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Mediation, Alimony and a Realistic Post-Marital Lifestyle
Lately, many of the clients we see are coming to us with one question: how am I going to live after I get divorced? And while this question is not new, given the state of today's economy, it's one worth considering carefully as in this unique climate, unorthodox arrangements may be necessary in order to survive not only your divorce, but your life after divorce as well. With the unemployment rate at its highest since 1983, more and more people are finding it difficult to land a job or if they already have one, are concerned their future is uncertain at it and they may lose that position any minute. Oh and those bonuses they were promised that represent 35% of their base salary? Good luck collecting on that. So with all this financial uncertainty, how does this impact the conversations around spousal support / alimony? Once again, mediation to the rescue!
Today I read an article about a millionaire couple that were in court fighting over what was the marital lifestyle and how much spousal support / alimony the ex should get. And while I am no millionaire and sadly, perhaps you aren't either, it did shed light on how important it is to have a realistic view on your post marital lifestyle when using it to discuss spousal support / alimony obligations post-divorce. It seems that this couple had gone the usual route and hired attorneys to represent them in their divorce case and sure enough, back into court they went because they continued to argue their points as a matter of what they felt was the law rather than taking a realistic look at how they lived while married and how it may have been a bit unrealistic. And while it is hard to feel bad for these folks, you know with the husband buying a $200,00 Lamborghini in cash and all, it did bring to light and important point and that is: what lifestyle should each of the parties have after they are divorced versus when they were married and how realistic was the marital lifestyle?
In our debt driven society, many of the couples we see are living well beyond their means, fueling their lifestyle with credit cards, home equity loans and lines of credit against their house. By doing so, they've created a distorted view of what exactly the marital lifestyle is and in turn, have unrealistic expectations of what their life will be like after they are divorced and the appropriate spousal support / alimony payment they should receive. In the case of our wealthy friends in the article, nice for you that you can buy an expensive car in cash while the rest of us have to get a loan for 7 years just to buy a minivan.
But in reality, we're all doing more than just buying the minivan. We're eating out a lot, buying that big screen TV, going on vacations that are a bit out of our range and shopping for new clothes like crazy. All this adds up to an unrealistic view of just how we should live after we divorce. So how can using a divorce mediation service help?
In our mediation sessions we will ask each of you to prepare a budget that represents your budget as a married couple (and your children if applicable) and take a look at what your marital lifestyle looks like compared to your monthly net income. Are you expenses higher than the revenue you bring in? If so, let's check those credit card statement and home equity line of credit and see where you're getting that money from and have an honest conversation about it as we all know the party can't last forever. Next, we'll ask each of you to prepare a budget that represents you as a single person and ask that you paint a fair but realistic picture of where you will live and what your life will look like once you are separated. It's difficult thinking about all of this, isn't it? But that's where mediation is different. In mediation, we aren't afraid to have the difficult conversations because as a New Jersey divorce mediator, I know that once you both leave my office, it is each of you, not me, that is going to have to live with the decisions you make in mediation sessions so it's important that you paint a realistic picture of your life after you are divorced so that you can actually live within your means. Will your post-marital lifestyle be lower than your marital lifestyle? Absolutely because as we've said before, running two households is more expensive than one but that doesn't mean one of you will be poor and one of you will be fine. That's where spousal support / alimony comes in.
I want to make it clear that spousal support / alimony is not intended to punish someone nor is it to enrich someone at another's expensive. It is merely a payment from one party to the other so that each of them can enjoy a relatively similar post-marital lifestyle. Notice I didn't say so that each of them can enjoy the same lifestyle apart as they enjoyed together as we know based on our budgeting exercise above, that isn't going to happen. In that budget process, we whittle away the items that some may consider frivolous and these items vary from person to person. Perhaps you are someone who puts stock in playing golf once a week or going to the salon to get their nails done but after you are divorced, these items may need to be scaled back some to make accommodations for your more realistic post-marital lifestyle.
When you were married, did you ever save any money or contribute to a retirement fund? You may want to start thinking about that as well even thought it may be difficult at first. All these things are discussed in mediation and will factor in to what a spousal support / alimony payment might look like. The point of such a payment is make sure that each party can live after they are divorced. Not necessarily go on expensive vacations and buy a new car every year but live. By having these conversations, taking a realistic look at the budgets pre and post divorce and having a honest conversation about spending habits, we can help you put together the plan that works for each of you as that's what is most important that it work for each of you. Not me, not a judge, not your lawyer, but you. Could you go to court and fight it out to get another $25 a month? Maybe but is it worth the risk and more importantly the $50,000 it would cost in legal fees to get that $25 a month? Talk about a poor return on investment.
In conclusion, think about these important factors:
New Jersey is an equitable distribution state, meaning that the division of property in a divorce is to be done fairly, not necessarily equally. The court can take into consideration any factor it deems relevant when dividing property, but it must consider certain factors, such as how long the couple was married and the age and health of both spouses, the income or property brought to the marriage by each spouse, the standard of living that was achieved during the marriage, and the extent to which one spouse may have deferred career goals, among others.
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