Need input on how to approach divorce settlement (emotional/financial advice, not legal)

I need advice that is a hybrid of financial/emotional/ethical.

TL:DR -- if you are the one who left a marriage, and you paid less than half of household expenses during the relationship because you made less money, is it the right thing to do to accept an amount for the house buy-out that is less than proportionate to your contribution (or none at all) because your ex thinks you should and you want to keep the peace? Or is it okay to get an appraisal and try to get a fully reasonable amount? 

I left my 3.5-year marriage in the fall. We are separated and trying to figure out the financial settlement so we can get divorced. We have a 2-year-old. (We are two moms.) She did not want the separation and is very angry and hurt. We are both taking great care of our son and trying to be civil, but feelings are hard. We are only communicating by email. There was no cheating or other bad behavior, it was all on the up and up, I was just really unhappy and made the decision after LOTS of struggle, MUCH counseling, and trying everything I could. We are both good people and trying to work together as much as possible. 

That's the background. 

Now we're running into a conflict over her buying me out of our house. We bought a house together in November 2017 for $540,000. We used the sale of her condo as the down payment, with my parents providing a bridge loan so we could buy before she sold. As she just reminded me, I would never have been in a position to buy without her. 

She then reimbursed my parents when she sold her place. She paid for between 56% and 74% of our shared household expenses (mortgage, utilities, daycare, etc) because she makes more than I do.  (I paid her rent for the year and a half that I lived in her condo.) 

She thinks I should let her have all of the equity in the house because a) I left b) she paid more than me the whole time c) I would never have been able to buy the house without her and d) I just started receiving $30K/year from my parents (along with my siblings). In the DC area where I live, with my modest non-profit salary, this extra money makes it possible for ends to meet, but with basically no extras. And it's not relevant to the house negotiation, I don't think. 

So, I want to get an appraisal. At first she tried to get me to just take nothing, then she said we should use the tax assessment value ($575K) which my realtor friend says is way too low. The house could be worth between $600-$650K. (The DC market is ridiculous.)

She says the fact that I've asked for an appraisal is "aggressive" and that I should just be thinking about what's kind and simple for our son, eg to keep him in the house longer. Of course I want what's best for him. I had no idea that asking for an appraisal would be seen as aggressive. She wants the whole thing to be done yesterday and is offering $20K, but she's not even happy about that number.

I'm stumped - I do NOT want to make this more contentious, but I also feel manipulated and like I'm being shamed into capitulating. I need the money too, and I think I'm entitled to it. She has hundreds of thousands in investments and cash; I have $115K in retirement and the money from my parents which is quickly getting spent on rent, daycare, etc.

Am I being a jerk?  Should I accept a lower value than the house actually is in order to prevent her from hating me forever or to get this over with? We are both good people and it's heartbreaking to me that we're fighting about this. We only started talking about it 2 weeks ago and we aren't getting anywhere. 

Any insight would be welcome. I know no one can solve this except us, but I feel totally at sea. 

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  • Is she concerned that she would have to move out of the house if you used the appraisal value? What is her root concern do you think, is it about money or is it about continuity in housing? 

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  • Good question - she did mention tonight for the first time that I should be concerned about keeping our son in the house, which I had no idea was an issue. So I asked her. Haven't heard back. Certainly if that is an issue I would take it into consideration, I have no interest in causing them to have to move.

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      • Ivory Storm
      • Ivory_Storm.3
      • 3 mths ago
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      • Reported - view

      labrucebee In your shoes I'd accept less than half of what the house is currently worth, but how much less is the question. Half of 575K is a lot especially since that represents a meaningful appreciation in only 3 years anyways. Factoring a pandemic-fueled banana-pants housing market into a negotiation around housing settlements does feel pretty intense to me personally, if the stakes include that she might not be able to afford the house. If I were separating , and someone opened their bid with that proposal without mentioning a concern that I be able to stay in the house, and without mentioning that the housing market is out-of-control wild right now, I guess I would see it as pretty aggressive, to be honest. On the other hand, housing costs may never go back down, and it is property you purchased together. And you have to pay for housing too, although I think rental markets are better right now. I can see why this is so tough. Do you two see a mediator or counselor? Getting to the root concerns in play can be clarifying.

      Rather than what's fair or not fair, I'd be thinking more in terms of core needs like: her to stay in the house if possible; you to provide your son with a quality of life that doesn't totally s**k in comparison to what she is able to offer (unhealthy for your son to experience  a luxe lifestyle with one parent and hard-town-times with the other parent - that's not a healthy message.) I'd be thinking of core needs more than I'd be thinking about "fair." I don't know many divorced couples who feel like things are "fair" . . .  and to me, for "fair" to be the target seems like a recipe for conflict. Core needs are more meaningful I think. Just my opinion and perspective, take it for all a random internet stranger's opinion is worth . . .

      Sorry you are going through this - best wishes to you as you navigate it all through. 

      Like 1
      • labrucebee
      • arts educator
      • rockcreekpark
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Ivory Storm This is a really helpful framework. Thank you. She wrote yesterday that she has to refinance at a lower interest rate to lower the monthly payments because she can't stay indefinitely with the mortgage where it is. She has many hundreds of thousands of dollars, some in retirement, others in stocks, others in cash for her business expenses. I have much less than that saved (I just have $115K in untouchable retirement and $6K in stocks.) So I thought, mistakenly, that she would immediately see that I need at least some modest percentage of the equity. I suppose technically I could argue to go 50/50 but we were only married 3 1/2 years (it'll be 4 by the time this is done) and that seems like too much. 

      She also just said, by way of explaining where she is coming from, that her ex-domestic-partner (before marriage was legal) refused any money from the condo they owned together for longer than she and I have owned the house, and I guess she was assuming I would do the same. 

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  • I can give you my two cents as a father of two who went through a divorce after a 14 year marriage over 10 years ago. First of all, you’re both right that you should do everything in your son’s best interest and always keep that in mind. So, that’s good. But getting an appraisal has nothing to do with her being able to continue to live in the house. To me, the fair thing would be to get the appraisal for the current worth and then you should be entitled to half of the value of the house minus the down payment that your soon to be ex provided. You are both entitled to half of the equity minus her down payment. It doesn’t matter who paid more month to month after purchasing. She should have paid more since she makes more.

    Don’t let her pressure you into making bad and unfair decisions. You might be eligible for some alimony as well. I’d also fight for 50% custody. Best of luck in these trying times. I’m sorry you’re going through it as I know it’s no fun.

    Like 7
      • labrucebee
      • arts educator
      • rockcreekpark
      • 2 mths ago
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      Superbone Thank you. This is the challenge is that based on how she has been speaking to me (via email) I feel pressured, bullied and manipulated. But maybe that's not happening at all and I just can't tell because it's over email and she's really justifiably upset...I think we have to get in a Zoom with a moderator.

      I really appreciate your offering your perspective and I'm glad your divorce is long behind you. Looking forward to that rear view mirror! 

      Re custody I am trying to get 50/50 - we are close now, at about 65/35. She carried him (again, 2 moms) and it's all very hard.

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      • Superbone
      • YNAB convert since 2008
      • Superbone
      • 2 mths ago
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      labrucebee An impartial moderator is a good idea and will help take some of the emotion out of it. Hang in there. I know how hard it is to go through.

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      • Grogu
      • Learning the Force
      • grogu
      • 2 mths ago
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      Superbone I am just coming through a divorce (18 years, 1 daughter), you can ready my journal, it's all on the forum here. I agree with Superbone 100%, you are entitled to the value of the home, minus what is owed on the mortgage, minus what was contributed by her. That equity value.... you should split 50/50. You are likely entitled to a little under 2 years of spousal support and potentially some child support along with that. And also 50% of the 401k accounts while together. If she wanted a different arrangement she should have negotiated a prenup or even a postnup. But she did not, so equity and the law is the fair route at this point. 

      DDsDAD and I were able to think about it this way..... our child has a right to be in two financially equal homes. Our daughter should not have to go from a rich home to a poor home because one of us felt bad for leaving the marriage. It's about equity for our child. Once we were on the same page with that, we moved forward amicably. 

      Hugs, it's so hard. I was the one that separated and I know the guilt/shame that comes with that. Hugs.

      Like 2
  • I was going to say that you have a right - at minimum - to 26%-44% of the equity in the house minus the down payment.  Given Superbone's argument I'd say keep that lower number in your back pocket so you can have a position you're willing to fall back on that wouldn't make you upset if you have to take it.  in short, NO, DON'T LET HER BULLY YOU.  If it will actually jeopardize your ex's ability to keep the house, that's worth considering, but in reality, that's only going to be half of his life, so I wouldn't sacrifice my future for that.

    Like 2
  • Y'all are all saying don't let her bully you, but 40% of the equity minus the down payment is perhaps not even that far from 20K, which the ex offered.

    Rereading it, the OP doesn't actually say specifically what she wants the appraisal for . . I was assuming she was thinking they'd go halfsies on the equity.

    Like 1
  • Hi there, Divorced many moons ago. Remarried now. I was quite lucky in that my ex didn't fight me on anything. It really proved to me that we were meant to be friends and not married. We have a good but distant relationship now. On the other hand, my now husband's ex is on the other extreme. Everything is a fight, she is over the top and I always tried to give her the benefit of the doubt as I did not *know* her. But it has been a struggle over the past 15 or so years.

    It is extremely difficult but if you can frame that the appraisal is really getting an independent opinion of the value of the home. You can then compare it to the tax value (often lower as it does not keep up and is usually based on mass appraisal techniques so not specific to your house). And figure out a reasonable number between you that you both feel is agreeable. An appraisal will really protect BOTH of you.

    Now, on the money side for who made more money, you must tread carefully IMHO. Just because you paid less money into the house does not mean you are not entitled to less. In marriage, there is the concept of shared resources and building up of assets together. When a spouse doesn't work and raises the family, they are not barred from a portion of the home value because they did not contribute money. If the concern is that she cannot remain in the home if you have the buyout perhaps that is an indication that she could not afford that home on her own either. Perhaps your salary was needed to maintain it. 

    On the personal side, is there a particular reason you need and/or want your child to live in that particular house? School? Location for commuting? Is there any attachment to the home? While moving is not fun, it may be a consequence of divorcing. Perhaps she is not ready to let that dream go and that is why she is digging her heels in on it. 

    ETA - Hugs! Divorce is hard and sucky.

    Like 1
      • labrucebee
      • arts educator
      • rockcreekpark
      • 2 mths ago
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      Navy Blue Pegasus No particular reason to stay in the house except continuity for our two-year-old and my ex likes the house. I like the way you have framed the appraisal issue.

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      • MadDog
      • Navy_Blue_Pegasus.2
      • 2 mths ago
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      labrucebee It is tough. My husband is an appraiser and he has seen a ton of things from it. Divorce is yucky no two ways about it. 

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  • Just getting to read these. I’m so grateful for all your thoughts and support. Thank you so very much. 😢I will reply more fully tomorrow. 

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  • I'm so sorry you're going through this. Other people have already made good suggestions; I just wanted to chime in about your approach. I think that trying to split your house "fairly" mainly based on your past financial inputs may be more trouble than it's worth. The financial dynamic of a couple can be complex and changing over the years, so that any concept of fairness based on the past will likely get you tangled up. No one number is going to soothe the emotional agony or justify what you two did years back to get to where you are.

    Perhaps you can agree to look at both of your financial situations right now and try to set yourselves up for moderate success in the next couple of years. Current needs trump past resentments. Plus, you say in your entry that you need the money, yet you don't think your yearly income (plus assistance from your parents) should be relevant. I think it is. For both of you, high or low salary, current savings and investments, help from family, and high costs of house upkeep,  your child's school districts (?), these are all relevant right now.

    I want to add that it's good you are trying to discuss it properly, but oftentimes the longer you take to settle the financial agreement, the more it steals from healing time for the both of you. This is completely my personal opinion so take it with a grain of salt, but in my experience, every year added on to divorce settlement proceedings increases the likelihood of the separation becoming highly acrimonious. I hope you will prioritize starting the healing process soon for everyone's happiness. I wish you both the very best of luck.

    Like 3
      • labrucebee
      • arts educator
      • rockcreekpark
      • 2 mths ago
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      The Artist Formerly Known As This is super helpful, thank you. I can't actually see the situation clearly right now and your perspective is helpful.  Note re timing - we have been discussing the financial settlement for just 10 days and are at nearly 40 emails. We've been separated for four months. 

      She has said so many really awful things to me out of her (understandable) deep hurt and anger that I have been starting to take permanent residence in a feeling of being a victim and needing to fight for myself. But I can now see how my approach might have come across as aggressive, certainly if she assumed that because I was the one who left I would just not accept any money (see note above about her previous ex who declined any money for their shared condo.)

      Thoughts in list form: 

      1. I feel anxious about money and feel like I need more. I am in an apartment and want a house too, like she has. And I don't have really any savings other than the retirement. This feeling has made me push harder on what I could "get." But obviously this is not helpful since $20-$40K isn't going to be enough for a house regardless. And I'm not entitled to a house of course! 
      2. My long-term goal is for us to be able to co-parent well and be FRIENDLY if not friends. This may be a total fantasy. We are both good, kind, loving people and I am still holding out hope for this, even if it's in many years. So I am tempted to just say "whatever you want, I'll take nothing" in order to make her less mad and help us heal. 
      3. But if I do that, I think I will feel bamboozled and taken advantage of. My contribution to the household (26%-44%) means something, and isn't zero, and I don't think it should be zero just because I made the very difficult decision to leave.
      4. She has offered $20K but seems to think I should decline even that. I fear she will paint me as a villain in her mind and to her friends for the rest of our lives if I take that amount, let alone if I push for the appraisal.
      5. Still stumped and I think we must talk to a moderator. She doesn't want to spend extra money on a moderator but I think that's the only way we can sort this out...short of me finding Jesus/a genuinely peaceful way to decline any money. 
      6. What you said about "nothing can soothe the emotional agony" is SO insightful. 

      I really appreciate everyone's help. This is such a tangle. How do people get through it?

      Like 1
      • Ivory Storm
      • Ivory_Storm.3
      • 2 mths ago
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      labrucebee a mediator = investment in your futures and in your child's future.  I think you both have to learn new skills anyhow, when there's a child, nobody can truly walk away, that is simply no longer an option until your child is an adult. So, whatever was hard between you as a couple, now has to be re-staged and re-engaged from this other position. Sounds like an amazing time to bring more skills into your family system.

      that little bit of extra support in seeing clearly & making sure that your actions always reflect your highest values, including self-respect and self-caring. . . 

      Like 3
      • MadDog
      • Navy_Blue_Pegasus.2
      • 2 mths ago
      • 1
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      labrucebee Hopefully it will get better. Sometimes people need that space to settle and sometimes, no matter what you do, it will never be better or good enough.

      I would caution against just taking nothing to soothe the situation. In the end, you will likely feel bitter and angry. It will become very hard to hide those feelings over time because every time you see the house and then go back to your apartment that isn't what you thought you would have, it will be a reminder. Be very cautious of this approach because it also sets up the future for how you co-parent and can set some very frustrating expectations on both sides.

      In my province (Alberta, Canada), we have a mandatory "parenting after separation" course for couples who are divorcing. It is free to take. I don't know how well it works but it is worth a shot. Perhaps look around at your state/province/local government to see if they have free or low cost resources on separation and parenting in those situations.

      Like 1
      • labrucebee
      • arts educator
      • rockcreekpark
      • 2 mths ago
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      Ivory Storm This statement is so moving to me. Thank you for these powerful insights and this beautiful positive framing. Are you a guru of some kind? 😄

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      • labrucebee
      • arts educator
      • rockcreekpark
      • 2 mths ago
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      Navy Blue Pegasus Yes exactly, that resentment/bitterness is just what I'm worried about. I don't want HER to feel it, but I also don't want ME to feel it - neither option is good for our son. I wish we had something as enlightened as a mandatory class, but we are on our own here. We did use a terrific mediator for the parenting plan which was a godsend. For some reason she doesn't do the financial part, so we have to find someone else for that. Hoping we get in a Zoom with a good financial mediator soon. 

      Like 1
      • Grogu
      • Learning the Force
      • grogu
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      labrucebee painfully and one step at a time with lots of tears. That's how I got through it! DDsDAD bought me out of our family home because I never could have afforded to stay in the home myself. So... I am in a little 2 bedroom apartment as a renter and you know, it was hard to process the step down at first, but now I am falling in love with it! My daughter and I made it our girly beach bungalo and we are all good, we have each other 50% of the time, and this means we are really good. The changes are hard but there is an opportunity to grow here as well. 

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  • labrucebee said:
    I fear she will paint me as a villain in her mind and to her friends for the rest of our lives

     This doesn't directly relate to the house situation, but one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is to start practicing detachment. You have no control over the narrative she writes in her mind and to her sphere about how your relationship was or ended, not even if you tie yourelf into every knot trying to guess the "rightest" course of action. It is time to start looking out for *you* first.

    Best of luck. I will be pulling for you. 

    Like 4
      • labrucebee
      • arts educator
      • rockcreekpark
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Vibrant Wow.....dang. Thank you for this. Hard to imagine feeling free from worrying about how she is perceiving me, but this makes great sense. There are such amazingly smart and kind and highly developed people in this forum OMG! 🙂

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  • In Australia you have equal shares unless previously agreed. and my personal belief is that this is fair. I dragged my wife around the country for my job, she gave up her chances at the high paying career to be with me. I owe her for doing that.

    Like 2
  • just wanted to say sorry you're going through this as it sounds very hard. Hope the advise you get helps and times get better soon.

    Like 1
      • labrucebee
      • arts educator
      • rockcreekpark
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Powder Blue Pony Thank you so much. I can't wait to get back to my regular undramatic YNAB-ing! ❤️

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  • I second  @ivory_storm.3 's suggestion of a mediator.  Having a neutral party can change the tenor of things incredibly, from her wanting to fix the unfairness of the situation (no one has to do anything malicious, immoral, or unethical for life to be unfair...sometimes life is just unfair) through money, and from you trying to figure out what will make you feel safe (she doesn't owe you safety, only an equitable division of assets) to what is in your child's interests, do-able, and as equitable as possible.

    Very few people have the discipline NOT to see money through their own emotional lens during something as stressful as the breakup of a marriage.  A mediator has no skin in the game, so they can be the rational lens that both of you lack.

    I also agree that you have to detach yourself from all investment in your ex's opinion.  If you are managing her opinion, you aren't managing much else, because other people's opinions aren't in your sphere of control.  When you focus on what you can't control, you can expend infinite resources, not reach your goal, and have nothing to compensate you for the loss.

    I'd also like to put in a word in favor of boundary-setting.  How you behave from this point forward teaches your ex how to treat you in this new reality where you are not partners any more.  If you fight just to fight her, you are teaching her that you are adversaries: that there is one pie and anything she gets is only because you lost it, and vice versa.  If you roll over, you are teaching her that she can run roughshod over your boundaries whenever it will soothe her emotions.  If she didn't want the separation, and worse if she was blindsided by it, her emotions will tell her, for a long time, that you don't deserve consideration because you were the one who broke a promise.  I don't know that that's true--maybe you were just the first one to recognize that a dysfunctional situation was in fact not working--but it is likely how she feels.

    By looking to an external, unemotional source (such as a mediator, state standard, or agreed-upon formula), you have the opportunity to present that you recognize that you are in too emotional a state to do this fairly...so for everyone's sake it is better to get an outside view of things.  This is something you can carry forward as a pattern if you are consistent enough, and it would help tamp down the boundary-crossing eventually after repetition.

    Finally, keep in mind that in most US states at least, child support is statutory.  That means that if you two share 50/50 custody of the kiddo, she will end up paying you child support because she makes more money.  It doesn't matter whether you ask for it (I tried to decline child support from my ex and wasn't allowed, though I managed to help him reduce it over the years).  While you may be scared about your housing situation, she may be concerned about this future uncontrolled amount that she has to contribute to your household.

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