Packing to Find Your Freedom in Divorce? Read This First

3 years ago

My life would be a lot different if I'd read this post before I separated from my husband.   Some people say they have 'no regrets' about their lives.  Who are those people?  Sure, back when I loved my husband, I had no regrets, either.  I felt that whatever I'd gone through to get to where I was in life, well that was okay by me because while life wasn't perfect, I was where I wanted to be.

That was before 2002, which was the year that I woke up, realized that I no longer loved him, and was able to look back at my life with him for what it was: sadness, confusion, frustration, anguish, missed opportunities and forfeited joy.  I realized that I deserved to be happy.

It took a long time to leave, however.  I wanted to get my ducks in a row.  For a year I exercised, ate healthier, got physically fitter and mentally and emotionally stronger, and was ready to leave.  That's when life got in the way: my mother suffered a heart attack.  My father, who had Alzheimer's, was left alone in the house with my disabled brother whose alcoholism was running rampant.  I had to move dad to the care facility to be with mom.  My dealings with my alcoholic and disabled brother led me down a path through the court system, while the state insisted I empty out and sell our parents home from under my brother, giving the state all the money to fund mom and dad's care.  The caseworker threatened, on a regular basis, to throw my parents out of the care center if I didn't complete all of this immediately.  She made threats and when I went over her head she phoned at 7 AM one day and promised to make my life a living hell if ever I contacted her Supervisor again.  I continued to try to sell my parents house to the caretaker and his friend who were now living in it in exchange for clearing it out while my brother also lived on the property, but in the meantime all of mom and dad's possessions of any real monetary or, much worse, sentimental, value disappeared.  I had to make the caretaker, a former good friend, leave, and he became very angry with me for 'not trying hard enough' to help him buy the property.  I was then diagnosed with breast cancer.  After getting through that I was diagnosed with a very large tumor in my uterus, which my doctor suspected was cancer.  It took two months after the surgery to get the test results: negative.  I finally breathed a sigh of relief when the house sold and my parents were no longer in danger of being put out on the street from their care center, and my brother left town.  And then a strange thing began to happen: I lived out in the country and while some of my pets began to disappear from the property, others were dying in my arms.      

By now it was 2006 and I was 49.  I left my unsupportive spouse, left the only home I'd known for 20 years, and left my only source of income (we made our living through the business that we started together 21 years ago).   I stepped out the door very tired and alone, but with a heart brimming with hope and plans for a future that I was going to build for myself.  I picked up the little black kitten who had been thrown out of a car on a rainy night, in front of our home, and who had been my only buddy through the breast cancer, and together we walked away.  

Unfortunately, I had no clue that the springlike breeze of freedom that washed over me on that day would become a storm that would spill into my life for what would prove to be, so far at this writing, over seven years of seriously time-consuming challenges and debilitating stress.

According to the Holmes and Rahi Stress Scale, separation and divorce are numbers 3 and 2, respectively, on the list of top stressors in adult life. And divorce leads to many of the other things further down on the list. 

There are wrong ways and right ways to leave, and I had always worked so hard to keep us together all those years, that I had no idea how to leave in the right way.  By 'right way' I mean in a way that would protect my current rights, and my future.  I knew only that I could not spend one more day under the same roof with a man who spent 21 years of expecting me to lovingly cater to the needs of his Narcissistic Personality Disorder (a very real and diagnosable disorder that ruins relationships).  He had long claimed to want a divorce, but true to form for someone with NPD, he'd also always insisted that it be done his way.  He warned that if ever I simply walked, he would make my life 'a living hell'.  That's not how divorce works, though.  The person who doesn't want their teeth knocked out, leaves when they are ready, not on the schedule determined by the person with the clenched fist.   

I did a lot of things wrong after I went through that door.  Here they are so you can try to avoid them.  (They are quite relevant even if you are not dealing with a partner with NPD.)

  • I didn't tell anyone that I was planning to leave.  I was so afraid to fail 'out there' on my own, and end up looking like a fool by having to return to him, and so afraid that it would get back to him that I was leaving and he'd retaliate before I could get away, that I told no one. 

Decide who you can trust and then contact them.  Pick up a pen, a phone, a keyboard, and inform family and friends of your plan.  Emphasize that this information is shared in confidence.  Let them know you need their support.  How much, or how little, support they provide is up to them. 

  • I didn't tell anyone WHY I was leaving.  My reasons for leaving him were private, and some were embarassing to talk about.  However, my need for privacy, and my silence, provided a great opportunity for him to tell people anything he needed them to believe, to protect his ego and to claim the loyalty of all his family, and nearly all of our friends.   

Go ahead and tell anyone who will listen, what life was like with him.  Get it out in the open, finally.  You were quiet long enough.

  • I didn't act quickly to start the divorce.  I didn't have the money to hire an attorney, and couldn't really even spare the filing fee.

If you know with certainty that you cannot and will not return to your marriage, do not waste precious time before filing for divorce.  The process, and aftermath, of divorce eat away at the quality of your life now and in the future, in ways that you cannot yet comprehend.  Not only that, time changes the circumstances of your divorce, allowing the economy to change and thus the values of your possessions to change, and more.  Before you know it, the financial circumstances that existed when you left, can look very different when the divorce finally begins.  My husband warned me that if I left he wouldn't  pay the county taxes on what was in both our names, and wouldn't take jobs that came his way.  By the time we were in divorce court, he'd hidden what he had, owed a fotune in taxes, and pled poverty.  The Judge fell for every word of it.  If you wait to file, you lose.

  • I had only enough money to get into an apartment and to live off of for two months.  Getting a place to live is expensive.  Back in 2006 it cost me $1,800 to get into a very modest one bedroom apartment.

Grab some money to live off of until you are truly on your feet, and for emergencies.  While my husband and I were separated, he took my name off all of our bank accounts.  My father passed away shortly before Christmas, and within three months my mother was dying.   I was working full time, but was barely able to cover basics.  By my 2nd trip to the nearby town where mom lived, I had no money to put gas in my car.  I phoned my spouse and told him that I needed $20 for gas money.  He hung up on me. 

  • I showed up in court alone.  Judges don't like you when you do this.  If you can't afford an attorney, one will NOT be provided for you. 

Before your ex prevents you, you'd better grab at least enough from a co-owned account with your spouse, to pay an attorney's retainer.   My spouse was sitting on everything that we'd ever earned together and able to continue to work only part time because he was earning well over six times what I made per hour at any of the three part time jobs I got after I left the marriage.  And he had an attorney by his side from day one.  The first time we appeared in court, I entered the courtroom with $5 in my checking account when I sat down alone at the table before the Judge.  Prior to this appearance, I had spent $50 to file a formal request that the Judge have my spouse give me enough money from one of our bank accounts, so that I could hire an attorney.  The Judge was a good ol' boy, and he said no, and yet he was pissed off when I showed up without representation. 

Trying to question your spouse on the stand isn't like a courtroom drama on TV where you look nice in your suit and pretend to be Ms. Attorney.  The Judge can actually reprimand you for just about everything, like not arranging your questions on cross examination according to proper lawyer-speak, or not having the notes you are trying to read from perfectly arranged before you and thus wasting the Judge's precious time as you look for something you wanted to say, or a point you didn't want to forget to make.  If you don't know court procedure, you could make an error that an egotistical Judge could determine to be quite the faux pas: A friend of mine had a document that I needed, so just as court began, stepped slowly and quietly forward up the aisle to reach forward to hand me the paper, and the Judge literally yelled out loud in court "You!  Get BACK to your seat!"  My friend and I were mortified.

If by now you still fear taking money from joint accounts as you leave, remember how you'll feel representing yourself while his attorney flits professionally around the courtroom in a suit with a skintight skirt, placing paper after paper of 'evidence' of your spouse's so-called poverty under the Judge's nose, and making you look like a hick karaoke contestant in a bar when in walks Celine Dion and she yanks the microphone out of your hand.  Taking YOUR share before he can hide it is an investment that will pay for itself over and over, and over yet again. 

  • I chose to suffer alone, needlessly.  This made everything about the divorce more painful and more difficult. 

When you have moved into a new place, invite people over and make sure you let them know that you want and need for them to follow through.  You're not throwing a party, you just need people to show up and give you a smile, a hug, and a few moments of their time.  You need to create a place to come home to, and having people there occasionally, can make a huge difference in how you get through the divorce.  

Do realize that some people are not going to 'get it' that you really do need them, unless you actually tell them so.  People are so very busy these days and if you want support, be prepared to compete with her noisy childhood buddies on Facebook, for example.  The ones that post 'love you!' all over her page and voice mails, saying 'Get your butt to my place this weekend and we'll party!'  Let her know that YOU love her, too, and that you really need her in your life, especially right now. 

  • I didn't realize that divorce can take years to complete, and even then there can be repercussions.  I've been legally divorced for over three years now and despite working full time, daily I still suffer the financial echoes of a bad settlement.  And now I will never be able to retire.  I thought I had prepared before I left my marriage, because I felt safe in having secured a place to live and because I had made copies of what I thought were the important papers related to our financial standing. 

Put your skills to work to help your attorney to help YOU come out as best you can in all of this, financially.  Hire an attorney before you actually move out, and tell him or her to give you homework.  Then dig in.  The reality is that your attorney doesn't do all the work for you, not by any means.  Remember when mom and dad told you to do your homework?  Nothing less than an 'A+' will do now.  Divorce is not only a war of opinions, a war of words, and a war of money, but also a war of paper.  Numbers on paper are your ammo and you do not want to be caught short.  Make sure it gets in front of the Judge.  If your attorney doesn't put all your numbers (values) under the Judge's nose, then you walk it up there to the bench and do it yourself because if you have to appeal to a higher court, the lack of numbers used in your original case will make your appeal case worthless.   

A little more on that subject: The other side will put a dollar value on everything you two own and you are expected to submit your own dollar values on those same things.  If you don't, your spouse's values are the only ones the Judge will use in determining what you get.  Even then, on a whim, a Judge can lower a value with the scratch of a pen.  Get proof of what you own, and numbers and estimates.  And don't be surprised if the account that you know your spouse never bothered to put your name on, suddenly no longer exists.  Or the life insurance policy disappears (he cashed it in).  Ask your attorney to GIVE you homework.  Beyond the obvious financial reasons to do this right the first time, the sad reality is that, for some, you can be dealing with divorce fallout long after you sign the divorce papers.  Prevent this by being very, very lucid, present, and active in the process. 

  • I didn't anticipate my spouse's retaliatory actions.  For example, I did not anticipate that my ex would cancel my health insurance.  Or that he would put a chain across our driveway with 'No Trespassing' signs, and then call the police when I tried to take pictures of our vehicles and business equipment so that the values I assigned would hold up in court against his lowball off-the-top-of-his-head estimates.   

With the help of your attorney, attempt to stay at least one step ahead of your spouse, to protect what is yours.  You know your spouse better than his own doting momma, so put that knowledge to use and write down what you would do if you were he. 

  • When I finally got an attorney, with the $200 that a friend's dad mailed to me because he was so aghast at what my friend had described was happening to me, I got what I paid for: AN IDIOT.  Worse, he sounded sincere but actually saw me as just some invisible 50-something female with no children, and that I'd be good practice in his spare time between defending DUI offenders and driving his kids to and from school.  As we exited my third court appearance, me in stunned silence at the devastating result of the divorce settlement, and the fact that my so-called attorney had sat in court like a mushroom as the other side stripped me to poverty, he was so acutely cognizant of the lousy job he'd done, that he apologized and said I would not be charged for the time we spent in court.  When I got the invoice, however, the firm had taken all fees out of my settlement check before they gave it to me...including for the divorce court appearance. 

You deserve better.  Make sure you can afford better. 

  • I made the mistake of letting an out of town platonic male friend crash on my couch for three nights, and the mistake of dating another man two years after the separation started.  My ex used these two examples in a lie in court four years later, that made me appear to having cheated during the marriage.  

Forget you have male friends.  They don't count right now; they don't exist right now.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  If they truly are friends, they'll be there after the divorce.  Put the idea of dating, in a box, lock the box, put the box in a rented storage unit with a padlock, and give the key to whoever in your life loves you the most and is least likely to encourage you to date.  Dating gets messy and a man will distract you from your goals.  And seeing even a male platonic friend is just as potentially volatile to the idea of a reasonable divorce as openly dating anyone you could ever be romantically interested in.  Lonely?  Gather your female friends and family around you to get through this period of life that is crucial to your future well being.    

  • I ignorantly let my attorney steer the case in the direction where the Judge was able to include in my settlement that my now-ex spouse was to pay off two certain debtsl that were in both our names.  This is the part of the settlement I will never, ever see, and these two debts are ruining my credit.  When a Judge does this, he or she is knowingly cutting your settlement short  by the amount of the debts.  This order is unenforceable.  Collection laws take precedence over who a divorce Judge assigns debt to.  All your ex has to do after the divorce is ignore the creditors, and they'll come after you, ruin your credit, and can even take you to court and, if they win, can garnish your wages.

Let your attorney know from the start if there is debt in both you and your spouse's names, and that the settlement must be steered away from implying that you want your ex to pay off the debt(s).  It's better to get the debt amount added to your settlement so that when YOU get paid, you can pay off the debt. 

  • I listened to my friends who said 'Don't worry, we live in a 50-50 state.  No matter what happens, you get half'.  All I really knew about divorce was that I wanted more out of life than to grow old with someone who didn't love me back and who quoted me that 'woman is on earth to please man, not the other way around', and so I put blind faith in my friends' reminder that I didn't have to worry because divorce is 50-50.

Think of it this way: Everyone involved has their own opinion of where the 'half' line should be drawn, based on the quality of their eyesight, whether they take a good long look, or just a glance, and so on.  And even when the line is finally determined, and the cut made, your half may be the half with the worm.

Educate yourself about divorce and get organized.  Start a divorce file.  Read and read some more.  You need the support of friends, but not necessarily their advice.  My friends knew nothing.  They had been divorced much earlier in their marriages when there was still little to split up, or they'd had money and an attorney from the start and fared really well.  You will get 50% of what results from...

  • your clarity and ability to focus on the tasks at hand, and put emotion aside.
  • your memory.  (Do you remember everything you and your spouse possess?  Take a mental inventory every day and write down anything new that you recall.)  
  • your organizational skills
  • the dollar values you and your spouse each place on the papers that will be separately submitted as evidence of your net worth.
  • your attorney's experience with divorce.
  • how well your attorney listens when you speak, and recalls what you said.
  • your attorney's opinion of what the Judge does and doesn't take into consideration, and what the Judge wants and does not want to hear, in the courtroom.  
  • your attorney's attitude about women our age.  (If you are 50+ and feel invisible, run to a new attorney.)
  • how hard your attorney works on your case compared with whatever's going on in his/her private life and in their other cases that need attention.
  • your Judge's gullibility.
  • your Judge's attitude toward women.
  • your Judge's attitude about the paying of support.

My friends' jaws dropped when I came away at age 54 with none of the physical assets acquired from nearly 25 years of marriage and a business we built together, 19% of the our net worth, no support, and no retirement. 

I make underpaced job, and am taxed up the wazoo as a single person.  Out of my checks come not only taxes, but I'm taking advantage of my employer's matching IRA contribution program at the highest level (though I'll never be able to make up for lost time).  Also, since cancer runs in my family AND I live alone with no one to lend financial support in an emergency, I have more $ taken out to cover both cancer insurance and temporarily disability. 

Despite coming home exhausted, I need a part time job for evenings or weekends because I cannot cover the basics anymore.  The moment my practical and dependable vehicle turned 20 years old, it suddenly has needed attention in the shop five times in two months.  My ex has ruined my credit by not paying the two bills that both our names were on, and which the divorce papers say that payment of was part of my settlement.  Meanwhile, my ex still has the bank accounts, is living in our home with all of our possessions, on our 5+ acres of land in the country, driving two big pickup trucks, and running the business we built with all the heavy equipment we bought and paid for together, and making between $60-$175 an hour. 

I am not a hopeless person.  I have learned to think more outside the box in the last eight years, than ever before, in order to create the best quality of life that I am able without the finances of the average woman.  I have a reputation for being hardworking, someone who comes up with ideas that others didn't see, and as bright and positive with everyone.  My bosses say I'm the best person they've had in place in two different roles, since the place opened 22 years ago.  I have continued to take chances and have faith.  For example, via  channels that not everyone would have chosen, in 2012 I stepped forward knowing that I was taking a risk, but that also I could truly depend upon myself nowadays if things went wrong.  The result?  I went on my first ever real vacation, found new joys, AND fulfilled one of my bucket list items. 

My ex robbed me of a lot, but he couldn't break my spirit.  I feel sorry for him.  I have stretched and found a new me, a new life and new wonders, while he remains the same small-minded person living a very, very small life.   

If you're leaving, leave strong, leave smart, leave educated. 

 

Footnotes: www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTCS_82.htm

Information on Narcissistic Personality Disorder provided by www.MayoClinic.org

Image titled 'Woman with Suitcase' by Joana Kruse 

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