Common Divorce Scenarios

Divorce is as varied as the people involved, and the process is never the same. As you proceed toward filing for divorce, be sure to understand how the divorce might play out depending on factors, including whether you and your spouse have children, you have a high net worth divorce, or even whether a business is involved. Learn the answers to common questions about prenuptial agreements, online dating after a separation, child custody agreements and more.

What exactly constitutes a "high net worth" divorce?

According to the legal definition provided by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a high net worth divorce involves an individual with a personal net worth, or a couple with a joint net worth, that exceeds $1 million at the time of filing. Another way of defining the concept involves counting recent personal income. If you earned in excess of $200,000 in each of the past two fiscal years -- or if you and your spouse earned a joint income of over $300,000 during that same period -- your marriage might be considered "high net worth."

Assets accumulated during a marriage can make life fun and easy, but these same assets can create unique challenges during divorce. Common issues that you might face include:

  • How to distribute holdings fairly and evenly;
  • What to do if you suspect that your spouse (or his or her family) is hiding assets;
  • How to enforce or contest a prenuptial agreement.

What are the most commonly contested assets?

Asset valuation is extremely important, and the process can be subjective and can spark rancor between the two parties. Common assets might include real estate, property, 401(k) accounts, stocks, investments, retirement funds, business entities, and other physical property. In a high net worth divorce, each side typically evaluates assets with professional assistance.

Evaluating stocks, investments, and business holdings is typically simple. But some assets, such as paintings, heirlooms and jewelry, tend to have both monetary and sentimental value.

What happens to a business in Virginia that’s co-owned by spouses seeking a divorce?

When spouses share or co-own a business, complications can arise for the business itself as well as for its employees and clients. Here are three common scenarios. First, the business could be sold or liquidated. The spouses could then divide the proceeds and move on. Second, one of the spouses can purchase the other’s interest in the company. Third, both spouses can work out an arrangement to continue operating the company after the marriage ends.

Is the marital estate distributed evenly?

In Virginia, all marital property is subject to equitable distribution, while separate property usually remains separate after the divorce. While marital property is subject to equitable distribution, don't confuse this concept with equal distribution. The courts will consider each party’s relationship to individual assets, including monetary and non-monetary contributions, ongoing maintenance, care, and acquisition.

Do spouses ever try to hide assets or property? What does that look like?

Yes. People can and do hide assets and property. For example, a spouse might quietly transfer money from a joint account into a separate account, transfer assets to a friend, overpay the IRS, delay a promotion or raise, or create fake expenses. Some tactics are hard to uncover and harder to prove. In addition to being obviously unethical, such behavior can constitute criminal action and merit criminal punishment.

How can you protect your privacy during a high net worth divorce?

High net worth divorces can be heated, and depending on the circumstances, highly emotional for the parties involved. Local or even national news outlets might take an interest, depending on the nature of the split, the people involved and the assets at stake. To protect your privacy, change online passwords and account information, limit important conversations to face-to-face discussions, gather important financial documents and store them in a private place, and be careful what information you share about the divorce and with whom.

How can social media impact the divorce process?

Be careful when taking to Twitter, Facebook, your personal blog or even Instagram after a divorce: pitfalls abound. For instance, let’s say that you’re really mad about your husband’s infidelity. You rant about him on Facebook and post unflattering pictures of him with the other woman. Your husband’s attorney could cite these incendiary status updates, especially if you posted racy or doctored photos or used threatening language, to urge the court to restrict your rights in a child custody case.

What rules of etiquette should govern how you behave on social media sites?

Don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know, and think twice before posting. If you have a potentially racy or risqué post or a picture that you’d like to upload, step away from the computer first for at least an hour. Come back when you’ve “cooled off.” By then, you can make a more sober assessment about whether to publish.

Online social forums bridge the gap between public and private spaces. On the one hand, you may only permit a select group of friends and acquaintances to access your photos and status updates. On the other hand, when you put any information online, you can never be 100% sure that only your friends and family members will see it.

For instance, maybe a person whom you believe to be a trusted friend suddenly develops sympathy for your spouse and starts to report everything you say online to him or her.

This process can touch off unwanted drama. Even if your spouse cannot use your negative comments against you in court, the online behavior can torpedo future negotiations or complicate the co- parenting arrangement. As a general rule, don’t publish photos or comments online that you wouldn’t want the entire world to see.

Is there a safer, smarter way to use social media to get support and validation?

After you separate from a spouse, you may find yourself craving to reconnect with friends, family and old colleagues. You have legitimate needs for support, empathy and good advice, and you should strive to meet those needs. The key is to find acceptable outlets.

To use social media (or other social outlets) best, first identify what’s missing in your life. For instance, maybe you miss spending evenings with your spouse, and you’re craving companionship. If that’s the case, meet up with friends in the real world or consider getting a pet. If you need empathy – i.e. hearing others reflect your feelings – talk to a therapist, or lean on a close friend who has excellent listening skills. If you just need to “vent,” do activities to let out stream, such as racquetball, yoga, meditation, or cycling at the gym.

What if your spouse engages in inappropriate behavior on social media?

If your spouse says or does anything objectionable online, you might be able to use that evidence in your case. Admissions made online can be used against the offending spouse. Snooping is not generally advised, however. Instead, speak with your divorce attorney to determine whether and how you should respond.

How much will your divorce cost you?

Divorce costs vary widely, based on the scale and complexity of the marital estate, the legal issues at play, whether or not the divorce will affect children or other dependents, whether or not the couple owns a business together, and myriad other factors.

The average divorce in the U.S. costs approximately $15,000, but this is not necessarily what yours will cost. If your case is litigated, or highly contested, the legal fees will be higher. You can sit down with your attorney and discuss the cost-benefit analysis in your case and what to expect.

For a hotly contested divorce between two high net worth individuals who have multiple children and businesses as well as properties that need to be evaluated, liquidated and distributed, the final “bill” could easily exceed what the average cost is. Hiring experts like therapists, co- parenting counselors and forensic accountants can be an expensive, albeit sometimes necessary, strategy.

Straightforward divorces can be far more modestly priced. For instance, let’s say you and your partner were only married for a year. You have no children and few major assets, and you want to obtain an uncontested divorce on friendly terms. This would result in a much lower cost to you.

All that said, be mindful of the indirect costs of divorce.

What are “indirect” costs?

In the short term, the divorce can obviously attenuate your income stream. With a reduced income stream to support your lifestyle and business needs, you could tack on credit card debt or run into budgetary shortfalls.

Being divorced can also tax your time. For instance, let’s say you have two children. Even if you split physical and legal custody evenly, you’ll still have to spend a lot of additional time handling the nuts and bolts of childcare. These restrictions will in turn limit how much energy and time you have left to work to earn money or build a business.

In a journalistic exploration of this topic in The Atlantic, authors Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell contend that “Over a lifetime, unmarried women can pay as much as a million dollars more than their married counterparts for healthcare, taxes, and more.” Their article, The High Price of Being Single in America, argues that indirect costs of being un-partnered often go unrecognized and underappreciated.

So how can you make the divorce less arduous, from a financial perspective?

Work with a financial planner and accountant to trim the fat from your personal budget. Improve your personal productivity to regain lost time. For instance, let’s say that you typically spend two hours a week going shopping at the grocery store and CVS. Perhaps you could migrate all your shopping online and use a company like Amazon Fresh to deliver your groceries and sundries in half the time, allowing you to “get back” an hour a week.

When you aggregate the time savings, the numbers become impressive. A single hour reclaimed a week adds up to four hours a month, 48 hours in a year, and over a month within 15 years.

Search for ways to save time and money on a recurring basis, and get creative. Explore ways to boost your income at the same time as you look for budget cuts. For instance, maybe you and your spouse currently send your children to private schools. Consider migrating them to public schools to save money on tuition or applying for financial aid or scholarships.

Don’t be shy about asking for financial help as well as for volunteers to assist with household chores, errands and other essentials. If friends or family live nearby, they can be a great source of support. If not, to relieve some of the financial stress, consider moving near them, when the time is right. Share the burden of childcare and self care, so you can pursue your career and life goals.

Understand your rights and obligations regarding child support and spousal support. If and when you get remarried, your new spouse’s income can supplement your own and help you build up savings and plan for the future. However, if you receive alimony, when you find a new partner, those alimony payments will go away, so you’ll need to plan for that contingency.

When can you begin to date after a divorce?

This is an intimate, highly personal question. However, some powerful new sociological research suggests some basic rules. In his book, The Marriage-Go-Round, prominent sociologist Andrew Cherlin warns of the dangers of rapid re-partnering after a divorce.

If you have children, and you want to create a stable environment for them, post-divorce, Cherlin’s research suggests that you should “take it slow.” People who re-partner rapidly -- particularly those who bring in and expel multiple partners from the home – can create an unstable environment, which can cause children to feel depressed, fall behind at school, and struggle socially and emotionally. Counter-intuitively, the research suggests that kids do better in stable single-parent homes than they do in families with more authority figures, if those authority figures cycle in and out of the household.

How should you use online (and other) dating services during the divorce… if at all?

The best practice in Virginia is not to date during your divorce. Besides emotional and personal pitfalls, dating can have unintended legal consequences that can bear on your finances or custody and visitation. Be careful about your physical safety as well as your emotional well-being. You might yearn to “get back out there,” but it takes time to process the end of any serious relationship, particularly a marriage that lasted many years. This article offers more excellent insights into how to handle the complex process of dating online after a separation.

How can you keep your emotions in check during a nasty divorce?

Impulsive, emotional decisions can wreak havoc on a sensitive divorce process. For instance, you might, in a fit of emotional pique, “splurge” on a weekend trip to Vegas with your college friends, switch jobs suddenly, or do something outrageous on Facebook or in real life. Divorce can tweak your emotions and challenge you on every level. Strive to limit emotional “acting out” for obvious reasons. A single misjudgment can throw a wrinkle into your case, and a decision like quitting your job or spending $10,000 on a weekend adventure can undermine your finances for months or even years to come.

How can you hedge against such impulsive actions?

First, know yourself. Even if you’ve never gone through a divorce before, you hopefully

understand who you are, what drives you, and what triggers you to act inappropriately, when you do. For instance, perhaps you tend to struggle most frequently late at night. Or maybe thinking about the person who had an affair with your spouse triggers you intensely. When you understand what “sets you off,” as well as why and how you typically respond, you can “pre- think” your responses, so that you’ll make more judicious, strategic decisions that won’t leave you feeling with regret the following morning.

How can you “pre-think” better decisions?

Try this exercise, known as “if/then” thinking. Here’s how it works. Brainstorm contingencies that might trigger you, and then pre-define how you would want to act, ideally. For instance:

  • IF I start having racing thoughts about the other woman, THEN I will immediately call my sister or my friend, Suzie, to have them talk me down.
  • IF I get the impulse to post something nasty about my ex on Facebook, THEN I will write down exactly what I would love to post in my personal journal (not to be shared with anyone) and treat myself to a ice cream cone or a warm bubble bath.
  • IF I wake up in the middle of the night, panicked about my personal finances, THEN I will immediately write an email about my concerns to my accountant and review and send that email in the morning, once I’m rested.

By engaging in this type of process -- thinking about how to tame your triggers and meet your needs -- you’ll be less likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors.

What if you left your spouse (or your spouse left you) after “coming out of the closet”?

Most Virginians grew up in a culture that’s been if not outright intolerant of homosexuality than certainly less than welcoming. Sadly, many people live their lives “in the closet” for decades before finally they come into terms with their sexuality. Whether you had an epiphany that you’re gay or your spouse did, approach the situation with mindfulness and compassion. Therapy might be a positive experience. The Straight Spouse Network can also be a useful resource.

What if this is your second (or third or fourth) divorce?

Legally speaking, if you go through multiple divorces, you may face a more sophisticated and complicated financial situation, particularly if you still owe money from the first divorce or you still collect or receive child support from it. Your Virginia divorce attorney can help you understand and manage these complications. From a psychological standpoint, a second (or third or fourth) divorce can be challenging in new ways. Even if you’ve already been “through the ringer,” each divorce has unique characteristics, emotionally, socially, and financially.

The good news is that you know from experience that you can survive a divorce. The bad news is that you need to go through the process again. Pay attention to patterns in your relationships. Perhaps you’ve just had lousy luck. Or maybe your relationships are breaking down for some other reason. Consider exploring your patterns and choices with a therapist.

How can you succeed as a co-parent?

First off, to the extent that you can, forgive your ex-spouse for past trespasses, even if he or she doesn’t forgive you. Strive to weather the co-parenting challenge in a friendly, conscientious way. Secondly, strive to be “business-like” in your co-parenting. By “business-like,” we mean friendly but not overly intimate, direct, honest, and results focused. It can be awkward to engage in business-like interactions with your ex, at first, especially since you and the other person spent so much time in an intimate dynamic. But everyone involved in the relationship – including your ex, yourself, and your children – will benefit if the co-parenting is organized and systematic.

Avoid using your children as go-betweens to carry messages or money between you and the other parent. Likewise, avoid using your children as spies to ferret out information about the other parent. If you suspect that your children are not being well rested or fed -- or that they’re suffering abuse while in the other parent’s custody -- do not ignore those concerns. Talk to your attorney. And if you’re concerned for the children’s immediate safety, call the police.

Be kind and officious at pick up and transfer times. Above all, strive to be an active listener with your kids. Be present for them. Be aware of your reactions to their behavior and to the behavior of your spouse. In fact, if you just hold onto this one principle -- be aware of yourself and how you co-parent -- you will be well set up to weather whatever storms present themselves.

How can you be a more active listener?

Here are some ground rules. Active listening, also known as “empathy,” is different from storytelling, solution-finding and sympathy. It’s about holding up a mirror to another person – about being a sounding board as opposed to a guide.

For instance, let’s say your child complains about a teacher who punished him for not doing his homework correctly. Here are non-empathetic (but common) reactions:

For instance, let’s say your child complains about a teacher who punished him for not doing his homework correctly. Here are non-empathetic (but common) reactions:

  • Jump to solutions: Let’s figure out how we can get your homework in on time.
  • Default to blame and judgment: It sounds like your teacher is a really mean teacher.
  • Tell stories about yourself: When I was in second grade, Mrs. Hood gave me three hours of homework at night, and I couldn’t stand it!
  • Express sympathy: Oh, I feel so bad that you’re struggling so much at school.

In all these cases, you’re not actually listening – you’re making the situation all about you.

Active listening is about being present with whatever your child is experiencing right now, without trying to solve anything, do anything, or judge anything or anyone. Your goal is just to be a sounding board or “emotional mirror” for your children:

  1. Begin by just observing what’s going on. For instance, you might say: wow, Mrs. Nelson slammed you with 8 pages of homework.
  2. Then guess at what your child might be feeling or experiencing. I’m betting you’re feeling pretty overwhelmed, huh?
  1. Then guess at the underlying needs not being met. You probably want more ease and support in that class.
  2. Then make a request to confirm the child has been heard. Did I get that right?

Marshall Rosenberg, author of some excellent books on empathy, including Nonviolent Communication, discusses this process for how to listen actively here.

How can you plan for life after divorce?

Right now, you might find it very hard just to plan the day, let alone the weeks or months ahead. Recognize that divorce is just a temporary station in life. You will be able to get over it and move beyond it. Life will unfold in new, fascinating, and exciting ways. Don’t give up on your dreams. Appreciate that while the divorce marks a profound and stark end to a period of your life, it doesn’t mark the end of your life as a whole. You will have opportunities to love again, to build intimate relationships, to experience wonderful new things and new moments.

As Nelson Mandela once beautifully put it: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

Even a complex situation can have a favorable outcome

Your divorce does not have to be clear-cut to achieve terms that are favorable to you. Whether you seek a simple and amenable separation or have complex issues at play in your case, a skilled divorce attorney can guide you through the process, leaving no loose ends and ensuring that you can move on thanks to a solid foundation established during the divorce.

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