Virginia Divorce After 15 Years of Marriage
By any reckoning, 15 years is a fairly lengthy marriage. At some point – and I’d theorize that’s somewhere along the ten year mark – there comes a time when, even if you break up, you and your soon-to-be ex owe something to each other.
The longer the marriage, the more difficult it is to just cut ties and go your separate ways. Of course, it’s easier without children in common (or if the children you share in common are adults – but, still, you’ll come in contact with each other), but, after a time, your assets, and especially your retirement, become so entangled that its difficult to just turn and walk completely away.
You’re probably tempted. I hear that all the time, so, if that’s what you’re thinking, you’re not alone. I think some of that comes from just the general sense of the magnitude of dissolving everything you’ve spend the last 15 years building, and also a general sense that, to preserve your own mental and physical well being, you’d rather just, you know, not.
But that’s a dangerous way of thinking, especially as it relates to your future financial stability. It’s not wise to walk away from your marital portion of the assets and, the longer your marriage, the more true that statement is. The more you’ve built together, the more you risk by walking away.
I can’t tell you how often women tell me that it’s actually “his” retirement, anyway, and they want nothing from him except for custody. While I understand the sentiment – and the sort of cultural implication that to take your rightful share you’re somehow a ‘gold digger’, which I, frankly, completely eschew – it’s not smart.
The way the law looks at it, the two of you were partners. A marriage is, legally, like a business. To the extent that the business dissolves, both partners deserve a share of the assets (and liabilities, of course, but no one likes to talk about that). You earned it together, because of both of your contributions to the marriage-business. If he earned it at “his” job, its because your work helped enable him to be successful – and vice versa. I’m not saying that you stayed at home (though maybe you did) and completely did everything around the home (again, though, maybe you did) – but that the marriage-business benefitted from both halves of the partnership, whatever made up the sum of those halves.
Going forward towards your divorce, you should maintain that perspective in mind.
How to get divorced after 15 years
Whether it’s a short term marriage or a long one, you have two ways of getting divorced: (1) either in court, in front of a judge, who decides how your marriage-business assets will be divided, or (2) out of court, via a separation agreement that the two of you negotiate and sign, wherein you divide the assets, liabilities, and responsibilities between you yourselves.
Which is better? Well, I guess that depends on a number of factors, ranging from how much money you want to spend, how much time you want to devote to your divorce, how much control you want to have over your asset (and liability!) division, and how reasonable you and/or your soon to be ex happen to be.
Most people prefer a separation agreement, on balance, but that doesn’t mean that a separation agreement is achievable. To the extent that spousal support and/or custody and visitation are factors involved in your case, litigation becomes more likely. After all, those are the two biggest hot button issues most likely to put one (or both) parties over the edge.
Special considerations for a divorce after fifteen years
I’ve written articles so far about divorce after 1, 5, and 10 years – and have brought myself now to 15. I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again, that there’s no one size fits all, so you may find that your personal circumstances differ. But I do still think there are often themes based on the duration of the marriage, and its to those ‘themes’ that I now speak.
Though you may not have children, most marriages of 15 years do. (Though it doesn’t have to be the case, whether through your own choice, unfortunate circumstances – infertility can be so horrendous, and I’m sorry if this is you – by virtue of this being a second (or third) marriage, or even because your children are no longer minors and, thus, no longer subject to custody and visitation litigation.)
At the fifteen year point, your children can be a variety of ages – from school aged kids (though probably not toddlers or newborns, though, in this day and age, anything is possible) to teens or even young adults. In terms of custody and visitation, its important to remember that decisions are made based on the best interests of the child, and modifiable based on a material change in circumstances. There is no point at which a child is deemed old enough to decide for themselves under Virginia law, though through the use of a Guardian ad litem, its possible a child’s preference would be considered by the court in making a decision. (We generally don’t use children as witnesses or call them to testify in custody cases.)
Child support continues until a child is 19, or graduates from high school, whichever occurs first. For a disabled (or differently abled) child, you’ll likely want to get child support established before 18, if at all possible, because its difficult to get continued support awarded after 18 if it wasn’t awarded prior to the child’s having turned 18. (At that point, if you couldn’t get child support, you’d have to rely on social security.)
You may want to consider, too, adding the premium for the kid’s car insurance to any separation agreement you might enter into, and consider the ways that parenting a teen is different than parenting younger children.
Spousal support may be critical, at this point, especially if you stayed at home or otherwise worked less or in a diminished capacity. To the extent that support would be awarded (which depends on a number of factors), you’d likely be looking at an award of half the length of the marriage or so. Keep in mind, though, that spousal support can be awarded in a number of different ways, including as a lump sum, so don’t hesitate to ask your attorney what she thinks could work in your case.
If you’re the higher wage earner, its all possible that you could be ordered to pay support! I know, crazy, right? But it does happen, and in all the same circumstances where it might happen to a husband – so feel free to read any articles I’ve referenced here, and just flip the script to reflect the wife being the potential payor.
Remember, too, that no spousal support is paid to a person who commits adultery except in cases of manifest injustice. So, if you’re the higher wage earner, his adultery could negate his claim for spousal support!
It’s possible to agree to an ‘each keeps her own’ provision, assuming that your retirement is of relatively equal value (or if yours is more). At this stage, though, I would advise doing as much disclosure as possible to ensure that you don’t gamble on having more (or having a similar amount) if it might turn out not to be the case.
Fifteen years represents a significant portion of your earning years, so the retirement is super important. It may be impossible for you to regain ground if you give away too much, so work with an attorney and/or financial advisor to make sure that you’re making decisions that make good financial sense for you in the long run.
You’ll have to get your own health insurance upon entry of the final divorce decree! If you’re civilian, that’s true no matter how long your marriage; if you’re military, you haven’t been married long enough to qualify as 20-20-20, or 20-20-15, so you’re SOL on this point.
Keep in mind that your physical and mental condition is a criteria we’d consider in an award of spousal support, so it may be that the cost of obtaining your own health insurance is relevant to your negotiations and/or continued litigation. Discuss this with your attorney.
The marital residence
As I’ve advised women in every other article in this series, it’s important to carefully consider whether you can reasonably be expected to continue to afford the marital residence.
It’s not just a question of the mortgage, but of the escrow account (including PMI, if you’d have to pay it), the costs of refinance (including current interest rates), maintenance and repairs (no, I don’t mean improvements, though if you’d like those you may want to factor that in as well), and general upkeep (like the lawn). Where you used to have two incomes and two adults to help maintain the home, after divorce you’ll have one adult, and one income – and that income may be lesser than before.
Don’t make a sentimental decision; make a practical one. Otherwise, you risk giving up too much to keep something that you can’t afford and will eventually end up losing anyway.
As always, this is meant as general advice, and is not supposed to be an alternative to talking one on one to an attorney about your particular situation, which may look different than I’ve described here.