"If your wife is going to be angry at you, you need to expect for her to do just about anything to get back at you."
John is in the process of wrapping up a 14-month divorce from his wife of 16 years in New Mexico. After numerous delays, John has achieved a settlement that many men who have been through divorce would envy: An equal share of parenting time with his two boys and no alimony obligation.
While the process was by no means simple, John’s story just goes to show that men should not always feel they are going to be taken advantage of in the family courts, and that it is definitely possible to achieve a fair settlement.
Why did you get divorced and what were some of the signs you were heading in that direction?
“She had always been a pretty good mom when my kids were younger and they were well-behaved. When they hit their teenage years and didn’t turn out to be perfect angels, she kind of couldn’t deal with it. At some point, maybe about 2-3 years ago, she just sort of stopped doing anything with the house.
For the most part, she was a stay-at-home mom for the majority of the marriage. She worked occasionally part time, but that was it. So, she wasn’t taking care of the house, she really wasn’t taking care of the kids and I was working full time. I ended up — at least 50 percent of the time — it was my responsibility to handle dinner as soon as I got home, if there were any issues with the kids, I would have to deal with that in terms of picking them up and that sort of thing. And this had been going on for probably about 2-3 years.
The house had just gotten into really bad shape, and when the divorce happened, she was working part time at about 20 hours per week and was only bringing about 15 percent of the income to the household. She had been making noises about how she didn’t like the people at work, which had become a typical pattern for her: She’d sort of get a job and hold it for a while, but then come up with excuses to why she didn’t want to work anymore, then would quit and wouldn’t work for about two years. I saw the cycle repeating itself.
I realized that we were probably going to get divorced anyway, and I decided I had had enough of bankrolling her lifestyle, which was very expensive, and so that’s what led me to remove any surplus money out of the bank accounts and close the credit cards. Well, she felt that was reason enough to file for divorce, and I think at that point, I was OK with the decision.”
Would you consider the divorce more amicable or bitter?
“I would say it’s more bitter with her dragging the whole thing out, and I ended up having to incur extra legal expenses. In order to get anything done, I have to force my lawyer to get an issue in front of the judge, and it’s sort of like playing a game of chicken with them. We end up getting the motion in front of the judge, it sits there and waits for two-three months and just before we get in front of the judge, it gets agreed upon by the attorneys as to what’s going to happen. We’ve repeated this cycle now several times.
We had a settlement conference back in July, and I thought everything was finalized and everything was agreed upon, and we had a deadline of July 31 to have everything done and presented to the judge, but her and her attorney didn’t bother getting any information back to us until after the deadline and were sort of refusing to finalize the divorce and wanting more than what was agreed upon at the settlement conference. I agreed to a certain level of child support and there was a cash payout to my wife, but no alimony. Now, they are sort of coming back to try to get alimony out of me despite the fact that in our mediated settlement agreement there is no award for alimony.”
What were the most contentious issues you dealt with through the mediation process?
“Minor property issues. She had this six-page list of items that she wanted out of the house, and they range from the most expensive item that was a freezer all the way down to items that were literally worth a dollar or two at a yard sale. And probably 95 percent of the items were in that value range.”
Now that you have been through the process, do you see any ways that you could have done it better?
“For the property issues, what I should have done was rented a storage unit and put all her stuff in the storage unit and dealt with it that way. I didn’t get this property list until the very end, and some of these items I assumed nobody would have cared about, so I had gotten rid of them or didn’t know where they were at this point in time. So now, she is sort of holding that against me, and if I had known about that ahead of time, instead of throwing it out, I should have just taken all her stuff and put it into a storage locker.”
Did you hire an attorney as soon as she filed, or did you wait a little while?
“It was probably about two weeks after that I hired an attorney. Prior to her filing, I had interviewed two attorneys that I didn’t really like, and I ended up interviewing the third one two weeks afterwards and I liked her.
My only problem was she was out of Albuquerque, which is about an hour and a half away from where I lived. Fortunately, all the court activity happens in Santa Fe, which is right in between Albuquerque and where I live, so she’s only about 45 minutes away from the courthouse.”
How has the attorney helped with the case?
“For me, I definitely needed one. I think because of my income level and her income level and the difference there, I definitely needed an attorney. I do see people with incomes that are equivalent or nearly equivalent that can probably get through the divorce process without requiring an attorney because there is really nothing to be split up or paid to the other party or that kind of thing.”
Did the attorney help with the custody issues?
“Maybe just a little bit. I would say New Mexico is very good for dads in terms of custody, assuming that dads don’t make mistakes at the beginning. New Mexico keeps the attorneys out of the child custody issues in the beginning.
You first have to go to a mediation session, and the attorneys are not allowed to go to this session — it’s just for the parents. You see if you can come up with an agreement about parenting time, and if you cannot, at that point what they do is schedule a Priority Consultation for you. At that session, a social worker sits down with both parents and determines and decides what is the best schedule for the kids. Again, at this session, the attorney is really not involved at all. The recommendation of the social worker is then given to the judge, and at that point, if there is any contention, the lawyers can get involved. But, after the report from the Priority Consultant came back, I decided I didn’t want to fight it further because it was a 50/50 split.”
What were some of the things the consultant would ask questions over and how could dads put the best foot forward with the social workers?
“Certainly, your current living arrangements and what kind of parenting you did prior to the parents splitting up. They want to make sure that you weren’t an absentee father, but you don’t necessarily have to be perfect either.
As to the living arrangement, where I’ve seen some guys make a mistake is they sort of leave the house to get away from their wife, and they get themselves into a living arrangement that isn’t necessarily good to share custody of their kids.
For instance, they may sort of get a single bedroom apartment or share a place with their friends, and that living arrangement isn’t the best place for kids to be. So, staying in your house, particularly if you’re the breadwinner, is an important thing to make sure that you do to keep custody or at least have a reasonable amount of time.”
How did the property division with owning your own home work out?
“We’re still getting an appraisal on the home, though I’m assuming it’s under water. If it’s not, then I would need to pay my wife half of the equity we might have in the house. Otherwise, I will have to refinance the house and get her off the loan at some point. It was fairly simple to work out, because she couldn’t afford the house.”
What was the most surprisingly easy aspect of the divorce so far?
“Getting my wife to leave the house. I was assuming that after I cancelled the credit cards and shut down the bank accounts, there might be weeks or months of contention with my wife staying here. But what happened when I came home the day I did that was she freaked out and left immediately within five minutes.”
What is something you wish you had known that would have made the divorce easier?
“I think as far as the financial side, I had educated myself pretty well as to what was going to happen. As far as the custody issues, I was pretty naive going into this. Hearing stories of dads in other states where it is sort of assumed that the kids go with the mom, it had me very anxious pre-divorce. I wish I had known New Mexico was a much different playing field in that regard. New Mexico generally assumes, with all other things being equal, that there will be a 50/50 split of custody. I wish I had known how that process worked a little better than I had.”
Where and when did you figure this information out?
“I found out about those later, and it can be difficult to find. Certainly, there is some information on the nmcourts.gov website, but I think I mostly got educated on that as the process evolved. As the court scheduled the first mediation to determine child custody and then the Priority Consultation, I sort of just learned the process going along. Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of stuff necessarily online about how it’s done.”
Is there any advice you can give to guys going through divorce from someone who has experienced it?
“If your wife is going to be angry at you, you need to expect for her to do just about anything to get back at you. I would never have thought my wife would do this, but at one point about halfway through, she wasn’t getting any money from me and the court hearings for her to start receiving money kept getting pushed off for various reasons. After the third time it got pushed off for another three months, she ended up filing for a restraining order against me. In the restraining order, she specifically wanted money from me.
So, if your ex is going to be angry at you and this is not an amicable divorce, you can literally expect her to do just about anything to try to destroy you. That’s what happened with me. Fortunately, since I had already retained an attorney at the time, it wasn’t a big deal. We had a hearing scheduled for two weeks and got the restraining order reduced.”
How did you end up avoiding an alimony obligation?
“Fortunately for me, because I wasn’t paying any of my wife’s bills, she was forced to get a full-time job. New Mexico, unlike other states, has some alimony guidelines in terms of how much you would pay based upon your gross income and your ex’s gross income. By the time she got that full-time job, she was making enough that the amount of alimony would only be around $150 per month, so it really wasn’t worth I think for her to fight over. It was really more to her benefit to see if she could get a cash payout as opposed to alimony.”
Do you have any advice for dads of teenagers going through divorce?
“Stay with your kids as much as possible, and you sort of want to make their home life — especially at the beginning — as normal as possible. If anything, you need to try and improve the situation prior to your spouse leaving. I would say my kids have come out better in some ways than how things were going pre-divorce.”