You need to be petty during your divorce. You need to discuss every single possible thing that could happen. You need to be thorough to the point that you are wrung out and your soon-to-be ex thinks you don’t trust them at all and as a result becomes gradually more and more resentful of your distrust. Yes. I said it. I don’t care if your divorce is “amicable.” You still need to be petty. If you’re in the middle of a divorce and feeling defensive about what I just said, I’m especially talking to you.
Picture yourself ten or even five years ago. Picture how your relationship was with your now soon-to-be ex. It’s changed a lot, right? It looks different now than you probably expected back then, right? Well, that will keep happening.
Too many divorcing couples put vague language in their divorce and parenting agreements about “discussing” various issues and “deciding together.” In their eagerness to put their divorce behind them, and sometimes in a state of hopeful optimism about one another’s ability to always be rational and fair, this vague language feels reasonable. It feels like an adult thing to do to trust one another to work out differences in the future, to always put the kids first, to always assume the best of one another, etc.
Again, if it feels like I’m talking to you, that’s because I am. I don’t want you to make the same mistake that I and so many others have made in trusting that my ex would play fair because, in the moment we sat at that table with our attorneys, he claimed he would.
First of all: divorce is never behind you. Not if you have kids. You are and always will be in a divorce. Perhaps one day the anger and resentment will soften and you may even be able to be friendly, but you will always be in a divorce. You will always have to negotiate everything to do with the kids, even after they turn 18. Who pays what for college. Where the kids spend the holidays. Who pays what for their weddings, baby showers, etc. Yes, when the kids are older they will have a say, but the point is, you will always be in some kind of negotiation with your ex, even as the two of you must relinquish control over your children and the negotiation becomes primarily a factor of managing your own emotions.
In the shorter term, the negotiations are constant. Are you listening? They. Are. Constant. Here are just a few things that come up that you may think you will be able to amicably decide but somehow end up opposing each other:
Who pays for the kids’ extracurricular activities?
Your agreement will likely say that you split extracurricular activities 50/50 (or based on an income ratio), but it will specify that you must agree on the activity. This is a massive, gaping loophole that many an ex-spouse has taken advantage of. If one partner decides they don’t want to pay, they merely say they don’t agree on the activity. POOF! They don’t have to pay jack shit. And they’re perfectly within their legal right to do so.
Your parenting agreement should instead estimate an assumed amount of monthly expenses for extracurricular activities and build that in to the child support amount. Each kid gets 150 per month for an activity which the kid has ultimate say in, and it’s split 50/50 or based on an income ratio. Don’t leave this up for discussion later. All it takes is a little resentment on the part of one partner over something totally unrelated, and the other is left footing the entire bill for extracurricular activities.
Who pays for kid-related expenses that don’t precisely fall under the “extracurricular” umbrella?
School field trips, school lunches, school fees, uniforms, school supplies, cell phones, cell phone plans, your kids’ first car, car insurance, and anything else you can think of — all of this needs to go into your parenting plan. Yes, you need to be petty and make an itemized list. Vague language in a parenting agreement like “parents will discuss…” leads to one parent being a douchebag and not paying their share. Ask me how I know. Discuss it now.
The most common complaint I have seen from divorced moms is that once the ink has dried on the divorce papers — in a divorce they believed was amicable and in which their ex-husbands seemed to want to be reasonable — is that their ex wriggles out of financial obligations at every opportunity.
A wise person told me during my divorce that I’d better get every nickel possible out of child support, because once he started sending those checks, he’d get real pissed and would refuse to pay anything else he had agreed on during our divorce proceedings. And that is exactly what happened.
I’ve spoken to too many other divorced moms in exactly the same situation, especially ones who sacrificed their careers to be the stay-at-home parent. The ex-husband earns significantly more money and is therefore legally expected to bear more of the financial responsibility for the kids. Even though the parenting agreement and the law understands that child support is meant to cover expenses for the kids while they are with mom, many men decide that child support should cover all expenses for the kids, including school lunches, field trips, and even clothes.
Yes, that man sitting across from you and promising to hold up his end of the deal with the kids will call you in a few months and ask you to buy socks, underwear, and shoes to be kept at his house. He will refuse to pay his half of their school field trips or school supplies, and he will claim you should take it out of the child support money because that’s what child support is for. Unless otherwise specified in your parenting agreement, if you’re sharing custody equally, child support is to cover expenses incurred while under the care of the other parent. Not everything.
Where will the kids spend holidays?
Get specific. Every other year? Does one parent get Thanksgiving and the other gets Christmas? How will you split Halloween? When one parent has the kids for Christmas, do they have them just for that day, or can they travel back East for the entire Christmas break and the other parent doesn’t see the kids until after New Year’s? Discuss it now and get it in writing.
If best-laid plans go to waste, imagine where adequately-laid plans go.
We want so badly to believe our ex will stick to verbal agreements and always put the kids first. But life has a way of ripping out the rug from under our feet, and feelings for the people we interact with on a daily basis change from week to week, month to month, year to year. This applies doubly for exes.
One critical thing to remember: If your ex has been amenable to certain compromises during the divorce process because it means he will get something in return, after your divorce, that give-and-take will be gone. Now they are seeing their kids less, they’re sending money “to their ex” (even though it’s for the kids, many ex-husbands will speak in “to the ex” terms), and they are watching their ex-wife move on with her life. Perhaps the ex-wife is succeeding in ways the ex-husband didn’t expect, thriving with her single life or finding a new love interest. Now the ex sees his child support payments as funding his ex-wife’s dates with her new boyfriend. This can make a man get real disagreeable, real fast.
Or perhaps your child-support-paying ex finds a new girlfriend who decides she doesn’t much like you and doesn’t think you deserve her man’s hard-earned money. This happens all the time, and if you aren’t petty enough now to get everything in writing, later you’ll be up shit’s creek.
Let your ex call you petty now. Let him get mad for “not trusting him.” Tell him getting everything in writing is as much for his protection as yours (because, honestly, it is). If necessary, have a therapist on standby to help you manage your panic over confrontation. But whatever you do, don’t be one of the hundreds of thousands of parents who trusted their ex to put their children first and be reasonable about splitting expenses, and then wound up in a position of having no legal recourse when their ex gleefully decided they are no longer going to pay Junior’s soccer fees.