One of the very first steps guys make during the divorce process is often their biggest mistake.
Your wife tells you she wants a divorce. You’ve been fighting constantly for months, and while you’d love for this to work, you’ve also reached your breaking point. It would probably be best for all parties involved, kids included, for you to pack your suitcase and go stay somewhere else for a few days, right? Even you agree it’d be healthy to get out of this environment.
While common sense might tell you that this is a good idea, this decision can often do more to derail your divorce case than anything else. In fact, Cordell & Cordell co-founder Joseph Cordell lists leaving the marital home as the No. 1 biggest mistake men make in divorce in his book, “The 10 Stupidest Mistakes Men Make When Facing Divorce.”
First and foremost, moving out can cripple your chances of gaining custody of your children.
“We hear it all the time,” Mr. Cordell said. “In one breath, dads tell us, ‘I’ve moved out.’ In the next breath they say, ‘I want custody of my kids.’ That that point we have to advise our clients that having moved out, they may have limited the available strategies and increased the necessary effort and expense in pursuing custody.”
When determining custody, courts across the United States use some variation of the “best interests of the children” analysis. A court considers a number of factors when making this determination, including parental involvement.
Generally, children remain in the marital home during the divorce process. So when you decide to leave, you’re immediately limiting the parenting time you’ll have with them. It also becomes easier for your soon-to-be ex to cut off access to your kids.
Before long, a new status quo is established that could be transitioned into a temporary court order that will last until the divorce is settled and can potentially affect the final decree. At that point, the only way back in to the house is to prove that you are the primary caregiver of the kids or an equal partner with your wife in parenting, which can be difficult to prove in court.
Since the divorce process can last months, or even a year or two, this “temporary” arrangement can last a lot longer than you might have anticipated.
If the arrangement has been in place for some time when the judge goes to decide who gets the kids, they might decide that everything seems to be working and see no reason to change it.
After all, Mom is there every day getting the kids ready for school, cooking them meals, and tucking them into bed. Even if you left the home with good intentions, or felt you were forced out, the judge might look at your decision to leave as a willingness to disregard your daily parental duties.
Bottom line, if you have kids and want to remain actively involved in their lives, think twice before moving out of the marital home.
Double the bills
Even if you don’t have children, moving out during the divorce can have costly ramifications.
A divorce in and of itself can be one of the most expensive decisions you ever make that can affect your finances for years to come. Before and during divorce, it is nearly impossible to estimate how much everything is going to cost you.
By moving out of the marital home, you’re potentially adding even more to your financial burden.
If you are the primary earner in your household and you decide to move out while the divorce is pending, the court might require you to continue covering your wife’s living expenses as well.
Some states can authorize a “status quo order,” which requires the party to continue paying the marital expenses as they did before the divorce. If you move into a new home or apartment, that means you’re going to be doubling your living expenses by maintaining two households.
And if your spouse has a lower paying job, you could be ordered to pay her temporary spousal support so she can maintain the comfortable lifestyle she is used to.
Returning to the home
While laws vary by state and jurisdiction, there is a chance that it might not be too late to return to the home if you’ve already left. In many states, once one party has filed for divorce and served the other party, the case is frozen and the people and property must stay in the same place until the case is settled.
If you’ve yet to be served, however, then both parties are presumed to have equal access to the residence until the court says otherwise. That means you have the right to return to the home even if you already left.
If this is the route you choose to take, be careful about reentering the home. Don’t barge back in like a king, but try to go back when no one else is around to avoid causing a scene. If at all possible, try to naturally resume the roles you each played before you left.
There’s a chance your wife will have changed the locks on the house. In that case, you can call the police. They’ve likely dealt with issues like this and might help you back in like a homeowner who accidentally locked himself out of the house.
Living with your spouse
Unfortunately, while it might benefit you legally, remaining in the home with your wife during divorce can be extremely unpleasant, particularly if the breakup is a contentious one.
How do you coexist?
If at all possible, try to have a calm and mature talk with your wife about the situation. Let her know that you intend to stay in the home until the divorce is final and that you want to do whatever you can to make the situation as comfortable as possible for you both. It’s in yours and hers best interest to avoid constantly fighting, especially if kids are in the house.
Try to come up with a fair and balanced budget to determine who will pay for various household items and divide the bills up proportionally to your incomes.
Respect each other’s personal space and try to establish a routine that you’re both comfortable with. This is only a temporary arrangement so you both should try to make the best of it.
If you have to leave…
While attorneys recommend doing whatever you can to stay in the home, situations could arise where you feel it is worth the risk to leave.
When a divorce turns ugly, a spouse will go to drastic measures to force the other out of the house. Your wife might start so many arguments that she finally pushes you past your breaking point and you feel you just have to leave.
It also is not uncommon for one party to blatantly lie about domestic abuse. Emergency protection orders, which are used to forcibly remove one party from the home to avoid the risk of mental or physical abuse, require a very low burden of proof and are often utilized as a tactical weapon to get a leg up in the divorce proceedings. Rather than battle those false claims, you might feel it is best to leave and avoid that situation entirely. (Although you should consult with your attorney before doing so.)
Regardless of whether you choose to leave the home on your own accord or the court requires you to do so, there are some crucial tasks you must complete before losing access to the residence.
First and foremost, make sure you have copies of all financial documents that could be relevant to your case. This includes tax returns, pay stubs, credit card statements, mortgage documents, etc. If you lose access to those documents, they can still be recovered through the discovery process, but that will add to the cost of your case.
You’ll also need to take an inventory of the contents of your home through photographs or video. Make sure all valuables – her jewelry, your baseball card collection, etc. – are documented.
Once you leave the house, your wife has possession of everything in it. You don’t want any of these items to suddenly “disappear” during the divorce process. Without photographic or video evidence, it can be hard to prevent your wife from taking whatever she wants before the marital assets are divided.
Finally, when deciding where you are going to live in the coming months, keep your kids in mind and how that decision will affect your odds of getting custody.
If you hope to remain in their lives, you’ll probably need to live nearby and in the same school district. If you want them to live with you, you need to be able to provide them with similar living conditions that they are used to.
That means providing a stable, clean, and comfortable environment and not just crashing on your buddy’s couch.
It’s understandable during this time that you just want to escape and start the next chapter of your life as soon as possible. But odds are you’ll be better in the long run staying in the marital home until your divorce is finalized.