I was the charge nurse for a general surgical floor and you might say that things were a bit hazardous. That’s actually putting it mildly. You might have less risk of harm bungee jumping off the Kawarau Bridge in New Zealand with rubber bands wrapped around your ankles than receiving patient care under these circumstances.
Between sundown to sunup, just what would the body count be?
Working on the night shift meant that in addition to myself and a LPN, my staff was composed of a rotating group of five or six graduate nurses still waiting to see if they passed State Boards. They weren’t licensed, but the hospital let them practice as though they were. This small band of ragtag, inexperienced, semi-educated, youngsters and I had to take care of forty-nine very, very sick, post-op surgical patients.
We had twenty-four patients on cardiac monitors, and I was the only RN on duty and the only nurse certified in the reading and interpretation of EKGs. I was the only nurse on that shift for that ward with any length of experience. In addition to supervising my grads and ensuring their patients’ safety, I had to take a full load of my own patients. And based on the hospital’s patient acuity system, each nurse would routinely be assigned 14 to 16 hours of patient care to deliver in an 8-hour shift.
I worked those shifts at a full gallop. And once the graduate nurses got their licenses, they would move on to other units and other shifts and be replaced by another group of graduates. Thus, the five to six-month cycle of rotating bodies. This always left me with a staff of inexperienced nurses who needed constant supervision and on-the-job training.
Crazy and dangerous as this was, we also had conflicting and distracting interpersonal situations to deal with during work hours because of the many doctor-nurse relationships. It was quite a simmering stew of young women mixed with older, rich, prestigious men.
Soap opera and reality combined to form some pretty insane chemistry experiments. Anything you can imagine, from nurses having “quickies” in the treatment room, to giving doctors blow-jobs in the bath room. It was safe to say that there were more than just the patients’ body secretions floating about on the ward.
How long would a patient have to wait to get their call-light answered . . .
With this backdrop, I watched another scenario play out multiple times, but it was no greater pronounced than with Mary (fictitious name to shield the guilty). Mary had just moved here from another state, divorced, one child and one child support order, and she was on the hunt. I remember vividly one night when I asked her how things were going (meaning with work) and her response was: “Not very good. I’ve been here six months now, and I’m not married yet. Not even a good prospect.”
This was a short-lived situation because the next I heard was that the nurses in the operating room had set her up with one of the surgeons. A man in his late 50s, obese, previously divorced, wealthy, and available. You would be hard-pressed not to see the miss-match of this man with a not quite 30-year-old, modelesque, state beauty contest winner. But hey, whatever.
They married. Stayed together for five years, during which she had many sexual exploits with many of the other doctors, and during which she had a child with her surgeon husband. Then she dumped him, filed for divorce, took the house and more, and locked in her second meal ticket (income stream) until her second child would be emancipated.
While I had watched this occur multiple times at work, I didn’t realize it would turn out to be eerily like my own situation. Just on a bit smaller scale.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all women, or nurses, behave this way and should be distrusted. And I know of the reverse scenario, as well as some other devastation inflicted by men in relationships. But I’m illustrating how the law works with the cases I know best. My own being the primary one. But one where children are involved and there is one higher income earner in the family.
By this point in this series, you know that marriage is a contract for real and personal property. The State says so. And regardless whether there is any physical property to be distributed, there are also income streams to be awarded. Maintenance and child support. So timing, like with Mary and with my ex, is important. Timing can be used to maximize the monthly payout and the length of time those income streams will last.
First-time divorces, those early on in a person’s career years may not be so devastating with regard to loss of physical property, depending. The couple simply hasn’t had enough time to amass much property. But you’ll start to see now how timing is crucial for those long-lasting income streams.
But first, what is marital property?
So, if you’re contemplating marriage, whether you’re a man or a woman, I suggest getting familiar with your state’s law on what constitutes marital property, what is not marital property, and if it really makes any difference when it comes to divorce.
Marital property, generally speaking, is the default or presumption for any and all property acquired by either spouse after the marriage and prior to the dissolution order, unless the person can prove otherwise. And without getting overly technical, my state says that anything you have, real or personal property, prior to the marriage, along with any increase or profit therefrom that comes after the marriage, is not marital property. Another statute says that this remains true even if the property is commingled with marital property, but that’s an extremely fuzzy line, because if you can’t distinguish it as being originally separate then it is presumed to be marital. Don’t commingle.
This concept of non-marital property that was acquired prior to the marriage is really a distinction without a difference, however.
It really makes no difference if you have property not subject to division because when a judge divides property the judge is allowed to consider the value of any separate property. While that separate, non-marital property itself may not be divided between the ex-spouses, if one spouse has more separate property, the other will simply be awarded a larger share of the joint property to compensate for the difference.
And one of the most important property interests people don’t usually consider as being joint marital property is a person’s pension fund. I mean, why would it would be?
A pension fund is something a person usually earns as a fringe benefit, especially when it is totally funded by the employer. It’s also a future hypothetical. It is an asset that’s difficult to conceptualize in the present and so many factors may change it along the person’s career path. It could disappear entirely if a person doesn’t vest in the system. Or it could be bought out for pennies on the dollar.
Having a spouse doesn’t necessarily add income to the family income stream that would impact the pension fund directly, as compared to say a joint savings account. However, if the employee can make optional contributions, I suppose that contribution level could increase depending on the spouse’s contribution to the overall family economy. Money saved from one pot ends up in another. Maybe. It pays to keep track.
Regardless of any rationale to support an award from a spouse’s pension fund, an entire subcategory of court order, called a “qualified domestic relations order,” can drain a pension or profit sharing or stock bonus plan to pay for maintenance, child support, or just be divided as marital property.
Since a pension is that main and final income stream you may be counting on for your retirement years, you had better pay attention or you may spend those golden years living in a cardboard box.
So back to the timing . . .
My first wife waited until after our daughter was born, and after I had a big boost in career earnings before destroying the marriage. This ensured that my daughter would be the “hook” for long-term child-support payments, as well as ensuring those payments would be more significant since they were now based upon my higher earnings.
By positioning herself in the most economically dependent position possible, she was not working or bringing in any family income, she maximized the child support award and secured maintenance. Maintenance (Alimony – “all the money”) is awarded on what you might call a “sliding scale.” The longer the marriage and more dependent the spouse, the longer that spouse will receive maintenance and the higher the payments.
In a marriage of younger people, the court may recognize that the young dependent spouse is capable of future earnings of their own and will award maintenance, often called “rehabilitative maintenance,” for a short period of time. This provides the incentive for that spouse to rejoin the workforce and gives them time to prepare for just that.
I my instance, my first ex received rehabilitative maintenance for two years – long enough for her to finish her graduate degree. After the two years, child support would continue until my daughter was emancipated or there was some other change in circumstance.
Remember, the way the law is applied, I had no chance of getting custody even though my spouse seemed totally disinterested in our daughter, which meant the ex would not only receive child support, but would also be awarded the majority of the property because parents with kids need more, right? And if property and income streams aren’t enough, I was also ordered to maintain life insurance for my ex and health insurance for my daughter. So many variables, so few dollars.
The court doesn’t consider what is left over for you to live on when it makes it’s decision. That’s how I ended up renting a room from a friend.
Now in my second marriage, one that lasted considerably longer, twenty-two years of marriage after living together for almost 4 years, the whole property thing cast a completely different shadow. We had no children, but my second ex had taken early retirement. While she had earned a higher wage than I most of our marriage, suddenly she was bringing in considerably less.
At this same point in time, I had just reached the pinnacle of my earnings, these earnings were projected to continue for at least five to ten more years, and then I would have a bigger pension benefit to boot. Once again, I found myself bungee jumping off that bridge with no parachute and with the law against me.
It didn’t matter that she destroyed the marriage with her alcoholism. (See my post “Coffee.”) It didn’t matter that she had amassed four times the savings as I had. (I had to pay off my law school debt during the time she was saving.) No, this time, ten years of hypothetical earnings and ten more years of mythical pension dollars would be tacked on to the past earnings and factored into the equation.
In exchange for avoiding maintenance payments until death, and avoiding an order that would decimate my pension and leave me stranded in that cardboard box, I settled with giving her 80% of our joint real estate assets on top of her retaining all of her savings and personal property – something that normally would have counted as joint property and been divided 50-50. Say bye bye to the dream house.
Essentially, 26 years of my work, and all of the material earnings for those years was completely erased.
And given I held a politically vulnerable position, as fate would have it, I was shown the door and those hypothetical earnings and hypothetical pension dollars used to inflate my side of the scales never did materialize. In fact, they evaporated just a few months after our settlement had become final.
I would add that, I had avoided the spending problems that I had in my first marriage by insisting that my second wife and I maintain separate banks accounts. This worked well for us as we never had a fight over money. Everything, every bill, we earned together, was paid for 50-50, and it was clear who owned what and what was joint versus separate property. While this helped during the marriage, it made no difference when it was time for the marriage to end. The 50-50 arrangement shifted to 80-20.
Advantages of settling
Now one might wonder why reaching a settlement is a good idea in these cases. After all, it seems like I gave up quite a lot in my settlement with my second ex. But the main reason is that you can maintain control over your case and work out the details considering both sides of the equation. Going to court is not only a crap shoot, there appears to be an inherent bias displayed by judges that strongly favors women in divorce.
Believe me, I would have done a lot worse had I let a judge decide my case.
Divorces are handled in what is called a “bench trial,” meaning they are tried before a judge and not a jury. That’s because when you have highly technical areas of the law, a jury cannot be expected to grasp all of the concepts, whereas the judge, a lawyer trained in the law, can. But that doesn’t mean the judges are free from bias.
The main source of this bias relates back to my first post regarding myths. There is still a traditional and prevalent belief that men are always responsible for all divorces, the evil-doers, and that women cannot take care of themselves. There is also the myth that fathers should never have child custody because they are inferior child care providers.
The courts where divorces play out are the county courts or circuit courts. The judges are literally the kings and queens of their own little fiefdoms. They are the bosses, and chances are you would never win a divorce case on appeal because the standards of review of such cases are monumental. They doll out whatever they see fit regardless of the economic realities for the parties. And in my state, we have a dreaded standardized and codified formula for determining child support.
This step-by-step formula is supposed to be objective and supposed to factor in the relevant earnings and contributions of both parties. More often than not, however, it leaves the main provider, usually the man, with a below poverty level existence. And in many cases can be self-defeating because it leaves the man in a situation where he is unable to pay.
Now I have also seen the reverse, where a judge usually because of a personal connection to the man (often the top-dog businessman in the community) favors him in the divorce proceeding. Either way, I would not count on “fairness” in divorce court. Men and women are wise to execute a prenuptial agreement prior to entering this sacred bond and, should that bond deteriorate, are wise to formulate their own settlement agreement.
Next time, we’ll talk about child custody . . . what it pretends to be and what it really is.
* All disclaimers from my prior posts to this series apply. I’ll add that it is difficult to cover every detail in such a complex situations, so if you have a question, feel free to ask away.
** Prior posts include:
Photo: I really had a hard time picking a photo for this post. I kind of drew a blank. I thought about taking a shot of a cardboard box to represent the possible future home for someone going through a divorce, but I thought that was a bit harsh, and not a very appealing image. And the subject of property seems bland somehow.
I ultimately went with this one. I was trying to get a picture of a cloud ring around the full moon. But the moon was so bright that it essentially whites out its own source. I colorized the rings a bit – sort of a fantasy, mythical forest appearance. Such can be a marriage. A walk through a beautiful fantasy land, or an evil spooky land of darkness. Or maybe both. 🙂 Or maybe the source of such relationships becomes blinding and consuming, obscuring even the love that was once their basis.