- Fail to plan ahead.
Men who are planning to leave tend to clean out bank accounts and hide assets, which are extremely difficult to recover. Women need to pre-plan for divorce just as men do. When the marriage starts to go bad, when he stops having sex with you or stops coming home at night, don’t make excuses, go to a lawyer and find out how to protect yourself.
If you’re the one who wants a divorce, figure out the family finances before you even tell your husband you want out. If your husband has been handling your finances, you may not know enough about what you have. Visit a divorce lawyer and a financial planner (preferably one who specializes in divorce planning) and get your financial ducks in a row before you even ask for a divorce.
- Assume your lawyer will take care of everything.
For many women in our generation, getting taken care of was the norm. So when divorce strikes, our first inclination is to put our fate in the hands of a white knight, another protector, our lawyer. Yes, you need a lawyer, but before you even walk into that lawyer’s office, you must educate yourself about divorce law in general and your state’s laws in particular. Get on the Internet or buy a book and start researching. If you’re not fully educated and proactive, you will wind up with a settlement you’ll regret for the rest of your life.
- Choose the wrong lawyer.
Don’t let desperation lead you to settle for the first lawyer you consult. When choosing a lawyer, consider his or her experience. You want a lawyer who specializes in divorce in your jurisdiction. The best way to get a good divorce lawyer is through a recommendation from a satisfied customer, preferably another older woman. So many women end up hating their attorneys that a satisfied customer is your best source of recommendations.
- Fail to consult a lawyer at all.
If you can’t afford a lawyer, but your husband has substantial assets, you can ask the court to order that he pay your legal fees, which is not unusual in cases of extreme inequality of assets. If there is a possibility that you may get a substantial settlement from a wealthy husband but can’t pay your lawyer a retainer up front, an attorney may agree to accept payment on contingency, as with a personal injury case.
- Rely on a mediator.
Mediators are supposed to resolve issues without conflict and save legal fees, but savvy divorce lawyers are adamant that you should not go to mediation unless the playing field is totally level between you and your husband. In order to get a settlement, mediators push the person most likely to agree – and that’s usually the woman. Mediators are supposed to be impartial and also inform both parties of their rights, but mediators are human and sometimes inadequately trained. If there are any contested financial issues, you may lose out big-time in mediation.
- Fail to ask for enough alimony.
Marriage is a legal and economic partnership and should be viewed in the same way as a business partnership. A woman who stayed home has invested in the skills of her husband for twenty years. Instead of putting money in the bank, she put it into a person. Women need to calculate what that investment was and negotiate from that. Run the numbers: what would it have cost your husband to pay someone to take care of the children, clean the house, cook the meals, and facilitate his ability to work overtime and get better training? Project the numbers outward so you know what your income is likely to be in the future, before and after you start collecting Social Security and/or your husband’s pension. If you can’t run the numbers yourself, see a certified financial planner who specializes in divorce.
- Insist on keeping the house.
Some houses can be more of a liability than an asset. Older divorcees need to run the numbers again before deciding to stay in the house. You may be better off selling the house and splitting the proceeds with your husband. Emotionally, it may also make sense to get out of a place you’ve lived in with him for twenty years and start fresh in an apartment or condo, where the maintenance is taken care of.
- Get bogged down in the Tchotchke Wars.
Too many older women get obsessed with fighting over furniture, antiques, knickknacks, and other possessions, losing the big picture in the process. It’s easy to waste your time and worse, your attorney’s time, in petty battles, but fighting over minor possessions just makes negotiations on the important issues, like the house and support, more difficult. Follow the usual rule for splitting possessions: you both get what you came into the marriage with, and split the rest. As for things that you acquired jointly that you really want, be a savvy negotiator. Make a list of your must-haves, making sure to include some less important items that you’re willing to let go. Then “compromise” on the non-essentials.
- Be overly anxious to get closure.
As attorney Elizabeth Bennett says, “If a woman hasn’t expected the divorce, she has a three-year learning process to deal with the three major issues: relationship and identity; home; and career. It can’t be done in six months and she can’t be pushed.” Too many women rush into divorce settlements that might be ill-advised because they’re seeking “closure,” but sometimes the desire for closure can mean the difference between a comfortable retirement and a marginal one. Remember, a piece of paper does not give you closure. Only time and working on yourself can do that.
- Believe your husband about his assets.
Women who have let their husbands handle the finances for twenty-five years have enormous resistance to finding out what the family’s assets really are. It may seem easier just to believe what your husband tells you, but as attorney Lynn Gold-Biken says, “When he decides to leave, he’s been to a lawyer and taken the financial documents out of the house.” She recommends not signing anything you don’t have a copy of, ever. Don’t sign anything without legal representation either. If you suspect your husband is hiding assets, talk to your lawyer about your options. You may be able to order him to produce financial documentation in court, or you may have to consult a forensic accountant to uncover his assets.
Whether we’re re-entering the workforce, reinventing a career at midlife, or choosing a financial adviser we can trust, other women like us are often our best resource. Ask a question or share what you know!