8 things women need to know before getting a divorce

8 things women need to know before getting a divorce
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PHOTO: The New Paper

The toughest part about leaving is deciding if it's the right thing to do, and when to do it. For many women, it can mean years of wondering and waiting.

Last year was a bad year for marriages in Singapore. There were 7,522 divorces and annulments - a nearly 3 per cent increase from 2014. This figure is also the third highest annual one since the Singapore Department of Statistics started collecting and compiling divorce data in 1980. Even as more couples head for splitsville, family lawyers tell us many go into their offi ces woefully unprepared.

"What's worrying is that many [women] are not aware of what they're about to embark on," says Gloria James-Civetta, managing partner at law fi rm Gloria James-Civetta

& Co. She shares that a good half of her female clients become scared at the thought of filing for divorce because they feel they aren't ready.

"Many women I counsel for marital problems usually consider the practical aspects like finances and childcare support, but don't account for emotional needs such as having a support system," adds Joel Yang, clinical psychologist at psychological consultancy Mind What Matters. To help clients, Gloria asks if they genuinely believe their marriage has broken down irretrievably. "If the answer is a resounding yes, then we're ready to talk." When considering if you should take that big step, bear in mind the following:

1. YOUR PROBLEMS MAY NOT BE INSURMOUNTABLE

Only you can decide if your marriage is worth saving, but don't give up without a fight. Ask yourself why you want a divorce, suggests Tan Siew Kim, senior family specialist at Kalco Law LLC.

"Then, exhaust every means to iron out your diff erences, whether it's [going for] counselling or mediation [that involves] friends, relatives or even a religious elder."

2. A LOT OF PEOPLE WILL TELL YOU WHAT'S "BEST" FOR YOU...

...but only you know what you truly want. "I've worked with many women who started divorce proceedings after being egged on by family members, only to realise halfway through that it wasn't what they really wanted," says Joel. His advice: "Share with only a handful of trusted loved ones whose values align with yours." Family and friends may have their biases, so speaking to an impartial professional would help too.

3. YOU DON'T HAVE TO DECIDE RIGHT AWAY... AND YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR MIND

It takes a spilt second for some women to realise their marriage is over, while for others, it may take years. "I had a client who waited about 20 years and another who got

divorced at 80 because she wanted to 'die in peace'," says Gloria. The point is, it's okay to wait. Starting divorce proceedings also doesn't mark a point of no return - people

can and do change their minds. Carrie Gill, partner at law fi rm Harry Elias Partnership LLP's Matrimonial and Family Law practice, says that about 10 per cent of women have a change of heart after seeking advice. Siew Kim, too, shares that one in 20 of her clients reconcile after they started proceedings in a moment of anger.

4. A SUPPORT NETWORK IS VITAL

"Dealing with a dying marriage is one of the loneliest experiences," shares Amanda*. The homemaker in her late 40s is in an abusive marriage and isn't comfortable sharing details with her siblings or friends. People may judge you and disapprove of your decision to divorce, so it's important to surround yourself with an entourage of cheerleaders. Also consider joining a

support group. Women's rights group the Association of Women for Action and Research has been running a once-a-year support group for women contemplating divorce since 2014. It consists of seven sessions and provides a safe space for women to have heart-to-heart talks with counsellors, family therapists, lawyers and financial consultants.

Admin manager Kelly*, 29, plans to leave an unhappy marriage next year. To get used to her impending singlehood, she's hanging out more with friends and indulging her hobbies, such as reading. "I tell myself that I survived before he came into my life, and I can do better without him," she says. "These days, I'm loving myself more and putting me first."

5. YOU NEED TO WEIGH THE NEEDS OF YOUR CHILDREN ALONGSIDE YOURS

"The thought of upturning a child's life, especially a young child, is always difficult for mothers," says Carrie. Agreeing, Michelle Woodworth, partner at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP, says that women may delay divorce until their children "reach a more mature and independent age".

This may be viable for older women who have been married for 10 to 15 years, and can hold out until their children have finished their A levels, says Siew Kim. But if you're in your 20s or 30s, can you wait so long before moving on with life? Do the pros of having a complete

family outweigh the cons of your child growing up with unhappy parents?

6. YOU CAN'T, AND SHOULDN'T CUT OFF ALL TIES WITH YOUR EX

Even if you're convinced there's no future with him, it helps to still hold civilised conversations with him, especially if you have children.

"The law is leaning towards joint custody, where both parties co-parent. You need to discuss how to do this, and work out a mutually agreeable schedule as to who cares for the children on which days and how the holidays are to be split. Amicable conversations would save you a lot of time and money in the long run," says Siew Kim. Even if you don't have children, you may still have to deal with him if you share a

business or own joint properties. So keep things cordial.

7. CHECK THAT YOU CAN ACTUALLY AFFORD A LAWYER

Legal fees range from $5,000 to $30,000, and rise sharply if the divorce is complicated, says Carrie. While she allows women with financial difficulties to pay by instalments or even give discounts if she feels the situation warrants them, "there is only so much we can do as law firms are businesses too".

Siew Kim tells us that litigation can drag over 10 years if individuals fight over every term; she has had clients come to her midway exclaiming that they've already spent almost $1 million! "Just to put the other person through hell, some people may say, 'I'm going to curb your visitation access for returning our child late', or if a child comes home with the flu or a bruise, they'd immediately report physical abuse." The result?

A few thousand dollars down the drain - even if the courts throw out such petty accusations.

8. BE PREPARED FOR A LIFESTYLE DOWNGRADE

"I'm still hesitating [to get a divorce] because I've been unemployed for the last 13 years. I gave up my full-time job to take care of my kids, which took away my financial independence," says Amanda. With your assets divided up, you'll likely shoulder a heavier financial burden. "Expect that your ex may remarry or refuse to share the expenses fairly or contribute as much," advises Siew Kim."Make sure you can manage the household expenses, support your children - with or without [his] contribution - and acquire a place of your own."

When it comes to moving out, there are a number of considerations, such as having to wait years to get a built-to-order flat. Some of Siew Kim's clients have even deferred divorce because they couldn't sell off their marital homes.

"Considering the state of the global economy, a lot of properties are under water. [Some people] wouldn't even have a place to stay, so they pull back and wait for the property market to recover," she says. If you choose to remain in the marital home - which some women prefer, so as to avoid disrupting their children's lives, says Gloria - check that you have the means to retain it.

Kelly wants to save $10,000 to $20,000 more before filing for separation, as she will need the cash to rent a place; moving back in with her parents isn't an option due to their frayed relationship. "I don't want to end up penniless once the divorce is finalised," she says.

"I spent five years preparing for my divorce"

If you do decide to go all in, it pays to have a strategy.

For Ling*, a 38-year-old marketing manager, it took half a decade to end her 10-year marriage to James*. Their divorce was fi nalised this January. The idea first crept into her head five

years into their marriage. James was a high functioning alcoholic who would get drunk about once every fortnight. Each intoxicated episode bore the same pattern. "There would be angry outbursts, outrageous antics such as going shirtless in posh restaurants and trying to jump out of a moving vehicle, unprovoked temper tantrums and verbal abuse," says Ling.

It soon became clear to her that nothing was going to change, so she started planning for her divorce. The strategy was to save up, in case of an expensive acrimonious split, pay off the mortgage on her bachelor pad and collect crucial information to help her make her case for divorce.

Though she wasn't holding a full-time job for most of her marriage, her rental income, freelance income and monthly housekeeping allowance added up to a five-figure sum monthly. She saved 80 per cent of it, cut down on unnecessary expenditure - such as shopping, her gym membership and frequent fine dining - and invested in stocks and shares. Before consulting a lawyer, Ling

read up on grounds for unreasonable behaviour, the definition of domestic abuse (of which verbal abuse falls under) and different court rulings depending on the length of a marriage and the number of children. Her research helped her understand what kind of evidence she would need. These included bank statements, receipts for big-ticket items, iPhone recordings of James' verbal abuse and e-mail threads with his therapists on his alcohol addiction. She also kept a detailed record of their e-mail fights.

"I would e-mail him regularly to talk about how his behaviour made me feel. Sometimes, he would get mad and fire off angry rants, which to me was an example of unreasonable behaviour," says Ling. There was also a copy of a police warning about his drinking and disturbing the peace at home. Last September, Ling was in bed when James came home drunk in the wee hours of the morning. "I was fast asleep when he came up to me and just started yelling for no reason. I warned him to behave over the next two weeks, or I would cancel my air ticket for our upcoming three-week vacation," she says.

But the abuse continued, driving the final nail into the coffin. Ling cancelled her ticket, while James went ahead with their friends. "His being away meant that I had time to collate the most updated financial information, assemble my 'divorce kit', save it in several thumb drives and consult two different lawyers for advice," says Ling. Towards the end of his trip, she e-mailed him asking for a divorce. Knowing that she had done all her homework, James was cooperative. In his last-ditch effort to salvage the relationship, he asked her to postpone her decision for three months. Ling conceded on the condition that they move along with the division of their assets ("[It'll make] the divorce process faster and smoother if I decide to file,"

she explains.). She also made it clear that she had saved up enough money to engage the best lawyers in town, and had sufficient grounds to prove he had behaved unreasonably. Thanks to her efforts, Ling secured the uncontested divorce she wanted in three months. According to her, it was hassle-free "except for when we fought over the exact percentage of assets split", with zero contestation and with all ancillary matters settled. She admits getting divorced was painful, but feels it would have been horrible if she had ended up homeless or broke in the process. The fact that they didn't have any children also made their case less complicated.

"It really pays to be prepared, especially when it comes to your finances," she says. "Rather than going from one bad situation (bad marriage) to another (worrying about money), waiting until I had saved up enough meant I had bargaining power to fight for the outcome I wanted. I ended up not having to use the bulk of my savings on legal fees, so it's now [part of ] my nest egg for the future."

*Names have been changed.

This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of Her World. Her World, Singapore's #1 women's magazine, is now available in both print and digital formats.

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