Articles Posted in Spousal Maintenance

Something I have been seeing more and more in my practice as a mediator and collaborative attorney are couples living apart for long periods of time, without being legally separated.

For various reasons, many married couples decide to separate for years without having any legal agreements in place. They don’t realize until years later when one of them is seeking a divorce that the legal, financial and emotional issues caused by the years of separation can become very difficult to resolve.

Below are just some of the pitfalls that people encounter when they separate unofficially:

  • When two spouses start living separately, the clock starts ticking on a new status-quo. Eventually, the lifestyle maintained by the lower-earning spouse during the separation can become the standard for the amount of spousal support that is required in the future.
  • Non-legal separations do not necessarily end the legal financial union between spouses. That means all the money earned – or debts being incurred – by either spouse may still be considered part of the shared marital estate.
  • The higher earning spouse is not necessarily going to get credit under the law for the amount of support they’ve been providing.
  • Once a couple moves into separate residences, communication between them can break down even more than it was while they were living together, which makes negotiating a separation agreement even harder than it has to be.
  • If either spouse starts a new relationship and spends money on the new partner, it can be considered a “waste of marital assets,” which can result in complicated requests for repayment (financially as well as emotionally).

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When a couple divorces, it is usually the case that neither party gets everything he or she wants. Understanding and accepting this fact before you start the divorce process can help make the process less costly – both financially and emotionally.

One of the many things I have learned from my family law clients over the past 20+ years is that when they strive for an outcome (whether via agreement or court order) that provides them with everything they want, they are inevitably disappointed. Perfection is not achievable in life and it’s certainly not achievable in divorce. Instead, I encourage my clients to think about what a “good enough” outcome would look like.

For example, if we’re talking about spousal support – How much money per month do you really need or can you afford to pay? What are the most realistic options that are available to you now that there will be two households instead of one? Many times sketching the financial picture makes people cringe – especially if they’re being told things that they don’t want to hear, such as “You have too much debt,” or “You’re going to have to return to work.” But sometimes there is no way around these facts. It’s better to accept reality and work within those parameters, rather than to strive for an outcome that may look perfect to you but will leave your soon-to-be ex (and perhaps the children) suffering terribly.

Lately, women are being encouraged to “Lean In”, which is the title of Sheryl Sandberg’s book that encourages women to take an active role in their career development. So I found it very interesting to read an article in the New York Times Magazine titled “The Opt-out Generation Wants Back In“. It not only spoke to me because of how confusing all of these messages can be for women, but also because as an attorney and mediator who works with divorcing couples, I’ve seen the fall-out when women who opt-out of viable careers to devote themselves to their families end up divorced.

The story, written by Judith Warner, is part longitudinal study and part confessional, covering the lives of three women over ten years who decided to “opt out” of the working world to take care of their children. With husbands who brought home mid-six figure salaries, it seemed to them like the ideal opportunity to step off the career track and choose instead to be home with their children.

But for the women in the article, betting on “perfect” did not pay off. For example:

The issue of temporary maintenance for a spouse pending the conclusion of a divorce is often a challenging and divisive aspect of the divorce or separation process, and clarity in how awards should be granted is a key aspect of promoting equity. Kudos to the First Department for providing clarity to the new temporary maintenance guidelines that were signed into law in 2010. In what is the first Appellate Division case to date interpreting this legislation, in Khaira v. Khaira, the Appellate Division First Department ruled that it was an error of a motion court to duplicate an award of temporary maintenance by directing the husband to pay in accordance with the formula set forth in the guidelines and then adding an obligation that he pay the wife’s housing expenses as well.

By way of background, the legislature’s approach to temporary maintenance awards experienced a seismic change in 2010 when Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(5-a) was signed into law, bringing with it a formula that must be used to determine the amount of support. Before it was passed, judges had much more leeway in ordering temporary maintenance. The statute, which is designed to create greater consistency, requires the court to explain any deviation that it makes from the result which is calculated using a specific formula. Rather than aiming merely to “tide over” the non-monied spouse, the new provision creates a substantial presumptive entitlement based upon a formula using a percentage of each spouse’s income.

Initially, many divorce lawyers were not happy about the new law, as they considered it to be both rigid and potentially inequitable.