Photo: icaromoreno via flickr
(Readers: In February 2012, I received a heart-breaking message in my inbox from Spedie, a long-time reader and frequent commenter here at Len Penzo dot Com. Her husband abandoned her and their marriage — but not before he callously drained the household checking and savings accounts of every last penny. This is her story.)
I’d always considered myself pretty street smart.
You know, the kind of girl that didn’t have an easy life and had learned many lessons via the School of Hard Knocks.
I married my Prince Charming a little over two years ago. He didn’t make much money, but we shared the same values, including those regarding personal finance.
About five years prior to meeting my husband, I started the Dave Ramsey plan to help get my finances in order. I had been on Baby Step 6 for many years — which I had attained before marriage — building up an 18-month fully-funded emergency fund that exceeded $50,000.
Life was good — until that fretful day when my world was turned upside down. My prince ran off with the pot o’ gold.
One day I thought I was happily married and on a solid financial footing. The next day, I was alone and near broke, just 23-months into my marriage.
I was 48 years old.
At the time, I was making about $106,000 a year. He was making $23,000 a year.
The damage was devastating:
He left me nearly penniless.
In addition to the emergency fund, before skipping out he also drained the entire checking account, including the last paycheck I had earned, and all the money that was going to be used to cover the mortgage. Only my name was on the loan, even though, due to a quirk in the refinance process, his name was added to the title.
Adding insult to injury, I had put money into his Roth IRA (he never had one before), covered his life and dental insurance, paid for his messed-up teeth, fixed his truck, paid off his back child support and federal taxes, and provided other financial assistance. He was my husband, after all; I trusted him.
I’ve only seen him twice since – in court.
The first issue I had to deal with was how to cash-flow this disaster.
Thankfully, he skipped out early in one of the two months a year that I received three paychecks. (I was on a biweekly pay cycle.) If not for that extra couple of grand coming in immediately, and the fact I had a reasonable house payment for my income, I would have had a tough time covering the mortgage.
I was also fortunate that my house was full of food when it happened. When my second check arrived later that month, I was able to pay all utility bills. And my car insurance was paid a year in advance. The third check that fateful month went to the initial lawyer fees.
The ball then continued to roll until all was done. During that time, I lived very close to the bone. My lawyer fees ultimately came to about $9000.
When something like this happens, there are two sides to the coin:
- The emotional side; and
- The financial side. Any divorce attorney will tell you that everything becomes about the money — and that is exactly what happened.
If you ever have the same misfortune, your losses will be determined by the state in which you live. That is a fact.
There are several things you can do to protect yourself before, during and after such a crisis.
Before the crisis:
1. Get and stay organised. Have your financial documents in a good place. Make copies for safe keeping that only you know about. I found some of my critical documents had mysteriously disappeared.
Be prepared to prove what you had in savings and checking prior to marriage, prove what your house was worth and what you owed on it, if applicable, and prove what you had in retirement prior. Having these documents prior to any trouble will enable you to save thousands in attorney fees — even if notarized copies have to be obtained.
2. Be alert. If your gut tells you something is wrong, something is probably wrong. Address it to the best of your ability.
3. Cultivate a wide circle of good friends.
During the crisis:
1. Don’t try to figure out the emotional side. Sane people can’t figure out crazy and selfish people!
2. Assemble a “Ninja Squad.” For me that included:
- A good lawyer who will set the expectations for a realistic outcome and be a bulldog with you, as well as with the other side, when necessary. Interview several lawyers and pick the best one for your needs, situation in life and personality. Be honest about everything;
- An old friend who knows you well and will tell you the truth no matter how much it hurts — the kind of friend who is logical and straight forward;
- A physically strong friend to be a second set of hands when you need it — perhaps a male relative if you have one nearby. I had no nearby relatives so I cultivated a male friend. And I mean a friend, not the kind with “benefits” — which could hurt your divorce case. There are plenty of good men out there without ulterior motives. Don’t be afraid to ask for help;
- Someone to listen to you rant when the time comes and won’t judge you. This process is painful and you are human. (Thanks, Len, for listening to me that one day via email. I needed to vent a bit!);
- A good and caring doctor in case it’s needed. I thought I needed help with depression after this happened — but the side effects were not tolerable. (I’ve never done well with pain meds and other medications.) If you think you need a therapist — well, you need a therapist! Give yourself permission to grieve and remember that this is normal.
3. Take care of yourself. Get treated for sleep problems if this arises. Stressful situations are worse without adequate sleep. Don’t forget to eat. I forgot to eat sometimes as much as 3 days at a time.
4. Be prepared for accusations and game playing from the opposing side. Do not expect any cooperation to help reduce costs – he ran off with your life savings and will protect his theft at all costs. It’s short lived in the end. Do not fall prey to anger — as much as possible.
Stay logical. Do not be surprised if the accusations from his lawyer are excessive and unfounded, which only adds to the stress and cost of the ordeal. Take solace in the competency of your lawyer and the unbridled fact that judges have seen this many times. Remember that what goes around comes around!
5. Change all email and other account passwords immediately.
6. Get off all social media. You want to put no ammunition in his guns. He will shoot you with it.
7. Work your budget with a vengeance. Keep everything paid to the best of your ability.
8. Be prepared to lose some mutual friends in the process. The ones you lose weren’t your friends to begin with.
9. Do not expect relatives to be your allies or to give you support in any way. If you do get support from relatives, then you are one lucky person!
10. Consider talking to your boss. If your boss is the type you can tell — by all means tell him, but keep out the details — a high level short talk is all that is necessary. Your boss is not your counselor — but may need to know that you’ll be having court dates and time off for other appointments to handle this type of situation.
11. Don’t hope he’s coming back or wants to work anything out. He’s not coming back. He used you as a tax free income source to pay his debts off, get free booty in the process, and thinks of you as a fool. The sooner you realise this the better.
12. Count your blessings instead of your failures. Focus on the blessings. Try to remember that this period of time is just that — a period of time in your entire life. Like all things, it will pass. Try to maintain perspective and long term vision.
As for how to avoid this in the future:
1. I find consolation in the phrase: “Better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.” But, I will tell you this: Next time, if there is one, my potential partner best have my net worth or better — as well as my income level or greater — or he won’t have a snowballs chance in a very hot place!!
2. Documentation, documentation, and more documentation. Get and stay organised. It would help on many fronts if you or your partner died, became disabled, went through a regular divorce or find yourself in my predicament.
3. I will never put anyone on my bank accounts, retirement plans as a beneficiary, or home title again. I can handle all this in a will without the risk. (He ran off 35 days after I did all three.) I know this is contrary to the advice of many “experts.” Remember that an “expert” comes in two parts: an “ex” is an unknown quantity and a “spert” is a drip under pressure. It’s a new world for us ladies, and there are plenty of males out there who will take us for a free ride and won’t fret one moment – in fact they feel they deserve it and “we should have known better.” Enough said.
4. If something doesn’t feel right or work with your value system concerning your significant potential other, then drop them like a rock. Do it immediately — long before marriage. It isn’t worth it. Do not marry them – in fact, run, run, run away as fast as you can. There are plenty of fish in the sea and lots of good men out there who are not bad folks.
As for me: I’ll be fine. Throughout it all, I’ve remained debt free, except for the mortgage.
I’m still doing the same thing I did back when I built my pot o’ gold: Working hard, living close to the bone and running a tight budget — just like I did to get where I was at.
It has taken me 10 months, but my emergency fund is now what it was beforehand, the divorce lawyer was cash-flowed, I took care of myself and my daughter, food was in our bellies, and all bills were paid – without a single thing being late.
It was a rough year and I was unable to invest for my retirement, but to tell you the truth, I’m glad to be rid of him!
On a side note: God/life/karma smiled on me two months after we split with a new job and a $27,000 per year raise!!
Life is good and getting better. Every day.
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