There are two types of men who ask this question: good men and bad men.
So many people, when they see a question like yours (i.e., “As a man, what steps can I take to safeguard my interests before telling my wife I want a divorce?”), think “He’s a bad man because he’s trying to divorce at his wife’s expense.” Maybe that is his intent, but his question does not necessarily mean that.
Sure, there are men who have no desire, no intent to do right financially by their wives and/or children in divorce. I am not addressing them.
While there are many reasons for divorce, some men who are contemplating divorce do so specifically because of financial distress caused by their wives. Wives who refuse to live within their means, wives who insist on running up more and more debt, wives who refuse to work to support the lifestyle they want, etc. A man in these circumstances is not only miserable in his marriage but terrified as to what he’ll be saddled with in divorce.
“Will I have to pay my wife more alimony and/or child support than I can afford?”
“Will my wife be awarded the lion’s share of the assets, while ordering me to be responsible for the bulk of the debt?”
When a man is burdened with crushing and unfair debt, alimony and/or child support obligations, it can literally cripple, even kill him. And the men who crushing and unfair debt, alimony and/or child support obligations do not kill go through life feeling as though they’ve been sentenced to a life of hard labor, forced to pay more than half of their income for years to someone they’ve tried to get out of their lives. It’s hard to roll out of bed every morning and go to work knowing that you only get to keep about 40 cents (or less) of every dollar you earn.
These are serious, legitimate questions many men face in divorce. If a man in these circumstances has the opportunity to plan and prepare against the worst that divorce can do to him financially, he has every justification for doing so. Indeed, if he fails to plan and prepare, he has no one to blame but himself for the adverse consequences that flow from such a failure.
Don’t misunderstand me: I am not advocating for “scheming” to deprive your wife of her fair share of marital assets and a fair amount of support, if she is deserving of such. I am talking about planning and preparing so that—financially speaking—you are not exploited and treated unfairly in the divorce process. With that stated, here are some preventative measures you can take:
- If you can, for most kinds of debt (not all) get them paid off before you file for divorce. The reason is simple. If you don’t get the debts paid off, then your wife may ask the court to divide the assets between you equally (that’s usually how it works), but then claim, “My husband makes 75% of the household income, so he should be responsible for 75% (or more) of the debt.” So you see the problem. The “50%” of the marital assets you ostensibly got isn’t really 50%. Thus you also see the solution: if there’s no debt, then there’s no debt for the court to order you to pay too much of. Yes, paying off the debt may reduce the amount of marital assets, but at least you don’t walk away with less than your fair share of the assets that remain after the debts are paid off.
- This is one of two corollaries to #1. Once you have the debt paid off, make sure your wife cannot keep incurring more of it with the creditor. If you pay off credit cards and lines of credit, close the accounts too. Tell the creditor on a joint account you hold with your wife: “I paid off this debt and I have closed the account. I do not authorize my wife to “resurrect” this account on her own.” If your wife is merely an authorized user on your account(s), you can simply write (keep a copy of your letter/e-mail) to the credit card company and direct them to remove her name as an authorized user. But I’d still close that account, even after you’ve removed your wife from the account, just to bring the matter to a decisive close.
- This is two of two corollaries to #1. If you have a lot of money in joint savings accounts, use those funds to pay off marital debt, so that you don’t have a bunch of money in the bank for your wife to claim half of, only then to have the judge in the divorce case order you to pay off the marital debts month to month out of your own earnings later.
- Don’t use marital funds to pay off your separate debts. That’s only fair and only makes sense. A good example: if you have a student loan, that’s yours, not your wife’s, to pay. And the same principle applies to your wife, if she has a student loan.
- Divorce before you get a major raise in pay. I’ve seen what happens when you don’t. If you have lived on $65,000 per year for the past 10 years and think you may soon be due for a big (or little, for that matter), raise, do what you reasonably can to get divorced before then.
- This is a corollary to #3. If, as the Utah Code states it, yours is a “marriage of long duration [that] dissolves on the threshold of a major change in the income of one of the spouses due to the collective efforts of both, that change shall be considered in dividing the marital property and in determining the amount of alimony.” This is only right and fair. Don’t let your wife cheat you out of her fair share, but don’t cheat your wife out of her fair share either.
- Maintain the expenses that you incur to maintain your lifestyle. Otherwise stated, don’t reduce your expenses to make divorce “more affordable.” This is one of those situations where no good deed goes unpunished, so forewarned is forearmed. If you reduce your expenses, all that does is free up more money for your wife to claim as being available for her.
- This is one of two corollaries to #5. If you have been a frugal person up to the point of divorce, now is the time to start “treating” yourself. Get that dental work done that you’ve put off up til now. Join that health club you’ve been meaning to join. Replace your 10-year-old car with a new or newer one (and having a monthly loan payment won’t hurt you when it comes to your “ability to pay” alimony—again, any money you don’t spend on yourself is money your wife will claim—and the court likely will also claim—is available to give to her. As with the other principles I’ve share above, don’t abuse them so that you cheat your wife out of what she in fairness deserves, but if your wife is greedy, make it as hard for her to be greedy as possible. That’s only fair too, frankly
- This is two of two corollaries to #5. If you’ve historically worked overtime, stop. Believe it or not, if you’ve worked overtime during the marriage, the court will almost surely expect you to continue to do that after divorce, so that you can pay your ex-wife alimony. Even if you never really needed or wanted to work overtime, and if the only reason you worked overtime only long enough to dig you and your family out of the debt hole that you and/or your wife dug for yourselves, this is another “no good deed goes unpunished” scenario that I’ve seen so many men get shafted by. Indeed, I’ve seen wives time their divorce filings so that they run up huge debts, get their husbands to work off the debt, and then file for divorce immediately thereafter so that they can calculate child support and alimony based upon that 60+-hour per week income!
- By the way, fellas, if your wife asks you to work more and/or spend more to get her unnecessary cosmetic surgery, that’s a sure sign she’s going to leave you and divorce you, just as soon as it’s done. Even if she couches it in terms of “get me that breast augmentation for your benefit, dear,” it’s a scam. Forewarned . . .
- Keep scrupulous track of your spending. Use a credit and debit card whenever possible to document your expenses and spending. When you do spend cash, keep track of that in a ledger for all such cash transactions. If you claim, “My expenses are $X per month,” but you have nothing to prove it, the court can impute to you more or less whatever expenses it wants.
- Inventory and photograph and video record all of your property, both marital and separate. Make sure the photographs and video records are time and date stamped. Make sure you e-mail copies of the images to yourself and to a trusted person to document the fact that “this is what we owned when I took these pictures, and I can prove this is when I took these pictures.” Once divorce is in the air it’s not unusual for the unscrupulous spouse to start selling off or giving away or otherwise squirreling away valuable items, either to finance the divorce or to stockpile for personal use down the road.
- Clean the skeletons, if any, out of your closet. ‘Been fond of a little blow on occasion? Stop.
- Watch what you do and say. Once a divorce is in the offing, “anything you say can and will be used against you” by your wife, if it can be used against you. Avoid the very appearance of evil.
- If your wife is the type to try to frame you for domestic violence, make sure you know how to quickly turn on your phone’s video and/or audio recording functions to capture her pulling the “Get out of my house or I’ll call the cops and tell them you tried to punch me” routine—and yes, guys, this happens a lot and it can happen to you. Be prepared. Sure, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Having a recorder handy is also good for any confessions your wife may make about substance abuse, infidelity, and other matters that can impact the division of marital assets, debt, and child custody.
- If you have children and want to get joint custody of them, you will have your work cut out for you. While it’s never been better for men to get joint custody than it is today, it’s been a long, hard, bitter slog to get to where we are today, and there is still a long way to go. There is a double standard at work in most states when it comes to deciding whether a father gets joint custody. So give yourself every advantage.
- don’t move out of the house until absolutely necessary or until the court orders it. If you voluntarily move out to give your wife space and in an effort to reduce the tension and conflict, your wife won’t give you the credit. Instead, she’ll claim you “abandoned” her and the kids
- know your kids. Know their hobbies, their friends, their teachers, their favorite foods and colors, etc. Help coach soccer and little league. Don’t just attend doctor and dentist appointments. Schedule them sometimes too. Be able to show you are an engaged and involved parent.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277