Divorce Can Wreck a Woman's Financial Future. Here's How to Rebuild.

Women who have been through a divorce often have to start over financially, which can be difficult.

Divorce Can Wreck a Woman's Financial Future. Here's How to Rebuild.

A mom friend told me my future twenty years ago when I was expecting my daughter: the baby will arrive and -- out of necessity -- your husband and you will split tasks that will fall either side outdated gender lines. At first, I was smugly dismissive, but it became clear that she was right. My husband was an academic who managed our finances. I was a writer and took care of our house and child.

It seemed logical to pool our assets, since we didn't have much wealth between us. That is until two years ago when we divorced. I had a small I.R.A. I had a very small I.R.A. Since my husband's college matched a portion of his retirement savings we used my income more to pay for monthly expenses, and his more to invest in a Roth 401(k) under his name. We had the idea that this would cover us both when we retired.

Though this money was theoretically divided equitably when divorce papers were filed, I quickly realized that I had put myself in a precarious position: I had given up control of my financial future. It would be difficult to regain control of my finances, given the reduced income and additional expenses associated with divorce.

Prepare for a financial setback

I'm not alone. According to a Boston College study, divorced Americans are more than twice as likely to not have enough money to retire comfortably at 65. According to Maria Cancian of Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy, mothers are often the hardest hit financially because of both the cost of raising children as well as the impact on their earnings of taking care of family and child care responsibilities. Women of color also suffer disproportionately due to a larger gender pay gap.

Aja Evans is a New York licensed mental health counselor and financial therapist who works with mostly Black women. She addresses emotional issues around money and finances. They feel a great deal of shame and guilt about not saving enough.

Ms. Cancian says married couples are able to rely on one another -- and the family health insurance plan -- when a spouse is laid off or has a health problem. She said that singles have a harder time getting by because they lose the economies of scale. This means that you will need to pay two homes, two cars, and two emergency funds.

Debra Kaplan is a licensed therapist in Tucson. She says that it can take many years to climb back up the "food chain" and reach the top. Ms. Kaplan took 10 years to get back to the same standard of living as she did before her divorce. She gradually increased her earnings and put aside money for retirement, incidentals, and other expenses.

Negotiating retirement savings and joint savings

New York, along with 40 other states, allows for an equal division of assets and debts accumulated during marriage. There are a number of circumstances that may prevent access (such as financial infidelity where one spouse hides their money), and many ways to decide how to divide them.

After you are kicked out of your spouse’s health insurance plan, you might request less from your spouse’s 401(k), Social Security and IRA and more from your joint savings to pay for your own. You could equally divide the proceeds of the sale of the house, and not ask for any of your spouse's retirement funds because you believe your own is enough. Lori Stevenson divorced her husband two years ago, after 32 years of marriage. She took a smaller share of his retirement savings. In exchange for the house, Lori Stevenson agreed to pay for her son's last two years of college.

Divorce attorneys often broker deals such as these. Divorce lawyers often broker deals like these.

Ms. George emphasized that divorce can have a major impact on a person's tax situation. Ms. George says that women filing as head of household for the first-time may be hit hard, so it is important to include a projected tax bill with the divorce decree.

Without expert advice, either ex spouse can find themselves in serious financial trouble. Many people find themselves priced out by gentrifying housing markets in their locality after selling the family home, forcing them to move to another state to maximize their retirement savings.

Ms. Stevenson went from working part-time to full time after her divorce. Karen D. Sparks is a certified divorce analyst in Santa Clara. She says that this move requires many older women to refresh their career training, and she takes it into account when creating budgets for post-divorce. Eventually though, Ms. Stevenson’s work hours decreased and she now has a tight budget, is in debt and cannot save.

Dawn Pick Benson is a 50-year-old copywriter, travel coach, and writer who lives in Grand Rapids. She had an attorney ready to divide a house and sailboat as well as two cars and joint checking and savings accounts, and separate retirement and savings accounts for both spouses. Ms. Benson, however, had a smaller retirement fund. She didn't know what would be best for her long-term, nor what she might face if the lawyer made a mistake. She contacted Liza Caldwell in a panic. SAS for Women offers divorce coaching, educational resources, and more.

Ms. Caldwell referred Ms. Benson a divorce financial analyst who advised her to keep the house since she could rent it out when she traveled in order to pay off the mortgage. It meant that she had to give up all of the other assets, except for one car. She also had to give up her ex-husband’s retirement and individual savings. She paid him an additional small amount of cash to make sure that the assets were split equally. Benson, who has no children and will retire in 15 years or less, still has plenty of time to rebuild. She said that the experience made her feel 'not alone in my struggle to make my way'.

Find financial education and support

The cost of hiring a financial advisor can be a strain on budgets that are already stretched by divorce lawyers and mediators. Alison Borel is a 49-year-old substitute teacher from San Diego who filed for divorce in August last year. She feels that expert help will be out of her reach until she saves enough money. She is also waiting to use the many online financial support groups available to better educate herself. Ms. Stevenson attended several divorce webinars hosted by financial planners. Most of these were free. She's been able to create detailed budgets, which have helped her keep her spending under control and prepare for emergency situations.

SAS for Women provides free events including a seminar entitled 'Preparing your Financials for Negotiation Table'. Ms. Caldwell reported that 248 women immediately signed up when the last advertisement was made. She said Savvy Ladies is a nonprofit financial education organization that provides free financial advice and education.

Ms. George directs her audience to a website hosted by Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement (a nonprofit). There are also many books that offer information. Ms. Evans is a financial therapist from New York who prefers the "Budgetnista" Tiffany Aliche. Advice is available on a wide range of topics, including finding a certified divorce analyst to work alongside, figuring out secondary income streams, and returning to school to jump-start a lucrative career.

Online communities are also on the rise. Suzy Nguyen is a New York-based writer who advocates women's financial education. She runs a group called Women & Finance : Conversations into action, where members share their experiences and financial advice.

Ms. Nguyen stated, "I am post-divorce. I'm trying to figure out how much money to save for retirement." Her financial advisor predicted that she would be out of money when she turns 80 due to the high cost of living in New York where she lives. She plans to rent short-term apartments in cities with lower costs, such as Austin, Texas, Charlotte, N.C., and Berlin, to see if there are any communities that offer good health care or other resources.


The road to a comfortable and challenging retirement

Experts agree that building a retirement fund can be done no matter your age. However, older women may face some challenges. 'People in their mid-60s who have stopped working have a difficult time recovering. And that's a segment growing' of the divorcing population, said Ms. George. Women who divorce later on in life see their standard of living plummet by 45 percent. Ms. George works with these clients to divide retirement assets and use tools such as reverse mortgages in order to maintain their standard of living and homes.

Ms. George has a three-part plan for women who have more time. It includes a review of the budget, paying off debts to start an emergency fund, and then finding out how to replenish retirement funds.

Ms. Sparks is a divorce financial analyst who advises her clients to save 30 percent of their income for retirement. This amount should be split equally between living expenses and discretionary costs, as well as aging care. The Tucson therapist Ms. Kaplan said that this requires steadfast frugality. 'There won't be a whole lot of nights out or vacations,' she said.

While facing an uncertain financial future alone can be frightening, it can also give you a sense of empowerment. I have become more methodical when it comes to reducing expenses to increase my I.R.A. Contributions are a great way to feel satisfied as you watch them slowly grow. I am relieved to have this control, and I wish I had it years ago.