Andy was desperate: he owed more than half a million dollars in back child support and his ex-wife was seeking enforcement, including a violation for failure to pay, which would land him in jail for up to six months. They had been divorced for about 10 years but at the time, he had agreed to pay through the nose.
“I felt bad,” he explained. “I was the one leaving the marriage, and at the time I was doing really well at work.” His feelings of guilt landed him with high payments and no assets (he gave her the house too). His payments became untenable when the economy soured and his job was cut.
This is called Divorce Guilt and it can plague the spouse who is seeking the divorce.
In Andy’s case, my office helped him get reduced arrears and lowered payments to a reasonable amount — in large part because the “child” was now an adult. But not before Andy had spent a decade fighting against compounding debt, bill collectors and bad credit.
Other examples of divorce guilt? A few years ago, I had a client who needed post-divorce help to overturn his agreement, in which he had agreed to pay more than 65 percent of his annual income for the care and maintenance of his ex-wife’s six cats! You read that right: six cats. Guilt over leaving the marriage had played a large part in his terrible agreement. Flash forward and the ex-wife was getting the cats spa treatments on my client’s dime — he pay me to rid his life of this feline mistake.
Even a fellow-lawyer — I’ll call him Bill — fell susceptible to divorce guilt. Bill told me about his rushed divorce agreement, and how, despite his first-hand experiences as a litigator, he let his guilt get in his way. “After a while you start to feel like a wallet,” he said. “You have no control over the decision-making for your child or how she’s spending the money. You just pay.”
In Bill’s case, he had agreed during the marriage that his wife could stay home for a few years, but she later refused to revisit that decision when the couple was in financial crisis. “Then what?” Bill asked. “Do I file for divorce because she won’t work, when there is a 3-year-old at home?” Because of that guilt, Bill waited years before the divorce took place, which in the end only lead to steeper financial repercussions:
- Maybe if Bill had filed for a divorce earlier his wife would have realized the severity of her refusal to work and a discussion might have facilitated her returning to work, thus saving the marriage.
- Alimony (called maintenance in New York) is calculated (generally) in part based on the recipient’s age, training, ability to work and the duration of the marriage. If Bill had filed divorce earlier, his numbers would be that much lower because his marriage would have been shorter. Now, with a 12-year-old in the house, his ex- has been out of work for more than a decade – she handicapped her re-entry into the working world and tried to increase the duration of alimony.
- Assets: shorter marriages tend to generate fewer marital assets that must be divided or provided for — including the marital home. Here in New York, a court is more likely to sell a marital home, even where kids are in the house, if the kids are younger and the marriage is short. If there is a child attending high school, many courts may maintain the “status quo” and let Mom stay in the home until all the kids graduate (or turn 18), and then order the sale of the house.
Of course, early in the marriage my friend Bill wasn’t emotionally interested in filing for a divorce. I’m not a therapist and I am not advocating you end your marriage prematurely because of financial reasons. But I am pointing out issues that should be considered when you decide to work and “be the provider.” And, at the end of the day, guilt over letting go of your role as provider can lead you into bad decisions in your divorce.
Did your divorce guilt interfere with you making sound divorce decisions? Discuss in the comments. Originally published at The Good Men Project.