I was just shy of 22 and a recent college graduate when I got married. A few years earlier my husband-to-be’s sister had gotten married and then separated after six months. At the time I thought, how can you date someone for years and decide you don’t want to be married after only six months? Fast forward to the morning of my six-month wedding anniversary and I distinctly remember sitting across the kitchen table from him and saying to myself, oh yeah, now I can understand that. Even though I knew I had made a huge mistake, it took me another three years before I could get up the courage, and money, to leave.
My new husband had been a graduate student at Northwestern when I was an undergraduate. I was hired as a research assistant by his thesis adviser, and about a year after that we started dating. He finished his PhD when I was a junior and accepted a job as an assistant professor in Montreal. We dated long distance for my last year in school, and as my graduation approached we faced some decisions and geographical complications. I couldn’t get a job in Canada without a work visa, and as a new graduate with no experience it was going to be nearly impossible to convince a company to sponsor me. I wanted to go to graduate school anyway so I decided to add McGill University in Montreal to my applications and not only got in but received a stipend and teaching assistant job.
All in I would make about $12,000 a year as a grad student, which even in 1994 wasn’t close to enough income to get by alone. Throw in the fact that my mother was very opposed to the idea of living with someone before marriage and we decided to tie the knot. It was very much a practical decision with no romance involved. It went something like, “so I guess we could just get married.” “Yeah, OK, I guess that makes the most sense. We’ve been dating for almost 3 years and we’re not ready to break up.” “Alright, how about July.” “Sure.” A month after graduating I found myself standing at the head of an aisle in a puffy white dress thinking to myself, is this really it, forever? My college roommates smuggled in shots of vodka for me (I love them). My sister’s last piece of advice to me before I began the wedding march was, “you can always get out of it.” Not an auspicious start.
I couldn’t support myself on my salary, so as desperate as I was to leave I was stuck until my studies were completed and I could get a job. I was miserable. I was in my early 20's, living in the suburbs (his choice) and sporting a minivan in the driveway (his choice). A few years earlier I had dreamed of living in a high-rise in downtown Chicago and a driving shiny Beemer. Watching any movie set in Chicago brought me to tears.
He was pushing to start a family but thankfully I held him off. One day he told me that I wouldn’t know the difference if he replaced my birth control pills with a placebo, so I started hiding them. He questioned everything I bought, which was minimal outside of groceries and household supplies, but that was a way to emphasize his monetary control. I was a full time student and teacher commuting to school by bus and train while he took the car to work, and yet I also covered the lion’s share of household responsibilities. Once I confronted him about this inequity. He dove into a lengthy analysis of how an hour of his time was much more valuable than mine because of the gap in our earnings, and so it made sense for me to take care of the menial tasks (incidentally, he was an economist). Meanwhile, his research career wasn’t progressing well at the university, he was depressed and playing SimCity in the basement until the wee hours. Happy times.
Despite the deterioration in my relationship I simply couldn’t afford to strike out on my own. I cried every day on my way home on the train. I thought about transferring to a school in the U.S. but that didn’t solve the money problem. I stuck it out and finished my degree but it took me six months after that to find a job as Canada struggled through a recession. When I finally started a full time job I still was not making much money, but it was significantly more than my student salary. I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. Each day I planned to go home and tell him I was leaving, but I was terrified because I had no idea where I was going. I did anything I could after work to avoid the conversation – I went out with work friends, I took up running despite the sub-zero winters – and I continued to cry on my way home. Finally, after 11 months at my job I mustered the courage to pull the plug. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1997.
I waited downstairs on the scratchy couch in the basement for him to come home, and when he walked in the room I calmly told him that it was over. He had very little reaction, nodded and seemed to expect it. I was shocked but relieved. I said all I cared about was the kitchen equipment and china and he could keep everything else including the car and the house – my first of many incredibly dumb financial decisions, but I offered that olive branch because I felt guilty for leaving. He agreed and we started talking practicalities. I hadn’t planned ahead so I had no choice but to stay in the house for a while and we became ships passing in the night. Eventually I arranged to move into an extra bedroom with some friends. Everything was still proceeding smoothly with the separation and I couldn’t believe I had waited so long, maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
Not long afterward, about 6 weeks since the Thanksgiving Day denouement, a friend asked when I was going to serve my estranged husband with divorce papers. The thought had never occurred to me. I was thrilled I had gotten the words “I’m leaving” out of my mouth and myself out of the house. The next step seemed unimportant at the time, but I realized she was correct, I needed to get the process in motion. I didn’t know where to begin and thankfully she took the wheel. Her husband’s cousin was a lawyer and he asked her to refer me to a divorce attorney. I engaged the lawyer, we served divorce papers, and then the fun really began.
The next day my roommates and I heard someone pounding on the front door and shouting that “he knew I was in there.” I ignored it and hoped his anger would pass. After all he hadn’t been happy in the relationship either and he must realize this was the best for both of us. I finally agreed to talk to him after a few of these door-pounding incidents so that we could get on with our lives. I asked him what had changed – those last few weeks I thought we had been moving toward this result. His response was that he thought I had a temporary break down but that I would never have the “balls” to go through with it. I’ll never forget the way he looked at me when he said that – I didn’t have enough inner strength to see my decision through to the end. I said, “well, you have underestimated me.”
That conversation was among the most memorable of my life, and now I look back on it as a turning point. I pushed ahead and only communicated through our lawyers. He had hired a well-respected attorney based on his assertion that he was going to get some money out of me. Blood from a stone? I couldn’t imagine what he thought I had to give. The reality was that he had income, a pension and a house to which I was entitled half but I just wanted out and was willing to walk away from all of it for my return to freedom. I thought he was getting a pretty sweet deal.
Shortly thereafter, I learned his plan at a deposition. He had bought the house we lived in prior to our marriage and his parents had given him the down payment for it. It wasn’t an expensive house, if memory serves it cost just north of $100k back in 1993, and I think they had given him something like $15,000 or $20,000 for the deposit. At the time I asked him why his parents were gifting him this money and he responded that they had helped his sister through her divorce financially and they wanted to even the playing field. Sounded reasonable and it really had nothing to do with me since we weren’t even married yet. But during this deposition he claimed that the down payment was a loan to “us” and that I owed him half of that in cash. He even had his mother call my mother and record the phone conversation with the hope of bullying her into some type of bizarre admission. My relationship with my mother was strained at the time due to her negative views of divorce, and he wanted to leverage that against me.
This was a ridiculous sum of money that I did not have, not to mention that the logic was completely flawed. First of all, I had never signed any type of loan document and the money had been a gift from his parents to him. Second, even if it had been given to both of us, then any equity in the house was half mine as well – and there was equity in the house at this point. But the third reason was the final death knell. I tracked down the mortgage loan application from his bank, not an easy task in 1998, and found that if the down payment was borrowed in any way then it must be declared as such or risk defaulting on the loan. Boom! I knew he hadn’t declared that so we presented his lawyer with this information and asked if he preferred to pursue this ridiculous vendetta or have his mortgage called by the bank. The silence was stunning. He vanished.
My lawyer couldn’t garner a response from him or his attorney for years. I had a four-year relationship in the time between this and when we were legally divorced. Every day I feared that he could have some claim on the income I’d made during those years, and I had come to the sad conclusion that I might be legally married to this person forever. I changed my beneficiary on my 401k to my sister but I was told that as long as I was married I needed his signature for it to be valid. Areyoukiddingme?? He refused to respond to any correspondence and meanwhile I was still paying my lawyer for every unanswered letter sent.
One day in 2003 I was sitting in my office when my phone rang – it was my lawyer. My ex had called him and wanted to finalize the divorce. Oh my g-d, holy miracle Batman, I heard angels singing and church bells ringing. Where do I sign? Then my lawyer told me to hold my horses. He had not spoken to him, and could not speak to him without representation by counsel, so I had to call him. I said I had no desire to speak to him, and he said if I wanted to get divorced in my life time then I had no choice. I took a deep breath and dialed the number I had been given. An answering machine picked up (it was 2003 after all) and it was his voice welcoming me to leave a message for either him or that of a woman. Ahhhh, now it made sense. He was living with someone and I assumed they wanted to get married. When we finally spoke on the phone it was perfunctory. He expressed his desire to end this charade and he was willing to use my lawyer as a mediator as his had abandoned him long ago when she realized there was no opportunity for financial gain. This translated into me paying for all of the legal and mediation fees, but again I was so eager to exit this situation that I didn’t care about the money despite the fact that I still had student loans under my belt. Not long afterward my divorce papers arrived, I signed them with glee, put them in the mail, and proceeded to celebrate with copious amounts of wine.
The lesson I learned, and the one I’ve seen play out with clients in my career, is that often women want to exit the world of emotional hurt they’re experiencing during a divorce at any cost. They sacrifice their financial security by making decisions before they fully understand the situation. I was young, educated and gainfully employed so I didn’t worry about walking away with nothing, but it was still the wrong decision. For a woman who has been out of the work force for a number of years raising children the stakes are even higher.
I had the luxury of being the one to know in advance what was happening, so I had the opportunity to plan ahead but didn’t take it. Know what your first move is after that initial conversation. If you are not the partner leaving and you are taken by surprise, then it’s more difficult to plan ahead, but I believe it’s wise for any woman to have a safety net prepared. My advice to my younger self, and generally all women, would be the following.
- Set aside enough cash to pay for a move, establish a new residence, legal fees and cover 6 months of living expenses.
- Track your spending. If you have children, you may need to pay for all of their expenses for a time. Think about future expenses as well, such as upcoming college tuition or summer camp.
- Regularly monitor credit card statements and bank statements for irregular spending or large withdrawals.
- Make sure you know all of the passwords for online accounts.
- Make copies of statements for bank accounts, credit cards, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, insurance policies, and legal documents.
- Open a separate bank account if you only have a joint account, and cancel any joint credit cards once the split begins. If you have not established your own credit independently then start immediately. Since I was already married when I moved to Canada I had no credit record in that country. I had to ask my boss to guarantee a card for me.
- Don’t agree to anything or sign anything until you get professional advice from a lawyer.
- Don’t make any financial or legal decisions based on guilt, pride or shame.
- Research the divorce laws in your state. Is it a community property state or an equitable distribution state?
- Consider the tradeoff between cash settlements and real estate. If you own income-producing property, in the long run that could provide more security than a fixed-period alimony settlement. Alimony rules vary by state as well.
- Be aware of how you handle any inherited money. Generally, it is not subject to equitable distribution if the money is kept separate, but if the inheritance is in a commingled account it can become joint property.
- Gather the team you need to make the best decisions for your future including accountants, financial advisors, lawyers and emotional support.
Much of this advice is valid for anyone regardless of your relationship status. Maintaining a 6-month financial cushion, knowing passwords, having copies of documents and tracking your spending are all key elements in safeguarding your financial future.