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Divorce Planning

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It was a beautiful day, and everyone's fancy had turned to thoughts of love--or more specifically, to love's toxic by-products: acrimony, bitterness, division of property, and child support.

"Divorce: A Survival Seminar" had attracted five Chicagoans with little in common beyond an impending change in their tax status. Financial planner Cicily Carson Maton runs the seminar, an introduction to her predivorce planning service, Aequus. "With the number of divorces these days, this looks like an optimum business opportunity," observed one participant, a middle-aged woman considering her postdivorce career options.

Predivorce planning is a new concept, Maton admits. She's been providing her services to individuals for two years. This year she began offering the seminar, which also features therapist Noel Paul Hertz discussing divorce's emotional side. A tall, willowy middle-aged blond, Maton says she has no direct competition in Chicago, and precious little elsewhere.

"In the last ten years, divorce has changed a great deal, following no-fault divorce," she said after the seminar, reflecting on the reasons she's finding a clientele. "The number of divorces has made a difference--50 percent of marriages end in divorce. And maybe it's a technology that's catching up with a certain segment of the legal process."

Maton not only examines divorce's financial ramifications but will testify as an expert witness at divorce trials. "I do settlement comparisons, compare their incomes and assets, how they want to distribute it, and how that's going to impact them over the course of time," she explains. "I can document all the economic criteria--ability to replace assets, contribution, health issues, special issues like how much it costs to raise children."

She starts today's session with some basics that, summed up, would fit onto a bumper sticker as "Divorce Sucks." Marriage seems more of a business partnership than a lifelong commitment. Everybody gets a bad deal when the partnership dissolves, but the wife may lose the most. According to one ten-year study, Maton tells the group, divorced women with children see a standard-of-living decline of 73 percent in the first year, while their ex-husbands enjoy a 42 percent increase.

"What these statistics show is that although the law is gender neutral, society isn't," says Maton. "Whether you're a man or a woman, you're all going to be subjected to the same gender-neutral law, and you need to know what your bottom line is to survive this." Both genders are represented this morning: three men--black, white, and Hispanic--all in the nebulous 30-to-40ish range, and two white women, one middle-aged and the other about 30.

"You are in a game," Maton advises them. "The more information you have, the more prepared you are, the more likely you are to come out at least as well as you can."

"Then the more skilled an attorney you got, and if the other person doesn't have a good attorney, then you just wipe them off the map," objects "Doug," the black man. "So what happens to the law that's supposed to protect that other person?"

"Well, a lot of people wonder about that," Maton admits. "You're quite right. It's a lot like life. Those of us who prepare are the ones who usually come out better than the other guy."

As Maton plunges into the complications of divorce, the participants gradually learn more about each other from the questions they throw at her. When we discuss property division, it comes out that the middle-aged woman, "Mary," is still living with her husband. He doesn't know she's planning their divorce.

"If the man makes $100,000 and the woman makes nothing, will the court consider that she's anything?" Mary asks. The younger woman jumps in before Maton has a chance: "He couldn't make that 100 grand without someone at home to manage half his life," she snorts, and both women nod in world-weary unison. "That's exactly the theory," Maton agrees. "That the couple are able to get that sort of income because they are working as a unit."

Maton says that, while Illinois statutes call for considering homemaker contribution, the court doesn't document that. "I do," she declares. "I document the replacement-cost value of homemaker services based on surveys done by universities and time studies. Using that, I can come up with what an annual contribution to replace those services would be. In some cases, it's more than there are assets available."

(Later, Maton tells me it's fairly typical for one spouse to start making divorce plans before broaching the subject at home. "When it's the man, if they own a business, you will see their income drop precipitously. And then you go in for an emergency hearing for child support and you hear, 'Well, I'm only making xyz.'" One female client quietly figured out her probable postdivorce financial future--and dropped the idea. "She decided it wasn't worth it. He wasn't so bad after all.")

Doug is keenly interested in the child-support discussion. Illinois has rebuttal guidelines, says Maton, which means that parents who want to deviate from preset percentages of the noncustodial parent's net income have to justify that deviation. "If the noncustodial parent, let's say the man, is making a good salary," says Doug, "and he's paying $1,000 in child support, and she's making $75,000, then she's gonna be living damn good. And if the kids are just normal, that $1,000 is way above what she needs. With the amount of money he's paying, these kids are gonna be living the life of Riley."

"Uh, that's where documenting your facts is the only way you can substantiate your case," Maton replies, looking slightly uncomfortable with this turn in the conversation. "You have to prove they don't need that money."

("Most men do not quite grasp what it really costs to raise a child," Maton tells me after the seminar. "I can tell you from my financial-planning practice that people don't know what they're spending their money on.")

We move on to "rehab maintenance," short-term extra support while a dependent spouse obtains a degree or career training. It's important, says Maton, because courts seldom award long-term maintenance. "The first thing I ask a client is: is this what you want to do for the rest of your life? I send them to do research. What can you make if you get your degree, what's it going to cost to do it, and how long is it going to take?"

"But what if you're talking about a woman who's 50?" asks Mary. "Let's suppose she does get short-term maintenance, goes to school, she's going to be 55 in a current climate of age discrimination with only ten earning years."

Mary's scenario is fairly chilling, and Maton's answer is less than comforting: "Well, I'm sure that the lawyer in that case would make sure that the judge understood that, and I certainly document that sort of thing."

What is or is not marital property turns out to be a crucial topic. "Marital property is everything that is not nonmarital. Nonmarital is property acquired by gift and before marriage, but it must not be commingled," Maton intones ominously. This gets everyone's attention.

"But how else would you do it?" Doug wants to know.

"Keep it in your own name, and if you buy anything, you buy it in your own name, and it is yours outside marriage forever and ever and ever," she explains.

"I was putting away money from the household expenses that he's given me so that I could see a lawyer," says Mary. "And I was told that he could freeze that asset, that that is marital property, so there's no way that I can get any money ahead."

"Hide it," Doug suggests.

Maton covers the gamut of divorce issues: how to document your standard of living, the desirability of getting a lump-sum settlement from your spouse's pension plan, how your assets' tax implications can radically affect a settlement's real value. She notes that, no matter how small a couple's assets may be, those assets are important to them.

"Each case presents its own challenge," says Maton. "The first case I worked with, the husband looked at my illustrations and voluntarily gave his wife 75 percent of the assets and 50 percent of his income until the children were 18. The opposing attorney went purple and said, 'No court would ever make you do this.' And the husband said, 'Look at this. My wife needs this. These are my kids.'"

Disbelief surges in the form of a low rumble of muttering among the seminar attendants. "Boy, he must be guilty," Mary says finally. "Wonder what he's been up to."

"She's gotta have something on him. That just don't make sense. It's not human nature," Doug insists.

"Well, I'm not gonna tell you how much guilt was involved," Maton says.

As the seminar winds down, Maton reminds everyone that her advice can't replace an attorney's and asks everyone to see a lawyer as soon as possible.

"Well, if your attorney is already advising you on disclosure and how you can get financial records, then I don't quite see what your place and fee is for," says Mary.

"Well, I can tell you what my reports are, and I can assure you that there isn't an attorney in the city who is doing these," Maton answers. "Now, if your attorney is really doing financials for you, then it might be that you don't need me. But if it goes to court, your attorney can't be an expert witness for you."

Maton finishes with a last low-key sales pitch. "If you feel the need to talk to me privately about your situation, give me a call and I'll give anybody a half hour free."

"Oh, really?" Doug perks up immediately.

"Yeah!" Maton smiles.

"I'll take you up on that," Doug tells her. "I can talk pretty fast."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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