Post-Divorce Parental Communication - Structure in Communication

Some parents communicate post-divorce without problems. Others may find that more structure is needed when working out issues, such as weekly planned phone calls with an agreed agenda of issues limited to their child’s needs. In either case, the important thing is to set consistent rules and policies, from toilet training and bedtime routines to homework expectations and teen driving. The phrase “Mom and Dad decided…” becomes both a useful tool and a powerful illustration of how their parents, though divorced, can still work together. How you individually implement those rules in your separate households won’t matter. What matters is this: conflict over your differences is more likely to cause harm than the difference itself. As parents - amiable split or hostile divorce - you still have the power to guide and protect your children, both separately and together.

The information in this blog series was gathered from the Summer 2015 issue of Family Advocate, Vol. 38, No.1. particularly from the articles “Parental Communication: How to Talk with One Another” by Jeffrey Zimmerman and Lauren Behrman, and “Divorce and Parent-Child Boundaries” by Robert A. Simon.

Post-Divorce Parental Communication - A Business Partnership

First, it is important to compartmentalize your emotions. Rather than allowing your history to dictate the way you speak with your ex, focus on your need to make decisions together without excessive conflict. One approach is to view your new relationship as a business partnership in which your business is to successfully raise your children. When you can see each other as co-partners, you both immediately have a stake in functional communication. You may still not respect, like, or trust one another, but at the very least you are united by the same goal: healthy, happy children who know their parents love them more than they love fighting.

Naturally, one of the problems in business relationship made up of only two people is that there is no tie-breaking vote. This is doubly difficult when you may have very different parenting styles, such as when one parent is viewed as “permissive” and the other “rigid.” However, “different” does not mean “wrong.” In fact, different styles, different points of view and different ways of doing things can all lead to children that have a richer range of skills. Instead of getting stuck on whose idea is “best,” recognize that neither partner ultimately knows what will work out best.  You’ll need to pick one and know that you can always revisit the decision.

Post-Divorce Communication

By definition, divorce is the legal dissolution of your marriage and you are no longer someone’s husband or wife. However, though Mom and Dad may have dropped nearly all of the roles they used to share with their ex – spouse, partner, companion, lover – they still share at least one: parent.

Parental communication seems relatively straightforward. You need to exchange information about your children and make basic decisions regarding their care. Yet what seems straightforward on the surface becomes much more complex the deeper you go, particularly when trying to cooperate with someone you may no longer respect, trust, or even like. Fortunately, your goal is not to resolve your marital relationship; it’s to communicate in a way that your children know that they are more important than the conflict itself.

Divorce Over 50 - Healthcare

Finally, in our series on divorce for those over the age of fifty: healthcare.

While private health insurance is an option, many of those over the age of 65 will find themselves turning to Medicare and Medicaid. You may qualify for Medicare as the divorced spouse of a worker if you were married for at least ten years, are still unmarried (or remarried after age 60), and are NOT eligible for Social Security benefits on your own that are greater than half of the benefits payable on account of your ex.

Medicaid, on the other hand, is only available to those who are low-income. Depending on the financial outcome of your divorce agreements, you may qualify. As such, it is important to consider whether it may be more economically practical to take less spousal support if it is more important that you remain eligible for Medicaid.

Also, it is important that you make sure that your living will, your medical power of attorney, and durable power of attorney are in the hands of a trusted friend or family member. Often people depend on their spouse for end-of-life decisions, and you will need to re-execute new ones if this is the case.

[This and the rest of the series was based on information obtained from “The 50+ Divorce Handbook, produced by Family Advocate magazine. For more detail, visit them at www.abanet.org/family/advocate/client.html]

Divorce over 50 - QDRO

One of the most important documents your lawyer will draft for you is a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (or QDRO), spelling out how retirement will be divided. The language is specific, fussy, and fundamental to approval by the pension plan administrator. Many retirement plans (for example those from the state and federal government and the military) have special rules, so it is paramount that whoever prepares your QDRO has experience with the language. It is a judicial order, and will become a part of your final divorce judgment.

Divorce Over 50 - Taxes & Social Security

The tax-man – even in divorce – always has his say. This is not, however, necessarily a bad say. First, your tax returns will help you to organize and determine your financial standing, as well as your understanding of your past income and expenses. Second, you will be able to calculate tax credits (such as those available to those over age 65) and take them into account when budgeting for the future.

This, of course, leads us into another important aspect of the later-years divorce: Social Security benefits. Those age 62 and older are entitled to collect their own Social Security benefits, or half of those earned by your ex-spouse if:

  1. Your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you are unmarried. If you remarry, you cannot collect unless your later marriage ends. It doesn’t matter if your ex-spouse has remarried.

  2. The benefits you’re entitled to receive based on your own work are less than those you’d receive based on your ex-spouse’s work. If the benefits from your ex are higher, you receive your own benefits first and then an additional amount from your ex’s Social Security.

For more information on collecting Social Security from a Former Spouse, go to https://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/divspouse.html.

Divorce Over 50 - Financial Concerns

While children and custody are generally no longer an issue in a later-life divorce, the financial consequences resonate more deeply. Retirement savings designed for one household must suddenly be enough for two.

To begin, gather all of your financial documents, from bank statements to pay stubs, to pensions, insurance documents, and a record of all titles, assets, and liabilities. At this point in your marriage, most of these items will be comingled, and thus count as marital assets. Non-marital assets are only those that a husband or wife brought into the marriage and were kept separate from the marital estate.  An inheritance, for example, can be either marital or non-marital depending on when it came into the family and whether it provided a stream of income to the couple. A lawyer can help determine these factors.

Second, it is important that you begin tracking your spending, so that you have a realistic idea of your expected budget when you are no longer married. Your financial decisions during and after the divorce will depend heavily on your understanding of what the future holds.

Divorce Over 50

Divorce is hard no matter when it happens, but it can come as a particularly challenging shock when you are at or near retirement. Many of your plans are set by then; you likely believed that you knew how your golden years would play out.

However, your life is not over – simply changed. There are always ways to work both around and with those new changes. As always, it is a matter of planning, preparation, and keeping a grasp on the issues that are most likely to affect your new future.

Family Law & Taxes - Gains and Losses in Divorce

When a divorcing couple separates their assets, the division of property may well affect their taxes. For example, if you transfer property, one person will be able to claim a “gain” and the other a “loss” on their tax return. A “gain” results in higher taxes, a “loss” in lower ones. However, in a divorce, this transfer does not have to be reported as a gain or a loss. Just make sure you’re on the same page.

However, if you deal with the division of your assets by selling an item you owned together (such as a house or a car), each of you will need to claim your share of the gain or loss.

Taxes are just another layer to the dissolution of a marriage. Even those changes should become normal in the course of a few tax years.

Family Law & Taxes - Claiming a Qualified Child

For people who share custody of a child (either divorced parents or parents who were never married), these special rules apply:

  1. Tax obligations trump court orders. Even if the court ordered you to file in a certain way, IRS rules must be obeyed.

  2. Both parents cannot claim the same child for tax purposes. One child, one dependent exemption.

  3. The tax benefits from one qualifying child cannot be split among both parents.

  4. The noncustodial parent (meaning they had the child for fewer than half of the nights during the tax year) can claim the qualifying child for the Child Tax Credit and the Dependent Exemption if:

    1. The couple is divorced, legally separated, or lived apart for the last six months of the year

    2. The parents provided for the child’s support

    3. The child lived with one or both parents for most of the year

    4. The custodial parent signs IRS form 8332, which states that they won’t claim the child as a dependent

Please note that Item 4 is the only exception to Item 3 – the noncustodial parent can claim the Child Tax Credit and/or the Dependent Exemption even though the custodial parent can claim the child for the Head of Household filing status and Earned Tax Credit.

Family Law & Taxes - EITC

Another tax credit that may benefit you is the “Earned Income Tax Credit,” which is for working people and their families. The amount that the government gives to you depends on your income and the number of children you have. To qualify, you must have earned income (not counting public assistance), though you cannot earn over a certain amount. Furthermore, you cannot file as “married filing separately.”

There are also many kind of tax exemptions that you may be able to claim – the more you can claim, the less you pay in taxes. For example, the “dependent exemption” allows you to claim an exemption for each dependent in your household (as defined in last week’s post regarding a “qualifying child”).

For more information on tax exemptions, you can visit the IRS website at https://www.irs.gov/publications/p501/ar02.html#en_US_2015_publink1000220844.

5 Ways the New Tax Bill Will Affect Your Divorce

  1. If you file for divorce after December 31st, 2018 you will not be able to deduct maintenance (alimony) payments on your taxes as part of your divorce agreement.  Currently if you are a spouse paying alimony you can deduct payments from your taxes.  The spouse that receives the maintenance must pay income tax on the maintenance received.  

  2. You will no longer be able to claim a $4050 exemption per dependent child. In Montana we use a complex child support calculation to determine child support.  Historically, parents have negotiated which parent claims their child(ren) for the exemption.  This exemption affects the overall child support calculation.  Under the new tax bill the personal exemption is gone.

  3. The child tax credit has been expanded.  This year, for example, single parents were only able to receive the $1,000 credit per child if they make less than $75,000 per year.  The credit is a dollar for dollar reduction of tax owed to the IRS.  Under the new tax bill, a single parent can receive $2,000 for every child under 17 if the parent makes less than $200,000 per year.   Additionally, there is a new $500 credit for children over 17 and other adult dependents (elderly parents or an adult child with a disability).

  4. The 529 Savings Accounts can be used in new ways.  Many parents establish 529 Plans for their children as part of their divorce negotiations.  Historically, parents can invest pre-tax dollars in the 529 Plans to be used for college expenses.  Now, parents can use up to $10,000 per year to cover the cost of sending a child to a “public, private or religious elementary or secondary school.”

  5. The tax penalty for health insurance has been eliminated.  Over the past few years, parents have been able to receive a credit on their child support calculations for paying for their own health insurance (since this was a mandatory expense).  In the new tax bill, the individual mandate will be eliminated in 2019.  Therefore, for Montana child support calculations, parents will no longer be able to deduct the cost of their health insurance from their overall income available for child support.  We should expect overall income for child support to increase, which will affect child support calculations.

Family Law & Taxes - Tax Credits

As mentioned in the previous week, tax credits are available to you depending on your status. As a divorced or single parent with children, you may benefit from the “Child Tax Credit” if you have a qualifying child.

A “qualifying child” is:

  1. Under the age of 17 at the end of the tax year

  2. Your son, daughter, adopted child, stepchild, foster child, brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, grandchild, niece, or nephew

  3. A US citizen, national, or resident alien

  4. Claimed as a dependent on your tax return

Furthermore, they must have lived with you for more than half the year and have not provided for more than half of their own support.

Family Law & Taxes - Head of Household

If you are unmarried or “considered unmarried,” you can file your taxes as “Head of Household.” As head of the household you typically qualify for lower taxes, receive a higher standard deduction, and can claim certain tax credits available only to a “Head of Household.”

To be “considered unmarried,” you must have paid more than half the cost of keeping up your home for the year and it must have been the main home for your dependents (child, stepchild, or foster child) for more than half the year. Furthermore, your spouse cannot have lived with you in the last six months of the year. Finally, you must file a separate tax return.

For these and more tips, our series on tax and family law will continue next week.

Family Law & Taxes

When April 15th rolls around, the entire nation knows that it’s tax time again. For those who have divorced within the last year, you’ll need to take into account your new status when filing. Keep in mind that your filing status will depend on whether you were still married at the end of the prior year. For tax purposes, you are only “unmarried” if you received a final decree of divorce or separation by December 31st.

However, if you were married as of December 31st, you still have a choice as to your filing status. You can either file a single tax return with your spouse, under “Married Filing Jointly,” or you can each file a separate return under “Married Filing Separately.”

Because you typically qualify for more tax credits on a joint return, you’ll likely pay lower taxes if you choose this option. However, a separate return offers more protection because it separates you from any responsibility for your spouse’s taxes. On a joint return, if your spouse doesn’t pay his or her taxes the IRS can demand the difference from you, whereas on a separately filed tax return you will not have to pay for your spouse’s tax liability.

Co-Parenting Strategies - When Your Child Refuses to Go to Your Ex

A common challenge of shared parenting is when the child refuses to go to the other household. Try not to assume that there is anything wrong with the other parent. While this is possible (while gentle – but not leading – questions like “What is it about mommy/daddy’s home that makes you unhappy?” can help determine this), it is likely that they’re reacting to the reminder that their parents no longer live together. In fact, it’s probably happening at both households. Listen, but don’t let your hurt over the divorce cause you to attack your ex and inadvertently wound your child, who still needs a healthy relationship with both parents. In the end, all they may need is calm but firm reassurance. They trust you. Their new routine will soon become a stable part of their lives.

(Information gathered from “When Your Child Says ‘No, I Don’t Want to Go!’” published in Your Parenting Plan: A Client Manual from Family Advocate.)

Co-Parenting Strategies - Parenting Styles

Different parenting styles across two households can make discipline a difficult issue between parents and children. However, lax versus strict styles do not mean that one parent is doing things wrong or the other right, or even that your children cannot handle the differences. In fact, children can learn excellent skills in responding to different personality types.

The most important rules may not share the same details, but they should follow along the same general lines: stay safe (avoiding physical harm, such as no hitting, wearing a seatbelt, etc.), show respect (how to speak to one another, expectations for personal space, and so on), and keeping in touch so that all parties know of any changes in schedule and activities.

Since your children will have different expectations per household, keep both rules and consequences consistent and clear. Your children will be both safer and happier for it.

(Information gathered from “Blended Families: What About Discipline?” published in Your Blended Family: A Guide for Parents & Stepparents from Family Advocate.)

Organizing Your Child's Schedule

Organizing a child around a schedule that revolves around two households is difficult but not impossible. The best thing you can do is give your children the tools they need to navigate their new normal. First is to model the time-management behaviors that you want them to see; they’re more likely to respect and learn the actions that you yourself perform. Next is to establish clear routines to help with the transition between households. Calm instead of chaos creates a feeling of safety for children who likely already feel pulled between two different family dynamics and expectations. A chart or calendar is an excellent tool, which will not only lay out when they can expect to be at which parent’s house, but can also detail daily tasks and what needs to be done before they’re ready to switch households.

Teach your children to take responsibility for their schedules, and praise not only their successes but also their efforts. Children respond when they know you’re paying attention to even their small accomplishments.

(Information gathered from “Raising an Organized Child in a Blended Family” from Family Advocate, published in Your Blended Family: A Guide for Parents & Stepparents.)

Co-Parenting Strategies - Scheduling Tools

There are several online tools that can help ex-spouses in a co-parenting relationship communicate with one another about their children. Sites like OurFamilyWizard.com, JointParents.com, and ParentingTime.net have a visitation scheduling calendar, expense tracking, and communication options which keep track of all back-and-forth between parents, cutting down on the type of finger-pointing that can destroy a tentative peace.

CustodyPlanner.com is a site that contains only calendar functions, though a shared Google-calendar has similarly useful options. If you are looking for programs that must be downloaded and used on your personal computer rather than the internet, CustodyXchange.com, SharedGroundonline.com, and CustodyToolbox.com have you covered. Finally, Meetways.com is a site that finds meeting points halfway between two parties.

(Information gathered from “Technology for Parents” published in Your Parenting Plan: A Client Manual from Family Advocate.)

Co-Parenting Strategies - Sharing Parenting Time

Arguably, the most important thing in establishing a successful co-parenting relationship is how to share parenting time. Calculating parenting time should take into account the idea of “quality time.” Rather than thinking in terms of simply sharing time equally, you can make plans around how meaningful that time will be. This will depend on the work and/or travel schedules of both spouses. However, it is important to share your time around the needs of your child. Some children are adaptable by nature, taking to frequent changes between households. Others require greater stability.

Ultimately, the goal of parenting time is to minimize the losses your children are undoubtedly feeling in reaction to the way divorce has changed their relationships. While parenting time ought to involve one-on-one time with each parent, it should also allow your children to maintain any other former relationships as well, with both extended family and close friends. If at all possible, parents should live within close enough proximity to keep contact frequent for everyone. The more positive both parents make parenting time – including the way they talk about their child’s time with the other parent – the safer and more stable the children will feel. Children recognize that they are a combination of both their parents. Inflicting damage on their view of one parent inflicts damage on themselves.