It is possible for stay-at-home parents in New Jersey to get divorced. However, as our Freehold, NJ divorce lawyers can explain, extra steps may be prudent to ensure financial preparedness for the next chapter.
Prior to the pandemic, roughly 1 in 5 adult Americans were stay-at-home parents. About 7 percent of those were dads, but moms were four times as likely to stay home with the kids. When COVID hit and schools and daycare schedules became unreliable (if not entirely unavailable), many parents (especially mothers) sacrificed work to stay home with their kids. Now, some have found it difficult to return to the workforce.
No matter the underlying circumstances, one thing almost all stay-at-home parents have in common is that Divorce in their case may be a bit more complicated. They and their spouse made the joint decision that one of them would stay home with the kids - but likely neither planned on the marriage ending when that decision was made.
The stay-at-home parent in the equation can be somewhat disadvantaged, often having less free access to financial records and resources and less of an immediate monetary cushion to fall back on if a spouse is uncooperative.
Basic Steps to Prepare
A few key actions to get you started:
- Gather all financial documents you can. Your tax records, income statements, pay stubs, bank statements, W2s, mortgages, auto loans, student loans, investment accounts, etc. This is going to be the foundation that helps determine your quality of life, which will be a key question during the process of equitable division, child support, and alimony. Collect all relevant account numbers, usernames, and passwords.
- Gain access to funds. This can be a tricky one, but you’re going to need money not only to live but to hire a divorce lawyer to represent you. If you’re in a safe situation and you have time, opening up your own savings account 12-18 months in advance and socking away some cash will help tremendously. Continue the “status quo” to whatever extent possible. So, if you pay for normal necessities with a joint account, continue to do so. If you’re concerned that your spouse may stop paying those bills once you reveal your intention to divorce, consider buying a few grocery store gift cards to ensure you can cover necessities for a bit if needed. Save receipts/records in case your spending prior to/during separation ever becomes a question. If you don’t have a credit card in your own name, it’s time to get one. (The goal here is not to incur unnecessary debts, but for an emergency fallback in case of an emergency, as well as to help bolster your own credit - which will be important if you need to rent your own apartment, buy your own car, etc.) Check your credit score while you’re at it, just so you know where things stand.
- Set a new basic budget. You want to know realistically what you’re going to be able to get by on if you must. Look at how much you’re spending monthly on things like food, diapers, rent/mortgage, utilities, phone, internet, etc. Examine what sort of expenses might be cut out or reduced.
- Talk to an attorney. Technically, you do not need to hire a divorce attorney to obtain a divorce. But it’s smart to do so, and the process will be faster and easier if you have professional help. Spouses of stay-at-home parents may even ultimately be ordered to pay those legal fees. (Courts can order attorney’s fees paid/reimbursed by the marital estate, and if your spouse is the breadwinner, they may be the one paying all attorney’s fees.) But at least initially, if you have to open a credit card or borrow money from family, hiring a New Jersey divorce lawyer is worth it. There are strategies we can employ to help keep your legal bill manageable, but the risk to your future financial stability if you go at it alone is substantial. Most attorneys offer a free initial consultation. From there, maybe start with just a consulting arrangement to get you started. Beginning the process the right way can make a big difference in the long-term outcome.
- Plan to return to work or school at some point. Some will urge you to begin looking for work right away. That’s not necessarily a bad idea, but it may not be immediately necessary (or even possible, given the current cost of daycare). If you’re unsure, talk to your lawyer first. Courts will recognize your right to maintain a standard of living comparable to the one you enjoyed during the marriage, as well as the fact that you’ve saved the marital estate considerable money by staying home to provide childcare and keep the household running. That said, if your kids are a bit older, you may consider starting with 10-15 hours weekly to help you earn a little extra cash and brush up on your skills. If you’re going to need continuing education, you may want to start examining what sort of time and money investment that is going to take. This is smart not just for your own sake, but because it will allow you to be confident when asking the Court for a specific level of financial support through the transition to independence.
- Request temporary alimony. In the legalese, this is referred to as “pendente lite” support. If your spouse has left you, this might be one of your first steps. If you’re planning to leave your spouse but haven’t told them yet, this might be one of your final steps. Courts won’t necessarily expect you to jump right into the deep end of financial independence the minute you file for divorce. In fact, stay-at-home parents are often provided a monetary buffer in the form of temporary alimony - but you have to formally ask for it in order for it to be Ordered and enforceable. Alimony and spousal support factors are outlined in NJSA 2A:34-23(b). Specifically outlined for consideration are parental responsibilities for children, the length of absence from the job market of the party seeking maintenance, the history of financial or non-financial contributions by each party to the care and education of children (including interruption of personal careers and educational opportunities) and the time/expense necessary for that person to acquire sufficient education/training to enable the party seeking maintenance to find appropriate employment/gain financial independence. Pendent lite support terminates once a divorce is final, but may likely be replaced with a longer-term spousal support order that will be outlined in detail in your Marital Settlement Agreement.
Finally, don’t neglect your mental and emotional health. Lean on your network of friends and family members, a good therapist, professional contacts, and divorced friends - those who trust to be empathetic and understanding and offer help during this major transition. Inevitably, there may be some disappointment, but you might also be surprised at how many show up and offer meaningful support.