A middle-aged couple was having a tough time during last year’s lockdown. Although the husband was raking in the cash in his medical practice, the wife had been forced to close her veterinary office for nearly a year and her income had gone in the toilet. Her self-confidence had taken a nasty hit and they were both suffering from the stress, her from being stuck home by herself all day, missing her constant interaction with people and pets she cared about, and him from worrying about her.
The two were seated side-by-side in my conference room when I joined them. After introductions, “How can I help?” is my standard opening line.
Telling the Story
The two shared a look before Lowell responded, checking in with her. “Shall I start?” She nodded, smiling. He paused, clearly marshalling his thoughts. “We’ve been married nearly 17 years. We got married before I started med school. Candy already had her veterinary practice up and running. She supported me through med school and then my residency. It took a while for me to start making serious money but, when I finally established myself, my practice as a spine surgeon began bringing in far more than her work as an animal doctor did.”
Lowell hesitated again, glancing at Candy for confirmation, and she beamed her reassurance. “Especially now, because of the stay-at-home orders, while I continue to make good money, she has not. She’s had to close her practice and we have no idea when (or if) she’ll reopen.”
Candy picked up the ball. “Really, we wanted to talk to you about your life planning work. Since the day we married, Lowell promised that, if we were ever to split up, he would support me for as long as we’d been married. So now we’ve been married for 17 years, and he should support me for at least that long if we get divorced, right?”
Is Divorce on the Horizon?
I was startled by the apparently sudden shift in the conversation, from planning their life together to separating. I was a bit taken aback. Was one of them thinking of divorce but not sharing that plan with the other? Bluntly, I queried, “Are you considering divorce?”
“Oh, no!” Both Lowell and Candy responded, in unison, abruptly tipping back into their chairs like turtles frightened back into their shells, their body language confirming their denial. “Not at all,” Candy continued.
Lowell added, “This was a promise I made when we realized that the burden of being our family breadwinner would fall solely on Candy early on. That we were both investing time and energy in my future medical career and that, if things didn’t work out, she deserved to be reimbursed for her share of that investment.”
Candy frowned. “Now that my practice is doing so poorly, it’s become top-of-mind to get our agreement taken care of.”
So, getting back to Candy’s question, I asked, “Lowell, do you agree with Candy that you want to support her for at least 17 years if you get divorced tomorrow?”
“I do.” He didn’t hesitate. “But the question is, what does that look like? Is there a standard amount of alimony that someone should pay or what?” he asked me.
“There is not, not in court. In the law, there are lots of different things that a court might look at, certainly her need, and your ability to pay, how long you were married, maybe how much you’re each usually capable of making, perhaps what you established as your family’s standard of living….” I trailed off, waiting for a reaction. They were both deep in thought.
“But you’re here in my office. Your family is unique and you two can establish what will be the law for you.” I suggested.
Candy sighed. “We don’t even know where to start. I’m not making anything right now, except what little I can make on-line and helping out other vets. But when this lockdown lets up, I could get my office back up to normal speed.”
“How does your ‘normal’ compare to Lowell’s regular income?”
Lowell chimed in. “I probably make 6-7 times as much as Candy does in a good year.”
I threw out the first thing that occurred to me. “How do you feel about paying Candy enough to equalize your after-tax incomes?” I proposed. They looked at each other, a good sign. “You could check in with each other every December to recompute what that payment would be for the upcoming year. And if you can’t agree on what that number is, maybe you consult a financial neutral, a CPA, to help you figure it out?”
“That actually makes a lot of sense.” Lowell opined. “I like it.”
“Well, then, I’m fine with that. It’s fair.” She laughed. “I certainly couldn’t ask for more!” I thought I’d dodged a bullet when she grinned sheepishly and continued. “What do you want to do about the cats?”
Aha, I thought. Here’s where the rubber meets the road. “What cats?” I asked.
She explained, “We have eight cats. He just picked up our most recent rescue in Ohio and brought him home Saturday.” I thought, being a dog person myself, perhaps Lowell’s just trying to get rid of the cats.
Lowell pulled up a photo on his cell phone. “He’s a little overweight, but otherwise healthy.” He showed me a photo of a fat white cat. “Short hair. One blue eye and one brown. Most of them,” here he pulled up another photo of seven pure white cats, decorated in Christmas attire, some long-hair, some short, some green-eyed, some brown, and some blue, “are under three years old. We just fell into this habit of adopting them recently.” Now it was his turn to look embarrassed.
If you and your family are facing trauma that you can’t handle alone, whether it’s the impact of the pandemic or some other more personal stress, reach out to Joryn Jenkins at Joryn@OpenPalmLaw.com or find her at OpenPalmLaw, where we are changing how trauma impacts families!
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About this week’s author, Joryn Jenkins.
Joryn, attorney and Open Palm Founder, began her own firm here in Tampa after a 14-year career in law, two of which she served as a professor of law at Stetson University. She is a recipient of the prestigious A. Sherman Christensen Award, an honor bestowed in the United States Supreme Court upon those who have provided exceptional leadership in the American Inns of Court Movement. For more information on Joryn’s professional experience, take a look at her resume.