Washington Times

May 9, 2002

The great divide

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

NEW YORK (AP) The multimillion-dollar celebrity divorces get the headlines Cleveland Indians pitcher Chuck Finley suing to end his marriage, the estranged wife of former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani seeking $1 million a year in support, former General Electric Co. Chairman Jack Welch negotiating a division of his assets with his wife.

But every day, hundreds of marriages break up out of the public's eye, with just as much emotional whiplash and financial pain. The dollars involved may be less, but how they are divided can be critical to how fast and how well the couple and their children heal.

"The reality of divorce is that couples generally are forced to maintain two households instead of one on the same amount of income," said Violet P. Woodhouse, a family-law specialist in Newport Beach, Calif. "Nobody lives as well. Everybody lowers their standard of living."

Increasingly, she added, "they also have to figure out how to pay their creditors."

Roughly half of first marriages end in divorce, according to Census Bureau figures, typically after eight years. But Miss Woodhouse, author of the book "Divorce & Money," says she is seeing an increasing number of divorces after 20 or 30 years.

Ginita Wall, a financial planner in San Diego, says she believes that more baby-boomer marriages are breaking up because "divorce is socially acceptable, and more women are earning money on their own so they're not so economically dependent."

That doesn't necessarily make it financially easier, even when the divorce is amicable, she adds.

"The bottom line in a divorce is to try to have each spouse suffering equally, with the least impact on children," Miss Wall said. "Typically, he says, 'I don't have enough to live on after [paying] alimony and child support,' and she says, 'There he is with half the money, and I have to cover myself and the kids with the other half.'"

For Howard Nash, 43, a New York public-school teacher of drama, divorce has been "a financial wringer."

Alimony to his ex-wife, who is a lawyer, and support payments for two children, ages 12 and 9, take two-thirds of his salary, leaving him with $150 a week on which to live, he says.

He tries to supplement that with after-school work and has begun producing low-budget feature films.

"The reason I haven't given up is the support network I've found in filmmaking," he said.

Although divorced for several years, Mr. Nash remains dissatisfied with both the financial settlement and visitation agreement, but finds himself too strapped for cash to fight them.

"We're both hurt," Mr. Nash concludes. "My life is damaged because of the judgment, and hers is damaged because this still isn't finished."

For Reina Lakser, 54, the key to reaching a settlement to end her marriage of more than two decades was getting help from Nancy B. Kaye, a financial adviser in Port Washington, N.Y., and a member of the board of the Association of Divorce Financial Planners.

"It was a war back and forth, back and forth with the lawyers," Miss Lakser said. "Then Nancy got involved. She was the rational voice. She said, 'Here is what you're entitled to, here is what you need to survive, here is how you both can do it.'"

Miss Lakser, an office manager near her home on Long Island, said Miss Kaye helped the divorcing couple work with a mediator to reach a financial agreement satisfactory to both that wouldn't be too disruptive to their children, ages 20 and 17. The deal included some retirement funds for her.

Miss Kaye believes more couples should seek professional financial advice before they meet in court in what can result in expensive litigation.

"Generally, the old rules no longer apply," Miss Kaye said. "Maintenance, or alimony, is considered rehabilitative, so women are expected to go back to work even if they've been out of the work force for years. And when you get to child care, nothing is a given. It can cost both parties."

One of the biggest mistakes couples make when trying to divide their property, she said, is not looking at liquidity.

"Say they try to divide the assets 50-50," she said. "The wife gets the home, the husband gets their $400,000 savings account. Fine. So just how will she support herself that way?"

Miss Kaye argued, too, that sometimes a 60-40 split would be more equitable "when you consider the impact on your cash flow today, and what it's going to look like five years from now."

Kim Lurie, who spent eight years fighting for her own divorce, used the experience to start a firm called Divorce Coach in Merrick, N.Y.

"I found there was a big piece missing in the divorce process, which was a place to seek help on what to do, when to do it and how to do it," said Miss Lurie, a 42-year-old lawyer. "I try to guide people through the process and stay with them through the proceedings. Sometimes, it's just answering questions like, 'My attorney said this. What does it mean?'"

Those who succeed in overcoming divorce, she says, "accept the injustice of it all and move on to re-create their lives."

Ruth Weisberg, 45, of suburban Philadelphia, said that at the start of the divorce process, "I felt like I was front and center on the Titanic."

Miss Weisberg and her husband worked out their settlement with the help of a mediator.

In the end, they sold their home and each moved to a smaller house. She traded down from a minivan to a small car. She gave up a regular job as a radio-show host to do free-lance work so she would be more available for her children, a daughter, 12, and a son, 6. She jokes that she buys "only at the finest thrift shops."

Miss Weisberg says the key is to look forward, not back: "You have to put your life together. You have to get on with it."

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