09/28/2011 12:31 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2011

Divorced But Stuck Together

Everyone knows at least one married couple who stayed together "because of the kids". Today, it is increasingly common to hear about couples who are getting divorced, and then continue living together "because of the house."

In the good old days (circa 2006), when couples decided to separate or divorce, and they owned a house, they usually agreed to sell the house, divide up the (piles of) accumulated equity, and go their separate ways. Alternatively, one spouse would buy out the other's interest, which was relatively painless given the abundant blessings of quick and easy refinances and the aforementioned piles of accumulated equity or other liquid assets.

Those were the days, my friend.

The current economy and housing market have led to the unthinkable reality of separated and divorced couples living together for months or even years, because they cannot afford to pay the bills on two separate households, or sell their home, or refinance to effectuate a buyout. Even worse, when the marital residence does finally sell, often it has virtually no equity, and maybe even negative equity. The new buyer's difficulty in obtaining financing for the purchase serves to exacerbate and prolong the timeline.

As a divorce attorney on Long Island, where there are many homeowners, the disposition of the house, and even more importantly, the mortgage, is the pivotal issue in almost every case. Like many other practitioners, I am seeing an increasing number of cases where divorced and separated couples are still living together as roommates, because of the difficulty in selling the house. I encourage my clients to make the best of the situation, and to adapt to their new relationship with their ex (unless it is a case involving domestic violence or abuse). To do this, they must let go of their anger and view their former spouse not as an adversary, but as a co-parent, roommate or even a partner in a joint real estate venture.

In one recent case, my client, a firefighter with joint custody rights, moved into the basement of the marital residence. The parties managed to successfully maintain the upstairs/downstairs arrangement for nearly two years, until the house was finally sold. The parties were directed by the court to share the house expenses proportionately, in accordance with their income. The children were able to stay in their home, and see both parents on a daily basis, which was in their best interests.

In another case I handled recently -- this one is a cautionary tale akin to "The War of the Roses" -- a mature couple in their sixties were living together while they went through divorce proceedings. Their bickering and fighting over the household bills led to "the remote control incident". During one of their many arguments, the wife threw the remote control at her husband. He threw it back at her. They were both subsequently arrested, and became involved in protracted family offense proceedings and criminal court proceedings. Needless to say, they both have learned a hard lesson, and now they are doing everything they can to cooperate in the sale of their house.

Like it or not, in this stagnant real estate market and economy, being roommates with your ex is a trend that is here to stay. Here are some legal and financial pointers to make the transition from spouse to roommate a bit smoother:

1. Decide together how to share time with the children. If parents continue living in the house together during a divorce, it is very critical that certain ground rules be in place concerning sharing time with the children, getting them to their activities, and paying for their expenses, including child care, activities, and medical expenses. Whenever possible, the parties should agree to maintain the status quo that existed prior to the breakup.

2. Make a fair agreement on how to share the household bills, including mortgage, taxes, and utilities. These expenses are typically apportioned based on each party's income. It is also important to discuss who is going to pay for needed repairs, especially if the marital residence is going to be sold.

3. Consult with professionals to make joint decisions regarding a refinance of the mortgage to get a better interest rate or a loan modification. Cooperation and good faith between divorcing couples are essential if the house is going to be listed for sale, and shown to prospective buyers. If selling your house quickly and at the best price is a priority, then go to the top listing and selling realtor in your area. Do not use your cousin or friend from the PTA, or someone who charges a lower commission. In the long run, you will pay heavily in time and money if you don't use the best.

4. Make every effort to "take the high road". Therapy can be very helpful to purge or at least manage your anger, and this creates a much healthier atmosphere for the kids in the house. Focus on making compromises, reaching a fair deal and sticking to it. Of course, this is easier said than done, but self restraint and dealing with your ex in a "business like" manner can go a long way. A knowledgeable attorney or divorce mediator can be extremely helpful as you navigate through the process, which ultimately can help you and your spouse save thousands on legal fees.

Rooming with your ex during a divorce is certainly not a realistic scenario for every family. But in these difficult times, it is an option that should not be overlooked.