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Expectations & Reality in Divorce

When a couple marries, their expectation is to live the myth of marriage, ". ..and they lived happily ever after". The reality is very different. In Nassau County the divorce rate is 51 %. In Suffolk the rate is 50%. The divorce rate for second marriages is even higher.

While our concern here is not the causes of divorce. Rather, an understanding of the socio-economic nature of the local environment may offer an explanation of a divorce rate that is so much higher than the national average.

Nassau County is the best educated and has the highest average income of any single area in the nation. Proximity to New York City, a mobile population, a population accustomed to experimentation in their youthful years, a liberal acceptance of divorce rather than viewing it as something sinful and something to be ashamed of as may be the case in conservative Middle America, may all account for the divorce phenomena. Today, it is hardly possible not to know someone who has been divorced or is seeking a divorce. All this makes for more open communication. Nevertheless, the expectations of divorce persist.

One recent study found that after divorce women experience a 27% decline in their standard of living and that men experience an average 10% increase in their standard of living. This is the first reality, contrary to the expectation "I'll have regular monthly income and won't have to worry about money". There are many examples of misguided expectations.

Expectations Reality
"When I explain all of (his/her) faults, how awful (he/she) is, the judge will give me more of what we own". New York is a no-fault state
"I'll get half of everything." Each spouse has a right to share the joint property acquired during the marriage. Gifts or inheritances are generally considered separate property unless co-mingled and used for the benefit of both parties.
"If my income is less, I'll automatically receive alimony". When possible it is always better to receive a distribution of property rather than maintenance. Maintenance is temporary; a property settlement is irrevocable.
"I have the kids, so I should keep the tax and upkeep the house" The house can become an expensive tax trap for the unwary.
"I'm the mother, so I get custody of the children". This is hardly clearcut. More men today are seeking and winning custody.
"I don't have to worry about health insurance. I'm covered by my husband's health plan". After the divorce is final, you can no longer be covered as a spouse under your former spouse' health plan".
"If my spouse is assigned the debt, I'm off the hook". If credit card companies cannot collect from the ex-spouse, they can come after you. Creditors don't care who was assigned the debt.
"I'll get more if we go before the judge". There is a risk that a third party brings his/her own legal and philosophical biases to the bench.
"My brother-in-law, a lawyer, will do a good job on my divorce". You need a specialist. Ask "What % of your cases end up in court?"; How many were settled equitably, not equally, but equitably?

While who will keep the dog may be a point of contention, there are three main reality issues in a divorce: child support, maintenance or alimony and pensions /retirement. Before the court can grant a divorce, all the financial and parental issues remaining from your marriage are written out in a separation agreement. This document becomes the terms of your divorce agreement. You will have to live with the decisions you make here for a long time. Unfortunately, there is insufficient pre-thought given to the matter. It is simply presumed that the New York State Child Support Guidelines will determine the amount of child support the custodial parent will receive.

The Guidelines are really only a minimum. More can be paid by one or both parents for the support of their children. The issue here is what amounts are to be made binding and enforceable by the court. It must also be understood that the Guidelines make no provision for childcare, uncovered medical expenses and educational expenses. In reality, these items are negotiable.

The IRS refers to maintenance as "Alimony" in section 71 of the Internal Revenue code. For many, if not most, maintenance is an emotional subject where "hot words" like "I'm entitled", "You've got no right", "You owe me", "I owe you nothing", and "You don't deserve", may replace false expectations. Lifetime maintenance is also a misguided expectation. The reality is that ability to pay, length of the marriage, and age and health of both parties are all taken into consideration in determining length and amount of alimony.

The house and the pension are frequently the most valuable assets a couple has. The woman invariably wants the house, but not because of its increased value. Rather, it represents happy memories, the place where the children were raised, the time and effort in decorating it and, most importantly, a sense of security.

He wants to keep his pension. It is his reward for all of his working hours, the single, most consuming time of his entire life.

Because of the increase in the current value of houses in Nassau and Suffolk counties and the anticipation of a long term continued growth of the market, these two may be expected to be of equal value and therefore suitable as an equitable distribution of marital assets. The reality is that such a division fails to recognize the issues of taxes, the ability of the employee to keep working, of the wife to be able to afford to keep the house, and the provisions of various types of pension plans.

The reality of divorce demands a thorough understanding of all the financial issues and the guidance of a financial analyst specifically trained to work with the divorcing client.

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