Ron and Mary both live in the same split-level ranch they bought as newlyweds in 1995. But the problem is that Ron and Mary are not newlyweds anymore -- or even married. The couple divorced in 2011 but remain living together as platonic roommates for financial reasons. Ron has been unable to find work after being laid off when his company downsized in 2010 and the mortgage on their house is underwater by more than $100,000, thanks to a home equity loan that the couple took out at the height of the real estate boom in 2007. When asked if they are living under the same roof because they hope for a turnaround in their relationship, the answer from each is emphatic "no". What Ron and Mary are really hoping for is a new job and a turnaround in the housing market so that they can move on with their lives.
As America's economic recovery continues at what feels like a very sluggish pace, more and more ex-spouses like Ron and Mary are making the jump from marriage partners to housemates. But this begs the rather obvious question: how can you live with someone you divorced and not be at each other's throats?
Life -- and that includes divorce -- can throw you some pretty major curve balls. Willing to make some compromises? If you find yourselves in Ron and Mary's shoes, it may be possible to make this work -- for the short term. Here are five post-divorce cohabitation "house rules" to make life easier until you are out on your own:
1. Plan out who pays for what. Financial issues are among the top factors leading to divorce in the first place, so it's logical they'd be a major cause of conflict as you transition into "housemates." Sit down with your spouse -- and maybe with a divorce mediator -- to identify the key shared financial obligations. If you make similar income, it makes sense to split shared costs (mortgage, property taxes, insurance, electricity and so forth) down the middle. But if one spouse would struggle to meet their obligations if the bills are divided 50-50, you may need to negotiate an agreement where the spouse shouldering the larger portion of the load has that taken into account when dividing up assets after you stop living together. This arrangement can be formalized as part of a divorce settlement and/or through a post-nuptial agreement.
2. Practice basic roommate etiquette... and then some. Channel your mother's advice and pick up after yourself, wash your own dishes, ask before eating food you didn't buy, refrain from camping in the bathroom and so on. Nothing is likely to inflame tensions -- which may already be high -- more than a lack of consideration. Particularly if this was an issue in your marriage, inconsiderate behavior will only make your post-marital home life harder. Bottom line is respect each other.
3. Don't bring home new romantic partners. Is there anything more humiliating than stepping in the front door to find your ex on a romantic date in your own home? Ignoring such boundaries will only make your living situation more difficult. It's fine to date if you are so inclined -- but discretion is key.
4. ...And don't look to your spouse to be your part-time snugglebunny, either. It can be very easy to fall into old habits -- and into bed -- if you're both feeling vulnerable and lonely. But it's not fair to either one of you. If you want someone to cuddle, get a teddy bear... but leave your ex out of it.
5. Move on, even if you can't move out. Cohabiting after divorce stops the natural transition from couple hood to single status. It's easy to stay in a comfort zone and tough to shake things up. It's important to make a conscious effort to spend time in places other than your home, so that when you're able to move on financially, you'll have already gotten there emotionally.
There are, of course, situations where it is best to move out. If children are involved, this "roommates only" situation may just add another level of confusion to an already distressing situation, especially if arguments and flare ups routinely occur. If there is a history of domestic abuse in your home, living in a safe house until you get back up on your feet is better than the alternative of living with an abuser, no matter how much practical financial sense it seems to make at the time.
And what about the house? Even if you owe on your mortgage more than what the asset is worth right now, there still may be a way out. Talk to a real estate agent who is experienced enough to help you "short sell" your home. Sometimes banks are willing to accept a much lower selling price if certain conditions are met (i.e., you can show that housing prices in your area have dropped or you demonstrate proof of economic hardship).
Most of all, no matter what arrangement you finally decide on, remember a great truth: Whether it is an up economy or down economy, this too shall pass.
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