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11 Costly Financial Mistakes in Divorce Settlements

Divorce is expensive even without mistakes. Read on to learn of the top eleven most common financial mistakes made in divorce.     

1. Mis-Specifying Marital vs. Separate Assets

What’s considered marital property and subject to division? Most will say that any comingling of assets (e.g., depositing the funds in a joint account or using marital funds to pay the mortgage) constitutes an asset as marital. And in some states and counties, even if a portion of an asset that was separate on the date of marriage will, over the years, transition to marital. This can impact considerations of real estate, retirement, inheritances, and more.

2. Dividing Each Asset 50/50

Too often, lawyers, hearing officers, and judges take the easy way out by forcing division of each asset equally. Why? It’s easy and not easily challenged. This approach, though, fails to consider the needs and wants of each spouse, as well as the tax consequences of and administrative effort in dividing each asset.

3. Not Considering an Alimony Buyout

No one likes alimony. Payors hate writing the check and the recipient hates depending on it. Plus, if the payor dies or is disabled, the payments stop (an example of why insurance is important post-divorce). Instead, if there are sufficient assets to cover it, calculate the present value of the stream of anticipated payments at an appropriate discount rate and build it into the division of assets.

4. Errors in Valuing Executive Compensation

If there’s one financial topic that befuddles many, it’s how to treat deferred compensation, including stock options, both qualified and not qualified, as well as restricted stock and restricted stock units. Are they marital or separate? Are they based on past or future performance? Can they be transferred to a spouse/former spouse? What is the correct valuation method: intrinsic value, Black-Scholes, or the binomial method? How are taxes accounted for?

5. Not Considering the Possibility of Hidden Assets

Given the opportunity and motive, many a spouse will start stashing away funds in anticipation of a divorce, whether for financial security, sense of ownership, or vindication. Tax returns, W-2’s, credit card statements, and bank account statements are all sources to identify diverted funds. Even when not suspected by a client spouse, a quick review of these documents may reveal otherwise unidentified assets.

6. Not Looking at Creative Settlement Options to Meet Each Spouse’s Unique Needs

What if a spouse wants to keep the house for and can’t get approval for a mortgage buyout? It’s easy to just say “sell” and move on, but there are ways to facilitate the desire of a spouse who wants to remain in the home for a period without undue legal or financial burden to the co-owner spouse. As another example, maybe retirement funds are of utmost concern and alimony/cash flow not so much? A skilled divorce financial expert will come up with alternative settlement options to address the unique needs of each spouse.

7. Mistakes in Retirement/Pension Valuation and Division Orders

Retirement plans, and especially pensions, are widely misunderstood in divorce. The one who’s name is on the retirement plan thinks they are the rightful owners. Some incorrectly think the “current value” on a pension statement is the value of the pension. Pensions of all kinds, and especially military and federal pensions, require an expert for valuation and drafting of appropriate orders for submission to the custodian.

8. Failing to Consider Tax Consequences

All assets are not alike when it comes to splitting them in divorce. $250,000 in a 401k is not the same as $250,000 of equity in a house. The former is taxed at an ordinary income tax rate upon withdrawal while the latter may be largely excluded from any taxation and otherwise taxed at the capital gains rate.

9. Allowing One Spouse to Keep the House When it’s Not Financially Feasible or Beneficial

The marital home is an asset laden with emotion and sentimentality. It’s common to want to keep the house for emotional stability without consideration of the impact on future financial health. Houses don’t necessarily appreciate significantly over time, maintenance expenses are often overlooked or discounted, and a house is not a liquid asset. An objective evaluation is critical before deciding to keep or sell the marital home.

10. Not Properly Accounting for a Closely Held Business

If a spouse owns a business, is it a source of income, an asset to be valued and divided, or both? If a source of income, do we just look at the tax returns for the business? If to be valued, do you pay a business valuation expert thousands of dollars to get an accurate figure? Get the advice of a divorce financial expert is necessary if one of the spouses owns a business.

11. Not Accurately Budgeting for Your Post-Divorce Life

Do you have a good hold on where your money goes? Have you really assessed how much you will need post-divorce? Your choice in divorce settlement options needs to be balanced between short-term cash flow needs and long-term net worth.

Work with a qualified divorce financial professional, i.e., a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA®) to help you avoid costly mistakes in divorce. You only get one chance to get it right.

Take Control of Your Future

When you consider divorce, or if you know someone who is contemplating divorce, one of the biggest realities for those in the divorce process is the financial settlement and financial analysis post-divorce. Get the assistance of Berni Stevens, a Mediator and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA®.)

Berni provides step-by-step guidance on matters related to divorce. With a wide range of experience and expertise related to divorce issues, Berni will simplify the process and provide much-needed clarity in areas such as long-term tax consequences, asset, and debt analysis, dividing pension plans, continued health care coverage, stock option elections, protecting support with life insurance, and much more.

Schedule Your Complimentary Divorce Strategy Session Today!

How to Win in Divorce

In our most recent blog post, we looked at whether it is possible to “win” at divorce. There are many lawyers who claim they can do just that, and they will be happy to take your hard-earned money while they fight your war for you. The reality is, in the vast majority of cases, you’ll wind up no better off than if you’d negotiated to begin with while funding your lawyer’s kids’ college education instead of your own. 

Winning might instead be viewed as getting through this divorce transition with integrity, keeping more of your own money, and maintaining your and your children’s emotional health throughout. Ideally, you’ll do this without ever stepping foot into a courthouse or even speaking to an attorney. 

So, how do you get better outcomes, at a lower cost and without judges, courts, or even lawyers? If you have minor children and marital assets, don’t attempt a do-it-yourself divorce unless you want to risk costly mistakes that cannot later be reversed. If you want an easy, affordable, and legal solution, seek a qualified divorce mediator. 

You will want to find a mediator who has the knowledge, skills, and experience to guide you and your spouse to a financially optimized settlement agreement and, if applicable, with a parenting plan that preserves the integrity of your family. A mediator with the divorce financial expertise of a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA®) is ideal. 

How, though, to address the legal piece of your divorce? You will find that legal agreements and divorce papers are straightforward in a mediated case. These can be easily facilitated by your mediator so that you never even have to work directly with an attorney to process your divorce. (It’s never a bad idea, though, to have an attorney review your agreements before they are finalized, and this can be done at a minimal cost.)

Rationally approaching your divorce, along with a dose of grace, can result in a lower-cost and faster process while addressing your financial needs and preserving your family’s emotional well-being. Now, wouldn’t you agree this would be a “win” at divorce?

What it Means to “Win” at Divorce

Are you thinking about a divorce and wondering how you can achieve a lopsided division of assets and alimony, so you don’t have to work? And maybe sole custody of the children, too? If so, you wouldn’t be alone.

You’ll easily find a divorce attorney who will fight your war with you for years. And you’ll only end up where you would have if you’d negotiated to begin with. And guess what—you’ve funded your lawyer’s kids’ college accounts rather than your own. Is this a “win” at divorce?

Perhaps you should instead consider getting through this overwhelmingly difficult transition with dignity while keeping a lot more of your own money and maintaining your and your children’s emotional health throughout. In most instances, you can do that without ever stepping foot into a courthouse or even speaking to an attorney. 

The fact is that ninety percent of divorces don’t belong in the court system. When you involve the court, you give up total control around life-altering decisions regarding your assets, your income, and the custody of your children. Whether within or outside of court, if you involve an attorney for both you and your spouse—the traditional model—it will result in legal expenses that you can’t possibly fathom when you’re 1) just getting started and 2) convinced the “system” will see your side of what’s just. Attorney-driven divorce processes will not provide you with practical guidance and needed emotional support nor correctly value all your assets and considers both the short and long-term impact on each spouse’s financial health.

I set out years ago to find a better way to divorce, creating and refining a process to deliver just that. At TruNorth Divorce, we provide a legally-sound, one-stop solution for divorcing couples who want a financially optimized settlement that helps both spouses achieve their long-term goals. When children are involved, we also provide effective and durable parenting plans. Yes, there is indeed a better way that will be less expensive, faster, less stressful, minimize the negative impact on your children, and launch you towards a new and promising future.

Want to know more? Read How to Win in Divorce.

How to Choose a Divorce Process?

The complexities of a divorce case depend on a variety of factors, including how long you were married, the residency requirement laws in your state, whether you have children together, own a home together, have significant differences in your income, are self-employed, unemployed, or have debt or joint assets.

If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is! Don’t worry, TruNorth Divorce is here to help you decode divorce. Your first major decision in divorce is choosing the right divorce process and team of professionals for your divorce. In our previous post we outlined six alternative processes:

  • DIY
  • Mediation
  • Negotiated representation
  • Litigation
  • Arbitration
  • Collaborative divorce

This article addresses the criteria/questions you need to ask in order to choose one of these processes.

What are the Decision Criteria for Choosing a Divorce Process?

  • Presence or history of physical or significant emotional abuse.
    • If this is an issue, hire an attorney. 
  • The complexity of marital assets; do you share property, retirement accounts, or other financial assets together? 
    • If you share assets, rule out a DIY divorce. The mistakes you are likely to make will cost you far more than the expense associated with professional assistance. Settlement agreements are a one-shot deal and can’t be revisited after the divorce.
  • Presence of minor children; the process of divorce can be more complex when separating with children. 
    • Here again, a DIY divorce should be off the table. Unless you are in full agreement on parenting time, responsibility for important decisions affecting your children, expenses, relocation, etc., you need help developing a comprehensive parenting plan. This can be accomplished in mediation or an attorney-lead process.
  • Whether one spouse will actively or passively resist or stall the divorce beyond an acceptable waiting period.
    • You’ll need an attorney to establish a firm date of separation or get the divorce process started. Don’t, though, get sucked into litigating your divorce in court. Ask the attorneys you’re considering what percentage of their cases are settled out of court. If attorneys are required, negotiated representation is going to be less expensive than litigation. Also, you may still be able to mediate specific issues around custody, support, and division of marital assets and limit the attorney’s role to handling the legal process and those issues you aren’t going to be able to compromise on.
  • Do you already know your spouse and you will not agree to a settlement of financial issues and/or custody? 
    • Being amicable with your spouse is not necessarily a requirement for mediation but negotiation is. It takes two to negotiate a settlement, and the ability and willingness to do so is the number one requirement for whether mediation can be successful. If you or your spouse will resist the divorce or have demands that can’t be met in compromise, you’ll need the assistance of an attorney. 
  • Amount of money and time you’re willing to spend on the divorce; Know your full financial picture before you begin, as the cost of divorce, as well as scheduling time off work for meetings, can far exceed your original expectations.
    • Attorney-lead processes and, especially litigation, can get expensive fast. How much is it worth to you to avoid a contentious battle that may cost tens of thousands or more? Is what you aren’t willing to compromise on worth the extra attorney fees and emotional cost?
  • Your court’s backlog of cases; due to the pandemic your local court may be bogged down by cases and take much longer than typical divorce litigations.
    • Even if you think your case might need to be litigated, you may want to consider arbitration and avoid the cost, time, and lack of confidentiality issues that come with a court-driven process.
  • Your need for privacy: do you want to keep the details of your divorce and finances away from public access? 
    • If you want privacy, you need to keep your divorce outside of the court process, i.e., don’t litigate
  • The intensity of and ability to manage anger or grief; divorce causes varying emotional states to arise that range from anger to lowered self-esteem, to resentment and depression. How able are you to handle a contentious process–are you prepared to handle the toll of stress that arises from confrontation with your former spouse? 
    • Consider your emotional health and the impact it might have on your well-being, job, parenting, and more. It is another cost that needs to be factored into your decision on the divorce process. Attorney-lead processes are almost always contentious. You might consider a collaborative divorce (not necessarily Collaborative Law), that provides the assistance of mental health or other professionals on the team
  • Ability to express your needs to one another and be heard; this is a key skill in making the divorce cost as little time and money as possible. 
    • Being able to negotiate and compromise requires good communication skills. A good mediator can assist you with this but if it’s a “my way or the highway” situation, seek an attorney.

I hope that decrypts some of the confusion over what you should consider as you decide which divorce process works best for you. If you’re looking for more divorce guidance, please click over to my free eBook, 7 Things to Do Before You Divorce. Otherwise, schedule your TruNorth Divorce complimentary strategy session today.

An Optimal Divorce Settlement Agreement

One of the most important legally binding contracts that you will sign during the divorce process is your divorce settlement agreement. What exactly is a divorce agreement? And why is it so important? 

It can’t be stressed enough that your divorce settlement agreement should be taken seriously. This FAQ covers the in-and-outs of divorce agreements. We will discuss what should be included in your agreement along with some of the biggest mistakes made during the negotiation process. 

What is a divorce agreement?

A divorce agreement is a legal document that formally puts into writing all agreements made between you and your ex-spouse. The contents of divorce agreements aren’t cookie cutter. These contracts are tailored specifically for you. That is done by you, your ex, and any mediators or lawyers that may be involved.

What is included in a divorce agreement?

The specifics of a divorce agreement vary situationally but typically this document has detailed considerations surrounding but not limited to: 

  •       Division of marital property and debts (retirement accounts, sale of the marital home, etc.)
  •       Child custody and visitation agreements and/or parenting plan
  •       Child support and/or alimony (considers expected expenses like college education)

Does a judge rule on the agreement?

No. A judge must accept and implement the agreement. They do not rule on whether your divorce settlement agreement is fair (equitable). The judge only assesses the completed agreement for legality in terms of both state and federal laws. 

What are the steps in negotiating a divorce agreement?

The first step in the process is to get the proper legal forms. Next you need to fill in any relevant information you can (current addresses, the date of both the marriage and the separation, names of any children, etc.). After the basics have been handled, you can start drafting a proposed agreement.

Take this process seriously! Don’t sign anything right away! It’s imperative to evaluate settlement proposals and to go over the details down to the letter. You will have to make some compromises. Remember, your endgame is to walk away with an agreement that you both can live with. 

How do you create a divorce agreement?

How you go about your divorce settlement depend largely on the circumstances between you and your ex. Not having a third party mediate your divorce is one of the biggest disservices you can do to yourself . If your divorce is uncontested and amicable, you might be able to arrive at an agreement without pulling teeth. Nevertheless, it’s generally recommended that you work with a professional.

Seeking professional services to help negotiate and draft your divorce settlement agreement is in your best interest. The services of a mediator or lawyer bring a level of expertise into your negotiation and serve as a go-between throughout the process.

Should I choose to work with a divorce lawyer or mediator?

Most divorces don’t need to go to court to be resolved. If you are dealing with an amicable divorce, pursuing it through a divorce attorney and the court system will cost you more time and money. 

Choosing a mediator over a lawyer can bring a different type of expertise to the negotiating table. Professional mediation is usually less costly than going the route of hiring a divorce attorney. The average cost of divorce in the US is roughly $15,000 while the average cost of mediation is between $3,500 and $7,500, according to Thumbtack.com.

How can I help the negotiation process?

Divorce is a heavy life event. It brings a mix of complicated emotions and life upheaval along with it. Financial discussions—like the potential sale of your marital home—aren’t easy topics to broach. To move forward, splitting spouses must find common ground and settle on an agreement that is acceptable for both parties. 

It’s in your best interest to put your emotions aside and try to focus on the task at hand. While easier said than done, it’s beneficial to compartmentalize things as best as you can to keep the lines of communication civil and open. Communication and transparency are essential for negotiation.

What are some of the most common mistakes made during the settlement process?

Not updating estate documents, emotional attachments to assets that influence negotiations, neglecting to consider social security benefits or your pension, and failure to adequately assess and detail debts and assets are big missteps on the road to reach a divorce settlement. However, one of the biggest mistakes a divorcing couple can make involves the only other thing that you can’t escape in life besides death: taxes. 

 Not considering the taxes on any sales of joint property or the division of retirement accounts can really throw a wrench into things, and it can certainly mess up your post-divorce financial plan and budget. Accounting for any taxes you will owe ahead of time will save you a headache at tax-time—don’t let the IRS surprise you.

 

Hopefully, this FAQ sheds some light on the reasons why a divorce settlement agreement is important. Have you read  dos and don’ts surrounding the road to reach a settlement and still have questions? Visit TruNorth Divorce Solutions for a free divorce strategy session.

 

 

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