Preparing Financially for the Costs of Divorce

Posted on Jan 13, 2014 by Katie Carter

Financially, divorce is complicated. After a divorce, pretty much everything changes. You go from having two incomes and one household to one income and two households. If you and your husband have unequal incomes, that inequality is going to be much more keenly felt.

It’s very common. In fact, it’s almost universal. If your husband made more than you prior to your separation, things are probably going to be more difficult for you in the short run. After all, once you and he decide officially that you’re going to put an end to your life together, he will quickly be much less willing to cover expenses the same way he formerly did. Whether you’re looking for assistance paying for 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, no matter how reasonable you think the expense is.

Times are changing. From the moment you decide to separate, you’ll probably start to find that things have changed beyond recognition. Even in the most amicable divorces, there are some feelings of tension. “Ours,” quickly reverts back to “yours,” and “mine.” Even when you agree to cooperate for the sake of the kids, there are complications that never existed before.

Many husbands take this opportunity to cut their wives off. Paychecks that were formerly direct deposited into a joint checking account mysteriously vanish. Wives 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, soon-to-be ex-husband says, “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 happens before the final decree of divorce is entered. Even when men agree to keep things “normal” for the sake of the kids, they don’t really seem to think that normal should include handling finances the same way as before.

It’s also difficult because, even though these women’s divorces may include an award of spousal support, they really haven’t gotten that far yet.

How is spousal support awarded?

Spousal support can be awarded in a couple of different ways. In most cases, spousal support is something that the parties agree to in their separation agreement. 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 a judge determines spousal support, it probably won’t happen until the very end of your divorce trial. A separation agreement can be negotiated at any point post-separation, but sometimes it takes months to finalize the terms of the agreement. Either way, you won’t start receiving spousal support until the award is in place, either through the separation agreement or through the judge’s order. That will take some time, and it could take a LOT of time.

So 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 husband, 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. (You probably shouldn’t just transfer money over there, especially if your husband typically checks the accounts. 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 it 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. Whatever money you transfer into another account is still marital money, 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 he probably 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 husband, you may want to do this over a longer period of time to make sure that, by the time you really do separate, you have enough money to make it a little while without financial contribution from him—or as close as you can manage.

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. Sheets, plates, bowls, silverware, household appliances and other items may be difficult to afford later if your husband cuts you off from access to his income.

But what if I didn’t plan ahead?

No one can wave a magic wand and make money materialize. If 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 his separately. Should he help support you before your spousal support award is entered? Of course. 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 legal obligation to do so, but that’s not always possible.

There’s no great answer when something like this happens. If you find yourself separated and without help from your husband, you’ll probably have to ask for help from friends and family members. While you still have access to the marital account, 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 separation.