As a lesbian, I am consistently asked how I feel about gay marriage. I respond to those inquiries with the explanation that having a choice is always better, and that I wish I could legally marry in my home state of Georgia. I am often surprised by the number of straight women who tell me that marriage is simply not all it's cracked up to be. At the end of the day, these women claim that the pomp and circumstance of a wedding was simply not worth the pain of divorce. Many of these women truly believed in the fairy tale notion of "Happily Ever After," and were blindsided by their naivety when forced to deal with the financial and legal realities of a divorce.
Would men and women walk down the aisle with eyes wide open if they knew ahead of time what would legally happen if the marriage failed? I interviewed Corey Stern, an Atlanta-based divorce lawyer, to find out what every couple needs to know before they get married.
Keep pre-marital assets separate if you want to keep them safe from divorce: Pre-marital assets and inheritance need to be kept separate unless you are willing to split these assets in the case of a divorce. While pre-marital assets are commonly not categorized as assets of the marriage -- thus, they are not subject to division -- the law becomes hazy when these funds have been used to contribute to other assets of the marriage. For example, if a couple puts a down payment on a home or starts a business with funds that are partially made up of pre-marital assets, some states view this intermingling of funds as a gift to the marriage, subject to being divided in a divorce. The only way to feel confident that you won't be splitting these assets is to have an iron clad prenuptial agreement or, at the very least, never intermingle the funds.
Know about your spouse's debt: Debt acquired by either party during the marriage will often times be considered marital debt and the responsibility of both parties, regardless of whose name is on the credit card and regardless of who made the charges. Insist that all credit cards statements are accessible by both parties.
A prenuptial agreement does not apply to kids before you actually have the kids: While prenuptial agreements can be of great value to address how assets will be divided in a divorce, these agreements don't apply to issues relating to children who were not born at the time of the agreement. After a couple has children, prenuptial agreements can be revised in the form of a postnuptial agreement that sets outs the couple's wishes if they were to divorce while the children are still minors. This kind of planning may seem dreary in the months and years after a baby arrives, but the time, expense and heartache that can be saved from planning for the worst is priceless.
Judges often don't approve of 50/50 custody: In any divorce involving children, the Judge is charged with making custody and visitation issues which are in the best interest of the children. As individuals, these judges have their own unique life experiences and opinions about the types of custody arrangements are most beneficial for children. Don't assume that just because you and your spouse agree on an arrangement, the Judge will agree. Many times, Judges reject "week on/week off" types of arrangements because they don't feel that the children thrive without a more consistent home base. To be on the safe side, it is always helpful to meet with a child counselor to discuss your proposed arrangement before presenting it to the court. Judges are more likely to go along with an arrangement if a child counselor has signed off on the plan.
You can't be a helicopter parent and the kids not see the helicopter: Parents today often involve themselves in every aspect of their kids' lives in order to protect them. But the fact that your child is never let out of arm's reach also means the child is experiencing nearly every aspect of their parents' lives. When parents are having relationship issues, these children see more arguments, breakdowns, and criticism than in generations past when children were relegated to the back yard for hours while mom or dad vented about the other to friends, parents and other patient listeners. This exposure to their parents' arguments and emotional turmoil during a divorce can be damaging in ways that we can't fully fathom yet. The more steps a couple takes to keep their relationship drama separate from their lives as parents, the less affected the kids will likely be from the divorce.
Even if divorce is amicable, spend the money to have another lawyer look at the divorce documents: In some states, one lawyer can draw up all of the divorce paperwork for a couple but only technically be "representing" one party. Regardless of how simple your divorce may be or how comfortable you feel with your spouse's lawyer, you always need to have your own lawyer look at the documents from your vantage point. This kind of review is not that expensive and it will give you peace of mind and clarity. It is certainly less expensive than trying to go back later and change something that you missed when you originally signed off on the papers.
The more dysfunctional the relationship, the more expensive the divorce: Divorce lawyers make a lot of their money by babysitting the couple who can't even have a conversation with each other about the most minor things. Often, when a couple is going through a divorce, they simply get lazy and avoid communicating with each other and instead route every issue through the lawyers. From how much to spend on school clothes to where a child will go to summer camp this year, these minor issues often have unnecessary lawyer involvement while the divorce is pending. While calling the lawyer to communicate for you may be easier than having an uncomfortable phone call, the experience of seeing the lawyer's bill for this type of babysitting is often much more painful. Don't waste money for lawyers to do what you and your soon to be ex need to be able to handle.
Having the choice to get legally married is something I hope to one day achieve, but for those who already have that ability, the choice should be an educated one. Knowing what might happen if things turn sour can open up communication and may ultimately reduce the risk of a nasty divorce.