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Understanding Divorce And What To Expect

    

A prospective client came to see me last week -- let’s call her Dana.

She is a successful banker in private wealth management. Dana and her husband of 15 years -- let’s call him Brad -- met at business school on the East Coast. They dated for a couple of years after they graduated and then got married. Both had been superstar students and got good jobs after graduation. After about 3 years, Dana was offered a promotion in the West Coast office and they decided to relocate to California. They had their first child in 2006. Because they were new parents and had just moved and because Brad had yet to find a job and Dana’s maternity leave was ending, they decided that he would be a stay-home dad for a while and she would be the breadwinner . . . for a while. Baby two came in 2009. Notwithstanding the fact that Brad had yet to find (or seek) employment, they hired a full-time nanny. Dana was doing well at work and Brad had expressed frustration with the finance industry and was working on a screenplay.

Dana reported that for the last several years she had been the only earning parent and was also responsible for coordinating the children’s activities with their weekday nanny and weekend childcare providers.

She also was on the children’s school parent organization, took responsibility for arranging the children’s extracurricular activities, birthday parties and play dates. She ordered and paid for the children’s school lunches, clothing and school uniforms and supplies. When I asked whether she would characterize her husband as a stay-home dad, she scoffed, “Well he certainly does stay home . . . and he is a dad. But I still pay for full-time childcare and do the lion’s share of the parenting responsibilities. Because of the nature of my business, I can often pick them up at school which he rarely does, and I’m generally the one to help with homework, baths and bedtime – I enjoy these things. Brad doesn’t seem to.”

I asked her if she thought there was a chance that the marriage could be repaired. “When we met and married, he was so bad ass. Smart, sexy, hungry; he was really going places. Now I feel as though he has no drive whatsoever. This screenplay has been in the works for 5 years. I have kind of lost respect for Brad and I think he resents the hell out of me, my success and what he calls my control issues.

Although I love him, I do not think that I want to continue being married to him. I need some emotional and financial freedom.”

Her last sentence gave me pause. I have had this meeting before. When a female bread winner talks about financial freedom, red flags go up for me. I asked her what she meant by financial freedom. “I do not want to have to continue paying for him to sit around the house. I work my ass off and I want to be able to enjoy the spoils of my labor and not share them with a deadbeat.”

I took a deep breath and explained that the law in the State of California would likely obligate her to continue to support her husband and their children even if they were no longer married. Then I waited for her reaction.

It never ceases to amaze me that educated, intelligent, business savvy individuals do not realize that they enter into a contract when they get married and that in many instances, the terms of the contract are binding even after dissolution. For some reason, the women take it harder than the men.

“You have got to be kidding me.” she said quietly;

“ I have had that albatross hanging around my neck for 15 years and you are telling me that even if I cut him off, I have to keep feeding him?” (she was getting louder);

“I haven’t even told you the worst part yet because I thought we could maintain some dignity in our dissolution” (here it came);

“MY ASSHOLE, DEADBEAT HUSBAND HAD SEX WITH OUR WEEKEND BABYSITTER!”

And there you have it. California, like most other jurisdictions in the US, is a no-fault state. A party will not be financially penalized for extramarital activities. Dana’s cheating, would-be screenwriter husband is still entitled to spousal support, child support and one-half of the wealth accumulated or assets purchased with Dana’s income earned during the parties’ marriage.

Does it suck more because she is a woman? How can that be? Shouldn’t the laws be gender blind?

Does Dana’s situation seem worse because it isn’t what she “signed up for” when she and Brad met, dated and got married?

Most relationships are based on an understanding between the parties of what their roles and responsibilities will be. when Dana and Brad got together, the expectation was that they would be arising power couple who shared both familial and earning responsibilities. The unspoken understanding was one which included a certain equality that no longer exists.

The purpose of spousal support payments is to prevent any unfair economic consequences that may result from the end of the marriage or to compensate for such unfairness. That is why spousal support is also known as maintenance or alimony, the latter deriving from a Latin verb meaning “to feed” or “to sustain.” Specifically, spousal support is meant to help the lower-earning spouse or the spouse who served as caretaker of the household and/or the children -- usually one and the same person-- transition through the divorce process until she or he has become self-supporting.

Ironic, isn’t it? If Brad had just gotten self-supporting during the marriage, it probably wouldn’t have gotten to the point where Dana was in my office calling him an a-hole, deadbeat albatross.

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