When my husband and I first met, I was still a teenager that had just come to the U.S. by herself. At that moment, I was in college, while learning English and working full-time cleaning the office of a start-up company in New York.
He was born and raised here so he didn’t have the disadvantages with the language. However, he chose not to go to college and for many years worked a job that paid him almost minimum wage.
A couple of years later, I was given the opportunity to work as an administrative assistant. I took advantage of that opportunity and have been able to grow professionally, to the point where I am now running and leading my own team.
All of that happened while I was still with the person who is now my husband and the father of my child. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and after saving for many years, I was able to buy my first home, all by myself, without any financial help or support from him. The house is in my name only. We were already legally married in the state of New York when I bought the house.
Even though our relationship has been steady throughout the years, we’ve had difficult moments and we’ve been close to getting divorced. While he is a good man, I am afraid I am going to lose my home if we ever decide to get divorced.
I also own property abroad, which I acquired when I was still single, and have a decent amount of money saved in bonds, 401(k) and a savings account.
I also make a lot more money than he makes. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a dime saved. All he has is his car and a lot of credit-card debt. We keep separate accounts, but file our income taxes together.
I’ve tried to get a post-nuptial agreement in place, but I don’t know if that’s the best way to go. Please help!
Married (for now) in New York
First of all, you are the personification of that sometimes intangible idea known as the American Dream. You came here and, through hard work and perseverance, you made it happen. You married a man who may have had an easier start in life than you, and you surpassed him both financially and professionally. Not everyone shares your drive and ambition, and that’s OK. But I do understand your wish to protect what you have earned during the course of your marriage.
New York is an equitable distribution state, meaning that marital property — anything earned or purchased during the marriage — is divided up based on what is fair. For that reason, the fact that your home is in your name only is unlikely to matter during your divorce, in the event you both end up before the judge. The overseas property should remain in your possession if you do you decide to divorce. At worst, be prepared to give up at least 50% of what your marital property.
Randy Kessler, an Atlanta-based lawyer, says you should act sooner rather than later, if you seek financial and personal freedom. “It also works in reverse in that debt accrued by the parties during the marriage or by either one, is considered marital debt. Courts will divide that between the parties,” Kessler says. “Your best bet is to either get a divorce because the money you continue to earn will continue to be put into the pot or to convince him to sign a postnuptial agreement.”
Postnuptial agreements are beloved by lawyers who represent clients who marry high net worth individuals. They trumpet them before the marriage as a solution to dividing wealth in the event of a divorce, but typically fall silent on the issue after the contract has been signed. Requests for such agreements, according to one 2015 survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, growing. You can certainly ask. It’s a long shot, but it’s the only shot you’ve got.
Your husband is not be a high roller or, indeed, a fan of the rat race. That’s his prerogative. And he may or may not help you with child care and other household chores, run your home and contribute in other nonmaterial ways. I’ll leave that for you and your husband (and the judge) to weigh. However, his unwillingness or inability to help you with the purchase of your family home and credit-card debt doesn’t bode well for him meeting his own responsibilities in a dual-income family.
For better or for worse, money matters. A recent study in the journal Demography by Patrick Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University’s Cornell Population Center, says couples are more likely to set up a life together when they earn similar amounts of money and, when each partner in a cohabiting couple or marriage earn similar amounts of money, they’re actually less likely to get separated. But there’s a big difference between earning less and not pulling your weight.
Nearly 40% of married women are breadwinners in the U.S. You are one of them. Is it more taboo for a woman to support a man than a man to support a woman? Perhaps. But I’ll leave gender politics and the question of “what if the roles were reversed?” for another day and another story. You husband may be open to mediation and may not want 50% of savings and home. If you truly want to start a new life, don’t let fear hold you back. You’ve earned it, after all.
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