Stay-At-Home Mums …skills to face your separation with confidence

16th March 2015

By Lisa Wagner

Are you a “Stay At Home” Mum who is thinking about separating or a single mum who has recently separated? Perhaps you’re worried that your husband or long term partner is unhappy and may leave the relationship and family home without much warning? If you are or if you know someone who is in this situation then I urge you to keep reading as the following information might be critical.

Everyone going through a separation or divorce feels stressed and a lot of the time very unhappy and worried. Stay At Home Mums who are transitioning to being single mums have unique stresses that they face throughout the separation or divorce processes that hugely impact on their ability to remain strong and get through the ordeal with everything in tact including their children’s wellbeing and their financial security.

If you’re a Stay At Home Mum then chances are:

  1. You have been married or in a de facto relationship for at least 4 or 5 years, probably longer, and, all your  finances have become mingled with your spouse’s affairs.

    You are likely to have at least some joint bank accounts, credit card facilities, home loans etc. You may have even been appointed as the secretary or director of your husband’s company (if he has one) or named as a shareholder in a family business. You may also have been named as a beneficiary in a trust that has been established by your joint accountant to legitimately minimise the tax your family has to pay overall each financial year. You might not even completely know what you are or are not named on or what joint assets you part own and/or what joint liabilities you are responsible for.

    When you start to look around it may surprise you that you don’t have a bank account in your own name anymore, you don’t have any independent money that you control exclusively, you don’t know where income comes from or how the bills are paid, and you don’t even have your own credit card facility and are merely a supplementary cardholder to a credit facility belonging to your husband which can be cancelled at any time by him without any notice to you.

    In the space of what seems like a blink of an eye you have become totally and significantly financially dependent on your spouse or your de facto partner.

  2. You have dependent and often very young children to look after, usually almost singlehandedly for 24 hours each day, 7 days a week. This is a relentless, exhausting, inescapable (and not to mention often thankless) commitment that simply cannot be forgotten or overlooked. This factor alone impacts enormously on your ability to do a lot of things.

    In separation and divorce the two things that children impact on the most are your ability to secure a decent family friendly job and your ability to earn an income sufficient to meet all the basic expenses it costs to run a household in Sydney. To make matters worse, if your husband has left the family home then he may not be contributing (or may be under-contributing) to the running of the family home, especially if he is now housing himself and has a second lot of “household” expenses to pay, including rent.

    Social media is saturated with complaints from single mums about the difficulties of trying to find work that they can do when they have family commitments. Moreover if you have been a Stay At Home Mum for a while it is likely that the skill set that you had developed pre-kids is now rusty, or maybe even obsolete. This can leave you feeling like you have no option other than taking on a more menial job (which can have greater family friendly hours) like cleaning or supermarket shelf stacking, or taking on a full time role and somehow securing affordable (if there is such a thing!) and available (at the risk of sounding repetitive – if there is such a thing!) child care, the costs of which “eat into” your salary. Alternatively you might contemplate letting your children become “latchkey” kids.

  3. Your housing requirements are significant especially with two or three children in your care, and the costs of housing in Sydney are highly prohibitive for many Stay-At-Home single parents. For example on Sydney’s North Shore, where my office is located, the March 2015 statistics depict that the medium house price for homes was considerable, namely:
    – Lindfield – $1,850,000
    – Ryde – $1,230,000
    – Turramurra – $1,400,000
    – Mosman – $2,605,000
    – Lane Cove – almost $1,600,000
    – Frenchs Forrest – $1,130,000

To make matters worse, it is well known that it can be very difficult to rent modest child-friendly family homes in the above areas for less than $900 a week.

For example, Stay At Home Mums facing a separation on Sydney’s North Shore who are looking to set up an independent household have fewer housing options available to them than some other separating couples. The need for and costs of larger dwellings for Stay At Home Mums and single mums are disproportionately expensive on Sydney’s North Shore and overwhelming stressful to secure.

If you are a Stay At Home Mum who has not yet separated but feels that you and your partner have exhausted marriage counselling services then the best thing you can do is plan ahead.

Planning ahead really involves two stages namely:

  1. Creating a short term plan; and

  2. Creating a “forever” (or “almost forever”) plan.

Stay At Home Mums who are contemplating a separation must seriously consider what they need to do to become stronger and regain some of their independence. Opening up a bank account in your own name is a good start. So too is applying for your own credit card. It is not necessary that you start using this credit facility but it is really handy to have a credit card in your own name that you can control. It can provide you with an enormous amount of peace of mind. Next you need to do a budget (right down to the nitty gritty) so you understand the basic monthly costs that you will have and what sacrifices you may need to make to “trim the fat”. Whilst this can be a downright frightening process to undertake it is vital.

Often when you are working on this plan you may start to confuse short term and long term considerations. Two of the most common mistakes that Stay At Home Mums make at this point are looking straight away at their work options and also at housing – it is the right time to look at these things but it’s not necessarily the right time to act on those options just yet. These issues are vital but they are long term considerations. Making decisions right now about things that can have long term consequences can result in long term problems. If you haven’t already done so by now you should get specialist family law advice. It may even be wise to even consider getting some advice from a financial planner or financial counsellor, especially if you have become rusty in managing your own financial affairs independently. Each of these specialists can give you clear advice and show you reliable strategies to help you achieve short-term and long-term independent success.

It is my view that a lawyer who is accredited with the Law Society of New South Wales in the area of family law is your best resource at this time. One (or sometimes two) appointments are often enough at this stage to help you understand your real position and help to dispel many of the myths and half-truths that you have been hearing “on the grapevine”. It is important to remember that every family, its circumstances, and the nature of the family breakdown are different. Accordingly, well-meaning friends and family members, and even some counsellors, mediators and facilitators, who may be great with a whole range of things cannot really give you clear, accurate legal advice about what your rights, your proper entitlements and your likely responsibilities will be for your personal situation. And, even if they do, you should not rely on it even if it sounds good or makes you feel better at the time. Feeling good just for the sake of it or thinking that you’ve sorted something out when you really haven’t are not what you should be striving to achieve in your separation just yet. Having a clear picture of where you stand legally is imperative for your short-term and long-term success.

Most ideas and suggestions work for some people, some of the time and in combination (often but not always) with other steps. But, any suggestion that you act on in isolation and without advice, at the wrong time or in the wrong sequence can spell disaster for you and your family. Examples of this are severing joint tenancies, closing down bank accounts, trying to get partners’ names off tenancy agreements, transferring car registrations, making child support applications and even getting a job packing shelves at your local supermarket. When you are experiencing a separation or divorce it is sometimes difficult to see beyond your own experience and you may find that a perfectly logical idea acted on right now doesn’t always end up working out in the way that you thought it would at the time.

Long term or “almost forever” planning is different for every person and depends on a range of factors which are unique to each person and their family’s circumstances. For example, how tolerant you are of placing your children in long day care five days per week and/or how much do you value being a Stay At Home Mum who personally cares for her children, or what is your level of willingness to re-train and re-enter the workforce on a full time or part time basis. All sorts of questions will need to be asked and eventually answered. Is it vital for you to continue to put your career on hold for a long while? Can you even afford to do this?

Stay At Home Mums, including those working part time, face unique challenges in the separation and divorce process.   Getting it right from the start is crucial. Whether you have already separated or are just thinking about separation as a Stay At Home Mum take a look at our free Separation and Divorce Checklist for great tips and suggestions that might help you manoeuvre this difficult course. However, once again all useful tips, in the wrong sequence, at the wrong time and not in the right combination are not necessarily a good idea.

Two further points:

  1. “Shared parenting” does not mean equal time – this is especially true when considering what are appropriate post-separation parenting arrangements for children under 4 years of age or in situations where the there is significant distance between mum and dad’s residences; and

  2. Mediation and Family Dispute Resolution are processes. They are great alternatives to going to Court for most families but they do not provide the answers nor do they give advice about what your rights and entitlements are. Alternative dispute resolution processes require both parties to be willing to compromise, a step that you shouldn’t take without knowing what your rights and entitlements are. You wouldn’t buy medicine without getting a script, you wouldn’t choose fashion sunglasses for your children if they needed to see an optometrist for testing and you probably wouldn’t even go on a family bushwalk without understanding something about the weather, terrain and grading. Most of you no doubt get your accountant to prepare your tax returns each year. Only a lawyer experienced in the family law arena, preferably an Accredited Family Law Specialist, can provide adequate family law advice on your rights and entitlements. Your children and your financial security are two of the most important things to you. Don’t confuse Google search information, rhetoric and suggestions from friends, family members or even counsellors and family dispute resolution practitioners as the best advice – they are not trained in the field.

I know that anyone reading this article who is faced with these dilemmas will benefit from a proper initial consultation with an Accredited Family Law Specialist. Don’t waste time with a “meet and greet” preliminary interview or a free chat on the phone. You need to actually obtain quality family law advice which is tailored to you and your family’s needs and circumstances. It will cost you some money but in my view it is a smart investment in your and family’s future – now is not the time to gamble with your decision making for you and your family.

If you would like to arrange an initial no obligation consultation to get the best answers about the questions that you and your family are facing then call me, Lisa Wagner at Doolan Wagner Family Lawyers on 9437 0010 to book in an initial appointment. We are Accredited Family Law Specialists and registered Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners. We can give you all the advice and answers you need at this stage so that you can confidently know where you stand.

These posts are only intended as an overview or comment on current issues that may interest you and are not legal advice. If there are any matters that you would like us to advise you on, then please contact us.

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