avoid a HIPAA violation), she had some physical health issues (multiple bone fractures and surgeries) and mental health issues (onset of personality disorders). Note well: Financial strife follows closely on the heels of health issues.

In 2010, some of her mental health issues surfaced. The market tanked and she now worked even less, earning about $25,000 a year as an attorney with $130,000 in outstanding school loans. She became suicidal and went on long-term disability. We were left riding one income in a budget built for two, a house built for four, many medical bills and prescriptions to fill, and a growing toddler to raise.

One of the many unfortunate side effects of my wife’s mental health issues was shopping: chronic shopping; addictive shopping; shopping to fill a bottomless abyss of pain and sadness; shopping to “rebel and punish”. Those were words she used. Any reason to buy a gift was a license to shop. At first, it wasn’t grossly negligent—just some extra lunches or tops, a book, or an extravagant hair-mani-pedi outing. It was $50 or $80 a month of money we didn’t have. Then $100 a month. Then hundreds of dollars appeared on our three credit cards. She bought shoes, handbags, jewelry. She bought 21 different perfumes.

My wife never did grasp that our lifestyle had to change when we had less income to live on. Her spending increased. Imagine working a full day and coming home to a spouse who was not working, but shopping online all day. This was my Groundhog Day.

It was now January 2012, and I tried everything to communicate our dire situation to my wife and what it would mean: repossession of her beloved SUV, no money for clothes for our daughter, the loss of our home. In an attempt to scare home the point of us being broke due to her shopping, I approached my in-laws for help. They were very much on my side, although they were historically cowardly parents—the kind who’d rather be your best friend than an authority figure. Her six-foot four-inch dad-boss-attorney had a one-on-one with her. It didn’t work. Nothing did.

A month later, I began confiscating debit and credit cards from my wife because she couldn’t stop shopping—all 11 of them. New cards would appear. I would gather them, pay them off and put them in the shredder. She hid her booty, lied to my face about her shopping and getting more credit. Four months earlier, my wife took it upon herself to spend $6,000 during the first week of November—an amount that more than tripled what we had spent on Christmas, ever, for both families and ourselves. I changed the laptop login to keep her from using the credit card info saved on various websites. She was under house arrest.

By now, my situation had developed into a disaster drama on so many levels—suicidal tendencies, drug addictions, work disability, multiple fender benders, binge eating, checking out from child care duties—that my spouse was unrecognizable from the woman I had married. It was so bad that my very Catholic parents told me, their very Catholic son, that I needed to get a divorce.

Sadly, underlying all those issues was the undeniable reality of having to navigate the day-to-day. “I’m sorry” doesn’t pay the bills. I met with an attorney in June and we separated on July 5, my own independence day.

The Cost of Divorce

There are some decisions in life that you should only do once, so you have to get it right. I believe marriage should be one of those. When it’s not, divorce should be. You have to get the right team behind you because you are making decisions that will affect you for the rest of your life, or at least until your children turn 18.

Divorce is a process, not a transaction. Like a chess match, no “game” is alike, and it breaks down into three financial phases:

1. The Opening

Meeting with a family law attorney will most often cost you a consultation fee—sometimes flat, sometimes based on an hourly rate. Mine was $350 for about 90 minutes. This is like a two-way interview. You get to measure the candor of the attorney, whether you trust they will go to bat for you, whether they have the experience and skill for your case. When you find someone you want to move forward with, they will require a retainer. This is most often a non-refundable amount of money that “hires” them and gets them started on your case. My attorney’s retainer was $5,500. I suppose it’s open to some negotiation, but these are standard fees and rates. My experience with attorneys (other than the fact I was married into a family of them) was paying $250 to make a ridiculous speeding ticket go away, so yeah, it was a major sticker shock. The retainer rarely covers the total work effort, and mine lasted a few months. Ask a lot of questions about the typical process, hourly costs, monthly costs, total costs.

2. The Middle Game

Depending on your case, whether it’s disputed or not, you will have monthly billings based on the attorney’s efforts. Mine cost $275 per hour. I heard of others paying upwards of $400 per hour. My total case lasted nine months. Some monthly invoices for me were under $1,000; others were $3,500. Everything is billed: emails, calls, research, paperwork, postage, and the expenses depend on the needs of your case. If you need extra effort—meetings, negotiations, court filings, hearings, depositions, expert testimony—expect to pay a lot. I needed all of the above at times, and that added up.

3) The End Game

Cases follow a typical trajectory: dispute, informal discussion between parties, organized meetings between parties (mediation), and if nothing can be settled, trial. Mediation ends many cases, some go to trial. After a day-long mediation, which cost $1,700 for the mediator, and about $2,500 for my attorney’s time, my former spouse and I came to an agreement—mostly to avoid court. All in, the divorce process cost me a hair over $30,000. Two minutes before agreeing to the settlement, I inquired about the cost of a trial, and he said “double what you’ve spent.” Enlightenment!

Lessons Learned

There have been so many for me, and I am offering things that engaged, seriously dating, and even unattached single people should be thinking about financially before marriage:

1. If you have assets of any sort to your name, get a prenuptial agreement.

Prenups are not just for trust fund babies and Donald Trump. Before marriage, I owned some loose stocks, mutual funds and my car—$20,000 max. My debts were about $20,000 in grad student loans. However, I had recently received a small five-figure inheritance. My wife’s assets: a car. Debts? $130,000 in law school loans. Naïve, trusting, and in love, I joint-titled everything, and lost half of the inheritance that was mine before the divorce. I will never marry again without a prenuptial agreement, unless I marry someone with far more assets than me, in which case I would completely understand having to sign one myself.

2. Keep your assets separately titled (car, property, credit cards, etc.).

If you like and drive each other’s cars, make it official and swap titles. If you ever need to sell something, like a house, it is easier if it is in one person’s name. There is no need to have joint credit cards unless one person has a horrific credit history; build your own credit individually.

3. Never co-sign on a partner’s debt.

I co-signed on part of my wife’s law school loans and realized later it was my credit history at risk if she/we should default. I was now responsible for decisions she made (law school, program cost, etc.). Those loans were the vicious variable rate government loans that could not be consolidated, so we paid those off first, but mostly with my salary.

4. If you’re a saver and don’t marry a saver, have separate pots of money.

Yes, I mean a joint checking account that pays the bills and separate accounts for playtime. Income disparity? Work it out. Who pays for what? Work it out. Don’t fall for the “we’re one team” and “what’s mine is yours” bullshit. Believe me, it saves resentment, and allows for true gifts and surprises to be given later. Bonus!

5. A spending addiction is every bit as serious as an alcohol or drug addiction.

The one time I was able to convince my wife to attend an AA meeting for spending, she was laughed out of the room and never went back. That was myopic and sad. An addiction is an addiction. My wife had both a drug and spending addiction, so I had a painful, protracted lesson in addictive behavior. An addict seeks an escape, rides a rush, experiences guilt, and then crashes. Repeat ad nauseum until there’s an intervention. No logic, no threat, no emotion can move an addict to change—it must come from within. After I asked for a divorce and we separated, my “shocked” wife racked up $18,000 in nine months shopping with her credit cards. She still has not hit bottom.

6. Deal with issues early and communicate.

If you notice a pattern, however small like a new Starbucks habit that costs $20 a week that goes against your couple’s philosophy or anything previously discussed, talk it over immediately. These things fester. Debt digs deep holes quickly.

7. Hold your spouse accountable for behavior.

If he or she goes on a spending bender, HE/SHE pays it back on HIS/HER credit card over time from HIS/HER paycheck. I paid off at least $35,000 in unauthorized spending from my wife in the past two years. I enabled too much for too long, and in the end, received no “credit” in the eyes of divorce law. In my case, it would have been much wiser for me to not have joint credit cards, and let the debt pile up on her cards. When we divorced, it would have been her debt to manage (unless it was for family purchases).

8. Be on top of family finances.

You don’t need to be a comptroller or do your own taxes by hand. There are no brownie points for that. Financial literacy might be an aspiration, but be on top of two things: balancing your checkbook monthly (with your bank statement in hand/online), and developing a reasonable budget (a bucket for every dollar you earn each month). Force yourself to track money trails. If you are lucky enough to underspend in an area, save or move that money so you won’t touch it. When you get those skills down (schedule them like a household chore if you have to), you can move on to investments and long-term savings goals like a house, grad school or retirement (highly recommended unless you pay someone to manage those for you). Online tools can help a great deal.

9. Don’t borrow from friends or family.

Unless you are starting a legitimate business, and they are truly investors, tapping friends and family for cash is cheating because there is a good chance what you need the cash for would not be loan-worthy from a bank (i.e. it’s to cover some irresponsibility or unnecessary purchase). If you borrow from friends or family, insist on drawing up a contract. Record whose debt, when, how much, repayment terms, interest, etc. Get it notarized. And especially if you borrow against an internal pot of money (401(k) loan, inheritance or earmarked account), create a formal IOU to pay yourself back. I lost thousands because I dipped into money that was mine or earmarked for a specific long-term goal with the intention we would pay ourselves back, and it never happened. As the law pretty much states, if it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist. The old saw “it’s not personal; it’s just business” readily applies.

10. Insist on keeping your kids’ needs at the forefront.

I would live in a shoebox before I would subject my child to substandard daycare or schooling. Clothes, medical care, food, books all come before my needs, and I suspect this is the same for most parents. When push comes to shove, providing for the kids will usually bring most parents back to the reality of needs versus wants.

11. Enforce equality.

This is critical, especially if one person is a saver and the other is a spender. In 10 years of marriage, my wife always got the new car and while I got the hand-me-down. As I watched our financial house crumble, I felt obligated to be a financial martyr. A new handbag for my wife shows up? I put off the suit I really needed for work. Do a temperature check with friends and coworkers. Other guy friends had toys and hobbies—motorcycles, expensive golf clubs, wine collections—and I had nothing. I didn’t want any of that, but more importantly, I felt I couldn’t have it even if I wanted it. I have a high threshold for pain, but that degree of subordination from selfishness was too much to overcome.

When Rules Are Broken

If you suspect internal financial malfeasance (i.e. someone raided the cookie jar):

1. Keep a paper trail.

Keep credit card statements, bank statements, investment accounts—any summary of your assets and dates. Know what you have just in case your checking account gets emptied, or so an investment is not mysteriously liquidated without your knowledge.

2. Distance yourself from bad behavior that could affect you.

Close dormant or joint credit cards. Suggest opening a card in your name alone (pick one with different perks you want, as an excuse). Meet with bank personnel to protect accounts with passwords or limitations involving joint approval. Move non-essential funds from checking to savings, or better yet, make them disappear into short-term CDs.

3. Assemble your resources.

Prime your network of family, friends, coworkers—anyone you may need to rely on for advice, or, heaven forbid, financial or professional help. Make sure what’s happening to you is not normal couples behavior—you’d be surprised how distorted the view can be from the inside of something dysfunctional. Get commitments in case you need character witnesses or sworn statements about events or things like who is a better parent.

4. Keep a journal.

I would have overlooked so much about what was happening to me, even month-to-month, if I had not kept a journal. I uncovered patterns of behavior, and was able to remind myself to do, and not do things I would have otherwise forgotten. And it wasn’t always for bad times: my journal helped keep my morale up.

5. Get a lawyer.

An hour consultation with a family law specialist will run anywhere from free to $400 or more. A divorce is too important to opt out of an attorney because you don’t have the money. Call in favors, pay in tiny installments, barter, just find a way.

I’ve been living solo for almost a year. I took a few actions that provided some buffer from being flat broke when I filed for divorce. First, I was always the family money manager—I knew where the bodies were buried as an accountant might say. I knew how funds came in, what typical expenses were, and where I could borrow in the short-term to pay the next bill. Second, I insisted on carrying no balances on our credit cards. If not for this fact, I might still be living the charade. Not relying on credit shines true light on reality—what is sustainable behavior and what is not. My former wife made our financial life a farce. Third, no matter how badly we needed funds, I refused to stop contributing to my 401(k), so I knew we were never spending every single dollar, and were always saving something. Fourth, I refused to let us dip into easy money (my small inheritance I received) in order to pay for my wife’s shopping binges.

I had to give up half of everything worth anything. Due to our income disparity, I agreed to take on more of the costs associated with our house (I pay the mortgage until its sale) and daughter (daycare, health insurance), in order to avoid paying child support. We share custody of our daughter. I also negotiated a finite amount of alimony to be paid after the house sells—I’ll be truly financially emancipated when that’s done. And it’ll feel great.


Peter Pacer (a pseudonym) is an architect in Jacksonville making the best of his time tethered to Florida. He is an active parent, blogger, volunteer, runner, schemer, and scratch negotiator by necessity.


114 Comments / Post A Comment

LightSideUp (#2,934)

At what point should the police get involved in this sort of thing? How does this not amount to some sort of negligence?

Do you have any recourse for correcting your credit history? Or are you basically up a creek?

You have the patience of a saint – but holy moly did you ever get put through the ringer!

ellabella (#1,480)

Wow. Really sad. I’m also a little sad that he’s so cynical… Am I a Pollyanna you guys? Do all marriages need to have prenups and separate accounts these days?

Also I wonder if you tried individual or couples’ therapy?

@fo (#839)

@ellabella “Am I a Pollyanna you guys? Do all marriages need to have prenups and separate accounts these days?”

1. Maybe.
2. No. No prenup, one combined account, big income disparity, no real issues here. of course, ymmv.

Catface (#1,106)

@ellabella I don’t think he sounds cynical (or, per below, bitter), I think he sounds like a clear-headed realist. We can all learn from this guy’s experience. There seems to be a popular idea that love and romance are necessarily incompatible with, for instance, a prenup, which I think is just silly. I don’t know if the answer to your question is that all marriages do “need” to have a prenup, but personally I don’t see how a prenup could ever be a mistake.

Peter Pacer, best wishes to you. Thanks for sharing the gory and vulnerable details.

@fo (#839)

@Catface “personally I don’t see how a prenup could ever be a mistake”

Barring family money (inheritance, business, trust fund, whatever), the raising of a prenup (or a prenup extending beyond the family $$) would be the ending of a relationship with me. So, maybe not a ‘mistake’ but something with broader ramifications.

What would have worked here? “you must work until you pay off your law school debt”? “you can’t have mental problems after having a child”? “you must return to work within [X] weeks after having a child”? “if you quit working, after having a baby, after I (willingly) co-sign your law school loans, and you develop a mental illness that manifests as a spending addiction, and you rack up medical bills bc of broken bones, then you have to take back all ‘your’ debt, and I get to keep everything that should have been mine”

Nothing as simple as “what’s mine (assets AND liabilities, as of the Wedding Date) is mine; what’s yours (assets AND liabilities, as of the Wedding Date) is yours” would have solved much here.

@fo (#839)

@@fo ps: What would be the remedies for a breach of the Wife’s obligations under that crazy prenup? “If you don’t comply by going back to work, and paying off your entire law school debt, then …” What?? They get divorced, right? But (hopefully, but pretty unlikely) without as much lawyering and expenses.

ellabella (#1,480)

@@fo Thanks, you said something I’ve been having trouble putting into words. He was willing to take on all these risks when he wasn’t sure the outcome would be negative; once he knew it was negative, he wanted to take back his offer. It was a double-or-nothing gamble; he wouldn’t be here wishing he hadn’t co-signed the loans if she were making $160,000 a year and supporting their kids and him. He took the bet that a $130,000 debt would pay itself back in spades; it didn’t. I also wonder if they discussed how that loan would get paid back. A discussion about whether the expectation that she would do at least X years of corporate/financially profitable law in order to at least pay off the loans and/or to make up for any career sacrifices that he made in order to be in the same location as her while she went to school would have been wise. I’m definitely in agreement about all his recommendations to talk about these things.

Obviously there’s a lot of terrible decision-making going on with her, but the line “When our daughter was born in 2008, my wife never went back to work full-time. This wasn’t planned—it was a unilateral decision that I objected to.” was a bit of a red flag for me. Was he planning on taking time out of work to do childcare? Did he think his wife was going to work and pay for the majority of childcare? Lots of things to think about.

mysterygirl (#2,058)

@@fo : Your statements about prenups interested me. What about a prenup turns you off so much? I feel like the actual process of drawing one up and seeing someone try to quantify your worth could cause problems, but my boyfriend and I are in our early/mid-30s and I wouldn’t be offended at all if he wanted one, because he currently makes over three times what I make and could probably make 5-10 times as much at some point, so I can see why he would want to protect his assets. I’m also someone who is fine with having separate checking accounts, credit cards, etc., and we both are old enough to have been making our own money for a while, so maybe I’m coming from a different place.

In this author’s case, I agree that a prenup might have been overly simple, but at the very least it would have protected his inheritance.

Runawaytwin (#2,693)

@ellabella agreed with what you wrote.

I am stressed about the future and what child rearing will do to my income. As the woman in my hetero relationship who is also the lower earner- most likely it will fall on me to take time off or stop working completely. What are provisions I could put in a pre-nup that would protect me?

aetataureate (#1,310)

@mysterygirl Yeah . . . If the idea of a prenup harshes your romantic mellow, your romantic mellow is not that great in the first place.

@fo (#839)

@mysterygirl “Your statements about prenups interested me. What about a prenup turns you off so much?”

Even in your case, it’s about protecting $100,000 (or $250k or something fairly small, in the big scheme) in assets. That much can (easily) go into a single accident/illness; or a disabled child; or a poorly timed house purchase. Is your prenup going to spell all that out? Or is it just a “*if* we get divorced, then I get to keep the $100,000 + interest that I had when we got married”? If someone cares about a (meaningful, but fairly small) pot of cash that much, she should just move along.

And are you *seriously* open to a *future* earnings carveout? That money he makes *during your marriage* is his alone, no conditions? Or some conditions? What conditions? Does it change if you have one kid? Two kids? What happens if he has a debilitating illness, and you are the sole earner? Do his “own money” remain completely sacrosanct?

Basically, outside of my stated exceptions, I think the whole thing stinks. So, if you have a trust, or a business, or Rockefeller money or a billion dollars in Facebook stock, I get that. But if it’s $100,000 and future earnings, F.O.

@fo (#839)

@aetataureate “If the idea of a prenup harshes your romantic mellow, your romantic mellow is not that great in the first place.”

If worrying about $50,000 in the event you eventually get divorced and haven’t otherwise spent that money on *life* harshes your romantic mellow, your romantic mellow is not that great in the first place.

Cuts both ways.

ellabella (#1,480)

@@fo @mysterygirl

It’s so interesting to see what marriage means to different people with regards to finances! I can’t imagine marrying someone who made 5x more/less than me and NOT merging finances on the basis that the person who is making less $ is contributing in other essential and significant ways, but I don’t think this has to be true for everybody. I honestly don’t really understand how it works, especailly with such a large income gap. Does the richer person get to take the poorer person out on all the dates/vacations? Does the poorer person have to keep working when the richer person is retired? Does the poorer person wear clothes from the bargain bin while the richer one is buying designer clothes?

I also wonder if you’re planning on having children or not because I feel like that just makes everything WAY more complicated and difficult to keep separate.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@@fo Buddy, seriously, if I had $50k right now I would want to protect it, and if my partner had it I would want him to protect it. Hands down, no doubt. If you would want this level of security and care paid to the people you care about nonromantically in THEIR partnerships (I would!!), why wouldn’t you want it for the person you purport to care the MOST about?

Like, protecting it with a prenup DOESN’T mean hoarding it in your Scrooge McDuck pool. It doesn’t mean you spend it on a house in both your names then extract it in blood in case of divorce.

blueblazes (#1,798)

@ellabella He sounds pretty somewhat cynical to me. I guess I look at his advice as cathartic for him—”this is what I should have done” as opposed to “this is what you should do.” From where I’m sitting, if you go into marriage with someone with this level of suspicion, you shouldn’t be getting married.

@fo (#839)

@aetataureate “It doesn’t mean you spend it on a house in both your names then extract it in blood in case of divorce.”

Um, that’s what the prenup would do, if enforced. So you’d have to revise it, in writing, afterward. So everything significant financially would be a contract negotiation.

@fo (#839)

@blueblazes ” if you go into marriage with someone with this level of suspicion, you shouldn’t be getting married”


It seems to me that he’s looking back and flagging a whole buncha stuff that he could not have possibly planned for (injury, illness, addiction), and a few (*big*) things he could have (law school debt, big house), and then kinda putting them all on the same level. “Everything would have been better if I had just done (or not done) X”–and in a lot of those, he’s likely right–things would have been better w/o (a)$130k in school debt, which he might have been able to influence; (b) the too big house, which he should have been able to influence; (c) her injuries and illnesses and addictions, which he could *not* change and was the final unraveling.

Sarah @twitter (#3,921)

@@fo that really is not what a prenup would do though, or at least not in my state. (all of this stuff is very state specific btw) in my state, if you came into a marriage with an inheritance and then contributed that inheritance to the purchase of a family home no prenup would help you. That home would be presumed by the courts to be owned 50/50.
Now, as this guy did, if you keep the prenup seperate in it’s own account then that money remains yours and a prenup helps put that in writing that the inheritance money comes with you in case of a divorce

aetataureate (#1,310)

@@fo I’m never going to understand why the idea of legal paperwork for your legal contractual marriage is distasteful. So yeah, you revise the prenup when you buy a whole home together . . . That seems fine to me. That is a major, giant thing to own together. If you could say “Let’s put down clear, fair rules so that we don’t have to fight about this house or resent each other about it ever” yes I am very interested in that. No doubt. I love you more for thinking it’s a good idea and eliminating this source of stress from my life.

mysterygirl (#2,058)

@ellabella : I think that maybe our definition of “merged finances” is just different from each other’s! For example, my parents have joint investments, property, and accounts, but they also have separate credit cards and each pay different household bills and portion it out approximately based on their respective incomes. Right now, my mom makes more than my dad, so she gives him grocery money and stuff :) It works for them and neither one of them has been denied the things that they want; it also helps that both are savers and support each other on their big purchases. I like their system and I could see emulating it in the future, because they share communal expenses but each have their own pocket money to do with as they please. Often that individual money goes to their shared benefit too. So, I think that “merged finances” can look a lot of different ways.

I am lucky that, even making so much less than my partner, I am still what is probably considered upper middle class, so I wouldn’t rely on my partner for nice shoes or retirement (unless I grow ill, become a stay at home mom for a baby I plan not to have, etc.). For me, I think the power is in always having some of my own money, so that I don’t feel bad spending money on something frivolous once in a while (until I read The Billfold the next day and wish I’d invested it in my 401k :) ), and so that I maintain some independence.

You’re right– this is a really interesting conversation :)

@fo (#839)

@aetataureate “Let’s put down clear, fair rules so that we don’t have to fight about this house or resent each other about it ever”

I don’t understand fighting about the house or resenting each other about it, unless the relationship is over, and you (we) both want to keep it, in which case I’m not going to be so concerned about the ‘love’ any more. If you buy a house that you are going to fight about and resent each other over, you bought the wrong house (like Peter Pacer did! His life would have been better had they not bought that ‘spectacular’ house).

I guess if the person with more $$ gets arm-twisted into buying a house the couple can only afford because of ‘separate’ $$ being used as down payment to buy the house, that person might resent it if s/he really doesn’t like the house. So, yeah, sure…in the event that the separate $$ inheritance is used for a down payment for a house that the ‘poor’ spouse reallyreallyreally loves, and the $pouse just thinks is okay, then I can see a postnup being okay.

@fo (#839)

@mysterygirl “our definition of “merged finances” is just different from each other’s! For example, my parents have joint investments, property, and accounts, but they also have separate credit cards and each pay different household bills and portion it out approximately based on their respective incomes.”

We are 100% combined. I’m the one making less (for 10 years now); I’m the one who takes care of *every* bill. We each have at least one (maybe only one, at this point, after much effort at cancelling rarely used cards) individual credit card, for credit record length, in event of untimely death. Cars are joint titled; house is tenants by entirety, with joint mortgage; every deposit account is joint; 401ks are separate, of course. Total financial merger.

But maybe we’re the weird ones.

@fo (#839)

@Sarah @twitter “in my state, if you came into a marriage with an inheritance and then contributed that inheritance to the purchase of a family home no prenup would help you”

So, even if the prenup stated “Wife will contribute up to $100,000 from separate account to purchase of family home, and will be entitled to first (up to) $100,000 (+ interest) on sale of home upon dissolution to return to separate account” wouldn’t mean anything? But the separate account, if continuously separate (ie, a trust or similar), would not need a prenup for protection?

Then what gets covered by a prenup in your state?

aetataureate (#1,310)

@@fo Okay, so there are two things I’d like you to just spell out for me.

1. What does a prenup remove from your idea of marriage? You seem to have strong feelings about this (the idea of a prenup would end your relationship; your marriage has an income disparity; sarcasting about “maybe we’re the weird ones”) that involve a lot of assumptions and . . . projecting, maybe.

2. At what point do the halfish of marrieds who end up divorcing finally get the ethical and moral high ground about prenups?

@fo (#839)

@aetataureate “projecting, maybe”

Yes, projecting, clearly. I have lots of issues for you to analyze.

“get the ethical and moral high ground ”

Who said anything about ‘high ground’. I don’t care AT ALL what you do. Have a prenup. Have the prenup require that one spouse pay for everything, and the other spouse gets to keep 100%$ of their earnings as ‘separate property’. I do NOT care.

May I remind you that *you* wrote:

“If the idea of a prenup harshes your romantic mellow, your romantic mellow is not that great in the first place.”

Which comes across as pretty damn judgmental about others *relationships* (not even the financial part of it). I wouldn’t have a prenup in the absence of a major asset (and quite probably, not then, either); you can have a prenup over a pack of gum–doesn’t affect me one iota.

I’m not casting aspersions on your (or anyone else’s) relationship–apart from my snark quoting you, which was intended to **point out how judgy you were being**.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@@fo Hahahahahaha “May I remind you,” etc. Yeah, you sure may — I said that because I believe it. If you think my belief that complex, protective legal paperwork and permanent romantic marriage are not related to each other is ridiculous, that’s totally fine with me. I asked you outright to help me understand why you feel that way.

@fo (#839)


“I asked you outright to help me understand why you feel that way.”

And threw in a ridiculous assumption about the basis for my views.

“I said that because I believe it.”

Yeah, and I think that f’ing around over one year’s income (+/-) is a stupid waste of emotional energy and *certain* (dead certain) to lead to arguments and resentment over money. Defining a part of the relationship (a crucial part, in your view) into “mine” and “yours” makes it so that “mine” and “yours” is *always* a theme more important than “ours”.

Yes, I would probably feel different about it if I were a Rockefeller or a Pritzker or a Walton. But then I’d be someone else, since I grew up very much on the cusp of LMC.

@fo (#839)


ps: My reaction has all been in response to “personally I don’t see how a prenup could ever be a mistake”, which I take the not-quite-opposite view of, personally speaking.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@@fo Do you think even talking about a prenup can be a mistake?

@fo (#839)


No. Talking about stuff is great! Gotta be open, in any relationship.

Given an ultimatum (take it or leave me)? It would come across to me as ‘I don’t trust you with $$’, to me (again, barring the business/generational wealth/etc thing–which I get is mainly about *the inlaws* not trusting me, which is fair, imo. OH–ALSO–if kids are involved–as in 2d marriage–then I understand that, too). Which would be a fundamental disconnect about finances–which is part and parcel of having an open discussion and being on the same page about finances.

But “we need a prenup” in a ‘normal’ circumstance sounds like “I have a positive net worth of $50,000; you have a negative net worth of $100,000–I don’t want you dragging me down.” to me, from both sides–I wouldn’t want to ask it or be asked it.

So, yeah, talk about it. And if you are bona fide McDuck rich, or less so, but have kids, then sure, fine idea.

ThatJenn (#916)

@@fo Reading through this thread was interesting. My partner and I have been negotiating our pre-nup on two assumptions:
1) This is primarily insurance against creditors. If my partner has a major medical incident, gets sued, etc. – something that is not his fault at all – this could help keep us from being totally wiped out.
2) If something awful happens and we have to get divorced, we can ALWAYS agree to do something different than what we’ve said here, but this is guidance in case someone else is in charge of our financial interests.

I mean, to be fair, we’re writing it a bit differently; our income is community property no matter what, but we both have a little money from family that we don’t generally touch for anything that should probably stay ours (not McDuck level, but for each of us it’s a little more than our individual yearly income). We’re using language that says that that money and any accounts/assets funded SOLELY by that money are individual property. So basically, if I want to keep $50k “safe,” I can’t put it in our joint account or use it as part of a down payment on a house we’re going to pay for together. It allows for max flexibility (as does, for instance, owning our own cars, etc.). It’s really all about protecting BOTH of us if there are issues with creditors – if one of us still has some money, then we can take care of both of us. To my mind (and his) it’s actually a really nice move on our part for our joint future and has NOTHING to do with mistrust. But you rarely see pre-nups talked about this way.

bgprincipessa (#699)

1. I’m very sorry this happened to you, to your ex-wife, and to your daughter.
2. This was well written and kept me gripped the whole way.
3. Although the advice is helpful, I can see how it would be hard to heed when you are yourself in that situation – it doesn’t always look as black & white as it should – which I assume the author knows well himself since he stayed in it for so long.
4. The picture & subtext could not be more perfect.

fat apollo (#4,191)

“I co-signed on part of my wife’s law school loans and realized later it was my credit history at risk if she/we should default. I was now responsible for decisions she made (law school, program cost, etc.). ”

It sounds like you’ve been through a lot, and I’m sorry this happened to you, but yikes I hope your child never finds this article in the future. There is some sound advice here, but it is unfortunately mixed in with your personal bitterness, which I think has made you unfair and/or myopic in some cases. In the case of the law school loans, to me it looks like you became responsible for the decision that you made when you co-signed the loans. I’m sorry it didn’t work out the way you thought it would.

Meaghano (#529)

@fat apollo I agree. I think it was HIPAA mention (and then complete breeze past the HIPAA issue?) that made me keenly aware of privacy issues where I wouldn’t normally be conscious of it, but this made me a little uncomfortable. I know it was supposed to in some sense, but “wife has mental health issues and it’s expensive to divorce her, remember your partner might make you want to abandon them, too, one day! Marriage!” is…oof.

I mean, illuminating/fascinating, and sure it’s this guy’s story, too, and we don’t know all of it, but something about how this was presented just didn’t sit right with me. I guess I feel like people should get to be the authors of their own breakdowns? Or have some say in what the entire internet knows about their mental health issues? When your ex-husband is writing under his real name?

Mike Dang (#2)

@Meaghan O’Connell@facebook Just wanted make it clear that he’s writing under a pseudonym.

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

@Mike Dang Thanks for the clarification Mike.

mygoldies (#2,349)

@Meaghan O’Connell@facebook Doesn’t HIPAA only apply to health care providers and contractually involved parties, like insurers? This isn’t actually a HIPAA issue.

My run-ins with HIPAA come as a historian, not a doctor, but I’m fairly confident this guy just brought up HIPAA facetiously. The question of whether what he wrote crossed a line of treating one’s ex-wife decently is still up for debate.

HeyLookAChicken (#3,595)

@fat apollo Also, on the loan point, just as two people take on joint mortgages with the understanding that two people will pay for them, sometimes people take on educational debt with the understanding that two people will be paying for it. (You would have gone to the less expensive school, and taken the hypothetical pay cut, if you were paying for yourself, would have waited to go back to school, etc.) The person who is going back to school is putting themselves in a vulnerable position too, albeit of a different sort.

Meaghano (#529)

@Mike Dang okay that is somewhat better!

Meaghano (#529)

@mygoldies Yeah either way it was more, “Oh yes, this woman is a person and may not want her medical and financial history spelled out in a blog post,” but that Mike clarified it was written under a pseudonym is I guess an important distinction.

stinapag (#2,144)

@Meaghan O’Connell@facebook There is no HIPAA issue. HIPAA protects individuals from unauthorized uses and disclosures by health care providers, health care plans, health care clearing houses and their contractors. A spouse is not protected from disclosure by the other spouse. You can talk all you want about a friend or family member’s health information without being in violation of HIPAA unless you’re taking care of them or insuring them. An architect is unlikely covered by HIPAA. You might be an ass for talking about their health, but you’re not breaking the law.

karrrren (#957)

this kind of story is legitimately super sad, but i think it’s really important to think about too. ideally you would find some of the same truths and strategies in a happy marriage with a healthy partner, but if that’s not possible you should learn from it like our author did.

sometimes prenups, separate accounts, and other less-idealistic financial arrangements can be a way of saying you care for and respect the other person. and maybe some of the potential resentments that can build up in a relationship over time get cut off before they can become problems.

gyip (#4,192)

@karrrren Absolutely. I don’t think having individual accounts or a prenup is cynical. His outlook at the very beginning was that what he considered a minor disparity in their spending habits was something they could overcome. This seems to me a common refrain of a lot of people, and those are just the people who actually thought about this issue before they got engaged or married.

I am sort of a cynical person, but I genuinely do not feel any cynicism in my view that individuals can be entitled to their own money that they earn. For convenience’s sake, a joint account for joint expenses, once they make a household together, makes some sense. But otherwise, it’s not much more practical. If anything, joint accounts can be more complicated. I consider having individual finances for the most part a sign of respect for each other’s autonomy, although I can see that not everyone thinks that way.

A pre-nup may be a bit negative or unromantic, but marriages are not often always romantic, especially when it comes to money. If a couple can discuss this without considering it a negative mark against their relationship, maybe that’s actually a positive sign for them.

OllyOlly (#669)

@gyip I mentioned a pre-nup to my most-likely future husband, but then I had read it is really expensive to get them, as lawyers will need to ensure the agreement is clear in every possible scenario, including moving to states where property in marriage is treated a different way (maybe even read it in the comments here?)

So what’s a girl to do? never get married if I can’t afford a pre-nup? Live in fear that if one of us develops a mental illness we will get a messy divorce and both be financially screwed?

ellabella (#1,480)

@gyip I don’t think this needs to be true for everyone but to me one of the big steps of marriage that makes it a big deal is that you are committing to this logically pretty risky thing. I also think talking about finances before getting married is ESSENTIAL; but does that necessarily need to result in a pre-nup or separate finances? Especially if you plan on having kids (I do), your career decisions are going to be inextricably linked regardless. When you co-sign a student loan, I imagine it’s on the assumption that supporting the person getting an education is a choice that will directly or indirectly benefit both people in the relationship. Why not hold both people on the hook for that decision if they end up divorced, since it was a decision they both made? A prenup may be able to even out some financial disparities, but can’t make up for other sacrifices in life–moving for a partner’s job, having, not having, delaying children, choosing a career path, etc. I imagine these things can be at least partially “accounted” for in a prenup but they seem hard to quantify and easy to dispute/screw over one person in the case of divorce. So going “all in” may be “fair” in some cases/states (I’m from a community property state fwiw). I know this isn’t how everyone needs to approach decision-making in a relationship or marriage, but it doesn’t seem necessarily imprudent to me.

pernickety (#2,057)

What about sitting down with a mediator to write a prenup? Has anyone does this? Seems like this could theorectically solve some problems — the mediator wouldn’t “represent” either you or your husband, but could just facilitate the process, and the costs could be limited to the mediation session.

@pernickety I’m not a lawyer (so lawyers, chime in), but I believe the prenup could be declared invalid later since each side wouldn’t have separate legal counsel.

@OllyOlly Check out the divorce laws in your state. They may already be in line with what you’d want a pre-nup to say. Then if you moved after getting married to a state with divorce laws you didn’t like, you could get a post-nup.

pernickety (#2,057)

I think some states require that each party have a lawyer, but not others. And one party having a lawyer while the other does not is a red flag generally. But my spouse and I just did our own research and wrote our own pre-nup and we feel confident that it’s enforceable and fair. We didn’t investigate the mediator-route because we didn’t feel the need, but we did wonder if that was an option–hence my throwing it out here. I just think it’s worth trying to think outside the lawyer-box in this (and generally).

steponitvelma (#914)

@TheclaAndTheSeals Also not a lawyer here, just a law student interested in this area. But you don’t necessarily need counsel to get a prenup. It can be a red flag if only one person has a lawyer, but you can sign a waiver document to get around this. Post-nups are often side-eyed pretty strongly by courts, so I would definitely have a professional help you if you plan on going that route. But I think a good rule of thumb is (if you’re not in a community property state) if you can’t afford a prenup, you likely don’t need one, unless you plan on getting a lot richer in the future, or have family money coming to you. A prenup is usually designed to protect the assets you bring into the marriage, so if neither of you has assets, it’s probably less helpful. But, like I said, not a lawyer!

Also, I didn’t want to get into whatever was going on up there in that other thread. But I will point out that some limited research has shown that couples who have prenups are less likely to divorce than couples who do not. I think this is mostly because it is so helpful to talk about finances before you get married, and a prenup facilitates that. Particularly when done with a mediator.

steponitvelma (#914)

@steponitvelma Also, as someone mentioned upthread, state laws vary considerably in this area, so it’s important to know your jurisdiction before doing anything without separate counsel for both parties.

@fo (#839)

@steponitvelma “I think this is mostly because it is so helpful to talk about finances before you get married, and a prenup facilitates that.”

It’s important to talk about and understand and be in at least general agreement about finances. If you need a prenup to accomplish that, fine.

For me, the need for a prenup negotiation to enable a serious talk and mutual understanding about finances would be a big red flag, as it would evince a fundamental disconnect on financial issues.

steponitvelma (#914)

@@fo I don’t need anything, I’m not married, engaged, or in a serious relationship. You’ve already made it very clear that you don’t want a pre-nup, we get it.

@fo (#839)


[first, that was the generic 'you', as in 'one', not you you; sorry for unclearosityness]

Don’t *have*.

Don’t think it’s such an undeniably good idea as many present it here.

Don’t think it’s needed to have an open communication about finances.

Do think open communication about finances is *necessary* to a healthy relationship, without resentment and fighting about money.

Do think that prenup negotiations can exacerbate issues it’s intended/supposed to help mitigate.

Do think that if both partners think it’s a good idea, go for it!

Do think that one needs to be aware of state-to-state differences.

Do think that if one (non-very-rich, or non-company owner) partner sez “We need a prenup” and the other is notsosure, that that is a sign they may not be on the same page about finances.

@steponitvelma Interesting! Thanks for bringing in a more thorough perspective.

stinapag (#2,144)

@TheclaAndTheSeals I don’t have a prenup because I live in a community property state, which means that the stuff we had before marriage is ours individually and the stuff we acquire during the marriage is 50/50. That’s more or less what we wanted to maintain (realizing that things get complicated when if we sell the house I had before getting married, add on to it, etc.). Had we gotten a pre-nup, I would have made him get a lawyer, because I am a lawyer. I don’t practice family law (see HIPAA discussion, above, for the sort of law I do practice), but I know enough about these issues to have passed the bar in two community property states (er, 15 and 13 years ago…). My husband doesn’t have the same knowledge, and I would have wanted us to be on equal footing. I think it would have been unfair for me (the one with more assets) to present something to him that I drew up and say “yeah, this is good, sign at the bottom and then give it to the notary/witness” even if it was exactly what we’d discussed in a clear, thoughtful manner that was more of a discussion than an extraction of rights in return for a ceremony.

ghechr (#596)

I’ll also add that you can do a post-nuptual agreement, too. This means, after you get married you can enter into an agreement about who’s assets belong to whom. Of course, consult a lawyer to do so as this will vary state by state.

readyornot (#816)

Wow, I’m so sorry you had to go through this. The financial troubles sound tough enough on their own, but you also lost this person you loved.

But I can’t shake the feeling that this is an extreme case. All of the “lessons learned,” and “when rules are broken,” tips feel like what we know in retrospect would have helped in this extreme case. There’s a chance any relationship ends up like this, but there’s also a chance that spending and saving are roughly equal or within agreed confines. I think every couple has to weigh the chance something disastrous and asymmetrical happens to the finances against the convenience and (for me, anyway) emotional security of fully merging.

probs (#296)

That super sucks. I’m particularly struck by your ex wife being laughed out of the AA meeting. Of all places…

EM (#1,012)

This is really sad, and you sound like you’ve maintained an admirable level of compassion and insight about your wife’s addictions, and the issues that led to your divorce, without becoming embittered and spiteful. Thanks for sharing.

Having the family house in only one name forces an uncomfortable discussion: who gets to own it? “It is easier [to sell] if it is in one person’s name.” Sure – easier for that person! I’d be VERY wary if my husband told me he wanted to be the sole owner of the house I helped him buy.

When it comes down to it, this is a contradiction at the center of marriage. Where do you draw the line between protection and trust? Becoming a family and staying two people? Fully protecting yourself means looking out for number one first and foremost, no exceptions. And extreme versions of that seem sort of incompatible with what [many people think] a marriage is supposed to be…

Definitely thought-provoking.

@fo (#839)

@spectacularisms “I’d be VERY wary if my husband told me he wanted to be the sole owner of the house I helped him buy.”

If I were the husband, and my wife were foolish enough to buy the line of BS necessary to make that happen (barring credit issues on wife’s part making financing impossible in joint tenant/tenants by the entirety ownership), I’d have to question the whole relationship.

btw: Tenancy by the entirety is a useful asset protection tool for spouses. Ask about it when you buy a house with an H/W.

Runawaytwin (#2,693)

@spectacularisms Agreed with above. I would not marry someone who would not share ownership of a home with me.

Christy (#3,892)

@spectacularisms Completely agree. I would move into a home that my spouse bought before our relationship, but I would not move into a house that they bought alone while we were together. No way.

I wouldn’t ask my spouse to move into a house I bought mid-relationship, either. Nope.

Even if only one of us was paying the mortgage, I wouldn’t do it.

limenotapple (#1,748)

@spectacularisms Yeah, I’d be wary about that too. My husband already owned the house and one of the first things we did was add my name to the title. Our thoughts were…what if something happens to him? Would that complicate things for me? A lawyer friend said it would.

@@fo Great advice! I’m actually a lawyer and I made sure we were tenants by the entirety when we bought a house. Short story: it’s the only way you can make sure that your spouse’s individual creditor can’t get at your house, it means you automatically get the property if your spouse dies, your spouse can’t sell your house without your consent, etc.

stinapag (#2,144)

@spectacularisms The house is in my name, because I bought it ten years before we got married. I suspect that subsequent houses will also be in my name because I have excellent credit, and he does not. We’re looking at an expansion of the house in the near future and it’s MUCH easier for me to get a loan than for US to get a loan. He’s OK with it, especially since I pay the mortgage, and he’s trying to pay for school without taking too many loans.

Sarah @twitter (#3,921)

If my husband wanted me to help pay for a house but have it be owned only in his name I would take that as a major red flag. Sounds like a recipe to get screwed to me.

wallrock (#1,003)

When my sister got engaged she shot down my suggestion of a pre-nup because both were public school teachers and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. After three difficult years they split up and it was as contested a divorce as one could imagine given the fact there were no kids and no money. They’d kept their separate accounts and pooled household money in a joint account, about $4,000 that ended up as a main point of contention. I personally believe that it was his attorney sowing the seeds of discontent in order to increase her billable hours, conveniently paid by his mother. On top of all this the teachers unions in WI were busted and my sister’s pay was unilaterally cut. She came out of it last winter broke but finally happy, and in the end that’s all that matters.

@fo (#839)

@wallrock “After three difficult years they split up and it was as contested a divorce as one could imagine given the fact there were no kids and no money.”

Serious question: Given that there were no kids and no money, what would the prenup have settled? If one spouse wants to make it acrimonious, they can litigate the prenup, instead of just ‘normal’ divorce argumentation.

See, eg, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jefflanders/2013/04/02/five-reasons-your-prenup-might-be-invalid/

wallrock (#1,003)

@@fo You’re right about that. I’m of the opinion that because they didn’t talk about it beforehand and because there wasn’t an agreed upon split they started fighting over what I considered to be quite minor. Things didn’t start off that heated, and there was even a verbal agreement in place before they got the lawyers involved. It went downhill pretty quickly after that, to the point where his lawyer tried to go after my father’s company and my grandparents’ farm in IL. Eventually it worked out but there was a lot more bad blood created on all sides.

@fo (#839)

@wallrock That stinks. Bad advice from a lawyer who (truly) could have been simply acting on direction from him–if he for whatever reason decided to get spiteful, and asked his lawyer to inflict maximum pain.

Actually, with 2 minutes of research, I don’t know how he even got a lawyer to present an argument about possible future inheritance: WI law sez:

7) Individual property after determination date. Property acquired by a spouse during marriage and after the determination date is individual property if acquired by any of the following means:

766.31(7)(a) (a) By gift during lifetime or by a disposition at death by a 3rd person to that spouse and not to both spouses. A distribution of principal or income from a trust created by a 3rd person to one spouse is the individual property of that spouse unless the trust provides otherwise.

So he had to argue that, had there been a distribution of your father’s or grandparents’ estate(s), that the will would have named *both* him and your sister–seems highly unlikely. So, seems to support litigation on account of spite.

Still, it’s not unusual for people to lose all touch with reality in a divorce.

mygoldies (#2,349)

@wallrock I’m from WI, and I thought there could be difficulty in even executing a prenup due to community property laws. Is this not true? Would a prenup have been valid for your sister?

wallrock (#1,003)

@@fo I’m betting that the was the case. I don’t think he was very financially intuitive so he might have been profoundly misinformed as to how things work with corporate holdings. He probably thought my sister was hiding assets or that money from the IL farm holdings was coming her way, but the truth is neither my sister or I are stakeholders in either corporation and as you say, possible future inheritance is a stretch.

wallrock (#1,003)

@mygoldies My best friends did a pre-nup before they got married (still going strong 8 years in) but that’s my only experience in the matter. It very well could be the case that it wouldn’t have made a difference.

mygoldies (#2,349)

@wallrock Hmm – why get a prenup if it wouldn’t be valid anyway, so your friends’ prenup suggests that prenups are possible in Wisco? Google tellw that drafting an enforceable prenup is complicated but doable.

ThatJenn (#916)

@@fo “Still, it’s not unusual for people to lose all touch with reality in a divorce.”

So true. My ex specifically tried to get me to give him $20,000 in “alimony” (we made within 25% of the same amount per year, had been married less than two years, and my total income per year was $20,000 while I had about negative $30,000 in debt in just my name racked up on marital property, all of which point to… no alimony) by saying “I haven’t even tried to go after your [not yet inherited and of course not guaranteed anyway!] inheritance from your family that I would have eventually gotten to benefit from, so I’m being totally reasonable.”

Stina (#686)

Just a quick point: Lawyers aren’t mandatory in all divorces. A couple I know divorced with mutually owned property but did not have children together. They just went to the county court office and both filled out some paperwork for a fairly small fee (under $100 I think).

Granted a lot of divorcing couples can’t be so civil with each other (hence the divorce) but it is a possibility.

ThatJenn (#916)

@Stina I did not use a lawyer in my divorce beyond a short, free consultation. The consultation convinced me that my ex could not come after anything that mattered to me, legally (for instance, the lawyer explained how alimony worked in my state and that I could legally get divorced at any time for any reason without proving abandonment/infidelity/etc. – stuff I could have looked up online). After that we did spend a really horrible 8 months hashing out an agreement to submit with our simplified divorce (since we had no kids, though we did own a house and two cars together), and at times I thought it wouldn’t work, but once we finally agreed it was easy and cheap. My total costs, besides things like “staying in a hotel” and “moving,” were $450 for court costs (for the literally 3 minutes a judge spent signing our papers).

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

This is relevant to my interests. Sadly.

Starting with mediation but I am insisting on lawyers for the final settlement. Some joint assets and property (including a house), but no pre-nup and no kids. So far, not too acrimonious but lots of emotions making it difficult to get a clean and quick settlement.

alpacasloth (#108)

Hey Mike and Logan: this may be outside the Billfold’s scope but if there are any contributors/regular readers who have gone through the prenup process, I would be very interested to hear how it all worked. How did they find a lawyer and how much did it cost? How did it affect the marriage? Inquiring minds want to know!

@alpacasloth I am not a family lawyer, but I do know that in some jurisdictions, it’s important for BOTH parties to be represented by SEPARATE counsel. It’s actually a factor the judge looks at when deciding whether the agreement was entered into voluntarily. Not voluntary = no pre-nup.

(So don’t just take a sample off the Internet and sign it in front of a notary. It might not hold up when you need it.)

alpacasloth (#108)

@spectacularisms Yeah, I’ve done some very basic research and if my fiance and I do decide to get one we will definitely go the “hire a real lawyer(s) and do it right” route. But I’m asking because I’m currently in a situation that you and other commenters discussed above… I live with my fiance in a house that he bought while we were already dating but in his own name. I didn’t put anything toward the down payment but I am helping to pay the mortgage. The reason we didn’t buy it together was I was unemployed for a few years and then working as a temp at the time and have a lower credit rating than he does, so I knew I wouldn’t qualify for the loan. I guess a lot of people think that’s naive. I knew the risks going in.

@fo (#839)


Nah, not naive. You’re (essentially) paying ‘rent’ for now. I would assume that, at some point after you “make an honest man of him” (heh), that you’ll (together) either consider changing the title situation on the house, or plan to move. Likely sooner rather than later, but not necessarily. But if, after you are married, you continue for *years* to ‘pay rent’ and have no legal title to the house, I *would* think it’s weird. Not naive, but weird.

alpacasloth (#108)

@@fo Yeah, and that’s essentially what we’re trying to figure out. We both agree that it’s not fair for me to just be paying rent. Is it fair for me to be added to the title but not be on the mortgage? I don’t know. Stuff is complicated.

joyballz (#2,000)

@alpacasloth I think @thatjenn mentioned getting one in a past post? She’s written about home ownership costs here before so may be willing again? That’s who came to my mind when this came up. Also, possibly more private and sorry for pseudo volunteering her if she doesn’t want to!

@fo (#839)

@alpacasloth “Is it fair for me to be added to the title but not be on the mortgage?”

First things first: Got to see what the mortgage (and, possibly, note) say about such things. Even a deed from Husband alone to Husband and Wife may not be permitted unless the mortgage is modified to name both of you (and it is almost certainly harder before the marriage license). So, either read the mortgage, or (and I know this is possibly a perilous web of insane phone trees) talk to the lender. If the loan is serviced by a small, local bank, then just go in to them and ask a loan officer.

Basically, before you get too into worrying about what you (both) want to do, figure out what you can and/or have to do to accomplish Plan A and Plan B.

alpacasloth (#108)

@@fo Thanks for the advice. The mortgage is through a local credit union so there’s a loan officer we can actually talk to.

@fo (#839)

@alpacasloth That’ll make it much easier. They’ll be able to walk you through everything.

ThatJenn (#916)

@joyballz I am in the process of writing one, yeah. I’m going to write some of it up and run it past my dude before agreeing to actually post anything about it. I’m comfortable with it, but he of course gets veto rights. We’re still in the “identifying respective lawyers” part. I might use my family’s financial lawyer.

@alpacasloth Your mileage may vary, so definitely good luck with the loan officer, but I’m in a similar situation to you and had some general thoughts. I solely own the house my fiance and I live in (I actually bought my ex-husband out of it in a divorce), and I plan to continue to own it for simplicity’s sake. I was clear when my dude moved in that he was paying rent, not part of the mortgage, and he agreed to that. If we want to co-own a house, it will either be: (1) this house with an official sale of half of it from me to him (which would probably mean basically refinancing the mortgage), or (2) a different house we buy together. It gets really confusing, legally, when you try to start claiming partial ownership based on helping make payments or making improvements to the house.

For instance, when I make a mortgage payment, the actual principal I pay down is about 0.2% of the value of the house. So making half the mortgage payment means paying, each month, 0.1% of the value of the house. Sure, after a year you have paid for 1.2% of the house, but that’s a really small proportion for a year’s worth of payments. After 5-10 years, of course, it gets bigger, but it’s still not half ownership, just based entirely on the numbers, especially if he put down the whole down payment (that percentage is just the percentage of the amount financed under the mortgage; in my case it’s nearly all of the worth of the house because I bought it in 2007, heh). If you just get put on the deed (by default as a 50% owner) without being put on the mortgage, that’s sort of unfair (and possibly problematic if creditors look at the house as an asset for you without a corresponding liability, but I’m not totally sure if that’s the case). If you can be put on the mortgage (or refinance into both of your names), at least you’re both on the hook for the rest of the payments and it makes sense legally for you to be on the title.

I know you’ve mentioned most of this above, but I thought I’d throw out the logic I used with my fiance when we agreed that his portion was just rent, and that I should pay solely for any major home repairs/improvements unless we decided to move or totally refinance.

steponitvelma (#914)

@alpacasloth I’m not a lawyer, but I noticed another consideration depending on the value of your fiance’s house. If he adds you to the title and not to the mortgage then he has essentially given you half the value of the house as a gift. This could mean paying gift tax depending on the cost of your house and the jurisdiction. If you’re added to both the title and the mortgage this would likely significantly lower the amount of the gift, making it less of an issue.

alpacasloth (#108)

@steponitvelma @ThatJenn You guys both make good points. We will definitely have to work with a lawyer on all this stuff. California has a gift tax exclusion for transfers made between spouses but we would have to see how it would affect the mortgage if he just added me to the title. We agreed going into this that at some point when we are married it wouldn’t be fair for me to just be paying rent and that I should get some ownership in the house. But figuring out how to do that (we can’t refinance with both of us because my credit isn’t as good and wouldn’t get us a very good rate) has raised some legal issues.

steponitvelma (#914)

@alpacasloth Well of course! I’ve been working on this issue at work for a gay couple and so I plumb forgot about the spouse exclusion! But yes, it’s rarely a bad idea to hire a competent lawyer, if you can afford it.

jlee (#3,792)

As an attorney who does lots of divorce, and as someone who made the ultimately terrible choice of opening a joint checking account with an ex-boyfriend, I think this article offers a lot of really sound advice. I know it’s not romantic, but keeping your finances separate can really save you later on if things go south. If you’re not willing to actually get a prenup (although I totally would), at the very least keep your accounts separate.

shoesandsocks (#4,194)

The saddest part is “Jacksonville.” Hang in there.

mygoldies (#2,349)

So my sister got married in the Catholic Church, and her priest would not have married them if they had a prenup – you’re not supposed to enter marriage with an exit plan. So it surprises me a little that this guy, who describes himself as “very Catholic,” advises everyone to get a prenup.

Also, as someone who is medium Catholic, my heart breaks a little at reading, “It was so bad that my very Catholic parents told me, their very Catholic son, that I needed to get a divorce.” When the very Catholic are encouraging divorce, it is bad.

KF (#4,197)

This is not a story about divorce. This is a story of mental illness. The story is sad and interesting but something strikes me as low about putting so much blame on a person who is clearly mentally ill. He does not explain why he agreed to cosign her loan and why he agreed to buy a house beyond their means while putting the blame entirely on her for where they ended up. Also if they had done any prior research they would have realized that lawyers don’t make the kind of money people think they do. 40-50K per year is quite common in small firms and public interest work. She likely didn’t have the option of getting the 120K job he resented her for not having. He is not being fair.

squishycat (#3,000)

@KF Yeah, I’m reading a whole lot of “everything was great until my wife started having symptoms of mental illness, so I tried to control her access to money and then divorced her without trying to get her legitimate help first”.

Beaks (#3,488)

I’m late to the game, but if anyone’s looking for more to read about prenups, A Practical Wedding had a post a while ago that really changed how I think about prenups, and the discussion in the comments is also pretty good. One point that I remember is that you hash out a pre-nup hopefully as your best selves, when you’re most in love, and it serves as a reminder of what you agreed was fair when, should you get divorced, you’re probably not feeling as fair and loving as before.

Here: http://apracticalwedding.com/2012/08/the-why-of-prenups-from-an-attorneys-perspective/

ThatJenn (#916)

@Beaks Excellent recommendation – thanks! Having been through a messy divorce with someone who refused to consider a prenup, under the argument that “There’s no chance I would ever be uncivil to you and I’m hurt that you think so just because I have been immensely uncivil in my previous breakups,” this is a very good articulation. At the beginning you cannot see how it could ever be possible for you to be unfair to each other, and that’s the perfect time to write down your intentions. (I also think, sometimes, grimly, about what would happen if I were, say, in a permanent coma and my husband eventually wanted to divorce me and remarry – I’d support that but I’d need a lawyer on my end who could see what my intent was when I couldn’t advocate for myself.)

plynn (#4,202)

The more I think about this article, the more horrified I am. People have congratulated him for remaining calm and reasonable and not being bitter about the disaster that befell him. But a disaster happened to his wife, too! She went from being a law school grad with a new husband and bright future, to being crippled by depression and addiction – losing her career, husband and child along the way. And this writer isn’t calmly offering advice – he’s seething with fury at his wife for ruining his perfect plan for the perfect life.

franklina (#3,924)

@plynn Seconded. The article makes me really uncomfortable. His wife was suicidal but he glosses over that to emphasize “We were left riding one income in a budget built for two, a house built for four, many medical bills and prescriptions to fill, and a growing toddler to raise.” Ye-es, but, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t putting the family in this position out of vindictiveness at this point… ugh.

A perspective on what to plan for in case of catastrophe is certainly interesting, but someone a little more removed from the reality might be more appropriate – e.g., this man in 5 years?

EM (#1,012)

@plynn Whoa, thank you for pointing that out– I didn’t really see it from that perspective on my first reading but you are totally right about how awful and tragic this is from her perspective.

There’s a lot about this story that needs to be unpacked. First of all, you may have been on the same page at the beginning about your respective educations and future careers, but it doesn’t sound like the two of you BOTH agreed that this massive amount of loan debt was something you both shared responsibility over. When my wife finishes grad school she will have over $50k in loans, but since we both agreed she should take out those loans we both are going to treat it as a shared expense when it comes time to pay them back. Secondly, it doesn’t sound like either of them treated this massive amount of debt with the seriousness it deserved. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t get the six figure job you may have thought she promised you, if you still make over $100k a year, you can and should put as large a chunk of that as you can towards debt repayment until it gets easier to manage. From my own experience I know that debt doesn’t always seem like the most important thing to put your money towards, but it you don’t get yourself out from under it, it can end up being this gigantic foot hovering over you threatening to squash you every month. Thirdly, there is a LOT of blame being thrown around here for behavior that as other people have suggested, is a HUGE red flag for depresssion and addiction. There is a whole nationwide organization called Debtors Anonymous that can help with this, but this isn’t simply HER problem either. If you are missing the warning signs and foisting off all the responsibility on her, all the while trying to uphold an unsustainable lifestyle based on your own faulty expectations (you objected to her not working full time after giving birth…did you even TRY to compromise or change or adapt or ANYTHING?) then you are just as much to blame as she is for the marriage failing.

As for the “advice” at the end, if you want to have an honest relationship where you discuss everything and actually include your partner in your financial decisions, then there is nothing wrong and actually many thing right about joint titling, co-signing, and the like. You may be proud of yourself for being the one with the checkbook and making sure the bills got paid, but in that too you did your relationship a disservice. If you had actually tackled your financial life TOGETHER, maybe you would have been better equipped to deal with changes in your life and problems that could affect your whole family.

Chris (#4,210)

I got divorced ten years ago. We tried mediation (maybe $1,500-2,000 total) but then needed to get our own lawyers because she wanted to keep all the assets and split the debt. My lawyer, a true saint, took charge and met with her lawyer to work out a deal (it’s a small town and they were friends). They called us to a meeting, laid out a fair settlement, and that was that. When my ex started to object, her lawyer told her neither of us could afford a battle. I think I paid my lawyer less than $1,000.

My advice: find an ethical lawyer whose goal is to settle, very quickly.

Despite the mountains of problems needing to be unpacked from this particular situation, the “lessons learned” section is pretty good.

Vanessa (#4,246)

How very sad. I am going through a bankruptcy thanks to my divorce, I worked so hard all of my life to be in my 40s and lose it. We all desire love and companionship but at what cost? And now I know why people in their 40s get bitter

Dana (#4,944)

Hi, I have a different view on this whole story.
I am seeing the one side. His side.
If you have aspergers, this is how you see the world.
No empathy. No long term. No memory. No story building.
I have been on a forum for years regarding asperger spouses.
The non-aspi spouse does get physically ill just like you said. All the ailments you wrote about,
due to living with an asperger person.
My own ex of 20 years forgot about the money I paid to one of our kids college and living expenses. He forgot about the boyscout trips I paid for. The vacations I paid for. Even the carpeting.
We had a combined bank account. one debit card. How could he forget? He forgot the trips I did with the kids and the money I spent. He didn’t want to do family things.
I am frugal. I pack lunches, etc. yet because he actually wrote the house mortgage payment and car payment, he thought he owned more of them. That he was due more money than me. I do believe he has aspergers.
You sir owe her a lifetime of alimony for what living with an aspi person did to her health. I bet she is healthier and happier now. I am since I left my spouse of 20 years. But you will never understand this. You have no empathy for what she did for you. While she earned less money, I am sure she thought she was giving you a good life of always being there for you. Cleaning, cooking, bringing friends and family over. You would have not had a wonderful family life had she not worked less hours.

The clue was when you said: When our daughter was born in 2008, my wife never went back to work full-time. This wasn’t planned—it was a unilateral decision that I objected to.

All I was was a paycheck to my ex too.
That is aspi thinking.

Your controlling of the money was obnoxious and what drove her to sickness.
Your anxiety about money – made her crazy.

I lived this life. I am much happier out.

But I will save this column for others to let them know how an aspi male thinks and to prepare for his way of thinking in a a divorce.

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Pete Alfred (#6,112)

Well, today is the 8th of march and Jim asked me if we could be back together this morning. Of course I said yes. Thanks to you priestess Munak, thanks to the spirits, thank you God. I cannot thank you enough priestess for bringing him back into my life. I didn’t think it was never gonna be possible possible after all i did to him, I had lost my hope and most of any little faith that I had to begin with, but thanks to you, I have my love and my life back. Thank you. God bless you many many times over for all the help you give to people, you have a beautiful gift to humanity, priestess email is priestessmunak@gmail.com. contact her on relationship or life issues.

Justsayin' (#6,549)

Way to stand by your wife in sickness and in health! Do you understand postpartum depression/depressive disorders in women? And to top it off, you have a daughter! Great lesson: Daddy left mommy because of her depression. So sad, dude!

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Danica Kellar

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