After more than 30 years as a family law attorney, I still worry about some clients as they leave my office with their divorce decrees in hand. Some are still swimming in emotion. Some have tragedy on the horizon as they walk into new relationships before they are fully healed. The clients I worry most about are those who have been stay at home parents for long periods of time during the marriage. Those clients often face the most difficult emotional and financial “hits.”
No family expects divorce, but if one parent is planning to be a stay –at-home parent there are important things to consider to avoid devastating consequences if it does happen. (Although I am beginning to see men as the stay at home in recent years, I am using “her” as the gender for the stay at home parent).
I cant’ tell you the number of times I hear, “I told her to get a job and she wouldn’t,” while the other parent responds, “He may have mentioned my going back to work but he also liked not having to deal with the house and children as well as his job. Plus there was the high cost of child care.”
To avoid crisis if divorce erupts here’s what I recommend to stay-at-home parents:
- Have a detailed plan. Develop a plan that includes how long a parent will stay out of the workforce before one parent moves forward with staying home with children. Smart couples have a deadline for the stay at home to return to the workforce that is re-evaluated in a focused discussion each year. Discussions about all aspects of the stay at home arrangement should take place in person, at designated times and not just in passing when emotions are running high. I like to say that all discussions should be “kitchen table” discussions when the kids are not around.
- Enlist a third party to assist you with the plan. Get help from a family lawyer, financial planner, counselor or family mediator at the outset, and also when tensions erupt. Difficult conversations are easy to avoid. A calm third party can facilitate a discussion that results in a clear understanding and agreement. These experienced professionals also know the impact of staying home with the children and can assist with a list of things to consider that couples overlook.
- Prioritize finances for both parents. Despite our fluid roles, I still see that one spouse typically handles the finances. The other spouse often delegates that task and then never pays attention. Smart couples meet monthly to review detailed family finances. I encounter numerous divorces where one party thought there was plenty of money when it turns out the family was living on credit cards. “I tried to tell him/her we were spending too much,” is a phrase heard often in my office.
- Be clear that alimony won’t support your lifestyle. Stay- at- home parents often believe if they divorce the income earner will absolutely be obligated to support the parent who stayed home. This is simply false. Alimony laws are in a state of flux in many states. In the vast majority of cases the stay at home will have a short time to receive a small amount of “rehabilitative” alimony and then they are expected to get to work. There is only so much money to go around and in most families it is impossible to support two separate households on one income.
- Keep your skills and contacts sharp. Don’t completely unplug from the work world while staying home. Take an online course or courses, and keep your skills current. When I took time off from my law practice while my children were small I hired a sitter for a few hours and attended bar association meetings and seminars. I never said I was “offline” in my work; I simply didn’t discuss my caseload (which was virtually non-existent for a time). Once I re-entered nobody knew that I hadn’t been practicing law all along and I was able to get up to speed quickly.
- Fund retirements for both parents. A good financial planner can advise on how the stay at home can save for retirement. Although all retirement earned during the marriage is usually divisible to both parties in divorce, the emotional attachment to retirement accounts by the working spouse causes conflict in many cases. Retirement funds set up for each party help diffuse emotion at the negotiation table if divorce ever comes up.
- Stay connected in your marriage. Child rearing years are difficult on even the strongest marriages. One spouse in the business world and one at home all day can create a gap in interests and experiences that over time can erode connection. Prioritize time as a couple and take fights seriously as a warning sign. Working on your marriage may seem like the last thing you want to do amidst the exhaustion of all your obligations, but it will be the greatest investment you will ever make.
- If you do face divorce, explore collaborative law. If you have to divorce there are respectful processes that work to move both parties forward in a dignified manner. Consult with a family lawyer to see if you and your spouse are candidates for collaborative divorce.
Kimberly Stamatelos is a mediator and family law attorney in West Des Moines, Iowa. She is the author of the book “The Compassionate Lawyer” available on Amazon.