How to approach a quarantine-driven divorce | MassMutual

Thinking about a divorce? Take a breath before preparing

Shelly Gigante

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Jul 6, 2020

Not every marriage is a match made in heaven. If your relationship with your spouse was already in peril when the COVID-19 pandemic began, chances are that isolating together these last few months have made those pet peeves tough to ignore.

“We do anticipate that pent-up demand will lead to an increase in divorce filings, once the pandemic crisis eases and the courts reopen,” said Susan Myres, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and a Houston family lawyer for more than 30 years. “Some couples were already planning to separate, and being isolated together in close proximity has not eased the situation. In other cases, one party intends to divorce, but cannot contact an attorney when the other spouse is always present.”

Even healthy marriages can struggle when the daily routine suddenly shifts. Common triggers for marital stress include a job loss, moving, and starting a family — when it becomes necessary to negotiate work schedules, household duties, and parenting styles.

For many couples, the COVID-19 pandemic is the most time they’ve ever spent together, as they simultaneously juggle the challenge of working from home and, perhaps, managing their children’s remote education. Boredom can also take its toll, with social gatherings, dinner dates, and travel plans still on pause across much of the United States.

Under normal conditions, one or both spouses would spend much of the week working outside of the home, creating a natural buffer that helps put minor grievances into perspective.

Being home together all day can be too much of a good thing, even for long-established marriages. (Learn more: Severing the knot after age 50)

According to the most recent analysis of government data by the Pew Research Center, the divorce rate for adults age 50 and older has roughly doubled in the past 25 years. It has nearly tripled since 1990 among those age 65 and older.1

Push pause

If you’re planning to part ways, there’s much to consider — from getting your financial house in order, to alternatives to traditional divorce that could save you money and help facilitate an amicable separation.

But first things first. Chad Tourin, associate managing director with Coastal Wealth in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who is a former practicing tax accountant and attorney, urges spouses not to make any rash decisions during the ongoing pandemic.

The tension at home may be related to a recent job loss, financial strain, or a lack of social outlets that normally promote a better balance. In many cases, it’s all temporary.

“The most important tip that I can offer is to not let a financial discrepancy be the catalyst to getting divorced,” he said. “These are trying financial times for many and when things get tight, an otherwise small issue can be blown out of proportion. So I urge everyone to take a breath and work with their partner to try and resolve any disputes.” (Related: Do you and your partner need financial therapy?)

It's worth noting that times of crisis can also bring couples together. By necessity, they learn to express themselves more effectively, support each other, and gain perspective on what really matters.

“Four of our clients have decided to reconcile with their partners and are no longer seeking a divorce!” said Myres. “So I guess, enforced proximity for some couples has resulted in rediscovery of the qualities they once loved about each other. Maybe they were just running too hard in opposite directions before the slowdown.”

Family counselors and therapists, who are working virtually during the pandemic, can be an invaluable resource for many, she said, noting that couples who are struggling, but not yet ready to call it quits, “should certainly take advantage of this option.”

Prepare financially

For those with irreconcilable differences, there are some moves you can take now to protect your assets and make the process as painless as possible.

According to the AAML, more than half (58 percent) of their 1,600 members who were surveyed this spring reported that they were still receiving calls from individuals who wished to proceed with a divorce.

“We have advised some who have contacted our office that it might be a good idea to go ahead and file now in order to at least get a docket number, rather than end up at the end of a long line of complex cases,” said Myres.

The next step, she said, is to consider hiring a lawyer to draw up a postnuptial agreement, which anticipates in detail how property will be divided in the event of a divorce. (Related: The role of life insurance in divorce)

Tourin also recommends taking inventory of your household finances now, including all assets and debts.

“It is not uncommon for one spouse to handle all the finances for the family, and many times this leaves the other spouse blind to the family’s financial picture,” he said. “We live in an incredibly litigious society. One spouse may try to take advantage and negotiate things in their favor if the other spouse doesn’t know how much they have, where they have it, and who will get it.”

He specifically advises reviewing:

  • Tax returns and other financial records (make copies of these).
  • Personal property (jewelry, cars, artwork (take pictures of these).
  • Account statements (print copies).

“In a contested divorce, you never know if one spouse will empty out an account or restrict access to the account, and so it’s important to have an accurate assessment of your account balances,” said Tourin.

If a divorce is inevitable and not likely to be amicable, he also suggests removing your spouse’s name from any of your personal credit cards for which they are an authorized user.

“You don’t want your spouse running around charging things on your credit card out of spite because it will be considered marital debt,” he said.

Alternatives to divorce

Make no mistake. Getting divorced can be costly. The national average cost of a divorce is about $15,000 per person, which includes the attorney’s fees, court costs, and the cost of hiring outside experts, such as real estate appraisers, tax advisors, and child custody evaluators.2

That figure can be far higher in the case of a contested divorce, when one or more issues are being challenged.

It can also be an emotional drain, especially when children are involved.

If you want a way out without bleeding your bank account dry, or wrecking your relationship beyond all recognition, you may want to consider a few alternatives to parting ways.

The easiest step, especially for couples who are still deciding whether they wish to permanently end their marriage, is often a trial separation in which one or both parties simply move out. While state laws vary, physical separation generally does not affect the family finances. Property and financial accounts are still generally considered to be jointly owned.

There are other options. Conscious uncoupling, legal separation (available in some states), annulment, or divorce mediation can serve/achieve the same goal at a far lower cost. (Learn more: Alternatives to divorce)

“If things are amicable between you and your spouse, there are lower-cost alternatives to going through a traditional divorce,” said Tourin. “Working with a mediator is one of the best ways to save money.”

While attending a mediation or divorce hearing is difficult with social distancing measures in place, he said, many attorneys have adapted and are now offering online mediations where the settlement agreement can be digitally signed.

Conclusion

If your marriage is under pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic, you are not alone. Family law attorneys are predicting a short-term spike in the divorce rate when social isolation rules start to relax.

Before you begin legal proceedings, however, stop to consider that the source of your marital stress may be exacerbated by current conditions. Don’t throw in the towel until you’ve explored counseling.

Those who know their union can’t be saved, on the other hand, should take steps to protect their assets, contact an attorney, and consider alternatives that may facilitate a more amicable and financially friendly split from their spouse.

Discover more from MassMutual…

How to survive retirement with your spouse

Financial tips and advice for women in a divorce

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Pew Research Center, “Led by Baby Boomers, divorce rates climb for America’s 50+ population,” March 9, 2017.

Thumbtack.com, “How much does a divorce cost?” Feb. 17, 2020.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual and its subsidiaries, employees, and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.