Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Therapy for Relationships, Divorce and Parenting

As a divorce mediator, I have quite a few resources available to help divorcing couples or individuals in various ways. I know great financial advisors for couples getting married or in a relationship, Certified Divorce Financial Analysts to help divorcing parties make good financial decisions in a divorce, CPAs for tax advice, appraisers for businesses and property, actuaries for pension and retirement plans, estate planning attorneys for wills, trusts and quitclaim deeds and therapists.

This last category - therapists - is so broad and so useful for couples in so many stages in the relationship continuum, that I thought I should share some of the ways couples and individuals can benefit from working with a therapist. Of course, I am not a therapist and I only give this information because I have seen and heard reports from my clients on so many of these benefits that I want to let others know what a valuable resource this might be in their lives. I also recognize the importance of both parties feeling comfortable with the therapist they are working with and I recognize that not all couples are in favor of any form of therapy. But if it has a chance of helping or saving your relationship, it just might be worth trying and finding the right therapist for your relationship.

Pre-marital: Couples can get marriage preparation counseling with a therapist. This generally includes a short-term plan of just a few sessions for the couple to gain valuable tools for healthy communication in their marriage together. I think of this as preventive counseling and it is designed for couples who might not otherwise be in counseling except for the fact that they are getting married. In other words, it's not counseling to "fix" something that is wrong; it is counseling to ensure nothing gets broken in the first place.

During the marriage/relationship- at the first sign of trouble: If a problem arises during the relationship and it doesn't get resolved and the couple is having difficulty communicating or overcoming the problem, a therapist can help get the couple back on course. I think of this as fixing a fixable problem before it becomes a much bigger problem and a threat to the relationship.

During Marriage - Beyond the First Signs: I know many couples' therapists who wish they could have started working with some couples months or even years before the couple finally ends up in their office. If the problems have become insurmountable and have affected the relationship so negatively, this presents the biggest challenge to therapists and the couple who are fighting to save their relationship when it is so far beyond the first signs of trouble.

At the End - Decisionmaking: Some couples specifically enter counseling to get help to decide whether their relationship is beyond repair or can still be saved. Therapists can help a couple work through this and make decisions that are right for each of them and for their family as a whole.

Divorcing Couples: Therapists can help couples or individuals deal with the emotional difficulties of what is sometimes called the death of a relationship. Getting help to manage this often-traumatic experience, regardless of the reasons for a divorce, can be a very important part of the healing process.

Divorced or Divorcing Parents: Some therapists specialize in working with parents who have decided to end their relationship with each other but who must continue to have a healthy relationship for the benefit of their children. As a divorce mediator, I work very closely with parents to ensure that their children's needs and interests are met and that the parents understand how important having positive relations and communication with each other is to the health of their children. Parents who continue to work on their revised relationship as parents who are not together but are both still parents are doing their children the biggest favor of all.

Not all therapists specialize in each of these areas and it's great to find one who specializes in the area that you need help with. Many therapists have their areas of expertise outlined on their websites. If not, call them to find out if they specialize in the things you would like help with. Good luck!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Protecting Credit During Marriage

Kathleen Pender's "Net Worth" column in the San Francisco Chronicle's Business section is one of my favorite columns. She frequently discusses issues like retirement plans/benefits, mortgages, credit, investments and estate planning that are directed to all of us and not just the Fortune 500 business people out there. She's great at taking complex issues and distilling the important pieces for regular people.

Her recent article "Protect Credit After 'I Do'" provides some very useful advice for couples to protect their credit scores once they are married. She dispels the myth that once you get married, your credit scores are combined, and she gives tips for couples to keep their accounts separate in order to not have one person's negative credit history affect the other person's clean credit history.

Although there are great tips in the article, my biggest concern is that the article does not tell readers that once you get married, your debts are joint because principles of community property apply to debts as well as assets. That means that even if a debt incurred during marriage is only in one person's name, both individuals are legally responsible for that debt. That comes as quite a shock to many people, particularly couples who have divergent ideas of how to manage money and debt.

The other concern I have is that someone is quoted in the article as saying that you should keep separate accounts during marriage so that "'The individual account is entirely under your control. If there is a divorce, those joint accounts could be in dispute.'"

The problem with that statement is that just because you put funds into a separate account, that does not mean those funds are not in dispute in a divorce, that they are not community assets and that the account is entirely under your control. If money that you earn during marriage (i.e., community funds) is deposited into an account solely in your name, that is a community asset and it does not matter who earned it or whose name the account is in - each person owns it 50/50. And, in a divorce, if you use, transfer or move around money in this kind of "separate" account that holds community money, you may be paying all or some of that back to your spouse since it is not technically your own separate money.

There are many things couples can do to set up their financial partnership together and to maintain control over their assets during marriage as well as in the event of a divorce. The smartest thing a couple can do is to get premarital legal and/or financial counseling to know what their rights and obligations are during marriage and in the event of divorce.