As the party progresses at Main Line Art Center, glasses clink, smiles widen and handshakes are exchanged. But the congenial mood belies the tension.
Meet the true gladiators in the Main Line divorce wars—attorneys, realtors, mortgage bankers, financial planners. They’ve battled both alongside and against one another, working on some of the nastiest divorces in local history. It’s because they’re the best that they’ve united as the Divorce Professionals Alliance, a new network of specialists well versed in the nuances unique to our area.
They know the rules and regulations of Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties. They know how to deal with a lot of money and a lot of land. They can keep a secret—a lot of them, actually—and they’re rarely surprised by anything they uncover.
From tax records and bank statements to credit-card receipts and real-estate holdings, divorce professionals examine every financial aspect of a couple’s life, even as they dismantle it. Separating marital assets is done via a tsunami of documents, all of them dripping in legalese. Such details can become potent weapons in an ugly divorce, their sheer volume injecting stress into the most amicable separations. “That’s because most people don’t have an accurate understanding of the divorce process,” says Samantha Evian.
A family law attorney with Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, Evian came up with the idea for the DPA. “Most clients come to me with beliefs based on what they have heard from friends, or the myths spread by Hollywood movies,” she says. “The truth about divorce usually shocks them.”
Perhaps the most shocking truth: Adultery has no bearing on the financial settlement or custody arrangement. “But the person who did it pays for it in many ways,” says Wayne-based realtor and DPA member Damon Michels. “Even though the law says they don’t have to give the house to their ex-wife, many husbands do it out of guilt—and not just about adultery. In the movies, the wife often triumphantly says, ‘I got the house in the divorce.’ But the real question is not who gets it, but who’s going to pay the mortgage.”
Banks don’t care who cheated on whom or how long a divorce takes. Mortgages have to be paid, and both spouses are legally responsible, says Kristin Katz, a mortgage banker with Array Financial in Haverford. That’s true even if one spouse moves out—or both do. “I advise people to get a written agreement that the mortgage will continue to be paid, especially through the separation period before the divorce settlement is finalized,” says Katz. “Defaulting on that mortgage can be a credit disaster that lasts a long, long time.”
That said, if one spouse wants to stay in the house, he or she really has only one course of action: refinancing. Most stay-at-home moms can’t carry a mortgage by themselves. And even if a woman does go back to work, mortgage lenders want to see a history of income of at least six months. Two years is the ideal minimum. “That comes as a shock to stay-at-home moms,” Katz says. “Often, they have to get a parent to cosign.”
Beware of mediation. Attorneys know that every asset earned or acquired during the marriage—401(k)s, stocks, cars, boats, even baseball cards and shoes—is joint property. No matter whose name is on the title, it’s part of the marital estate. “Pennsylvania is an equitable distribution state, and 11 factors go into determining what that means for each divorce,” Evian says. “Often the settlement is 50-50, but more typically, it’s a 60-40 split.”
Contrary to popular belief, Pennsylvania is not an alimony-free state. Many of Evian’s clients are shocked when she tells them that alimony is alive and well—and they have to pay it. Some equitable-distribution arrangements are so generous that additional alimony is unnecessary. “But that’s a settlement in the millions,” Evian says. “Otherwise, the spouse who makes more money is going to pay alimony.”
As you might expect, catching cheating spouses is the No. 1 request made of private investigator Alexander Soutos. The second most popular request: catching parents cheating on their custody agreements—especially those made before custody has been legally finalized. “People are looking to document what they believe to be an established pattern—that, on the nights one parent has the kids, he or she is dropping them off with a grandparent or babysitter, then hitting the town,” says Soutos, who’s a DPA member. “Some custody arrangements prohibit a girlfriend or boyfriend from spending the night while the kids are there. Violations can be used to change custody agreements.”
That’s when things get really nasty. But Evian does have one way to reduce, if not eliminate, the ugliness of divorce: Pre-nups are her other specialty.
Want to know more about the DPA? Visit www.thedivorceprofessionalalliance.com.