Divorce and the breadwinner: some straight talking (From Solicitors Journal)

A commenter called Guy recently described his desolation after his wife announced her decision to divorce. He asked how he could delay proceedings, because he didn’t want to “lose” his children. You can read my replies to him here. He isn’t alone. Other readers face similar plights. In the last few days I have found myself advising a woman who is the breadwinner in her family, and whose situation resembles Guy’s.

People in this situation are often unhappy to find themselves on the back foot. They bitterly complain at what is happening and resent having to fund the lifestyle of a stay-at-home parent with the proceeds of their hard work. The situation, as so many in their place will agree, tends to overlook their own contribution to household chores and childcare. They are in free fall and think that nothing can be done. They resign themselves to what seems like an inevitable set of financial consequences, as well as the loss of their children and home – all to a stay-at-home parent.

Welcome to the wonderful world of equality! We women have fought for years to have the same lifestyle as men, and now we have it. But having got it, women now don’t like it when the consequences mean that the stay-at-home husband can continue to be kept in relative comfort while they have to keep working. In fact, they find themselves in exactly the same position as the working husband with the stay-at-home wife.

Many divorcing couples don’t want to change what they do. They may go to work or stay at home (or more likely do both), but going forward they don’t see any need to alter their respective lifestyles.

So what of the working spouse who bitterly resents how the non-working spouse lives?

As a lawyer I would say there is no point in complaining about it. Instead they need to get a grip, focus and deal with it. They need to consider whether they can make a change to their lives. In short, they need to think about themselves and their needs, alongside obligations and responsibilities held to their families, and then see if it is possible to alter their lifestyle in a way that suits everyone.

My blunt advice to such clients usually comes as a surprise. Why, I ask, are they allowing themselves to be targeted as sitting ducks if they don’t like what is planned? Don’t they count too? Of course they do. The law must consider both parties’ reasonable needs within the context of the assets.

Usually, clients answer that they haven’t given themselves much thought. They weren’t aware that they do count.  Caught up in what is clearly an emotional maelstrom, they feel that they have no option other than to keep going, earning the family’s money.

When a couple gets married, both of them will probably go out to work, at least initially. That decision may change as their circumstances change. Two breadwinners may become one main earner and one stay-at-home parent after babies arrive. This arrangement may be intended as permanent or temporary. Not every couple goes into fine detail about their future. Most are content to survive as best they can through the childrearing years. In my experience, however, few women are content for the stay-at-home husband to remain at home in perpetuity, without doing his bit to contribute financially. And some husbands feel the same way about their wives.

The working parent may also be deeply resentful of the stay-at-home parent’s lifestyle. He or she doesn’t stop being a parent when the front door closes at the beginning of the working day. There will be no sloping off for quick drink in the pub after work. Instead the working parent will rush home to spend time with the children, with no rest or relaxation until they are all safely in bed.

It’s an exhausting, thankless and relentless treadmill. Most couples tend to simply cope, rather than enjoy it. Trying to earn, and run a home and family, puts many couples under strain. It’s no surprise that many marriages crack up under the pressure, particularly during a recession.

Making a success of the work-life patter ultimately depends on the compatibility of the couple, and the strength of their relationship – especially when the typical roles are reversed. If a resentful working wife sees her husband enjoy being a stay-at-home parent, but to his lesser standards as opposed to hers, as she works all hours to survive, it’s all too easy to lose respect. Love inevitably flies out of the window as the easygoing guy she fell in love with becomes, to her mind, a sponging, lazy parasite.

Exactly the same can happen with the working man. I frequently receive comments like: “What does she do all day? Now the children are old enough, can’t she do something”.

And then, to add insult to injury, the working spouse (who may be working too hard to even think about the state of the marriage) can on presentation of a divorce petition be asked to divvy up the income and the capital, paying over more to the stay-at-home parent.

Of course some spouses don’t mind their different lifestyles. They have their roles and like them; they don’t want to swap. But many have an arrangement that only works, because it has to work. There is no choice.

And what may have worked pre-divorce in one home, may not work now. Parents may desperately want to spend more time with their children, so if the children come first rather than the money, they will come up with a sensible, workable arrangement that allows them to do it. You can’t be forced to work, staying in a job you hate just because it earns a lot of money. However there is no point in having your head in the clouds either. If you want to share childcare you must demonstrate that it can be done, rather than using it as an excuse to get out of paying spousal maintenance.

In these sorts of cases, when resentment bubbles to the surface, I think the answer begins with the consideration of the need for radical change. And that begins with the arrangements for the parenting of the children going forward.

If you want to parent your children, you will find a way to do so even if it means downsizing. And if you are deadly serious about parenting the children, don’t agree to move out of the home until arrangements are in place, or you may be perceived as abandoning your children.

Once parenting arrangements have been agreed, the stay-at-home spouse is free to start earning. Under s25 (2)(a) Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 the court can expect both parties to earn an income, and freed from the responsibility of all the child care a stay at home parent can also go out to work. You may agree to share your respective incomes because the back to work spouse may earn less, but either way it just might work.

And what do you need to provide?

Both parties need homes for themselves and the children, plus an income. Things will undoubtedly be tighter for most couples. But the change in lifestyle and the benefits to the children of two parents who are more hands-on and less resentful, may make for a happier family overall.

Alternatively, the resentful spouse may weigh up the options and decide that on balance, even if they choose to keep the job and maintain the family at a higher level, at least it will be through choice. Better that, than a decision that is simply imposed on them during a period in which they think they can do nothing about it.

Marilyn Stowe

The senior partner at Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

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14 comments

JamesB - April 4, 2012 at 9:06pm

keeps u sane and from alienating others and yourself not involved with your talk on the subject also.

JamesB - April 4, 2012 at 9:07pm

last point, in divorce in this country, the money follows the children, thus the reason why you should petition your wife now rather than wait for her to do it and get more in 8 to 10 years time.

Marilyn Stowe - April 4, 2012 at 9:12pm

James
Your earlier comments reply directly to Guy and as I also say on that post, we aren’t too far apart for once.
Counselling, strategising, focussing and being prepared to take decisions for the benefit of the family are vital. And lawyers can actually help.
Regards
Marilyn

Alan - April 4, 2012 at 10:28pm

I was the traditional ‘bread winner’, and was completely taken aback when my wife said she wanted a divorce after 13 years of marriage and 2 children ( 8 & 10). Aside from the kalidascope of emotions that I went through, and to a much lesser degree still experience 15 months after separation and approaching’ish divorce, I almost immediately knew that being a more involved parent was my primary concern.

I’m lucky as I am self employed, and have a degree of flexibility in my work and salary, that affords me to become more involved, however I still had to accept that things were going to change. My salary is reduced, I can’t work towards the early exit plan, cars have been sold and my frivolous lifestyle has been curtailed for the foreseable future . however these compromises have been far out weighed by becoming a full time, part time Dad (I have my girls 50% of the time, and all the responsibilities that are associated with them). Prior to this I thought I was a pretty involved parent, however I now realise how wrong I was! Having responsibility of my children 50% of the time was initially incredibly stressful, after school clubs, half terms, breaking all known speed limits and still being 2 minutes late for the school pick up, play dates, getting to know the school mums, cooking, cleaning (the washing machine never stops!), differentiating between an 8 and 10 year old’s clothes (still struggling with that), buying tights in winter (apparently saying ‘man up’ doesn’t cut the mustard!), they’ve grown out of shoes again (?!), organising party’s, developing Blue Peter level of arts and crafts, sleep overs, pack lunches, the list is endless! However I far prefer my new role in life and the increased level of contribution I will have in my children’s development. Ironically I’m still the main bread winner, however the size of the loaf I bring home is a lot smaller, but far more satisfying.

Marilyn Stowe - April 5, 2012 at 6:11am

Alan
Thanks very much for your contribution. It absolutely proves the point I am making. If there’s a will….
Best wishes
Marilyn

JamesB - April 5, 2012 at 10:54am

Yes, some more straight talking, don’t start from here. I.e. Don’t get married or put yourself at the mercy of these courts and law and lawyers.

Yvie - April 6, 2012 at 12:30pm

Along with other causes, the money following the children surely is one of the reasons why there can be a high degree of conflict between the two parents. Mothers are advised (on sites such as Gingerbread) that if they allow the children to have overnight contact with their dad, then their csa will be reduced accordingly. Fathers who want a 50/50 shared care arrangement can find this strongly opposed by the mother who realises that dad might apply for a share of the child benefit and working tax credit.

Not all mothers are the stereotype of mum on benefits and unable to work as she has to look after the children. Many mothers have well paid jobs, are in receipt of child benefit, working tax family credit etc, and can often have a partner (declared or otherwise) helping to meet housing costs and other bills. Dad on the other hand, may be earning considerably less than his ex, have the care of his children for almost the same time as his ex. but still has to pay her around 20% of his salary.

No account is taken of income or ability to pay. The system takes money which is earmarked to be spent on children, from one parent and gives it to the other to spend as she thinks fit. If this leaves dad struggling with his bills, including feeding his children, no one is in the least bit interested. As long as the law is applied, the consequences hardly seem to matter.

BobTB007 - April 9, 2012 at 1:01pm

Marilyn

Are you saying that you are advising “working mums” with “stay at home dads” (who is the full time parent in this instance) to give up some of their “work life” to spend more time at home to “even up the balance” of child care before they petition for divorce?

And if that is so, then whats good for the goose, means that any working dads having a handle on the home life, when the wife petitions out of the blue, should likewise give up the work routine if they are to have any chance of stabilising a status quo more in their favour (prior to actual separation)?

Because, fellow campers, the law has an unwritten rule that allows the parent with (most) care to become the resident parent and thereafter they have a tacitly (court) approved ability to make all any any decisions with regard to the children without any recourse to the other parent, regardless of any issue of “shared” parental resposibility. Tell me if I’m wrong?

Another gripe is that a father “keeping” the child, post separation (and prior to divorce even), in his care, for longer than the mother wants, sets himself up for two things

1/ A bashing at any child contact application court process from the mothers team of advisors/lawyers and critisism from the judiciary
2/ A charge of abduction at the instant time (and at any subsiquent child contact application court process from the mothers team of advisors/lawyers)and major critisism from the judiciary

Now lets just reverse that dichotomy

Father has majority care of the children post separation and mother waltz’s in and says I’m taking them and off they go to a new life with mum at a different address.

She is setting herself up for?

1/ fathers (undoubtedly failed) court application to have the children returned to the FMH and his care
2/ mother’s new ability of setting the status quo by reducing the contact he has with the children up until the time that f actually succeeds with getting the matter before the judge, oh and of course the cynic in me will always think that this kind of action by the unscrupulous mother will always be accompanied with the reason of father’s (uncoroborated) “historical domestic violence” and the amount of time that it takes to get all of that heard in the FOF hearing

Yvie, spot on.

One other thing, when the father finally proves that he wasnt violent to the extent that mother says he was (ok so he shouted at her a bit, but then she shouted at him!!!!) then the courts determine that contact should be “slowly” re-established? Why? Is he a stranger? are the children too fragile to have their biological father and carer of them since they were born be allowed to have care of them once again to much?

Oh and another final thing (lol) why is is that the court have a no blame/no fault process except when allegations of DA are alleged? Its all peverse to me and all very sexist and one sided.

Sorry Marilyn, the women have 90% of the process on their side and only that little if the father is an absolute angel.

So those mothers that bemoan the system when they are the major wage earner can complain to the same female lobbying group(s) that have set up the situation with support of the judiciary along with all those men who on the wrong end of many a hostile mother seeking revenge and payback for whatever reason (oh yes they cant do that can they because wwe have a no fault no blame system can they??)

Oh and what are the judicial checks and balances to prevent it all from happening as so often it does

Russ

Law student - February 19, 2013 at 12:12am

Hello, I am currently trying to find cases in regards to the departure of equality, I was wondering whether off the top of your head you know of any cases where the Mother in law stays at home to look after an In law and/or will continue to do so after the divorce?

Jacqueline - March 13, 2013 at 11:31am

i have been a stay at home wife and mum for 27 years. i found out that my ex-husband (have Decree Nisi but no financial settlement yet.) has been having affairs whilst working abroad. Our completed Form E’s were supposed to be handed over Dec 8th 2012 and mine was his only had 5 pages of bank statements and he just wrote a figure in the boxes for pensions, stocks and shares etc. He has taken my car, stopped my mony, I have the use of the master bedroom with en-suite that has no heating whilst he has gone on holiday, drives his BMW and does what he wants. My solicitor keeps saying he will take him to court for financial disclosure then does nothing. What can I do?

Marilyn Stowe - March 13, 2013 at 11:50am

Dear Jacqueline
Your solicitor will be preparing a Questionnaire dealing with the deficiencies in his Form E which will be then considered by the Judge at the First Appointment. The Judge will then order him to make up the deficiencies.
If you arent happy with your solicitor you can change.
Regards
Marilyn

Vicky - August 13, 2013 at 11:16pm

I am female who has initiated divorce from my husband.
I am also the main earner as a shareholder in a family business, and I am also the main carer of the children.

I have built the business up with my family over the past 13 years, my husband on the other hand had his own business (that my business helped to finance) which failed. Therefore when we separated he had a small part time job……..which he has continued to do for the past 3 years, making no attempt to find full time employment.

During the marriage he ran up a number of debts, which I have continued to service as they were either secured against the FMH (in which I reside with the children x 3) or they were on joint credit cards/loans.

He has contributed nothing to children during the 3 years which we have been separated and going through the divorce.

A forensic accounts report has been done, which went more in my favour than his as it confirmed that the business has debts and no lending capacity.

I am a minor shareholder in the business at 20%.

Now I am getting from his solicitor the exact argument that you are discussing here, that it shouldn’t make a difference if you are male or female.

However, what do you suspect would happen in my scenario? He was not and never has been the main provider or carer, that was all myself. So I guess I am describing a lazy man who made little contribution and is currently sitting on a part time job on purpose with the aim of claiming periodical payments from myself.

We are awaiting a date for a resolution hearing.

With regards to the children, I sympathize with the comments above, but this is an area where we sought resolution early in terms of contact. The children love us both and this is not something I have lost sight of at any point and I made a clear separation between children and financial issues.

Regards Vikki

Marilyn Stowe - August 14, 2013 at 5:02am

Dear Vicky
I can see why you are upset and resentful. However you are the breadwinner and own the assets and I think the court will still make provision for him according to his needs assessed within the context of the assets not least given the length of the marriage. The court will certainly also take into account your own needs as the main career of the children but overall, this is a case you should try to settle.
Have you seen Counsel with your solicitor for a conference? Perhaps you should to discuss the best overall approach.
Regards
Marilyn

Lance Manion - February 18, 2014 at 8:47pm

Or one parent may simply be a lazy donkey that planned from the start of the marriage to quit work, an lay around the house drinking while the nanny raises the child and the maid does the cleaning. Then lay back for the rest of his life living off his spouse regarding the child only as a cash cow!

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