If you’re divorcing and not working, you might regret it. Why?
Standard advice used to be not to go back to work as it would likely impact the alimony you’d receive and not just the amount but also the duration.
You’ll rarely hear that advice these days. Gone are the days of lifetime maintenance, and if you’re not working you’re at risk of being treated as voluntarily unemployed. That means alimony being based on what you could be earning.
Apart from the adverse legal impact, delaying going back to work means you’re hampering you’re ability to be financially self-sufficient and the person that hurts the most is you.
How soon should you go back to work? How do you juggle work and the kids? What if you’re not able to do the work you did before?
Joining me to chat about these questions and more is Ann Grant who is an attorney and experienced her own high-conflict divorce. She’s also the author of The Divorce Hacker’s Guide To Untying The Knot: What Every Woman Needs To Know About Finances, Child Custody, Lawyers And Planning Ahead.
Listen in below or keeping reading …
Not Working Isn’t An Option
If you are able to work, then these days courts and judges are expecting both spouses to be contributing to their own support and the support of their children. That applies to men and women regardless of how long you’ve been out of the workforce. It also applies almost regardless of child care needs – we discuss this more later.
If you’re not working then the court will ‘impute’ income to you based on what you’re capable of earning and that will reduce the amount of spousal support you receive.
“It can really backfire if you are not working and you’re capable of working,” said Grant.
How does the court determine what you’re capable of earning? That’s where a vocational assessment comes in.
What Is A Vocational Assessment?
If you’re not working and you’re working through the legal process using attorneys (as opposed to mediation), then your spouse would likely request a vocational assessment.
Such an assessment is conducted by a third-party professional and examines your credentials, education, and work history to determine the work you’re qualified to do. The assessment will also analyze and evaluate the jobs that are available in your geographic area. Additionally, they’ll look at how long you’ve been out of the workforce, qualifications and skills that need to be updated, how long you could reasonably expect it to take to find employment and also the impact of your age. The assessment will suggest an expected salary range.
Like many things in divorce, this can often be a negotiation – your spouse might want to use one professional and you and your attorney might prefer another so you could end up with two reports.
Grant says that people shouldn’t be worried about a vocational assessment and sometimes she’ll even recommend that non-working clients go through the process voluntarily.
“I’ve actually had clients tell me that they were really happy that they went through it because it gave them some ideas for work that they could do that hadn’t occurred to them,” said Grant.
It’s helpful to shift your perspective on this. Instead of looking at it as your STBX trying to pay as little support as possible, look at it as the first step in your quest to become financially independent.
Document Your Job Search
You’ll want to keep really good records of your job search. If you don’t find a job before you and your STBX go to mediation or to trial, you’ll need these records.
“The key here is to not be a shirker,” said Grant. “That is someone who’s trying to avoid going to work. You want to demonstrate that even if you’re not employed, you’re looking for employment.”
You’ll want to keep copies of advertised positions for your area of expertise and the stated qualifications, jobs you’ve applied for, what interviews you’ve had and any feedback prospective employers have given you.
Not only will this information establish that you’re not a shirker, it will also help you if you need to challenge any aspect of the vocational evaluation. You may also be able to use it to argue for a longer transition period or more assistance with additional training and education.
Don’t Quit Your Job
Grant says she is asked by clients if they should quit their job and she always advises against that. The goal is to become financially independent and doing that on your own terms is best.
“If you’re earning your own money, you’re going to have more confidence and feel more sure of yourself as you move through the divorce process,” said Grant.
Not quitting doesn’t mean you can’t change your job and especially if you think your current work environment is not going to be compatible with life after divorce and shared parenting. If such changes involve a reduction in income however, you’re going to want to consult with your attorney. You don’t want to take a lower paying position and find yourself imputed with a higher income.
What If You Can’t Work?
The court will consider chronic illness as a reason for not being able to work but you will need strong third-party documentation to support your case. Short or long term disabilities are also considered. Since spousal support is often modifiable, it can mean adjustments to the amounts payable.
I always tell clients that being awarded spousal support and receiving it are two different things. The possibility that your STBX won’t make the court-awarded payments or will go back to court for a modification, makes it even more important for you to become financially self-sufficient.
What About Child Care?
It’s often a shock to stay-at-home parents to learn that the courts really do expect them to return to work even with young children and yes, there are times when the associated childcare expenses means this is not particularly cost efficient.
Nevertheless, unless you and your STBX can agree to a compromise, courts want to see you working towards that goal of being financially self-sufficient because the sooner you start on that journey the better. Pushing this hurts you in the long run because it means you’ve been out of the workforce for longer and the risk that you’re skills are outdated increases.
The best strategy here is to look for work options that will work with your situation. Working part-time is a great start and more and more companies are offering options for working remotely.
Early Retirement Isn’t An Excuse
I have worked with clients who consider themselves to have retired early. For example, the company they worked for went through a merger, they got a severance package and then didn’t go back to work. Or maybe they had a serious health issue, stopped working to deal with that and then didn’t return to work.
While you might consider yourself to be retired, the court is going to expect you to be working.
“The legal retirement age is the age that is used,” said Grant. “And there’s substantial case law that if you stop working before retirement age, you’re not relieved of your support obligations.”
Legal retirement age is the normal retirement age set by the Social Security Administration and it depends on your birth date.
Hearing how courts look at the non-working spouse can be a harsh reality check for some and especially if the divorce was not their choice. It’s certainly not what most people expect but Grant likes to suggest looking at as an opportunity.
“I think it can be incredibly fulfilling to have a satisfying work life where you’re doing work that matters and you’re making a difference,” said Grant.
Of course, the court can’t force you to get a job and can’t force you to show up to work. That’s up to you. If you do choose not to return to work, your alimony is likely going to be based on your ‘imputed’ income and then you’ll need to adjust your lifestyle to live on the actual support you’re receiving and supplementing that from savings if that’s necessary and possible.
My guest for this Conversation was Ann Grant who is an attorney and experienced her own high-conflict divorce. She’s also the author of The Divorce Hacker’s Guide To Untying The Knot: What Every Woman Needs To Know About Finances, Child Custody, Lawyers And Planning Ahead.