Today’s blog was written by the latest and greatest addition to our law firm, Associate Attorney, Ali Sutak, Esq.
You’ve made it to the finish line. After months, or perhaps even years of settlement talks and court dates, finally, your long-awaited final divorce uncontested hearing date has arrived. The i’s have been dotted and the t’s have been crossed on your Matrimonial Settlement Agreement. You go into the courtroom, answer some questions, and the judge gives you a Judgment of Divorce. After all this time, it seems like it’s over in the blink of an eye. You can’t wait to go home and start your new life. Now that you’re done, the last thing that you want to do is think about your divorce and anything related to it. And you certainly don’t want to look through that agreement again for a long, long time.
But you should.
One of the worst things you can do after your divorce is to ignore or forget your responsibilities under the Matrimonial Settlement Agreement. You and your now ex-spouse spent a long time working out the details and deadlines in that agreement, and there is a good reason for that. The terms of your agreement are negotiated for your protection. However, the words only go so far if you choose not to follow them. Your agreement can’t protect you if you don’t make an effort to protect yourself by carrying out your responsibilities. These responsibilities can include anything from dividing your retirement accounts, changing beneficiaries on making a lump sum payment to your ex-spouse, refinancing your mortgage, listing your house for sale, dividing and closing bank accounts, transferring vehicle and home titles to getting your own health or car insurance. Or, more simply, but perhaps most importantly, setting up a child support account with the county Probation department. If you forget, or simply drag your feet on doing any one of these things, it can have serious ramifications for you.
Usually, if you forget to do, or simply ignore one of your obligations in the agreement, you may find yourself faced with an enforcement motion filed by your “ex..” This will send you right back to where you don’t want to be—in court. You could also end up having to pay for your ex’s attorney fees, because you and your ex would not have had to go back to court if you had only done what you agreed to do in the first place. And sometimes, when you fail to act on your responsibilities under the Matrimonial Settlement Agreement, things can go from bad to worse.
Take this case, for example (or perhaps as a cautionary tale):
I represented the husband in a hotly contested divorce case. He had been married to his wife for over 40 years. While they were both equally unhappily married, they had essentially learned to co-exist for the last 20 years, until their adult son moved into the marital home with his girlfriend and their two children after they lost their own house to foreclosure. What should have been a temporary living arrangement became a permanent one. The son’s girlfriend was unemployed and essentially took over the house, even though she was living there rent-free. The parties’ son worked full-time, and the two grandchildren went to school during the day. This left my client, the husband, at home all day with his son’s girlfriend, as he was retired and suffered from severe emphysema. The two did not get along, which led to a rift between father and son, and husband and wife. My client simply wanted the son and his girlfriend to move out and get their own place, but his wife did not see it that way. As a result, the parties lived in angry silence for the next two years. The husband tolerated the situation as long as he could, out of love for his two grandchildren, until he finally reached his wit’s end and filed for divorce.
In the meantime, the house fell into disrepair and the property taxes on the home became delinquent. When the time came to deal with the disposition of the house, the wife wanted to keep it, and the husband wanted it sold. He felt that he had spent his life putting his blood, sweat, and tears into the house, and he feared that his wife and son would be unable to maintain the house and it would eventually be lost to a tax sale. However, the husband also had a substantial 401(k) that he had built up over the course of the marriage, and had remained untouched because he was living off of his pension income and Social Security benefits. The only way that Wife could manage to buy out Husband’s interest in the house was by waiving her interest in his 401(k).
Eventually, the parties agreed that the Wife could keep the house free and clear of any interest of the Husband. In exchange, the Husband kept his entire 401(k), of which Wife was the beneficiary at the time. Because the parties were not on speaking terms and could not agree on a value for the house, they had a formal appraisal done. The home appraiser noticed the condition of the home, and alerted the town that there may be safety violations in the house. The town sent an inspector to the house, who issued substantial violations with fines to the Husband and Wife. Left with no choice but to cure the violations, the parties agreed to split the fines and the repairs needed to render the house safe. With their case on the brink of trial, the parties reached a settlement and got divorced, agreeing to resolve the safety issues prior to Husband moving out of the house. Because the Husband was in poor health and had been in and out of the hospital, the Wife agreed to give him 90 days to find a new place to live and move out.
After the divorce was final, neither party bothered to do anything to address the safety violations in the house. The Wife felt that the Husband should have taken the initiative, while the Husband was busy trying to find himself another home with his health on the decline. Even with the divorce complete, the Wife still refused to talk to the Husband. Husband did, however, take care to immediately change his 401(k) beneficiary from the Wife to his two grandchildren in the event of his death. Just over two months after the divorce, the Husband ended up back in the hospital and died shortly thereafter, leaving the Wife with a gigantic mess on her hands: a home full of unresolved safety violations and no 401(k) funds from which to pay for repairs and fines. On the bright side, the two grandchildren will never have to worry about paying for college.
The moral of the story is to take care of your obligations as soon as you can after the divorce. Don’t let your bitterness cloud your common sense. If the Wife in this story had just made an effort to speak to her ex and resolve the safety issues, she might have avoided a slew of problems.
Ms, Sutak and our office stand prepared to help you.