I recently wrote an article that offered some guidance for the financially dependent spouse who wants to get out of an unhappy marriage. I talked about taking money out of the joint bank account, taking the kids, and filing for support. But what do you do when you are on the other side of that scenario?
We’ve all heard this story. It has happened to someone we know, an old friend or maybe a distant relative. It goes like this: Some poor, unsuspecting chump gets up in the morning, kisses his wife and kids’ goodbye then goes off to spend the next 8 hours or so at his job like he does every other day. But when he walks into his house at the end of that long hard day, he finds that the house is eerily empty and quiet. The furniture is gone. The wife and kids are nowhere to be seen. Even the cat is gone. He instantly feels panicked and fears the worst. Were they robbed? Where was his family? He runs upstairs to check the bedrooms. The children’s rooms are mostly empty of furniture, clothes and toys. That’s odd. Why would a burglar take some dirty old kids clothes? He runs into the master bedroom. His wife’s clothes are gone, but his are still there hanging in the closet. The bed is gone but his dresser remains. With a sinking feeling, he walks into the bathroom off the master bedroom. His wife’s things are missing. Not even a toothbrush is left. But his toothbrush is right where he left it that morning along with his other belongings. At this point, the truth hits him like a crushing blow. It is worse than being robbed. His wife left him and she took the kids.
But why? He thought they were happy. They had some troubles, sure, but so does every married couple. How could she do this to him? The kids? This can’t be happening! The next thing he knows, some big guy who looks like a cop is knocking at the door to serve him with a complaint in divorce and an order scheduling a hearing on child support and APL/spousal support.
Talk about your worst nightmare. Unfortunately, I see this scenario happen every day. When it does, it is often a complete shock. This is something that only happens to other people, right? Whether you genuinely believed your spouse was happy, or failed to see the signs that now seem so obvious in hindsight, it has happened to you. Now what?
First, set up a meeting with a divorce lawyer. Ask friends and family for a referral. Next, do a little damage control and prevention. Change the locks to the house. You don’t want your spouse coming back to the house when you are not there to take what little furniture you may have left or rifle through the legal documents your lawyer sends you. If her name is on the deed, she is legally allowed to access the house, but changing the locks is often a good deterrent.
If you have joint bank accounts, close them. Especially if your paychecks are being deposited into them. Close all credit cards on which your spouse is an authorized user, even if it means you must agree to pay the balance. Change all passwords to all password-protected accounts. This includes, but is not limited to, your Apple or other phone accounts, emails, bills, online banking accounts, passcodes to all devices, etc.
Next, get your papers in order and prepare for the meeting with your lawyer. Your lawyer will need to see tax returns and other pay information, statements on retirement accounts, investment accounts, etc. If you were not the one in the marriage who handled the finances, now is the time to educate yourself on these matters.
When you have your initial meeting with the lawyer, talk to him or her about custody. When your children are used to seeing you every day, it is extremely important to maintain regular contact. Did your spouse take the children out of state, or move so far that it will prevent your ability to exercise your custody rights? If so, your lawyer will need to immediately seek special relief from the court. If not, you will want to file a complaint for custody in the county the children have lived in within the last 6 months. Most counties in PA have a long and drawn out custody process.
In Allegheny County, we have the Generations Program which requires both parents (and children if they are old enough) to attend an Education session, then a Mediation session. Mediation is scheduled 4-6 weeks after the initial custody complaint is filed. If an agreement isn’t reached at mediation, then the parties attend a Generations Conciliation which is scheduled 4-6 weeks later. If no agreement is reached there, then in another 4-6 weeks, another conciliation takes place, this time with the judge. After that, another conciliation might be scheduled, but eventually the last stop is a custody trial. The courts force people to go through these steps because they want parents to make their own decisions about their own kids, and it is very traumatic for parties and children to go through a custody trial. Some cases are not possible to settle (Is your spouse a narcissist? If so, you may as well schedule a trial date), but most cases settle at some point during the process. If your case ultimately goes to trial, expect it to take about a year for your custody case to be finalized from start to finish. If you ultimately settle at a conciliation, it will still take months. Since it will likely take a long time to get a final custody order, ask the court for an interim (temporary) custody order.
If you do not have an agreement or interim custody order that enables the children to see you on a regular, if not equal basis, then a status quo custody situation is created. Judges love to keep the status quo intact when the kids seem to be doing OK. It’s safe. Make sure that you are part of the status quo.
Finally, make sure you are taking care of yourself. You’ve just gone through a terrible shock. You likely feel stressed, depressed and anxious about the future. Don’t worry. You can (and will) get through it if you help yourself. Eat healthy and exercise. Try to get the appropriate amount of sleep. Don’t hesitate to get into counseling if needed. Do whatever you have to do to get your mind right. You are going to be making decisions about your children, finances, etc. that will affect you for years to come. You must be able to make these decisions based on logic rather than emotion.
Your wife, furniture and cat might be gone forever, but if you follow these steps, you are on your way to maintaining a loving relationship with your children and protecting your assets. This does not have to the tragic end to your story. In fact, it is not the end of your story at all.
It is a new beginning.