My friend Elizabeth called me recently to talk about her attempts to resolve some post-divorce issues. She was extremely frustrated and upset. She and her ex-husband James, a lawyer, had been divorced for five years. They share all of the expenses of their children 50/50. They agree that, no matter what their incomes are, they want to continue to share expenses equally.
My friend's daughter had recently turned 18 and had started college. Her ex-husband wanted to modify the original divorce decree. He was tired of the current method of how expenses were shared. For the past five years, he would send a monthly email to Elizabeth listing all of the major kids' expenses, such as car insurance, cell phones, voice lessons, and sports fees. In return, Elizabeth would send a monthly check to him for half of the total expenses.
Some couples prefer to share expenses using a pro-rata formula. If the husband's income is 30 percent more than the wife's, for example, the husband and wife may agree that the husband would pay a greater proportion of their children's expenses.
James wanted to share expenses differently going forward. He was not interested in using a pro-rata formula. He informed Elizabeth that she would pay for health insurance and cell phones and he would pay for car insurance and soccer. There would be no more monthly communication about bills or expenses and there would be no monthly reconciliation. In fact, there would not even be an annual reconciliation. Elizabeth was intrigued by the suggestion, but before she could consider the benefits and disadvantages of this change, James informed her that his lawyer would draft a revised order. She would have a couple of hours to review it before the revised order would be filed.
Elizabeth felt bullied, outnumbered, rushed, stressed, and anxious. She did not like the way that James had made a unilateral decision without her input and had immediately contacted his lawyer. She did not want dueling emails to go back and forth. She did not want to run up a legal bill at $400 per hour. She did not think that what he was proposing was balanced. James would be finished paying for soccer forever at the end of the season, but she might be obligated to pay for health insurance for the next 8 years. Elizabeth wanted to be empowered. After giving the matter some thought, she realized that she and James did agree on one core issue: they wanted to continue to share expenses in a fair and equitable manner.
So Elizabeth told her ex-husband that she wanted to sit down around a table with a mediator to jointly define the current issues regarding expense sharing and to then seek solutions together. Stay tuned for his reaction...
And, just a reminder that what happens in mediation stays in mediation. The names have been changed in this blog, and Elizabeth was happy for me to share her story.
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Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.