Guide to Handling Your Financial Life After Divorce
BY: Janet Berry-Johnson
January 11, 2017
Divorce is often a time of financial upheaval. Dan Burges, a financial adviser and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) with Ameriprise in Southlake, Texas, says, “Everything is different. Even if you are in the same house and same job, it is different. Your bills aren’t cut in half, but your income might be. You may even be spending more for child support and alimony.” So while it may be tempting to go on a spending spree to celebrate your newfound freedom – or go into hibernation mode and ignore your money altogether – it’s more important than ever to get educated about handling your financial life after divorce.
Don’t make rash decisions
Many people who are still reeling emotionally from a divorce are prone to making rash decisions they later regret, such as buying or selling real estate, cashing in retirement assets, or changing jobs or even cities. Take time to process and get yourself together — financially and emotionally — before you make any large purchases or other big financial moves.
Avoid the temptation to indulge in “retail therapy” after a divorce, whether to dull the pain, prove to yourself that you can still maintain your same standard of living, or just replace the material objects in your life with ones that don’t remind you of married life. If you must spend money, at least try to avoid using credit cards. Otherwise, bad decisions will just make your problems worse.
Set up your finances for success
The first step to managing your finances after divorce is to create a budget. “It’s especially important to think beyond your monthly expenses, such as mortgage and electricity,” says Avani Ramnani, a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and CDFA with Francis Financial in New York, N.Y. “Think about one-time expenses such as vacations, weekend trips, and emergencies. People tend to forget about them.” Ramnani says you should also remember expenses relating to your home. “If you own your own home, something is always breaking down or needing repair. You need to account for these,” she adds.
Burges agrees that budgeting is essential in your new circumstances, and he recommends looking at your cash flow daily. “You’ve got the app on your phone,” he says, “Don’t be scared to look at it.”
Budgeting can also help you avoid getting deep into credit card debt, a common problem when people are adjusting to a new standard of living after divorce. Burges says he sees too many people with debt piling up before they realize it.
In addition to budgeting, there are several steps you should take to get your finances in order after a divorce.
Get all assets in your own name
If you kept the family home after the divorce, you need to refinance the mortgage to have your ex-spouse’s name removed from the loan. Just as you did when you initially took out the mortgage, you will have to apply for a loan and go through the underwriting process. But this time, the lender will look only at your income and credit so you will have to be able to qualify on your own. If the refinance is approved, you can have your ex-spouse’s name taken off of the deed to the property by filing a quitclaim deed. An experienced attorney can help with this. If you cannot qualify to refinance the mortgage in your name alone, your best course of action may be to sell the home and move on.
Bank accounts that were owned jointly may need to be closed and the assets transferred to new accounts in your name only. Typically, your bank will not be able to just remove your ex-spouse’s name from the account, even if the divorce decree assigns the account to you.
Cancel joint expenses
Any credit cards issued in both names will have to be closed and accounts reopened in your name. Think about other costs that were shared jointly such as utilities, auto loans, and leases.
Even if the divorce decree specifies that your ex-spouse is responsible for a debt, if any joint debts still have your name on them, missed payments will continue to affect your credit score.
Before you close any joint credit card accounts, consider opening a few accounts in your name. Once you start closing credit cards, your credit score will take a hit. Opening a few cards in your own name before you close the old accounts will ensure you continue to have access to credit.
While you’re at it, change the passwords on all your account pages, especially if they were known to your ex-spouse or partner.
Rebuild your credit
If your credit accounts were jointly held with your ex-spouse, they might be closed as part of the divorce process, and you may need to start rebuilding your own credit.
Part of your credit score is based on the length of your credit history, so closing all of your existing accounts and opening new accounts will negatively impact your credit score.
You may have also racked up debt to pay attorney fees or other expenses related to separating and setting up a new household. Your budget can help you plan for paying credit card bills and other debt payments.
Get into the habit of checking your credit report at least annually by pulling a copy of your credit report from all three credit bureaus for free through AnnualCreditReport.com. Watch out for other services that promise a free copy of your credit report but require you to sign up for other services.
Once you get your credit report, review all information to make sure that there are no errors and that none of your ex’s accounts or information are on your credit report. If you do find any issues, contact the credit bureau to have the error corrected.
Prioritize paying off debt
If you come away from the divorce with a lot of debt, make it a priority to pay it off as soon as possible. If you are living on a tight budget, that may mean being more frugal or getting a second job to bring in extra money.
Make sure your budget includes setting aside money for the future. Ramnani recommends taking stock of all of the assets you have left after a divorce – retirement, non-retirement, and real estate – to figure out if they are enough to last for the long term. “If a woman is dependent on spousal maintenance, at some point that will stop,” she says.
That’s because spousal support payments are rarely permanent, unless the spouse receiving payments is elderly or has health problems. The courts typically award alimony on a temporary basis in order to allow a former spouse time to complete an education program or get back into the job market. “You may think you can just live off of savings after the maintenance payments stop, but is it really enough to sustain you long term? Those questions can be difficult to face,” Ramnani says.
If a woman receives spousal support from her ex, Ramnani recommends setting aside spousal support payments for long-term savings.
A financial adviser can help you model your financial situation based on income, savings, Social Security, and other assets to see whether you have enough to continue your way of life or whether you need to make other plans to support yourself.
Consider hiring new financial professionals
Married couples often share financial and tax advisers. Should you continue working with the same professionals after a divorce or hire your own to avoid conflicts of interest? Burges says that decision is very personal. “Consider how much you trust that person. If the financial adviser and your ex were college roommates, then you should find someone else,” he says. “You need to feel confident that whatever you say to your adviser isn’t being repeated to your ex-spouse.”
Ramnani agrees that people should make their own decisions about whether to stay with the same adviser or find a new one. “At the end of the divorce process,” she says, “take stock and think about what makes the most sense.”
In some cases, your ex-spouse may have handled all of the finances, and this is your first time managing them on your own. Make sure you have someone with experience to help you navigate your new reality. Ramnani and her firm specialize in working with women going through emotionally traumatic life events. She says many of the women that come to her felt like their adviser had lost track of them since their ex-husbands were more involved.
Burges also recommends working with a certified public accountant the first time you file your taxes after a divorce, even if you are used to doing your taxes yourself. “Your taxes may be super simple,” he says, “but a CPA will ask you questions about things you may not have thought of before.”
Change beneficiaries on all of your assets
Changing beneficiaries is another important step to managing your finances after divorce. Most likely, your ex-spouse was named as a beneficiary on life insurance policies, auto insurance, retirement plans, annuities, and bank and brokerage accounts.
Burges points out, “if you switch advisers, you’ll have to set up new beneficiaries, so that is one way to clean up.”
If you and your ex have minor children, talk to your attorney before you name a minor child as a beneficiary. You may need to set up a trust. Otherwise, your ex-spouse may get control over any assets left to your kids.
You should also talk to your attorney about updating health care directives, living wills, and powers of attorney, so your ex-spouse isn’t in control if you are incapacitated.
Handling joint expenses
Divorced couples with children often need to continue sharing certain costs, such as summer camps, college expenses, and field trips, long after the divorce is finalized. What is the best way to handle these ongoing conversations?
In these cases, it pays to plan ahead. Ramnani says most attorneys today consider those items when drawing up the divorce agreement, and a good financial adviser can help you make sure all of your bases are covered if you let them take a look at the agreement while it is still in proposal form.
Burges recommends getting the divorce decree to explain, in detail, what child support covers. “Some people see child support as strictly covering a roof over their head, food, and clothing,” he says. Consider who will be responsible for paying for medical care, school fees and supplies, child care, extracurricular activities, music or dance lessons, your child’s first car, and even entertainment and travel expenses. “Try to get your lawyer to define what the child support is for. It may be something you argue about during the divorce process, but it will be worth it in the end. Set yourself up for success,” Burges says.
Ramnani also recommends keeping very detailed records of any joint expenses in case of disagreements. In the end, though, she says, “that’s the reality of life. If you share children, you still have to deal with each other. Hopefully, it’s at least a cordial relationship so you can speak openly.”
Dealing with college financial aid
Applying for college and navigating financial aid can be a stressful time for divorced couples. No matter your financial situation, you have to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order for you or your child to access assistance from federal, state, and college financial aid programs.
Your FAFSA is used to determine your family’s ability to contribute funds for college. In order to arrive at that calculation, the application requests household income.
A divorce decree may allow one parent to claim the child as a dependent, even if the child lives with the other parent 90% of the time. For FAFSA purposes, who the child lives with matters because that parent’s income will be used to calculate their financial aid need. If maximizing college aid is a priority, it might make sense for the child to reside with the parent with the lowest income. In that case, the lower-earning parent should claim the child as a dependent on their tax return in the year before the child applies to college.
Gray divorce presents unique challenges
“Gray divorce” is the term for the divorce trend of Americans age 50 and older, and a 2013 study by researchers at Bowling Green State University found that the divorce rate among couples age 50 or older doubled between 1990 and 2012. While divorce can be a blow to the finances of couples at any age, it can be especially damaging for older couples who are close to retirement.
Burges says many retirement plans are made based on the couple not getting divorced. “Pensions, 401(k)s, annuities. You’ve been putting a plan together, then your assets get cut in half but your expenses in retirement don’t. That can be a massive setback on your retirement plan. He says the knee-jerk reaction is that you won’t be able to retire when you thought you would. “And that’s often true unless you’re able to really step up your retirement savings. If you’re 10 years or less out, that’s hard to do.”
The bottom line
Handling your financial life after divorce starts with a realistic evaluation of your current situation. That can be difficult to face if you are still reeling emotionally from the split or find yourself with more expenses and less income than you are used to working with. If you find it too difficult to do on your own, consult with a CDFA who will take the time to figure out where you are, where you want to go, and how to get there.