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Dealing with Disasters & Aftermath Of Superstorm Sandy, Divorced or Not

11/12/2012 12:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 12, 2013

The physical aftermath of Superstorm Sandy has been nothing short of gut wrenching: lives lost and businesses destroyed; New Jersey's famous shoreline shredded; parts of Queens, NY obliterated by a threefold wrath of wind, water, and fire; gas rationing, impassable roads and thousands still without power.

However, this is only what we see on the outside. On the inside, in the hearts and minds of couples affected by Sandy, a different kind of storm may be brewing.

To see the heavy toll natural disasters can take on marriages, look no further than Hurricane Katrina. In the year following the 2005 storm, divorces spiked by 10 percent in New Orleans; in 2012, the divorce rate remains lifted. When couples share the story of their divorce, they often cite issues directly related to Katrina, including financial stress, as reasons why their marriage ended.

Maybe we will hear happy stories of storm-inspired reunions in the next few months, of couples on the brink of divorce trapped together during Sandy who reunite and work through their differences. Let's hope so. But for those who had contemplated a divorce long before Sandy, or for couples who already separated, what so many of us have been living through could very well make the difference between a troubled marriage and an irretrievably broken one.

What's the state of your union -- or disunion -- in the wake of Sandy? We recently posted some items for divorced families to consider in the aftermath of Sandy on our website, but there is much more. Here are additional tips for either married or divorced couples to help deal with disastrous situations:

Work Together: If there is animosity in your relationship right now, try as much as possible to take a more business-like approach to your family's post-storm recovery efforts. For house clean up, create a to-do list at the start of the day and divide up jobs, paying attention that each spouse receives a relatively equal load of tasks to complete. If tensions are running high, don't work together as long as you can avoid it. For example, if your spouse is clearing brush, you can bring ruined items up from the basement. Putting in a hard day's work by getting everything on your to-do list done also comes with the silver lining of possibly making the two of you too tired to fight at the end of the day.

Get Help: Some individuals may require crisis counseling to make it through this difficult time. However, when frustrations and squabbles lead to bullying, threats, or physical and sexual violence, reach out for emergency assistance. Do not postpone calling 911 in an emergency situation because you think the police are too busy. We call police officers heroes because of their bravery in the face of danger, but also because of their willingness to juggle multiple crisis situations at once. I cannot think of a single cop who would ever want a domestic assault victim to refrain from reaching out for help.

Deal with Damaged Assets: For most couples, the family home is their most valuable asset. So what do you do if Sandy just destroyed it? The first course of action is to assess all damage yourself. Keep a written file and take photos and video to document storm-related problems. Check your insurance policies to see if you carry flood insurance and what kind of coverage your homeowners insurance provides, if any, for natural disasters. Be in touch with your insurance company and have an adjuster visit your property as soon as possible.

If you live in one of the disaster areas now covered by FEMA, financial assistance may be available to you to pay for structural damage to your family home and property due to the storm. Visit http://www.disasterassistance.gov to start the application process.

If you are in the midst of divorce now, it may be necessary to have your house reappraised to understand its true post-storm worth, especially if the value of your home will be calculated as part of your divorce settlement. Sadly, in some heavily affected communities such as Breezy Point, NY and Mantoloking, NJ, storm destruction will likely factor in future home values.

Address Parenting Issues: For separated (or already divorced) parents who have a child custody agreement in place, the storm no doubt led to some disruptions. If you have access to it right now, look over your child custody agreement. Is there a clause addressing what happens to child custody during an emergency or natural disaster? If so, there is usually guidance on how to proceed in the future to recoup this time.

If you do not have a specific clause in your agreement that addresses child custody changes in the event of an emergency, consider the possibility of make-up time to lessen the frustrations that have arisen from one parent's lost time last week. Once things have settled down, talk to your ex-spouse about arranging for extra time over the next couple of weekends to make up for this missed time. Not only will it create a better co-parenting relationship, but it will provide you time to cure some of the damage in and around the house without having to worry about child care.

Pay Spousal and Child Support: If you are separated or divorced and a support order is in place, generally, unless there is a formal modification made in writing between you and your former spouse or an adjustment is issued by the courts, consider yourself obligated to pay your usual amount of child support or spousal support (alimony), regardless of whether you missed work this past week due to the storm.

However, if your area has been declared a disaster area as a result of the storm, you may qualify for FEMA Unemployment Assistance (http://lwd.dol.state.nj.us/labor/lwdhome/press/2012/20121101_DisasterUIAssistance.html). Contact your local unemployment office or FEMA office for more information. Please note that FEMA will not directly pay child support, alimony, or mortgage payments.

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