You never paid attention to the family finances. Suddenly, your spouse wants a divorce. Fortunately, it’s an amicable separation and you agree to split things up equitably. Where do you begin?
The above scenario is much more common than you think since the odds that your marriage will end in divorce are about even at best. Over 50% of first marriages end in divorce and 60% of remarriages, so the statistics are weighted against a successful marriage in America. It is extremely important therefore that both spouses understand their current financial situation and what their income needs will be post-divorce.
First, think of what your immediate cash needs will be. If one of you is working and the other is not, then cash flow is going to be highly important to the unemployed spouse. In that case, the cash-strapped party will want to receive assets that one can sell easily, quickly and with the least tax consequences. This would include stocks, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds bonds and possibly Roth IRA assets. For the spouse that is working, a combination of assets makes more sense. Some might not have immediate liquidity such as a home, a limited partnership, retirement plans and certain taxable accounts.
Remember also that you may decide to split up, but that does not mean your debtors will agree to let one or the other off the hook when it comes to your liabilities. Mortgage lenders, credit card companies, the IRS and even your credit report agencies will want to know exactly who and how each party are going to honor their debt obligations. As such, it is important that before you get divorced you agree to either pay off your mutual debt or determine each spouse’s responsibility for that debt. It might also be a good idea to request a credit report as well since sometimes there may be some outstanding debt that has slipped through the cracks over the course of a long marriage.
By the way, don’t ignore the tax ramifications of splitting up your assets. For example, if the spouse in need of cash flow sells securities there may be taxes to pay at the end of the year. If you are going to agree to sell your home and you think you can sell it for more than the purchase price, you might want to hold off getting a divorce until after the sale. Why?
The first $500,000 in capital gains from the proceeds of a home sale is not taxed as a married couple. However, if you are single the tax exclusion drops in half to $250,000. In addition, you may have also accumulated tax assets, which are tax losses that can be applied against taxable gains over the years. Make sure this issue is examined and those assets divided appropriately.
Next to your home, retirement assets are usually a major part of any couple’s net worth. Employer–sponsored retirement plans, IRAs, even pensions can be divided and transferred on a tax-free basis as long as the rules and regulations are followed. Divison of some of these retirement assets requires both the divorce court and the plan administrator’s approval.
Getting a divorce for most of us is a traumatic emotional decision but it also has a major financial impact as well. Separating emotion from the financial decisions is tough enough when the both sides are relatively civil about the decision. It can be almost impossible when the divorce is acrimonious. And I have not even mentioned the subject of children. That is another topic for another time. In any case it is a good idea to seek out someone who can advise you on these financial matters that has an objective point of view.