Sunday, September 17, 2006

How Did You Divorce?

Laws making divorce easier, which came into vogue in the late 1960s, have made the experience less harrowing for many couples. The social stigma once attached to divorce has almost disappeared. However, the statistic that almost 1/2 of all marriages end in divorce seems to be an urban myth. Researcher George Barna's most 2001 survey of Americans estimates that only 34 percent of those who have ever been married have ever been divorced. A 2005 report released by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), based on a 1995 nationwide study of approximately 11,000 women ages 15-44, predicted that one-third of new marriages among younger people will end in divorce within 10 years and 43 percent within 15 years. So, not quite one-half, but still a considerable number of marriages will end eventually.

This is partly due to demographics; people live longer than they did 100 years ago, so there is much more time for relationships to go sour. In addition, better employment opportunities for women allow them to leave abusive or tepid marriages, whereas previous generations of women would have no choice, due to financial considerations, except to stay in such unions.

In cases of divorce, many couples make predictable mistakes. People start off by thinking they're not going to lose their cool, or their money and property, and wind up doing just that. However, it is possible to avoid a lot of unnecessary grief by learning from the experiences of couples who have gone through the process.

Divorce is inevitably painful, but it is possible to end a marriage with a minimum amount of expense and drama. It is not necessary to make lifelong enemies out of the former spouse and in-laws, or spend thousands of dollars in legal bills, just to get on with your life. Therefor this article lists ten of the most common pitfalls of divorce and how to avoid them.

The first mistake is taking actions that will effect your rights even before filing for divorce. The concept of "precedent" or doing things the way they have been done previously is an important legal principle. It is often a deciding factor in child custody and other divorce issues. For example, if one parent moves out and leaves the child with the other parent, it becomes difficult for the leaving parent to get custody. Also, if you make certain payments to your spouse without a court order, it may be difficult to later convince a judge that you can't afford to continue making them.

The second common error is giving too much control over the proceedings to a divorce lawyer. Lawyers are professionals trained to represent a client's interests in court, and it is important to listen carefully to the lawyer's legal advice. But if you see the division of property or the custody of children being decided in ways you do not like, do not hesitate to speak up. It's your divorce, not the lawyer's, and you're the one who's going to have to live with the results. It is in the lawyer's interest to stretch out a court case and battle over every small detail, but the legal bill for this can be staggering. Reign in an overly-aggressive lawyer.

The third mistake is to start dividing property without first making a thorough inventory. Be sure to make a complete list of all property, and any debts incurred as a couple.

The fourth mistake is spending too much time and money letting lawyers gather information. The legal term for this is discovery, and it covers interrogatories, requests for the production of documents, requests for admissions, and legal depositions. Lawyers thrive on this because it represents many billable hours, and keeps the lawyer firmly in control of the proceedings. Use mediation or an internet financial preparation kit instead, before you even go to the lawyer. Make sure to document absolutely everything that will affect your financial future, including all assets, investment funds and retirement pensions.

Mistake number five is allowing friends and family to influence the proceeding with their opinions. Meddlesome relatives often have their own agendas; don't be afraid to rely on your own judgment.

The sixth mistake is neglecting the issue of taxes and asset appreciation/depreciation. Don't get divorced without considering the tax implications of concessions. It is possible to get an unpleasant financial surprise years down the road in the form of an unexpected tax bill. For instance, two stock portfolios of equivalent dollar value might really be worth completely different amounts, depending on capital gains. Rather than accepting a Mercedes worth $35,000, for example, it may be wiser to take a mutual fund with the same current market value. The car will depreciate; the fund, if chosen wisely, will appreciate.

An accountant will help you understand the future financial implications of your decisions. Consult with a CPA before finalizing the divorce agreement, as most divorce lawyers are unskilled in this area. It is one of the main reasons for financial losses due to divorce.

Mistake number seven is trying to be "nice" either out of guilt for leaving the relationship or to try and win back the former spouse. It never works, and only breeds contempt and resentment in the minds of both partners. Be fair to yourself and your financial investment in the relationship, and assert your right to a fair share of property. However, remember that a fair split is not necessarily an even split. For instance, in dividing investments, one spouse may not mind taking over a risky stock portfolio in its entirety, whereas the other may prefer to keep the relatively secure bond fund.

The eighth mistake is failing to untangle all joint finances. Once a relationship ends, the former partners will have little incentive to help each other. Your financial future could be jeopardized if your former spouse defaults on payments, commits fraud, goes bankrupt, or becomes disabled. You might also be liable for any debt that your spouse has incurred under your name. Be sure to cut or minimize all financial ties before the divorce is finalized.

The ninth mistake is failing to take into account the amount of time needed to get your career back on track. Women who gave up their careers when they got married often find it difficult to support themselves after divorcing in middle age. Don't underestimate the time and money required for job training or resuming an old business.

The tenth mistake is having unrealistic expectations. After divorce, many people, especially women, wind up with less money than they started with. Don't expect unlimited freedom, as a tight budget will prevent this. Also, don't expect a divorce to solve individual emotional or personal problems. Without psychological counseling, many people who divorce wind up remarrying someone just like their old spouse. A divorce should be a stepping-stone to a new life, not just a chance to recreate an unhealthy paradigm with a new partner.

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