Protecting yourself if you decide to become a stay at home mommy
It seems like every single day one of my stay at home mom friends posts an article about the struggles of full time mommies. At the same time, my girlfriends with high powered careers post articles about NOT wanting to have kids right now, balancing it all, or, in some cases, pretty much anything EXCEPT things that relate to kids—travel, the economy, animal rights, or pretty much anything else that interests them on that particular day.
The war between full time mommy and working woman is definitely being waged, with women on both sides feeling the need to passionately defend their choices.
In most cases, we’re our own worst critics. The reality is, though, that whatever choice you make as a mother—to stay at home or to soldier on in your chosen career path—there are as many inherent risks as rewards. After all, no one wakes up on their son’s graduation day or their daughter’s wedding day and thinks, “Gosh, I wish I spent more time at work.”
At the same time, though, when it comes to divorce, at least, it’s probably pretty safe to say that the risks are substantial. There’s no question that the time you spend with your children is precious, and you’re certainly not alone (whether you choose to stay at home or go back to work) in wishing that there were more hours in the day available to you to spend raising your children, grooming them to become confident, passionate, empathetic, loving, kind, responsible, productive adults. The time goes so fast, and it’s astonishing how much they grow and change and learn—sometimes (seemingly) overnight.
I’m not writing to pass judgment on your choices as it relates to how you see yourself professionally or what you think is necessary in terms of parenting, but only to inform. At the end of the day, no one can make decisions about your family but you—still, when you do sit down to make these types of decisions, you should do so armed with as much information as possible.
I’m just going to go ahead and say it, like ripping off a band aid. Simply put, staying at home is risky. It’s risky for a ton of different reasons, and not just because a large number of marriages ultimately end in divorce. I’m not a cynical person; I believe in marriage. Still, I’m a pretty risk averse person, and I know that marriages don’t always end because of divorce. They can end for all sorts of other reasons, even in completely happy, totally fulfilling relationships. Sometimes, bad things happen, and spouses can die or become disabled. I don’t mean to be a Debbie downer, I just mean to tell you that, whatever you decide, there is always the risk that your situation will change and, rather than having the financial support of your working spouse, you can find yourself in a very difficult spot.
When you quit working, you don’t just give up a paycheck. You give up the experience you would have had, including on the job training regarding new technology, programs, or rules that affect your profession. As things grow and change, the more time you spend out of the work force, the more irrelevant you become. It sounds cruel, but it’s true—the longer you don’t work, the harder it becomes to re-enter the work force and earn what you would have earned if you hadn’t stayed home.
Of course, it all depends on your profession and how long you’ve been out of work—in many professions, it is possible to go back to school, take a re-certification course, and jump back in. In other cases, it’s possible to keep up with continuing education classes so that any professional licenses you have stay current and up to date. It’s up to you to make the best decisions you can, and, ultimately, you know your field best.
Beyond that, you also give up access to independent health care (at least, in many cases), which means that your family’s health insurance is now dependent on one person’s working status. Should your spouse’s company go under or go through some restructuring, your family could lose health insurance entirely. If you get divorced, you will lose health insurance (because an ex-husband can’t keep his former wife on his insurance policy; it’s just against the insurance company’s rules)—but if something happens to him while you’re still married, you could all lose insurance.
Without a job, you probably also give up access to a company sponsored retirement plan. Sure, you could open your own IRA or other retirement saving account, but many companies also match contributions up to a certain amount. Giving access to that contribution matching up is, essentially, a little bit like giving away free money.
Benefits are a big deal, and giving up access to them is something that should factor in to your decision making.
Protecting yourself if you decide to stay at home
Here I am talking about benefits, and here you are thinking about your baby. You’re probably thinking, “Sure, a 401(k) is nice and all, but I have to do right by my kids first.” And it makes sense. Despite the fact that there are risks inherent in deciding to stay at home (there are also risks inherent in riding in a car, and I’m not advocating horse and buggy transportation), there are also steps you can take to protect yourself as much as possible.
The reality is that you’re going to make the decision you’re going to make regardless of benefits. Whether you decide that you’ll feel more productive and your self esteem will be higher if you continue to work, or whether you feel like you’re in a strong enough financial position that you’ll be fine if you stay at home, your benefits, work experience, professional relevance, and earning potential are only smaller pieces of a bigger decision. They’re important, of course, and I mention them because I find that they are the things that most women don’t think of (they think that they’ll just lose the paycheck)—but they aren’t the things that make or break a decision. Most moms are, understandably, primarily concerned with their children, being the kind of mom they want to be and finding balance (whatever that is) that allows them to stay true to themselves.
You have to make the best choices for you, whatever those choices may be. Still, that doesn’t mean you decide first and think later—that is certainly a recipe for disaster. In these types of choices, like in everything, there are things you can do ahead of time to lay the groundwork.
My answer to this problem, like my answer to so many other things, is this: get a contract. A prenup, a nonmarital agreement, a marital agreement, whatever the case may be—but get it in writing. Whatever you want hubby to do to help protect you when you make this humongous and life altering decision (because, let’s face it, it is!). If you’re planning on staying at home, it’s time to discuss things with your spouse. It’s time to talk about what his plan and your plan for the relationship are, and how you can work together to make sure that you being at home is financially feasible.
In a contract, you can specify all sorts of things. Specifically, you can mandate that you’d like to receive spousal support—how much, and for how long. Even if what you’ve agreed to is beyond the bounds of what the law allows, that’s okay. That’s one of the beautiful things about a contract; you have the freedom to create the law as it relates to your relationship. In a situation where so much about your future seems uncertain, why not create a legal contract that provides that both you and your husband have to do things a certain way in the unlikely event it doesn’t work out? It sounds unromantic, and I guess it is. But it’s also practical, and it’s a great way to get something in place that will help protect you if things don’t go the way you planned. And let’s face it: that happens sometimes.
If you’re leaving your job because you’re moving, make sure you also check out what the laws in that particular state are like. Does that state allow for spousal support? What about custody? Once you move to and live in another state for a period of time (exactly how long it takes depends on the state’s laws, which can vary), what happens if things don’t work out? Would you want to move somewhere else with the kids? You may be SOL. In Virginia, it’s that way—it’s very difficult to get a court to allow you to move (with the kids) somewhere else where dad does not live. If dad wants to stay (or has to stay because of his job), you’re likely stuck there once you move there. It doesn’t matter much that your family is somewhere else or that there are better jobs for you in a different place.
Knowing what the law is in a new state can help you make decisions (and if you don’t know the laws in your state, it might be time to find out those laws, too). You can use that information to help draft a contract between you and your husband, and to decide how you’d handle custody and visitation if things didn’t work out.
Deciding to stay at home is a big deal, and you should make sure you’re aware of the laws in your area (and any areas where you may be considering moving) to make sure that you’re able to protect your interests—both now and in the future.
If you’re wondering about becoming a stay at home mom and want more information about your options in Virginia, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200 to talk to one of our licensed, experienced divorce attorneys.