Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Reading: The Messy Intersection of Money and Family Law

Given the stage of life I'm in, it's downright silly for me to expound at length about my views of family law and marriage. As someone yet unmarried and childless, if I said anything particularly opinionated, I'd essentially just be asking - nay, demanding - that real life intervene to make an absolute fool of me. That sure doesn't stop me, though. As usual, nothing in this post constitutes legal advice. 

When I read Jamie Seaton's essay on Buzzfeed about the dramatic transformation in her apparent financial status that resulted from her divorce, and how that paralleled her experiences as a child of divorced parents with their own dramatic financial disparity, I was, for no discernible reason, entirely transfixed. Although the topic is quite serious, and the bare facts inherently do not paint her ex-husband in a positive light, I personally thought she was evenhanded and honest, matter-of-fact rather than self-pitying, and far more generous to her ex-husband than he likely deserved. Overall, I liked the piece, and sympathized, though reasonable minds differ greatly on this, and it turns out to have been extremely polarizing

P.S. before formulating an opinion, it's best to read Seaton's other published essays about the end of her marriage, one tabloid-y piece about her immediate post-divorce finances and a more gentle essay about co-parenting with her ex. My opinion changed after reading both pieces. My initial feeling, that he'd nickel and dimed her to an unsavory degree in the settlement, to the detriment of his children, turned out to be wrong. There appears to be a provision that penalizes her on spousal support if her monthly earnings dropped below a certain amount, which seems to me unnecessarily draconian to an ex-spouse that worked throughout the marriage. Even if spousal support serves a different purpose than child support, I don't think it uncontroversial to assume that most economically less powerful ex-spouses with primary custody spend most of their income on things directly affecting their children's quality of life, especially at the cutoff they set.

As it turns out, her ex-husband likely didn't nickel and dime her much at all. Instead, it appears that he controlled their finances, and he was really very bad at it, insisting on a house they could not afford and keeping her in the dark about their credit card debt. He most likely didn't have much money after all, and unless he's dramatically changed the way he handles it, he likely still doesn't. (Her ex's money management reminds me of this dude.) Among other things, she came out of the divorce with $16,000 in marital credit card debt that should, I think, ultimately be considered "his fault" because he controlled the purse strings.

And yes, some might say not to believe everything someone writes, though I feel like Seaton admits to enough that isn't flattering about herself - her extreme youthful fixation on designer clothes to buy the appearance of status - that I'm not skeptical. I certainly trust her perception, writing, and understanding of money far more than that of the writer behind that uncomfortable New York Times "Modern Love" piece on prenuptial agreements, for instance. (That person sounded really bad at money, her then-fiancee was reasonable in his demand for a prenuptial agreement, but callous in his handling of it and may, to my non-expert eyes, have created unnecessary risks to the contract's enforceability.) 

When it comes to stories like this, whether just about money or about the messy intersection of family matters and money, I often find people's varying reactions more interesting than the pieces themselves. Because most of my friends are not into talking about these things every time I have a link to share, I end up relying on internet comments sections to get my discussion fix. I know, I know, internet comments sections are often pointless and toxic, but still! There was a lot to unpack here, plenty more fuel for strong, visceral reactions than in most money-related personal essays, and that's really saying something. (Among other things, from my experiences living in Hong Kong, I'm always ready to raise my eyebrows about expat lifestyles in Asia.) I was actually pleasantly surprised by the relatively evenhanded and calm comments on Buzzfeed, given that the money subreddits I follow, though well-moderated and generally reasonable, have left me with a sense that everyone's ready to accuse a woman, particularly one who generally earned less than her husband, of being a freeloading, gold-digging mooch, even when it's absolutely not true. 

That's not to say all the reactions were reasonable. One top-appearing comment excoriated her for failing to open her own secret savings account "just in case", which seems iffy. While I would never personally agree to a marital money arrangement that left me without a checking and savings accounts solely in my name, even if the amounts retained in it are relatively nominal, plenty of people out there maintain fully joint accounts and shared finances. Another follow-up comment to that "secret savings account" comment, rather a non-sequitur, was eager to declare how their own single mother did it so much better than Seaton by "working full time and sacrificing to provide for her family", which it's clear that Seaton actually is doing, so that was super weird. One other top comment was about how all of Seaton's wealthy friends (I suppose from earlier days in that wealthy Connecticut suburb or the high-flying expat community) should have given her financial help, which seemed to me an extremely strange thing to take away from the article. Normal people generally don't ask non-family members for money, right? 

Anyway, I'm a total weirdo with my strangely intense interest in these topics. I suppose I just really enjoy financial voyeurism. Seaton's essay was part of a Buzzfeed collaboration with the Death, Sex, and Money podcast, and they came up with some really interesting essays that are worth a read. 

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