10 Critical Financial Mistakes To Avoid in Divorce

How Divorce Can Impact Social Security Benefits

And 10 Critical Financial Mistakes to Avoid in Divorce

Winter can be a time to cozy up with a loved one and renew our vows of love …. Or it can be a lonely time with sad memories of a shattered relationship. Boomers and seniors going through the process of divorce can find this time of year especially difficult. In fact, February begins the high season for those seeking divorce.

This article, contributed by Boomerater financial planner, Steve Stanganelli, is intended to help those grappling with divorce issues.

Long after the wedding bells have faded, you may know someone who has come to a fork in the road and has decided to go in a different direction than his or her partner.

Building a life with someone involves many things. There are the memories, friendships, family relationships and possibly children and pets. Love plants a seed that eventually grows deep roots as a family is born and grows. And while love is not always about money, divorce certainly can be.

Whether there's just a house and a retirement account or something more complex like business ownership, other investments and stock options, unraveling a lifetime of work is tough and complicated by emotional issues.

Although escaping the emotional toll that a divorce can have is not possible, it is not in a person's best long-term interests to make or avoid decisions that will impact the future well-being because of emotion.

Individuals considering a divorce should assemble a team of qualified professionals who can advise on the legal, tax and financial impact of various proposed divorce settlements.

One area of especial interest to seniors contemplating or going through divorce is:

How will Divorce Impact my Eligibility for Social Security Benefits?
  • 10 Year Rule . Benefits are calculated based on the monthly average earnings of the covered person. A spouse can receive benefits based on his or her own work record or that of a spouse. For a spouse who has not worked or had low wages, then the lower-earning spouse is entitled to as much as one-half of the retired worker's full benefit referred to as the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA).
  • Divorced spouses who have been married for at least ten years are eligible for benefits based on the PIA of the other spouse.
  • To begin receiving benefits, one has to be at least age 62 and not remarried. If the ex-spouse remarries, then benefits will be calculated and compared to the PIA of the new spouse. If that marriage ends by death or divorce, the ex-spouse may be eligible to PIA based on the prior marriage.
  • The amount of benefits that an ex-spouse receives does not impact the benefit available to the other spouse.
  • Either spouse who is at least age 62 and been divorced for at least two years may begin to collect benefits even if not yet retired.

10 Important "Don'ts" to Keep in Mind When Going Through a Divorce

This is good advice about what Boomers, Seniors, or anyone facing a divorce should NOT do:

  • Don't become a financial victim. If you suspect a spouse is planning a divorce, make copies of important records and notify creditors, banks and investment companies in writing.
  • Don't prepare an inaccurate budget . Individuals are usually required to produce a budget for temporary maintenance (aka Pendente Lite). But through oversight or inaccurate record-keeping, this invariably leads to problems when they find that they are having trouble making ends meet with the court-approved maintenance based on the budget provided. It makes more sense to bring in a qualified financial professional at this stage to help in preparing the budget.
  • Don't try to use the courts to punish a spouse . In most states, equitable distribution is the basis of settlements. Hiring a combative attorney or ignoring other options like mediation will be costly and toxic to post-divorce family relationships especially with children.
  • Don't forget the common enemy: the IRS . As the proverb says: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Both parties will be impacted by taxes. With careful planning ahead of time, this can be minimized. If assets need to be sold or qualified plans prematurely withdrawn, this may increase the tax bill while reducing assets to live on post-divorce.
  • Don't use a divorce lawyer as a financial planner, accountant or therapist. At rates in excess of $300 per hour, it's easy to rack up big bills and not get the specialized advice that other professionals can offer.
  • Don't forget to insure the settlement. The premature death or disability of a spouse means lost support, maintenance or help paying for college tuitions and health insurance.
  • Don't keep the marital home if it's not affordable. Too often couples will fight over who keeps the marital home. While there may be sentimental value or legitimate concerns about uprooting kids from schools, it may not make financial sense to keep the house. After all, real estate is a low return asset (and has in fact been negative in recent history) while the mortgage, taxes and maintenance expenses can be a drain on post-divorce budgets. It usually makes more sense to sell the property while still technically a couple to get the maximum exemption of capital gains ($500,000 above cost basis) and split the proceeds to buy or rent another place.
  • Don't forget to change beneficiaries. Forgetting to delete and change one's spouse from qualified plans or insurance policies, unless required by the settlement agreement, could result in benefits or assets passing to someone the divorcing couple does not want to receive them.
  • Don't forget to close or cancel joint credit cards . To avoid problems its best to close credit cards to any new charges pending the final divorce. This will avoid the temptation of one spouse running up charges.
  • Don't agree to a settlement without having a QDRO in place . Whenever a spouse has a qualified plan (ex. 401k or pension) a Qualified Domestic Relations Order will inform the plan administrator who is entitled to the asset and when. This is sometimes an afterthought but is critical. It's a good idea to watch the language in these orders. If not worded correctly, it could delay when a spouse will be eligible to start receiving benefits or it could lead to investment decisions that may be reckless or detrimental to the spouse's retirement interests.
  • Don't underestimate the impact of inflation. Without proper help in reviewing settlement options or preparing a post-divorce plan, it is easy to forget that the lump sum received today may look like a huge sum but may be inadequate for inflation. Whether for college tuition, medical care or housing, inflation can take a big bite out of one's budget and resources.
Boomerater financial planner, Steve Stanganelli, CFP®, CRPC®, provided the content for this article. Steve is a board-certified personal finance guide based in Wilmington MA who works with individuals and families to plan well and invest smart to live better through life-changing events.