Street Smarts

By staff June 1, 2008

My mother divorced my father when I was four. She had to work two jobs; my father paid her $25 a week. When my dad died in 1989, I was the executrix to his estate. I found a letter from my mom saying that $25 wasn’t enough. I also found receipts for a Rolex and a jade ring.

Especially in Sarasota, there are people who have been married since their 20s. They’ve raised the kids. Suddenly they’re sitting across the table staring at each other, saying, “I always dreamed of retiring to paradise, but you know, paradise isn’t with you.”

When you’re getting divorced, by far the worst mistake you can make is not getting help. So many people don’t know what they’ve got. There’s a difference between a mutual fund that’s already been taxed and a 401k that hasn’t been taxed. Or, say you have a rental condo and a house on a lake. The lake house has been in your family for decades—it was purchased for $25,000 and it’s now worth $250,000. The condo was purchased for $200,000 and is now worth $250,000. You might look at these as even. But the lake house represents a much bigger capital gain.

I’ve got 26 years of investment experience—I know how to sniff. There was a case in which a husband had forged documents. The CPA said his documents all added up, but the wife said, “I know he’s lying.” After eight hours of going through her banker’s boxes, I discovered a statement he’d forged. He had all this income and then he made it look like the world had stopped.

When you’re looking for an attorney, the majority of his or her business must be family law. You don’t want someone who’s focused on other things and taking your case just to string you along.

If you’ve been married for 20 years and haven’t worked, courts will want you to find employment, but they’re realistic. Chances are, if you can only get a job at $8 an hour and you’re accustomed to a lifestyle where you had $2,000 a month, you’ll be awarded alimony. But if you’ve got experience or a college degree, courts expect you to get out there and earn it. Still, you can be given a “rehabilitation period,” a short period of alimony to go back to school and refresh.

Collaborative divorce is a 17-year-old movement, but it’s just now getting big in this area. It’s for people who don’t want the anger, the anxiety, the contention. A family law attorney, mental health professional and CDFA work as a team and sign a contract saying we will not go to court. Of course, we can only do this with people who are willing to fully disclose their assets. You have to see it as restructuring the family.

Too often, people are focused on the short term. Mediation takes a snapshot, but the marital settlement is permanent. My job is to project the long term. For instance, many times women want to stay in the house—the “marital museum.” But often [I have to show them] they can’t afford it.

Back when my parents were getting divorced, a man could take his whole pension out and his wife would never know. Now, anytime you move qualified money, both spouses have to sign. But you have to pay attention and know what you’re signing.

In some cases, a husband has a large pension that his wife thinks isn’t available until he’s 60 or 65. That’s not the case. We go to the company, and that future pension becomes a lump sum—net present value. The wife takes the lump sum up front and invests it. Otherwise, if the guy doesn’t inform the company and then remarries, it changes everything.

Make sure you have an investment counselor you—not just your spouse—can talk to. Take enough interest so that whoever is doing investment for you communicates well and doesn’t talk over your head.

Locally, the Family Court Professional Collaborative is the only court-sanctioned group of its kind. In court, the judges have to decide on divorce settlements—they don’t know you, and they have all of 10 minutes to make a decision. Judges involved in the FCPC try to teach a change in attorneys’ posturing and the pettiness that ends with nobody feeling like they won.—Interviewed by Hannah Wallace

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