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Whether You're a Primary Breadwinner or a Stay-at-Home Spouse, Here's an Important Message From Your Divorce Lawyer

Are you a stay-at-home spouse or a primary breadwinner? Are you going through a divorce? If so, I have a very important message for you from your divorce lawyer. Sure, there's a slim chance you don't need it. But if you don't, hearing the message will just make you feel good for being so evolved.
03/09/2016 04:12pm ET | Updated March 10, 2017
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Are you a stay-at-home spouse or a primary breadwinner? Are you going through a divorce? If so, I have a very important message for you from your divorce lawyer. Sure, there's a slim chance you don't need it. But if you don't, hearing the message will just make you feel good for being so evolved. And if you do need it, it may really, really help you. So, please read on with an open mind.

A Message for Primary Breadwinners: Yes, I know. I heard you loud and clear the 12,984 times you mentioned it in your initial client consultation. I know how much money you make -- and more importantly (at least to you), I know how much more money you've always made than that frumpy, cold-fish spouse of yours that you're kicking to the curb now that you've found real passion in the arms of the young, "go-getter" of an associate who joined your firm last summer.

But here's the deal: All that money that you've socked away in your 401(k) over the years that you were married? That money isn't all yours. Yes, I know that every last dime came directly out of your paycheck. Want to know how much that matters? Not at all. And no, I don't agree that that's unfair.

Think of it like this: Before you split up, when your stay-at-home spouse would go to the store and buy groceries, bring them home, and then prepare dinner for the family, was that poached salmon with artichoke confit "hers"? Of course not. That meal (and the 12,984 other ones she made over the years) belonged to both of you because you were married. You each nourished your family in your own way. The fact that the fruits of your labor are sitting in a 401(k) rather than having been consumed at the family table is a distinction without a difference. You know, tomato/toMAHto.

You and your spouse had a deal. You were the primary breadwinner and your spouse held down the fort with the kids and the house. You were able to dedicate your time and energy to your career because she was taking care of the home front. Yes, you worked really hard -- but so did your spouse.

And your gig came with some pretty sweet side bonuses -- only you probably didn't even notice them at the time. Bonuses like the ego boost you got from having a career that society actually values monetarily and the ability to speak in full sentences to people who are toilet trained and don't have oatmeal smeared on their clothes. For years, your spouse went without these and other luxuries you took for granted. Not only did you fail to recognize or appreciate her sacrifice, her sacrifice actually caused her to be less interesting to you.

After your marriage partnership is dissolved, you'll continue to rake in the mad stacks of cash you keep reminding me that you make. So, we both know you're going to be okay in the not-so-long run. But your spouse? She will be left with trying to figure out how to jump-start a non-existent career. And unlike when you were starting your career, your spouse won't have someone holding down the fort so she can concentrate on her job -- she'll be trying to figure out how to cover the bases as a single mom all at the same time.

So, if you're really bent on tallying up what's fair and not fair, let's make sure you're using an accurate score card. But better yet, just stop telling everyone how unfair things are for you. Because every time you remind us of all of the "injustices" you're suffering, you only make yourself look like a clod.

A Message for Stay-at-Home Spouses: I get it. You were the one who did 110% of the parenting while he was either grinding away (in every sense of the term) at the office or hiding behind the newspaper at home. I totally believe you when you tell me that he never once went to a parent-teacher conference or took the kids to the doctor -- and that he couldn't tell you the names of their teachers or doctors if his life depended on it.

You hoped that he would be an involved parent, but he never took to it. You tried like crazy to make your relationship work, but he never met you even a tenth of the way. I hear you when you say that given how emotionally starved you were, it was understandable that you started sexting with little Johnny's baseball coach after that tournament in San Antonio last summer.

But none of that really matters when it comes to these two important post-divorce truths: 1. Your ex will still be your kids' dad; and 2. You will need to get a job.

Not to worry, though -- starting over doesn't mean you'll be starting from scratch. The fact that you weren't all that involved with the investments during the marriage doesn't mean you lose your share of them as a result of the divorce.

By the same token, though, the fact that he wasn't all that involved with the kids during the marriage doesn't mean he forfeits his relationship with them because of the divorce. And that's true even if the kids like you a lot more than they like him. After all, one of the main reasons they like you more is because of the very division of labor that we're now discussing -- the one that put you at home and him in the office. As a result, you were closer to the kids and he was closer to the money.

The fact that one spouse had a more hands-on relationship with something during marriage doesn't give that person a superior right to it after divorce -- whether it's kids or money. If you're not going to get penalized money-wise due to that agreement you made, your ex cannot be penalized kid-wise because of it. Fair is fair.

If you were to exploit your relationship with the children to alienate them from their breadwinning other parent, that would be wrong. And if your breadwinning spouse were to take advantage of his access to funds to hide money or drain accounts, that would also be wrong.

Bottom Line for All Clients: You each had responsibilities when it came to managing the treasures of your marital partnership. But now that that partnership is ending, so is your management agreement. The division of labor gets thrown out the window and each of you will be responsible for earning money, parenting your children, and taking care of your respective homes.

Quit focusing on who did what when you were married and start thinking about how you are going to set things up now. And while you're doing that, don't forget to keep your kids front and center in that analysis. Children do best when both of their parents have enough time and money to dedicate to raising them. So, in the fight to disenfranchise your ex from either of these resources, your children are the casualties of your war.

You have sole custody of your own personal integrity. It cannot be taken from you without your agreement and cooperation. That means you have to do what's right even when your spouse doesn't. When it comes to divorce, not only do two wrongs not make a right, two wrongs mean your kids have not one but two parents who are letting their own shortcomings and insecurities get the best of them. Resisting the urge to be spiteful, greedy or petty during a divorce can be incredibly challenging, but you must rise to the occasion for your own sake and the sake of your children. You all are well worth the effort.