One of you has filed for divorce and now your spouse has been served. Your attorney may have advised you to remain in the marital residence until you are able to get a temporary hearing from a judge. This is not always a quick process, and you may be stuck together under the same roof for several months or possibly even longer. In most jurisdictions, there seems to be a misconception that moving out of the marital residence will indicate you have abandoned the children as well as your right to the marital home. (However, if you leave the home for no good reason and stay away for an extended period of time without an address or a parenting plan arrangement, this could have a negative impact on the issue of custody since one of the factors in determining is which parent is providing the greatest stability.) A good attorney will consider all of the facts prior to recommending you remain in the home. Unfortunately, there are many family attorneys who will try to convince you that it is “essential to remain in the martial home in order to win subsequent divorce proceedings.” This piece of advice may leave you and your children in a very serious predicament. This recommendation does not take into consideration all of the factors, including risks for you and the children when remaining in the home. This does not always mean staying in the martial residence, especially if you are in a high-conflict divorce.
Waiting for a temporary agreement: In Georgia you cannot be divorced in less than 31 days, if all goes smoothly. A conflicted divorce may take a year, or even several, to be resolved. In other states you may be required to live separately, for up to one year, prior to your divorce. When living separately isn’t mandatory in your state, it is very important to get a temporary order as soon as possible. Unfortunately this is not always done. If your divorce is conflicted, it may take months to get in front of a judge just to obtain a temporary arrangement so you may move out. Although your attorney is looking out for your best interests there are several risks in remaining to consider. Important questions to be asked of yourself:
- How will remaining in the martial home impact my child’s emotional outcome and what, if anything can be done to protect them? The obvious risk is that your children will be living in an environment with increased parental conflict or tension.
- Could remaining in the martial home while my children are significantly impacted reflect negatively on my ability to care for them or will it appear that I am only remaining to protect my financial investment in the marital home?
- What if there has been some very intense and even aggressive arguments in our home? What if the other parent is at risk of calling the police to claim domestic violence? What if the other parent becomes so frightened they make false allegations to get the police to remove me from the martial home? How will this impact on me as a custodial parent? How will witnessing something as traumatizing as having the police remove you from the home impact your child/ren?
Even when the divorce is low conflict, and there are no arguments around the children, they will still be impacted by the ever present tension between the parents. It is not unusual for parental emotions to run hot and cold during this early stage as fear runs high. Parents may alternate between acting hostile, friendly, detached and even flirtatious. This is a very difficult time for the whole family and the cost is potentially very high for you to remain in the home. This is such a stressful time for parents that each may make threats of moving away, taking all the money out of a joint account, or even making false allegations. Even when parents are sensitive to not arguing in front of their children, children are at risk of over-hearing conflicted arguments between their parents. This is frightening for them and will create anxiety about the final outcome.
The other cost of remaining in the martial home has to do with when to tell your children about the impending separation. Ideally, the pre-schooler is given no more than a weeks’ notice about a parents move from the home due to their limited sense of time. This will help avoid confusion and reconciliation fantasies. The elementary age child may be given a week or two to prepare while the preteen and teenager may be given about a month’s notice. Children that know separation or divorce is imminent live day to day with unnecessary anticipatory anxiety. When told too soon, they may deny the truth as they see the two of you “acting as a family.” They may act out behaviorally to distract the two of you from the separation or even try to make the two of you sit together, hold hands or even beg the two of you to kiss. The delay of remaining in the home directly impacts on when to tell your children. It also increases the likelihood that one parent, one in an angry moment, may take this task on alone and tell the children it is all your fault. Delaying the move will also delay sharing the truth, in a positive manner, as soon as possible.
If you remain under the same roof after the divorce process has begun, consider the following recommendations:
- If you have not already done so, move out of the marital bed into a guest room. (Do NOT move into your child’s bedroom.) If the conflict is harassing or intense in nature, have a lock put on the guest bedroom.
- Respect each other’s bedroom area and do not enter without being invited. (However, if you do have intimate relations, your divorce may be required to start all over again)
- Ask your spouse to agree to leave all the money right where it is and to continue to pay the household bills as usual.
- To ensure safety, remove any personal valuables from the martial bedroom or home.
- To ensure privacy, put new security codes on your computer, tablet and phone immediately.
- To avoid future problems, assume that every conversation you have with your spouse is being audio taped. As odd as this may seem to couples who have not been highly conflicted, it is very typical of pre-divorce behavior. In other words, carefully watch your language and tone. You do not want it taken out of context and used against you.
- Separate out household chores with your spouse to avoid confusion and resentment. Do your own laundry even if historically they have done it for you.
- As a way to reduce the chance of conflict, avoid spending family time together. Unless you are very conscious about not showing tension, even watching TV with the children should be alternated daily. Even if you are watching the same television show, watch in a different room. Make your own meals or agree to take turns making dinner and be sure to prepare enough for the children and the other parent. Alternate the evening and morning chores by full days and refer to this as “taking turns.” Each parent should be responsible for everything, ideally on an alternating schedule which is easiest for children to understand.
- Even if you are not ready to tell the children about the divorce, be sure to explain to them that the two of you are taking a “time out” from each other in order to explain the move into separate bedrooms and the division of household and childcare responsibilities. Tell your children you are taking turns being in charge every other day. (Young child will accept this while older children will recognize that a separation is likely.) Avoid eating as a family, especially if there is significant tension between you and the other parent. Instead alternate one parent preparing the meal and eating with the children. This same parent should make sure the homework is done, baths are taken and the children are tucked into bed. The next night the other parent is the “parent on duty.” Although this may seem unnecessary, it will help the young child to begin relying on only one parent at a time rather than the parental team. Your young child may adjust better if the parent who is “not on duty” that evening is actually out of the house to make it easier on your child. There is nothing as painful as to hear your young child crying and begging for you to come and tuck them in bed. You will also fare better removed out of the house until after bedtime as you will also need to begin the adjustment towards not always being with your child. When the other parent is in charge, take advantage of this time off and leave the house for a few hours if necessary to help the children transition to the new bedtime rituals.
- Unless there is a serious risk to one of the children, do NOT interfere with any parenting decision made by the other parent. Do not criticize their parenting, particularly in front of the children. Prepare yourself for having less say about parenting while your child is under the care of the other parent. This letting go process can begin now while you are under the same roof.
- Never ignore the other parent when crossing paths. Especially when the children are present. Make sure to behave in a friendly manner. This means force yourself to make eye contact and keep your tone positive. Avoid any real conversations and just say “Hello”, “Good Night”, “Your dinner is in the refrigerator” etc.
- When you do need to speak with your spouse, arrange to meet while the children are in day-care or school. Talking after their bedtime is still risky since they may be able to hear you.
- Do not take your child secretively to a counselor in hopes of getting information to confirm your beliefs. Make sure both parents have input into the selection of a counselor and do not try to negatively influence their counselor.
- Do not take your spouse off your health insurance or make any other significant changes.
- Do not remove the children from the state without the other parent’s knowledge.
Creating your own temporary agreement: Ideally if the attorneys are not too adversarial, they will agree between each other to help alleviate the stress by putting something in writing between the two of you that indicates one parent moving out is for the children’s best interest and does not in any way indicate that you have abandoned the martial residence or the right to primary custody. If you have been unable to get your attorneys to agree to such a contract, the two of you can write a temporary stipulation with the help of a divorce mediator. Unlike a mediated divorce that will attempt to address all the factors, you will only need to address the move out, the parenting schedule and temporary financial understanding. Each parent will review this memorandum of understanding with their attorney, sign it and have it notarized and copied to both attorneys. In addition to the important clause about not giving up rights be sure to include:
- How the household and other expenses will be taken care of until a settlement or judgement can be achieved.
- That neither parent shall remove any marital funds.
- A specific parenting time schedule you can both live with until the final. Be sure to have your attorney review the agreement prior to signing. Keep in mind that a temporary agreement to equally share the children’s time could make it difficult to convince the court that the other parent should have anything less than equal parenting time in the final decree.
- The parent that is leaving the marital home may need to remove some furnishings. This list needs to be agreed upon and included in this temporary stipulation. Take pictures of any furnishings that you have agreed to split and initial these pages and attach to the mediated stipulation.
Discuss the language of this informal agreement with your attorney, however press them to understand your unique circumstances and the negative impact of not having such an agreement. If you are successful, and the designated parent may safely move out, then you and the other parent will be able to let the children know what is happening. (Often they have already figured this out but need you to confirm their fears. Some children are so anxious waiting to hear what is happening in their home that they may even believe that one of you may be dying.)
Some of these recommendations require a written agreement with your spouse. Others can be done even if the other parent is unwilling to agree. Two obvious examples include being polite and respectful no matter how you feel even if the other parent is not doing the same. You can also protect your children by shielding them from conflict- by removing yourself when you are unable to reduce it or by insisting upon a different time to discuss an issue. Remember you cannot control what the other parent does. You could not control them in the marriage and you will have even less control after you are divorced. You will retain “custody of yourself” so you might as well start learning how to be your own person. Just remember do everything to shield your children while also being a person with integrity.