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“A lot of people have asked me how short I am. Since my last divorce, I think I’m about $100,000 short.” — Mickey Rooney
“I’m not sure my spouse and I can afford to separate.”
It can be hard enough while still in your shared household to accept that you and your spouse are heading toward divorce, without having to add that complicating question: How can we afford a separation right now? You may have known or heard about other separating couples who encountered the same problem, and who had no real choice but to continue living together for a while, simply because they lacked the money to afford separate residences. Sadly, the old adage that once worked in your favor is now your next hurdle: two people live together more cheaply than they do apart. It can be challenging enough right now to continue to live with your ex in one shared household (although there are coping strategies), without the added expense of establishing and maintaining two separate homes with income that may have been barely enough for one.
How a divorce lawyer budgeted his way to freedom.
When my former wife and I first separated, we knew that we could not afford to live in two separate households right away. Even though we were able to get through our days without fighting, it was awkward and very uncomfortable for both of us. I set out to determine how to make our transition possible sooner, rather than later.
The solution turned out to be very straightforward. I created three complete household budgets: one for the two of us together, and one for each of us in our new, separate households. I used realistic, reasonable average numbers based on the way we were actually living at the time, erring high and making sure to include a fair reserve for miscellaneous expenses. Doing things this way gave us a real picture of where we stood together, and what it would take to be able to afford the extra expenses of living apart.
Below is a downloadable worksheet that will let you create your own set of budgets:
What if it turns out that we can’t afford to separate?
When we completed the task, the picture was less than pretty. If we lived very carefully while still under the same roof, we had enough income to pay our current debt with a small amount left over. Add the cost of rent and utilities for a second home, though, and there wasn’t enough money to go around. Like most people who carry a lot of credit card debt, a substantial portion of what my ex and I were paying month-to-month was interest.
Come up with a plan.
We calculated how much income each month we needed to free up to make it possible for one of us to move out of our marital home. We recovered some of those funds by cutting our expenses as close to the bone as we thought we could manage, knowing that every dollar we saved was a step closer to the exit from our amiable-but-painfully-awkward cohabitation. When we ran out of things to cut and needed plenty more, we decided to attack our credit debt.
We decided which among our various credit card obligations had the best combination of low balance and high monthly payment to be good targets, so that when they were paid off we would have the money we needed to separate. We made our list of “target” debts and decided on which order to pay them off, ignoring which ones had high interest and instead focusing on the ones that would free up the largest amount of money for us in the least amount of time. Our focus was not long-term economy, but rather short-term cash flow.
Plan your post-separation finances.
My ex and I decided which of our consumer credit debts would still be around when we went our separate ways, and we included the monthly payment for each in the separate budget for that one of us who would be paying it, at least in the short-term. We did our best to move the numbers around on our separate household budgets so that we knew who would be paying what, and so that the monthly payments for the debts each of us were assuming fit within our respective means.
Consider whether there is a need for spousal support or child support.
Both my ex and I were earning a decent living wage when we separated, and we had no children together. If you have minor children or if one of you is economically-dependent upon the other (or both!) you will probably need to consider making the budgets balance by means of one spouse paying support to the other.
Worry less about long-term issues such as alimony, and more about short-term concerns such as spousal support and child support. To the extent that you can manage to keep your respective households afloat financially by mutual agreement, you can save yourselves substantial conflict and expense. That said, though…
Get professional legal advice from a family lawyer.
As self-serving as it may seem coming from a divorce lawyer in Pittsburgh, there is no substitute for understanding the road ahead. Knowing where you stand according to the Pennsylvania child and spousal support guidelines can help you make informed decisions that will let you do things right the first time. A good divorce attorney will not create conflict where none needs to exist, and will make sure that you are taking every important consideration into account as you structure your future. A single hour of a lawyer’s time can be cheap at the price when the advice you get can save you thousands of dollars in expenses, and months or even years of unnecessary fighting.
Stick with your budget plan.
This is the hard part, but not as hard as feeling like you are stuck in the doorway of the next part of your life! No budget is any more useful than your willingness to stick to it, and if one of you changes the rules it all falls to pieces.
My former wife and I agreed to stick to our budget like it was written on two stone tablets, and to use all the money we freed up each month against the single debt that we wanted to pay off first. Once that first debt was paid off and its monthly payment was ours again, we had that much more to throw at the next debt in line, and more still to throw at the third, until we reached our goal.
Patience. Lots and lots of patience.
It took seven months to bring us where we needed to be. Seven months of peaceful-but-empty coexistence. Seven months of careful courtesy and closed doors. Seven months of whispered telephone conversations. Once a month we paid our bills and inched our way toward our goal, only to go back to seemingly-endless waiting for our new lives to begin. From January until July of that year we did our best to make it easy for each other, but both of us had our eyes on August.
It seemed to take forever, but August finally came. It was worth it, in the end; both because it helped us to avoid a fight that neither of us wanted, and because it kept us out of the financial death-spiral that you can see everywhere, these days.
May your own separation likewise be free from conflict and disaster. As the Boy Scouts like to say, though: be prepared.
If you need legal assistance with arranging your separation in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call my office to set up a personal consultation with a Pittsburgh marriage attorney. This blog will feature periodic updates. Consider subscribing! Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. I try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that I will not offer legal advice via the Internet.
Michael B. Greenstein
Greenstein Family Law Services, P.C.
1789 S. Braddock Avenue, Suite 590
Pittsburgh, PA 15218