How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Marriage Limbo
A divorce is always daunting, and those unhappily wed often approach the process with trepidation.
Accustomed to the financial benefits and day-to-day normalcy of marriage, many partners today choose at the outset simply to skip divorce and avoid the hassle.
In other words, some married couples settle for divorce limbo. This is a mistake!
In some states, a short period of separation is required before a divorce. Insurance coverage, tax benefits, and the promise of social security benefits in the future can all make the potentially unpleasant, expensive, and disorienting process of divorce seem hardly worth it. But here are some things you must consider!
As a trend, long-term separation is growing.
But can this state of marriage limbo last? And are people entering into it for good reasons? Statistics show that nearly 90 percent of couples who separate eventually proceed to a divorce.
Whether the couple delays divorce for the above-mentioned reasons or out of hope for reconciliation, almost everyone who makes it to this stage is on a path to divorce, sooner or later.
Indeed, the longer you stay apart, and the more time you spend building a new life for yourself, the clearer it may become that remaining in marriage limbo can run you a variety of big risks.
Divorce limbo can drastically impact both your present financial stability and the equitability of an eventual divorce agreement. Whether you’re currently in this state of marriage limbo or simply looking for reassurance in your plans for a divorce, it’s important to take seriously the number of pitfalls marriage limbo can have.
Can I Secure My Insurance After Divorce?
Many people rely on their partner for health insurance, and often back away from divorce for this reason.
Losing coverage is one of the major concerns that drive people into long-term limbo. Unfortunately, some insurance providers consider separation the same as divorce and may cancel coverage anyway.
While indeed you will at some point need to start searching for your plan, not everyone needs to turn right away to the Health Insurance Marketplace.
If you rely on your partner for coverage, you may be eligible for temporary continuation after your divorce.
The 1985 Continued Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) may take care of your concerns. In the case of a “qualifying event,” such as divorce, it requires employers with 20 or more employees to offer temporary, continued coverage to former spouses, for 18 or 38 months depending on the option.
If COBRA applies to your partner’s health insurance plan, you’re in luck. While a COBRA plan may be more expensive than it was during your marriage, for many, it provides the necessary support during this transition.
In any case, you should get in touch with an attorney to make sure that you navigate the process correctly and notify the insurance company of your divorce or separation on time, so as not to risk committing fraud.
Your Partner’s Debt Is Your Debt
This is one of the biggest dangers of marriage limbo, especially if you don’t manage to stay in close contact with your former partner.
In most cases, as long as you remain married, whatever debt your partner incurs is shared between the two of you.
Whether or not you retain this debt upon an eventual divorce will depend on whether you live in a community property or equitable distribution state. A court in an equitable distribution state will consider a variety of factors in dividing your assets: age, general health, and vocational training will all play a role.
In a community property state like California, however, the courts will simply divide your assets evenly, regardless of these considerations. In both cases, your partner’s debt will affect your future financial wellbeing. What’s more, this also means that whatever payments your spouse is missing during your period of limbo could affect your credit rating in turn.
Whatever legal financial trouble your spouse finds themselves in, whatever reckless spending or irresponsible financial decisions they make, are your problems too.
If your spouse meets someone new, there’s nothing to stop him or her from using up marital assets building a new life with that person, from lavishing them with expensive vacations, with money that can’t be retrieved once it’s gone. There’s a blood-curdling thought for you.
Your Assets Are Not Your Own
This brings us to the real issue: your half of the assets are not your own.
Everything remains jointly owned between you and your spouse, and each person has a 50 percent interest in each item of community property. This means that, except for the specific and rare exception of separate property, the wealth you create and the property you purchase during your period of marriage limbo belongs as well to your partner, a fact you will have to reckon with if you do get a divorce.
Whatever claims you make to this property will not hold up in court, and as a result, you may find it difficult to properly move on, take control over your earnings, and begin anew.
This applies as well to the family home. Regardless of whatever agreement you and your spouse have made, both partners still have rights not only to the value of the home but generally to live there as well. Even if you’re living there by yourself during marriage limbo, you can’t go around changing locks should things deteriorate between you and your partner.
Divorce lets you claim your independence in both money and property, a huge step towards peace of mind.
Worth the Risk of Getting Burned on Spousal Support?
All of this means, too, that a long period of limbo can risk a disappointing settlement or spousal support agreement if you eventually do get a divorce, depending on changes to you and your partner’s financial situations in the meantime.
If your partner’s assets deteriorate throughout your separation (they lose their job, let’s say), you may not get the kind of spousal support you expected.
What’s more, improvements in your finances may be offset by the outcome of a settlement agreement. However well you do for yourself in the space between separation and divorce will most likely affect the division of assets and spousal support agreement.
Don’t let your success excuse your partner from the money you would otherwise be owed, and don’t let their financial trouble in the wake of your separation affect the equitability of your settlement.
Let’s say, on the other hand, that during the time you spend in your marriage limbo you learn to get by with fewer resources. While you may consider this a temporary situation, a judge may not, and your partner may be able to use your new standard of living against you for future spousal support payments
Where originally you may have expected spousal support based on the way you lived while you were together, the sheer fact that you’ve been managing on your own may contradict your claims. Of course, this too depends on whether or not you live in an equal distribution or community property state.
Why take the risk? Divorce before your new budget costs you big.
What if the Laws Change in the Meantime?
One thing people never expect, but that nonetheless happens regularly enough, is that the law can change and pulƒl the carpet out from underneath them. While you might feel that you’ve covered all your bases and that your uncertain, in-between period of limbo won’t endanger the financial result of a future divorce, changes in state and federal law are things no one can predict.
As we’ve seen only just recently, the law can change in a variety of ways.
The latest GOP tax plan provides a perfect example. Under the new plan, which kicks in at the end of 2018, a spouse paying spousal support can no longer deduct it from their taxes. The spouse receiving spousal support, on the other hand, no longer has to pay taxes on that money.
So for anyone sitting in separation limbo, the new plan may very easily have just changed the cost of future spousal support payments by several thousand dollars a year.
You should note, however, that this applies only to divorces finalized after the end of the year. Changes like this can make putting off your divorce a dangerous idea, depending on which side of the equation you are on.
Tackling your divorce from the outset can protect you from a constantly developing legal framework outside of your control.
What if Your Partner Escapes to Another State?
Even if the laws stay the same, your partner could relocate to a different state with typically smaller, or shorter, spousal support payments.
Over the past several years, spousal support reform movements have sprung up across the country and their proponents have lobbied for new legislation. As a result, many states have gotten rid of lifetime spousal support and significantly reduced the amount and duration of spousal support for dependent partners.
Some states have done away with spousal support almost entirely and only grant it in certain exceptional cases. These changes and the older laws that still affect certain states differ dramatically, and your spouse may take the opportunity provided by your long period of limbo to take advantage of lax laws in another state.
In Texas, for example, spousal support payments are remarkably small and temporary, while in other states even a short marriage can require years of payments. And spousal support isn’t the only thing that can change to work in your spouse’s favor, or to both of your disadvantages, should they decide to move.
Some states consider assets acquired before the marriage fair game. Some will include inherited property, while others won’t, and some won’t even enforce prenuptial agreements.
The point is the longer your separation, the more time your partner has to evaluate their financial prospects in the event of divorce and act accordingly.
Don’t Give Your Spouse Time to Surprise You
The fact is, the more time you spend in limbo, the more time your partner has to pick the right moment for divorce. While today a divorce might work in your favor, in a year that could change as your finances improve or theirs shrink.
However amicable things might be at the moment, and however comfortable you are in your separation, that comfort can always deteriorate over the time spent apart. Never forget that your assets are bound up in your marriage and that your success today could turn the tables against you in a divorce down the road.
Giving a Spouse the Time to Hide Valuable Assets
The time you spend delaying your divorce can also be time your partner has to hide their assets. As unethical and illegal as this sounds (and is), it happens in a variety of ways, some more subtle than others. And in such cases, the burden of proof generally falls to the spouse with fewer resources at hand. Here are just a few of the many strategies:
- Purchasing expensive items that are easily undervalued
- Stashing money
- Purposefully overpaying creditors or the IRS, with the promise of an eventual refund
- Deferring salary, delaying bonuses or commission
- Transferring stock to family members or business partners
Most people don’t expect this kind of behavior and would be surprised to discover it.
One study, however, found that 3 in every 10 people who have combined finances at some point in their lives have hidden assets from the other party.
Whether its hiding cash, purchases, or bills from the other person, financial deceptions in such cases are commonplace. And the creativity of your spouse may surprise you. Bitcoin has been in the news lately, as more and more people are hiding their assets in the cryptocurrency.
In this extreme case, spouses have been forced to hire digital forensics experts to comb through a partner’s email and determine the value of their transactions, a process that often costs more than the currency is worth.
No matter how unlikely it may seem, the longer you wait, the more time your partner has to get away with one of these schemes. As unlikely as it may seem to you, the smart thing is always to protect yourself, get in touch with a lawyer, and take action right away.
Love and Romance Could be Costly
The longer you and your partner stay separated, the more you will begin to recognize a new life beginning for yourself. This not only means a new day-to-day routine or a new place to live but often new people and new relationships.
As exciting as it may be to start over in this way, the fact of your marriage can pose major problems (and not only to the comfort of your new partner).
While most divorces in the U.S. today are no-fault, meaning that neither party is being sued by the other for some form of abuse, depending on what state you live in certain offenses may work against you. Adultery, including your new mid-limbo relationship, may enter into consideration.
For example, in Florida, a judge may consider one partner’s adultery when determining the amount of spousal support to be paid. Other factors, such as whether or not you are living with your new partner, may also impact the settlement and/or spousal support you receive.
What’s more, the fact of your new relationship, or dating life, may simply impact your former partner’s helpfulness and sympathy in all aspects of your divorce.
It may be that, for you, beginning a new relationship seems like a perfectly logical and ethical thing to do, but you're leaving a variety of factors in the hands of someone who may be hurt by your moving on.
The outcome of settlement agreements, child custody decisions, and other important personal and financial issues are at stake, and subject in large part to your partner’s cooperation during your divorce proceedings.
The last thing anyone wants is a divorce that drags on forever. As eager as you may be to move on with your life, putting off your divorce only gives your partner time to turn against you. Not to mention, what if someday you decide to get married again?
Out of Touch in the Future or a Hiding Spouse
As you and your partner begin to grow in these different directions, finding your new lives and routines, maybe new jobs, the chance that you may lose track of each other is also something to consider. What if your partner moves out of the country?
Or you simply can’t find them or get them to respond when you reach out? Indeed, maybe they don’t want their new partner to know they have an old marriage on the books, or are (more likely) afraid of whatever they might owe you in the case of a settlement.
These risks can make divorce an exponentially more emotionally draining and expensive task. Judges will often order you to hire an investigator to locate your spouse. While you might appreciate the distance at the beginning and allow yourself to fall out of touch, losing track of the person will make your life unbelievably difficult if you ever do want a divorce.
Time Could Make You Enemies
People often have trouble anticipating the future, and as a result, think that whatever sympathy or relative friendship they and their partner may share at the time of their separation will last.
But what if your relationship with that person changes, and what could at the start have been a calm, organized divorce is instead the acrimonious court battle that is every married couple’s worst nightmare?
Several things can change your partner’s feelings towards you, such as unreciprocated efforts towards reconciliation. In limbo, the situation will develop outside of your control, and whatever unpleasantness you were looking to avoid could be multiplied several times over.
Putting your Loved Ones’ Inheritance at Risk
When you and your spouse decided to separate, you probably didn’t imagine leaving them a share of wealth should you predecease them.
If you have children or other close relatives, chances are you would prefer to leave whatever would have gone to your partner to them instead. The law varies state-by-state, but remaining married can only mean trouble, even in the case of a will.
Your partner’s claims to your estate stay the same, regardless of your level of affection for them. The money you might want to give to loved ones in the case of a disaster may go instead to your ex. Even if you don’t live to regret it, staying married could haunt you through posterity.
What always stands out to me as the real reason to rip off the band-aid and get divorced, is its effect on your independence. Period.
If you want control over your finances, freedom from the fluctuations of your spouse’s financial situation, and property that you can truly call your own, you need a divorce. A long marriage limbo spells out disaster in so many ways, and if not disaster, then disappointment and frustration.
While it’s true that that money, before all else, is what hangs in the balance when it comes to this decision, don’t disregard the effect a divorce can have on your mental health and sense of opportunity.
The cumulative effect that freeing up your finances from this state of limbo can have is not at all removed from the less tangible qualities of your well-being.
People often end up in limbo for the wrong reasons. But the apparent convenience and cheapness of avoiding divorce will most likely come back to bite you.
Everyone wants to get on with their lives as quickly as possible, and the onerous task of a divorce can often seem like too much to handle when you’re already dealing with the stress that wanting a divorce implies.
Like most difficult things, however, a divorce is typically worth the effort, and procrastinating can put you in an unfortunate situation. My advice is always to get out in front of it right away so that it doesn’t sneak up on you later on when you thought you were done dealing with it.
How else can you truly move on, and get on with life on your terms?
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