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Expert Tips for Negotiating Spousal Support

Alimony conversations are usually difficult. These expert tips for navigating spousal support conversations will help save you time, and heartache.

There are probably a million (or more) things you would rather be doing instead of negotiating a divorce deal with your ex. I get it. Especially when it comes to spousal support – such a hot button issue. So, I reached out to industry experts to get the best tips for how to discuss spousal support, to help you start the conversation on the most solid footing possible.

Temporary vs Permanent Support

“Some states have formulas which must be used to calculate spousal support (during the divorce proceedings and/or after the divorce is final). The calculations will use respective incomes and some living expenses for each of the parties as well as some other factors.  Rosemary Frank of Rosemary Frank Financial, LLC advises that in most states ‘ability’ to pay support and the ‘need’ of the supported party are very important. Other factors which may be considered, according to the state statute if applicable, are: length of the marriage; age and health of each party; other financial resources, including the division of property in the divorce; standard of living established by the parties during the marriage and whether or not one party stayed home to raise children.”

In California, some spouses do not have a formal spousal support order while their divorce is pending. Often, they come to a mutual agreement on how finances will be handled while they work out the terms of their final decree. However, if this is not possible or if either spouse wants to get a sense for what the ‘law’ says about temporary support, they can calculate support using a state calculator (called the Dissomaster) to determine an appropriate amount. For alimony post-divorce, California looks to several factors including the ones mentioned above. Ultimately, it is a negotiation but there is quite a bit of law to help guide those discussions. Setting aside an hour or two to speak with a lawyer might feel inconvenient or expensive – but ultimately it can give you a reality check – help you understand your rights and responsibilities and most importantly – determine where you might have some leverage to move negotiations closer to your wants and needs.

Remember: if you are mediating your divorce, you can set your own terms with your ex for spousal support, without defaulting to state guidelines.

Related: Spousal Support, A-Z

Utilize Conflict Negotiation Strategies

Susan Petang of The Quiet Zone says, “When negotiating with your ex – contentious or not – using some basic conflict negotiation strategies is helpful.” She shares the following tips with her clients:

  • Stay calm. If things get too heated, make a date to discuss the issue when tempers have cooled.  “We’re both getting too upset and angry to talk about this now, but it’s important to me. How about if we talk again in an hour?”
  • Don’t ambush your ex.  Make sure the time you choose to discuss the issue isn’t when either of you is rushed. Tell your ex there’s something important you want to discuss, and set a specific time when both of you can negotiate calmly.
  • Only speak about your own feelings.  A good formula to use is, “I feel X when you do Y. I’d like Z.” For example, say things like, “I get angry when you say you don’t want to pay support. It’s hard for me to take care of the children, and they’re your responsibility, too. I’d like to get $X a month so I can take care of them properly.”
  • Use Active Listening. This involves really hearing what your ex is saying, summarizing and repeating it back. This helps parties in negotiations feel like they’re being heard and considered, thereby reducing friction. “So you feel that you’re already paying enough and that I’m not managing my money well.  Is that right?”
  • Be solution oriented. The past is gone. Casting blame, no matter what’s happened, isn’t going to help you get what you want Think about what you’re trying to achieve, what you want the outcome to be, and how you want to feel at the end of the negotiation. “My focus is on the children. All I’m looking for is making sure their needs are met. Instead of fighting about it, let’s come up with a solution that works for everyone that takes care of the kids.”
  • Be collaborative. Remember that when someone comes up with a solution, they’re much more likely to stick to it. Say things like, “I understand that you feel like you’re paying enough support, but there just isn’t enough for me to pay babysitters on my salary. What are your ideas on how to make sure the kids are looked after?” or, “I get worried when I don’t have enough to pay babysitters while I work. What can we do to take care of that?”
  • Make sure your request is reasonable. If they’re making $50,000 a year, they’re not going to be able to pay you $35,000 in support. Be willing to compromise and do what is necessary to make your goal work.
  • Use the broken record technique. Keep repeating your feelings and needs without casting blame or judgement until your ex hears and acknowledges you.

Related: The Buck Stops Here: Options for Long-Term Spousal Support

Get Help, and Be Clear on What You Truly Need (and on What You Can Provide)

Melissa Fecak, a family attorney, collaborative divorce lawyer and mediator with South Jersey Divorce Solutions recommends getting help – especially if things turn contentious. She also suggests ways to structure alimony payments to make payment options more attractive and/or more manageable for the person who will be making the payments:

“One of the best ways to approach the alimony conversation is with a financial neutral who can crunch the numbers with both parties. In collaborative divorce, we often have a financial neutral in the process who assists with budgeting, valuing assets and showing projections of each spouse’s needs. In my mediation practice, I will often suggest having a CPA or other professional be part of the process for the same purpose. It takes some of the emotions out of the process and changes the focus to making sure both parties will be OK after the divorce.

“Many spouses who receive alimony do not want to be dependent upon their ex. If this is articulated to the spouse who will be paying, the conversation can turn to what does the person asking for alimony need to be self-sufficient and how long will that take. Alimony can be structured so that it decreases over time, giving the person receiving it an understanding that they will need to take steps to make up the difference to meet their expenses.  It also helps the payor, as they understand they will not be paying forever and that there is an incentive in place for the other spouse to be more self-supporting.

“For some spouses, it is difficult writing that check each week/month. For those spouses, it may make more sense to do an alimony buyout. This might be done via a single payment, or by transfer of certain assets. For some it is more palatable to give one large check than to have to send one on a recurring basis. However, there is a risk for the payor is that they may overpay alimony. In New Jersey, where I practice, if you are paying alimony and your ex remarries or cohabitates, alimony would be terminated or at least suspended. If you pay a lump sum of alimony and your ex-spouse remarries 6 months later, you likely will not get that money back. But, if the payor is willing to take the risk, a lump-sum payment may be a way to solve the alimony question, and to finalize the divorce without having to send a regular check for an extended period of time,” said Fecak.

If you are handling your divorce on your own or working through our step-by-step Divorce Navigator, remember that you can always access support from certified, vetted legal counsel at a flat-rate fee through the Hello Divorce “Lawyer Help” page. We’re here to help you navigate your divorce as efficiently, empowered and as stress-free as possible, and we can provide access to legal support in as little as 30-minute increments.

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