Divorce and the Stay-at-Home Parent

Nearly half of married couples eventually terminate their marriages by divorce or dissolution, but most of us live our lives as if we are going to be in the other half. That leads to making decisions with the expectation that our marriages will last “until death do us part.” When that parting comes sooner, by way of divorce, spouses who planned to live happily ever after can find themselves unprepared to deal with an unexpected future. That includes many stay-at-home mothers and fathers. 

If you are an at-home parent, you may have given up a fulfilling career for your kids’ sake, with the understanding that you and your spouse were a team: one of you would bring home income, and the other would take care of your family and home. If you agreed to give up your job to stay home, you may have sacrificed not only current income but the prospect of career advancement. Meanwhile, secure in the knowledge that you had everything under control at home, your spouse was free to dedicate himself or herself to moving ahead at work. That benefited your family, too—until the decision to divorce.

Divorce Planning for Stay-at-Home Parents: Talk to an Attorney First

If your marriage isn’t working and you are thinking about filing for divorce, you might have many months to adjust to the idea of divorce and gather information that will be needed in your case. If your spouse has filed and you have been presented with papers, you may feel blindsided, and you will have less time to regain your balance before you have to take action. 

You shouldn’t panic, but you also need to act decisively. If your spouse has filed for divorce, you have only a few weeks in which to file an answer to their complaint for divorce. You cannot delay the divorce by refusing or failing to file an answer. Your first move should be to consult an experienced family law  attorney who can make sure your rights are protected in the divorce. 

You should be candid with your attorney about your concerns. For most divorcing stay-at-home parents, financial concerns are near the top of the heap. Your spouse has been the primary or only breadwinner, and you are probably worried about how you will support yourself and your children during and after the marriage terminates. How much child support will you receive? Will you be eligible for spousal support? You may also be worried about whether you will need to move out of your marital home, and who will pay the bills while the divorce is pending. Last, but certainly not least, you are likely concerned about how much your divorce process will cost. 

Your attorney will answer these questions to the extent possible, understanding that nobody can predict the future with 100% accuracy and lawyers do not have crystal balls. Having said that, your attorney can help you know what to expect as the case moves forward, and how the individual judges and magistrates likely perceive the issues. Child support is generally calculated using gross income of both parents, and a stay-at-home parent can be treated, for child support purposes, as having earnings from employment, called “imputed income” even if there is none.

Your attorney will also advise you about financial documents that you should gather for your divorce case, including income tax returns and W2s, pay statements, retirement statements, mortgage balances, credit card and bank statements. While it’s not universally true, often, stay-at-home parents have less knowledge of the family’s finances, which can put them at a disadvantage in a divorce.

In addition to your financial concerns, you are probably also worried about how parenting will be arranged (formerly referred to as “child custody”) and your children’s well-being during the divorce or dissolution process and afterward. Stay-at-home parents are not automatically granted sole residential parenting. Your attorney can explain how the allocation of parenting rights and responsibilities works in Ohio, and how your role as a stay-at-home parent might affect how parenting is arranged.

Your attorney will let you know what she needs you to do to help prepare for your dissolution or divorce case. In the meantime, there are other things you can do to prepare for your future. 

Preparing for Your Financial Future: Five Tips for At-Home Parents in Divorce

Especially if your spouse has been in charge of the finances in your marriage, the prospect of being responsible for your own financial future can be terrifying. Fortunately, taking concrete action can not only equip you for life after termination of the marriage; it will also relieve your stress. 

Make a Budget.

A lot of the financial stress for stay-at-home parents in divorce is not knowing if they’ll have enough money to make it on their own. But they may not have a realistic idea of what it will take to make it financially after divorce. Most attorneys recommend that you make a detailed budget so you can know what to ask for (and helps the attorney support your position) in the divorce.

Consider Your Credit.

Unfortunately, stay-at-home moms and dads often don’t have the greatest credit, often because they didn’t have credit in their own name during the marriage. It might not have seemed like a big deal then, but when you need to be able to rent an apartment or buy a house after divorce, your credit becomes critically important. Learn your personal credit score and if necessary, work with a credit counselor to improve your credit score before the divorce is final. Sometimes taking out a low limit credit card with a gasoline company or retail establishment and faithfully paying off each purchase as it is made will boost your credit score.

Plan to Work.

You may have planned to get back into the workforce eventually. Divorce or dissolution may just have hastened that day. While you may receive spousal support and child support, you will probably need to become self-supporting at some point. Now is the time to begin working toward that eventuality. It is an opportunity to reinvent yourself or to refresh your skills. Depending on how long you’ve been out of the work force and your previous training, you may not be able to jump back in with both feet. But even finding part-time work or taking classes at a community college can help you prepare for a return to full-time work, and make you more confident about your prospects. The costs of the training or re-certification can be worked into settlement negotiations.

Save for a Rainy Day.

Open your own account. Everyone should have at least three months of income saved up in case of an emergency: a surprise medical bill or car breakdown can wreak havoc if you don’t have a financial cushion. If saving that much seems impossible, save what you can; any amount of savings is better than none. 

Find Someone to Talk you Through it.

It is so very helpful to find a support network. There are many online communities to share ideas and information about budgeting, financial planning, re-entering the workforce, and other concerns. Please do not confide in your children, even adult kids of the marriage. Find a counselor or therapist to assist you through your situational anxiety and depression.

Update Your Estate Plan

In most states, including Ohio, a divorce revokes your estate plan with respect to your ex-spouse. In other words, you don’t have to worry about your ex inheriting your whole estate if you forget to change your will. That said, you should still update your estate plan to avoid confusion and ensure your wishes are met. Create a new will, update the terms of any living trust that you have (or revoke it and create a new one), and make sure that any powers of attorney or medical advance directives name the people you want making decisions on your behalf if you can’t make them for yourself. 

One bonus tip: believe in yourself. You can do this. It may be difficult, and you will have to grieve the loss of the life you expected to have. Beginning again on your own can be intimidating, but you are not alone. Work with an attorney who understands the unique challenges facing stay-at-home parents in divorce. To learn more about your divorce options as a stay-at-home parent, contact Melissa Graham-Hurd and Associates to schedule a consultation.