Divorce is scary for anyone under any circumstances, but it’s especially scary as a stay at home mom (SAHM) who hasn’t worked outside of the home in a while. While I think we can all recognize that being a stay at home mom is work – in many ways, the hardest work! – the fact that you don’t receive a paycheck complicates matters, especially in the lead up to a divorce.
In many cases, if not most cases, once the parties decide to separate, all semblance of civility comes to an end. To whatever extent the parties were using marital money to pay for every day expenses, like groceries, the mortgage, and utilities, that often ends. The higher earning spouse usually has his paychecks direct deposited somewhere else, or seeks in other ways to make sure that his spouse doesn’t have access to the funds that she otherwise would have had access to. It’s a trying time, just keeping the lights on, food on the table, and gas in the car, not to mention having the resources to hire a lawyer to defend against the divorce proceedings.
So, what do you do if you find yourself in this position?
Like in so many cases, I don’t have a magic wand, and there’s not a perfect ‘one size fits all’ answer. Like in every case, it does require some money – I know, therein lies the rub, right? – to hire an attorney to represent you. There’s really no way around it.
I do think, though, that in cases where you’ve been cut off from access to the money and where your spouse won’t entertain alternatives, like coming to a quick (and early) agreement about how temporary child support and spousal support will be handled, you’re probably better off to act quickly and decisively.
My experience is that women without access to resources want to dip their toe in the divorce waters, rather than jumping right in. They tend to want to start with a retainer for a separation agreement, because it’s less than a contested divorce retainer. While I can understand the sentiment completely, I often think that the rationale isn’t the smartest.
When you have a case like this, where one spouse has WAY more access to resources than the other, it’s not smart to spend the little money that you do have pussyfooting around. After all, a separation agreement is only good if it’s signed, so if you waste all of your resources attempting to negotiate an agreement that he’ll ultimately refuse to sign, the only option left to you is to file for a contested divorce. And now your resources are depleted, so your ability to maintain a suit against him is even more diminished than before.
A contested divorce retainer is more expensive than a separation agreement retainer, but it gives you the ability to start to move the case forward – whether or not he’s willing to participate. If he’s really unwilling to pay child and spousal support, he may try to use the separation agreement process to string you along, making you think that you’re making progress, but ultimately refusing to sign. To me, that’s a really dangerous corner to be bullied into, and I’d prefer that my clients avoid it at all costs.
You think you have no money now, but just wait until you’ve spent a couple thousand dollars desperately trying to negotiate an agreement with someone who has way more financial bargaining power than you! It’s just dangerous.
Your money is better spent filing for divorce, because then you can move the divorce forward with or without his cooperation. Sure, if he does cooperate it’ll ultimately cost less for both of you in the long run, but you ultimately can’t control him any more than you can control the weather. Still, once you’ve filed, you have the authority of the court to help you and your lawyer keep the case moving towards a resolution. He’ll also have to pony up the money to hire an attorney, and he’ll see the charges mounting as the case intensifies, and, if he’s practical, he’ll see that there’s no stopping what’s already inevitable and participate.
The ability for him to manipulate the system – to spin wheels and ultimately accomplish nothing – is significantly diminished in a litigated case.
Once you file, you can conduct discovery, where you can force him to give you information about the financial state of your marriage. You can also schedule a pendente lite hearing, where you can ask for temporary child and spousal support to be judicially determined. You can also allege your specific fault based grounds against him, and show him that you really do mean business.
For a husband who is used to calling the shots, it may be shocking for him to see you taking charge this way, but sometimes that’s exactly what a husband needs to see to know that his wife is serious. It’s much more difficult to play games when there’s a judge involved.
I know it’s incredibly scary, and access to money is still a concern. But once you have temporary child and spousal support determined at the pendente lite hearing, you won’t be nearly as desperate as you are now. Sometimes, it’s important to take quick, decisive steps early on in the process to ensure that you have what you need in order to survive.
Another important thing to remember is that just because you file for a contested divorce doesn’t mean that your case will automatically go forward to a full divorce trial. In fact, full trials are pretty rare in divorce. In most cases, the parties will ultimately end up settling – and, by settling, I mean reaching a signed separation agreement – without a trial. So, it’s not like you’re putting the train on a set of tracks that scares you to see all the way through to completion.
You’re forcing the issues early on, for sure, but you’re not insisting that the divorce be resolved as expensively or in as adversarial a manner as possible.
If he’s not treating you with respect, that’s probably not going to change. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said it, but divorce is not going to make him suddenly be a better, fairer, kinder man – not by a long shot. Though it’s possible to have a cordial divorce, or to develop more cordial relations after the divorce is finalized, a lot of that comes from you being in a place where your basic needs are met. (Not only that, but it helps to foster good decision-making, too; you can’t make clearheaded, rational decisions if the wolves are at the door!) You can also establish a solid coparenting relationship, but a big part of any relationship is setting boundaries about how you’re going to be treated.
It seems that these dynamics are especially complicated in cases where the wife is a SAHM. In any case, its true that dynamics change once a separation is imminent, but that’s especially the case in a situation where one spouse has all the financial power over the other.
For more information or to schedule a consultation, give our office a call at 757-425-5200. You’re in the right place.