If you have children, their welfare will naturally weigh heavily in your decision-making, as it should. But we’ve noted that knee-jerk decisions made “for the kids” aren’t always the best.
On the other hand, you may be so overwhelmed by your own emotional crises that the kids become a distant afterthought. Some clearheaded guidance will help you avoid both pitfalls. Even while you’re trying to do what’s best for your children, what happens to the house may ultimately be beyond your control; if you can’t afford to stay in any plausible scenario, your decision is made for you. You will be finding a new home, and your challenge then is to make the transition as trauma-free as possible.
But often, things are not that clear-cut. Sometimes one partner could a afford to keep the home, but doesn’t want to. The other spouse must determine whether staying is an option, and if so, whether it’s really worth it. Finances are often the determining factor in that choice. If staying means consigning the family to a life of poverty, moving may be the better option.
Sadly, today’s legal environment doesn’t always help spouses in this situation. In the past, it was very common for a divorcing wife to keep the family home to provide a stable environment for the children. Since men were presumed to be the primary breadwinners, courts would require them to provide spousal and child support to help accomplish this goal. But in recent years that model has been largely abandoned.
Richard Hughes is a former court commissioner (one who serves under the general direction of the Presiding Judge performing various judicial functions) who recently retired after several decades on the bench in Southern California. His description of today’s legal system would surprise many people.
“Seldom does the house stay with the mother, like in the old days,” he observes. “Usually, the mother has to move.” There is no longer an automatic presumption that a mother should receive financial support. And for many women, keeping the house without that support is financially impossible. Ironically, the remarkable achievements of women in the workplace can work against them when they enter a divorce court. Hughes describes the ethos that prevails now: “The mother has to work, just like the father works.”
Sometimes the court’s decisions on support issues do not even involve human input. In California, for example, child and spousal support is calculated by a software program called the DissoMaster. As Hughes describes, the directives that emerge from this impersonal system can come as a shock:
You have somebody who is a computer engineer, who is a mother, and she’s twenty-eight years old. And she leaves the workforce to take care of her two and three-year-old children; the DissoMaster will say, “You have to go to work, and if you don’t go to work, we’re going to ascribe the salary you would get if you had gone to work.” So she’s really in trouble. That forces her to go back into the workforce.
It can also force her out of her home, as an unintended consequence. Hughes sums up the unhappy state of affairs: “The courts—the law—have no sympathy for the mother.”
Excerpt from The House Matters in Divorce by Laurel Starks, Unhooked Books.