Monday, November 19, 2007

Women, money and divorce

It's been an eventful fall here, with all sorts of big changes on the horizon (more details later this week -- I'm about to have a lot of finance blog fodder). One of them has been a really sad, frustrating change: One of my best friends is getting divorced.

It's painful on all fronts. I'm kind of stuck standing by helplessly, knowing there's not a lot I or anyone else can do to cushion the grief and misery that comes with losing the partner you've been with for more than a decade and had expected to be with for the rest of your life.

It's also been painful financially. I've had other friends go through major breakups and even divorces, but we're all young enough that these usually fell into the "starter marriage" camp: two people splitting who had little in the way of Major Complications, in the form of kids or significant assets. It's still an emotional wrench, but it at least clears one major hurdle to separation when you each have a job and don't have any big investments to wrangle about dividing.

This wasn't that. It's what previously, naively, seemed to me an almost antiquated kind of divorce: the kind where one partner's earning power so outstrips the other's that the financial imbalance creates its own big nasty complication. There are many other issues at play here, but what it boils down to is: because my friend jointly signed financial papers when they were married -- loans, the mortgage on their house, etc -- she's going to be on the hook for payments to maintain the lifestyle of a partner she is no longer with.

That is ... wow. Ouch.

I suppose this is no different than what men historically went through with alimony, watching part of their paychecks disappear to an ex-spouse they were no longer with and may not have remained on anything resembling amicable terms with. But it's a shock to me to see the same dynamic play out now, in an era in which I've grown accustomed to greater independence in marriage.

It's also a nasty wake-up call. I know marriage is a serious legal commitment. I know joint-signing financial obligations is a serious legal commitment. But it's sobering to see how much those decisions can bite you when things turn in an unexpected way with the person you're committing to and with. And I hate that in so many of the breakups I've seen this year, the women consistently get screwed.

It seems like this is the odd dark side of our relatively comparable earning power. I remember a smattering of divorces among my parents' friends -- a few, in particular, that were the classic cliché of Man Throwing Over Steadfast Wife for Shiny New One. In those cases, alimony and other financial obligations made sense: if one partner had no opportunity to have a career and was left stranded without one, then yes, the departing partner should still have obligations. And obviously, it's a whole different game when kids are involved, since there's no question that parents have responsibilities, financial and beyond, that persist even if their marriage does not.

But in the breakups among my friends, what I'm seeing is a trend of women left on the hook for obligations incurred by boyfriends or husbands who are simply failing to be fully functional, financially responsible adults. (I'm not saying that judgmentally. God knows I have been through periods of being Fiscally Unsound, and I'm fully aware that a lot of luck is involved with me being as relatively financially secure as I now am.) For example, many of my friends have co-signed loans for partners with weak credit -- and then, when the relationship dissolves, they're stuck with that obligation.

I don't know exactly where I'm going with this train of thought, or what the answer is. I suppose the flat reality is that divorce is messy and inevitably unfair, in any era or set of circumstances. But it has driven home the point that before you put yourself on the hook for any major financial obligation, to anyone, even your spouse, you need to think through all the worst-case-scenario ramifications and make a conscious decision about your willingness to risk them.