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5 ways to keep a divorce from being needlessly expensive


When Joanna Wilbur got divorced five years ago, she was able to keep her two story, four bedroom home with a wraparound porch in Fairfax County, Va.

They had only purchased the home two years before deciding to go their separate ways, and Wilbur says she wasn’t yet ready to let it go. But in hindsight, maybe she should have been, she says.

They bought the home for more than $500,000 in 2006, when home prices were peaking. Now it’s not worth nearly that much, she says–and she’s stuck making huge mortgage payments on her own.

“Would I have bought this same house on my own?” she says. “The answer is no.”

Even when divorces are straightforward and amicable, untying the knot can be messy. Unwinding and dividing the property, debt, financial assets and other belongings people amass when they’re planning on being together forever can be a lengthy and complicated process. Learning to live — and making plans to retire– on one paycheck can also take time.

Financial advisers offer these tips to help people start the next chapter:

Redo the budget. 

Going from “us” to “I” usually means having to move from two paychecks to one. People who don’t make an honest assessment of what they can afford under their new financial setup may find themselves with cars, houses and other bills they would have never signed up for when they were alone.

People deciding what assets and belongings they want to keep after a divorce should ask themselves if they would still make that purchase with the income they’ll have after the split, says Dawn Humphrey, a senior wealth planner with SunTrust Bank. “For many of our clients, a lot of it comes down to needs versus wants,” Humphrey says. “Many times you need to take a step back to see what’s reasonable.”

When it came time to refinance the house and put it under her name, Wilbur says she was only able to do so after getting a financial gift from her parents. She’s also taken on roommates from time to time in order for help keeping up with monthly payments, repairs, taxes and other expenses that come up. “On my income I can maintain my home,” she says. “But it is a struggle.” Still, the house is worth more than it was during the housing bust, she says. And since the value of the home is more than the mortgage, she can still sell it for a profit.

Know your credit standing.

Even when money and belongings are split equally, two people may find themselves on unequal ground when it comes to their credit scores. This can be especially true for couples where one person was the primary breadwinner, Humphrey says: “You can have one spouse that really never worked or established credit in their own name.” To build or repair your credit history, start by paying down debt, especially anything owed on a credit card, Humphrey says.

Making steady payments and freeing up available debt may help people lift their credit scores to the point where they qualify for their own credit card. Closing a card that both spouses had access to may ding both people’s credit scores, especially if it is an account that has been open for a long time. But people should track spending on any shared cards, says Angie O’Leary, senior vice president and head of investment product group at U.S. Bank Wealth Management. Otherwise, someone might end up on the hook for a bill racked up by an ex-spouse, she warns.

Related: Being married has a lot to do with economic success, scholars say

Create a new retirement plan. 

Retirement assets and savings accounts such as a 401(k), IRA and pension are typically divided up along with other assets when couples file for divorce. For some people, that may mean working longer or taking on a part-time job in retirement, Humphrey says. When it comes to Social Security, some people may find they still qualify even after the divorce if the marriage lasted at least 10 years and the ex-spouse is still unmarried.

One thing to watch for as assets are being divided: Any funds portioned out of a tax-deferred account should generally be rolled over into another qualifying retirement account in order to avoid steep taxes and withdrawal penalties, O’Leary says. People should also think about changing the beneficiaries on their retirement accounts to that of another relative or loved one if the account was previously designated for a spouse.

Wilbur says that in her case, she kept the 401(k) savings she had amassed through her job at a local credit union and her ex was able to keep his pension. Still, she says she had to rethink her initial plans to sell her home in her early 60s and now plans to work until age 70 to keep saving and to take advantage of larger Social Security benefits offered to people who put off collecting benefits until after their full retirement age. The house may also provide some added income, she says.

Learn the new tax rules. 

Once the divorce is final, each person will probably need to need file their tax returns as single, says. If they have children, the spouse who has custody of the children and is providing more than half of the costs of supporting them may be able to file as “head of household,” Humphrey says. But it’s not just the filing status that changes: Some people may find themselves in a higher or a lower tax bracket after filing on their own. (Two people who earned about the same annually probably won’t see a difference.) Depending on who is keeping the home, investment accounts and other assets, the tax breaks a person can qualify for may also change after a divorce. For instance, only one spouse can claim child-related credits after a divorce.

If the divorce isn’t final, both people may still have to file as married, according to H&R Block. Some people waiting to finalize a divorce may decide to do their taxes as married filing separately, in order to start treating their finances individually, but that may disqualify them from certain tax credits and deductions and lead to a higher tax bill. Some people might be able to file as “unmarried,” but only if they meet certain requirements, such as paying for more than half of the living expenses, housing a dependent or other child and not living with the spouse.

Rethink insurance.

One mistake divorcees make frequently is assuming the need for life insurance might end with the marriage, O’Leary says. In addition to any policies purchased for children, one person may still need to buy life insurance if they’ll be responsible for alimony or child support payments after the divorce, she says. Such policies are typically put in place for a set time period, such as until one spouse gets married or the beneficiary reaches retirement age, O’Leary says. (These terms might be set during the divorce proceedings.) A divorce is still a good time to re-evaluate insurance needs overall. Some people previously covered under a spouse’s plan may now need to shop around for their own plan, O’Leary says.

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