People who are facing divorce after many years of marriage, or just later in life, face unique challenges. They are less connected by the need to provide daily care and financial support for their children. They also may be facing other life changes such as upcoming retirement or increasing health concerns (and costs!) as they age. Sometimes this has been called The Graying of Divorce. According to, “Empty nest syndrome isn’t a clinical diagnosis. Instead, empty nest syndrome is a phenomenon in which parents experience feelings of sadness and loss when the last child leaves home.” It is a life transition where spouses can take a step back and look at how their lives are progressing. As part of this process of reflection, they may say to themselves: “I’ve put up with this long enough!” Alternatively, it might be a time when couples take advantage of having more time to explore new interests and activities to share together. A process that can be helpful to those considering divorce or separation is called Discernment Counseling. Discernment Counseling is different than regular couples counseling because–instead of just focusing on helping the marriage relationship–it focuses on deciding whether the marriage should be worked on or whether divorce or separation should be pursued. The University of Minnesota has a Discernment Counseling project has a helpful website that you may want to visit if you want to learn more about Discernment Counseling. If divorce is the path chosen, Collaborative Divorce is often a perfect option as it can help increase communication and mutual respect to the benefit of both spouses (and grown children!). A neutral financial professional can analyze retirement cash flow and budgets, including tax implications of withdrawing retirement funds. Empty Nest divorces have their own unique challenges. They also are an opportune time to be able to enter a process that the older divorcing couple can be proud of in creating a respectful transition to separate living and ending of their marriage.
138041606Starting a divorce can be difficult, particularly if your spouse believes the marriage can be saved. How you have this discussion may make a major difference in your life, particularly if you have children. In my thirty years of working with divorcing clients, I have found that avoiding mistakes at the very beginning of the process is crucial to the future of your family. The most common mistake is moving ahead without being fully prepared. Here is a quick guide to the type of preparation that I believe will make the most difference.
  1. Make sure you clearly explore your reconciliation options. Before you start down the path toward divorce, make sure that you are doing the right thing. This is important for you, and your children and will help your spouse become more accepting of the divorce if that is what ultimately needs to happen. There are many new ways to explore the divorce decision, including discernment counseling which is designed to help you determine whether your marriage can be saved. To learn more, go to the Doherty Relationship Institute website
  2. Make sure you understand the various options for how to divorce. There are many different ways to move ahead with divorce, including Collaborative Divorce and meditation. There are many good professionals who will explain all of the options, without charge. To learn more, go to or
  3. Once you have chosen a method of moving forward, carefully plan the way of telling your spouse about the divorce. If there is any danger of abuse, make sure you consult with experienced professionals to make sure that you are aware of the safest possible method. If there is no danger of physical abuse, but have significant concerns about possible verbal abuse, make sure that you are in a public place so that you can leave if things get uncomfortable. If possible, consider having a counselor, clergy member or mutually trusted friend or family member present during this important discussion.
  4. Focus on the “Big Picture” and your long term goals.  Sometimes divorce can create a “crisis mentality” that can cause people to lose perspective on what really matters. Focusing only on the issues that feel urgent can displace the need to focus on what is truly important  such as the well-being of your children or your general health.
135385349Sometimes what comes after the “C-word” can unfortunately be the “D-word” – divorce. The incidence of divorce/separation is unfortunately quite high after one partner has been diagnosed or is in some stage of battling cancer. If you are a woman, the odds are even less in your favor – according to a study, by the Max Planck Institute, on the effect cancer has on the divorce rate, “21 percent of female cancer patients end up divorced or separated after a cancer diagnosis.” Both a cancer diagnosis and a divorce cause such emotional devastation. You rarely think that either of these things will ever happen to you; these are things that “happen to other people.” Nancy Cox, a healing coach with the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute, sees the parallels between sitting, angst-ridden, in a doctor’s office and sitting, angst-ridden, in a lawyer’s office. “They both trigger every difficulty you’ve ever faced in your life,” Cox said. The question then becomes why? Why are so many marriages destroyed by cancer? Maybe the marriage was struggling in the first place, but often times simply the stress of cancer itself can divide a perfectly good marriage. Reassessment goes both ways in a relationship and some marriages can’t handle all the stresses and strains that cancer can bring. Dealing with a diagnosis of cancer can certainly magnify certain feelings already present, as well as create new feelings of uncertainty due to dealing with cancer itself. Big challenges like cancer, a life changing accident, other major illness, infertility, or a child with disabilities, can either bring you closer together or tear you apart. Cancer changes a person and emotionally you are in a different place after having the cancer. Sometimes fighting a battle like cancer proves to a person just how strong they are and perhaps now have the strength to leave a marriage that wasn’t quite right to begin with. Whether it’s cancer or divorce, a good starting point is to begin rallying your troops around you. Call your closest family and friends and break the news to them. Then seek out the best professionals to guide you through, whether it’s the top divorce lawyer in town, or the best oncologist. Seeking therapy is a good idea both during and after. Both cancer and divorce also offer the potential for healing. “Any crisis creates opportunity, if one can re-frame it and get the level of support needed to have that happen,” Cox said. Once you battle cancer, divorce, or both, you are forever a survivor.
112295220This article sprouted from a series of brainstorming meetings that I recently had with fellow Collaborative Attorney Bruce Peck. We decided to meet for coffee from time to time to discuss and share ideas for writing about any alternative topic that may come to mind that would be different from the usual topic of divorce. One reason people seek a divorce (in Minnesota, what we call Dissolution of Marriage) is because they start to think that they cannot trust their spouse financially. So they feel that unless they divorce their spouse, they will face a mountain of debt because of the careless way their spouse handles money. If you are feeling that way, you may be experiencing something like the following circumstances.  Do you view your spouse as untrustworthy with money? Is your spouse spending too much money?  Does your spouse gamble too much? Do you worry that your spouse will take on significant debt without your knowledge or consent? Does your spouse make terrible financial decisions? These financial concerns often lead to divorce because one spouse feels that the financial issues in their marriage are out of control and they cannot go on that way and have no other choice. One spouse feels that they can’t take on the financial risks involved in staying married and that divorce is the only option to save themselves from financial ruin. In these circumstances, divorce is not the only potential option you should consider. One alternative to divorce is a “legal separation”. In Minnesota, a legal separation may be granted by a court when the court determines that “one or both parties need a legal separation.” Arguably, avoiding financial ruin is a good reason to need a legal separation. This is because a “legal separation is a court determination of the rights and responsibilities of a husband and wife arising out of the marital relationship.” Further, a “decree of legal separation does not terminate the marital status of the parties.” In other words, a legal separation is everything a divorce is, without calling it a divorce and without actually divorcing the couple. People who have a legal separation in Minnesota are actually still married to each other. So, if you want to stay married, but determine all the rights and responsibilities of you and your spouse in a court order, just like in a divorce but without divorcing, then you might be interested in a legal separation instead of a divorce. In my experience, legal separations in Minnesota are quite rare. Usually, if a couple wants to separate their financial lives by determining their rights and responsibilities, they also want to be free to marry someone else if they decide to do that in the future. That rules out legal separation because if you are still married, you can’t get married to someone else. Even if a spouse has no intention of ever marrying again, they typically do not want to be married to their current spouse. With a legal separation, a person is still married and so they cannot marry someone else. I suspect that the only reason that there is such a thing as legal separation in Minnesota is that there have historically been people whose religious beliefs prevented them from even considering divorce. While many people still have an aversion to divorcing, I haven’t run across many people recently who still hold divorce as completely inconsistent with their religious views. The only two reasons that I can think of to get a legal separation are 1) you want to get a divorce, but your religious beliefs don’t allow you to divorce, or 2) you want to stay married as long as you can separate your financed from your spouse so that financial issues don’t come in between you and your spouse. There are some possible negative consequences and limitations of a legal separation. One is that your health insurance eligibility may be affected. Another may be the issue of how your change in marital status may affect your taxes. Another is that any joint accounts you have with your spouse are likely still at risk. There are additional issues to consider related to bankruptcy and debt collection. This is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of all the positive and negative aspects of legal separation, but this gives you a sense for the potential issues to consider in making your decision. In order to choose legal separation over divorce, you should consult with a bankruptcy attorney, a family law attorney and a tax accountant and think through your options thoroughly before making a decision. The Collaborative process is ideal for helping couples talk through and make these decisions with the help of legal (and other professional) advice readily available to both spouses. An alternative to legal separation, without going through with a divorce, is to complete a postnuptial agreement.  This is like a prenuptial agreement (which is commonly referred to as a “prenup”), but a postnuptial agreement is signed after the couple is married (rather than before marriage). It is an agreement about the financial rights and responsibilities of the couple if they ever separate. This is a whole separate topic and is too large for this article. I’ll write more on the topic of postnuptial agreements in another blog post soon!
Debra Messing recently expressed guilt over her divorce and the fact that she and her husband couldn’t give her son “the fantasy” that her parents gave her in a marriage that was now ending. She said she and her husband both wanted to make it work and last forever but weren’t able to make it “go the course.” If you and your spouse are uncertain about whether you want to end your marriage, there are resources for you to use before making the final decision about a divorce. This is not marriage counseling for people who already know they want to continue their marriage and need help in making that happen, but ambivalence counseling which helps couples figure out whether they really want a divorce. Some trained mental health professionals who do this work in the collaborative divorce community are Brian Burns and Karen Haase. If you ultimately decide to get divorced, this ambivalence counseling work may help you understand each other’s perspectives about what happened during the marriage and the differences that led to your decision to divorce. Ambivalence counseling could also result in your decision to stay married or hold off the divorce. If, after counseling on your uncertainty about whether or not to be divorced, you decide that you do want to be divorced, don’t dwell too much on guilt or past mistakes in your marriage. Yes, you can learn from mistakes made, but assigning guilt made for past mistakes won’t be a strong foundation for final agreement in your divorce. You may have different memories and perspectives about why the marriage ended and may not reach agreement on these issues. Instead, you should focus on the present and future issues you face – where you will live, what your parenting schedule will be, how you will pay for your living expenses in two households and how you will divide your assets and debts. Focussing on the future and problem solving about these issues will be more productive for your family than attempting to assign blame or allow guilt to guide your decisions in a divorce. During the collaborative divorce process, these feelings of guilt or anger are acknowledged and addressed but don’t drive the process. A couple who had these feelings of guilt and anger during their collaborative divorce have shared their experience in a video which follows the steps in their divorce process.
MoneyI read an interesting article in the Star Tribune this week, “Till Debt Do Us Part,” about the challenges faced by newlyweds with student loan debt, particularly when one partner has more debt that the other. This got me thinking about the strong connection between money and divorce. Money issues are the number one reason clients give me for the failure of their relationships. Debt is usually a contributing factor. In my career as a collaborative divorce attorney, clients have shared their very personal stories with me. Sometimes the story-telling is tearful and filled with regret. Other times it is angry and filled with resentment. Tension over finances can evoke negative emotions and poison otherwise loving relationships. In some cases, money issues are caused by factors outside of anyone’s control, such as job loss, a tough economy, or illness. The resulting instability can be temporary or long-term and affects the entire family. In my experience, however, disagreements about money arise when parties come into marriage with different attitudes and feelings about money. These differences gradually reveal themselves over time, eventually affecting other aspects of the relationship. Even marriages of caring, committed spouses are at risk. So how can divorce over money be avoided? Awareness is the first step. Each of us grew up in a family with its unique money culture. Whether we realize it or not, our ideas and values have been influenced by our childhood experiences. Many parents are reluctant to talk openly with their children about money, leaving the children to unknowingly form their own set of beliefs. Failure to recognize these hidden internal attitudes and assumptions in ourselves and others leads to misunderstanding and blame. The good news is that open discussion of money matters can help couples identify their differences and protect their relationships.  Key questions include:
  • How will we manage our day-to-day finances?
  • How much should we be spending vs. saving?
  • Which budget items constitute “needs” vs. “wants”?
  • Will all of our money be considered joint or will we each have our separate funds?
  • How does each of us define “financial security”?
  • What are our retirement goals?
These same questions are critical to couples who have decided to divorce. In the collaborative divorce process, a team of collaborative professionals encourages the couple to look closely at their finances as they establish separate households.  Rather than make assumptions, both spouses are asked to describe their goals. The settlement discussions that follow help to produce a settlement plan that achieves as many of their goals as possible. To find out more about the collaborative divorce process, visit