Preparing Financially for the costs of a Custody Case

Posted on Mar 1, 2015 by Katie Carter

Financially, custody cases can be complicated. In most cases, custody cases come about as part of a divorce or breakup because, after all, when two people are happily together, things like support, custody, and visitation rarely come into play. It’s when people decide to break up, whether they’re ending a marriage or a relationship, that things start changing.
While you and your child’s father were together, you probably had the benefit of both incomes. Transitioning from a household with two incomes to a household with only one income is incredibly difficult. And, if you and your child’s father have unequal incomes, the inequality will make things even more difficult.
It’s very common. In fact, it’s so common, it’s practically universal. If your child’s father earned more than you made prior to the time you decided to separate or break up, things will likely be much harder for you, at least initially. After all, once you and your child’s father make a decision to end your life together, the way the two of you share expenses and responsibilities will likely change. If you found that he was willing to help you cover expenses before, you’ll probably find that things feel different after you decide to end your relationship. Whether you’re looking for help paying the rent, mortgage, utilities, or to cover the extracurricular expenses of your children, he’s not going to be that willing to foot the bill anymore, no matter how reasonable you believe the expenses are.
Things are changing. From the moment you and your child’s father decide to separate, you’ll probably start to find that things have changed beyond recognition. Even in the most amicable breakups, there are some feelings of tension. What was formerly “ours,” quickly reverts back to “yours,” and “mine.” Even when you agree to cooperate for the sake of the children, there are complications that never existed before.
We see a lot of dads who stop supporting their families altogether. Paychecks that were formerly direct deposited into a joint checking account mysteriously vanish. Moms who have grown accustomed to paying family bills (or having family bills paid) out of this money have to scramble to figure out some other way to make it work. When pressed, your child’s father probably says something like, “What? I had to pay for somewhere else to live myself, and I can’t afford to pay for your place, too!”
For many women, this is the most difficult period of time, because they weren’t really expecting it. They knew that, at some point, finances would become separate. Most of them, though, don’t seem to realize that the financial separation almost always immediately, and that their child’s father really feels very little sense of obligation to pay support when no court order requires it. Even when men agree to keep things “normal” for the sake of the kids, it rarely occurs to them that normalcy includes handling finances the same way as before.
It’s also difficult because, even though, for the women who are getting divorced (rather than just breaking up), their divorce may include an award of spousal support, they really haven’t gotten that far yet.

How is spousal support awarded in a divorce?
As it’s name suggests, spousal support is something that a spouse pays to a former spouse after divorce. Spousal support is not something that is available after a breakup; it’s only available to people who are facing a divorce. Spousal support can be awarded in a couple of different ways. In many cases, spousal support is something that the parties agree to in their separation agreement, the legal contract that formally divides the assets and liabilities between the parties. In other cases, where the parties can’t reach an agreement amongst themselves, sometimes a judge has to step in and determine whether spousal support should be awarded and, if so, how much.
If I expect to receive spousal support, what can I do in the meantime?
If you can plan in advance, it will definitely be a better, easier, more secure transition. If you know ahead of time that you are planning on separating from your child’s father, it’s a good idea to take that time to make some plans.
You may choose to set up your own separate bank account, and funnel a little money over at a time. That way, you can build up a nest egg for yourself for when the break up or separation happens. (You probably shouldn’t just transfer money over there, especially if your partner typically checks the accounts. In most cases, it’s safer to withdraw cash and then deposit into the account.) If you go to Target or the grocery store, get some cash back. You can keep your funds in cash or have the money stored in a bank account; but it’s probably safer to keep it in cash.
Remember that just because you’ve taken the money and put it in your account doesn’t mean it’s automatically yours. If you’re married, keep in mind that whatever money you transfer into another account is still marital, so if you do decide to set up a bank account, don’t go crazy. Technically, if your husband finds out about your separate account (and chances are good that he will), he can ask for half of it. Cash is easier to hide and much more difficult to trace.

If you’re a stay at home mom or have significantly less income than your partner, you may want to save money this way over a longer period of time to make sure that, by the time you really do break things off, you have enough money to make it a little while without significant financial contribution from him—or as close as you can manage. I know this takes a lot of planning, but it’s better than nothing.

During that time, you can also store up on some household essentials, particularly if you suspect that you’re the one who will be leaving the marital home. You’ll need linens, towels, pots and pans, dishes, utensils, and other items may be difficult to afford later if your husband cuts you off from access to “his” money.

But what if I didn’t plan ahead?

If you haven’t planned ahead, especially if your partner was the breadwinner in your relationship, things will likely be more difficult for you later on. Because, after all, no one can wave a magic wand and make money materialize. If you’re married and he moves money into a separate account after you separate, you’ll have a legal right to whatever was there before you separated, but anything he earns post-separation is separate property. Should he help support you before your spousal support award is entered? Yes. Will he? I don’t know, honestly. In some cases, we’re able to talk husbands into doing the right thing even before they have a court order to do so, but not always.
If, on the other hand, you’re not married, his money is still separately his. He has a child support obligation, but, in all likelihood, he won’t feel compelled to start paying support until there’s a court order in place. Because you weren’t married, we have less means of recourse if he pulls the financial rug out from under you.
There’s no great answer when something like this happens. If you find yourself separated and without help from your partner you’ll probably have to ask for help from friends and family members to get you through the tough initial period before the court has a chance to award support. If you’re married, while you still have access to the joint money, you can take half of what’s in there, though I’d be hesitant to take any more than that.
The best course of action is to plan ahead, and hope that you have enough time to save money so that you minimize the financial shock of breaking up.