Saturday, May 23, 2015

Divide & Conquer: How I Got My Parents Divorced

When I was young, I remember my mother telling me that she would divorce my dad if I wanted her to, but that we'd have to move out of the house and be poor and she was leaving the decision entirely up to me whether these things happened or not.  It turns out she was right.  I take credit for making their divorce finally happen.

After my mother stopped paying the mortgage and sold my dad's prized possessions, I finally convinced my dad to file for divorce.  She was calling ambulances and visiting the ER on a semi-regular basis for her imagined ailments, and their joint debt increased, if not exponentially, at least very very quickly.  As I saw it, they never should have been married, so there was no reason for him to stay tied to someone who was so clearly trying to drown them both.  It reminded me of the dilemma people like to pose in which two people are drowning.  Which one do you save?  The one who isn't trying to drown all of us.

I was in my early 20s and had no idea what I was doing, but I knew my dad's sister had won an important court case a number of years earlier.  I called her, and she gave me her lawyer's name and phone number.  He wasn't a divorce attorney, but he knew a good one, and he gave me that lawyer's name and number.  I called the divorce attorney and arranged for a free consultation between him and my dad.  He sounded like he knew what he was doing, so we hired him.  I would pay the attorney fees through my joint account with my dad.  The first step was to get my parents legally separated.

The legal separation was important because of how quickly my mother accrued debt.  She had recently maxed out a credit card she found in my dad's name, and when my dad called the bank to say it was identity theft on the part of his wife, they canceled it and issued a new card, which she found in the mail and maxed out as well.  She called herself an ambulance every time she fell down, and she had no medical insurance.  She could rack up tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills in the course of 24 hours and sometimes did.  As long as my parents remained married, it was joint debt.  When they became separated, any new debt she acquired would be hers alone.  It was a band-aid on a gaping wound, but it was something. 

When my mother received the divorce papers, she called me in tears.  She said it was a shock, completely unexpected.  She had been threatening divorce repeatedly, but it hadn't occurred to her that anyone might actually want the divorce to happen.  She sobbed and bargained that she would even be willing to live on a budget if this would just go away.  It hadn't occurred to me until then that she had genuinely never kept track of any of the money that passed through her hands.  She'd spat out "live on a budget" like it meant "eat cat food and live outside."  She found herself a lawyer who didn't require money upfront but would ask the court to make my dad pay her fees instead.  It appeared to be her only qualification. 

My mother asked for $1,500 in monthly spousal support payments during the separation, which the court granted.  I had previously deposited the entirety of my dad's monthly check into her account after paying the mortgage -- some $7,200 per month for her personal discretionary use -- so I had to stop doing that in order to be able to pay her the requested $1,500.  My dad put the other household bills -- electricity, gas, phone, cable and satellite (they couldn't agree on just one so they had both), trash collection, the works -- on auto-pay from our joint account.  The only things my mother would need to pay for regularly from her $1,500 per month were food, toiletries, and anything else she chose to buy for herself.  I set up a savings account for my dad where I socked away all the money that she was no longer receiving.  The money compounded quickly. 

My parents had to go through mediation, which involved filling out forms where they each listed what they owned jointly and what they felt each of them should receive.  My mother's forms made no sense.  She felt they should each get the washer and dryer.  They should each get the stove.  Her suggestions were mathematically impossible.

They agreed that my dad should get the house, which was a relief to me.  I had spoken with the mortgage company already and determined that, while one of them could be removed from the deed to the house, neither could be removed from the mortgage.  Had my mother received the house, run down as it was, my dad would have had to pay her enough to keep up with the mortgage -- which cost more than her monthly spousal support checks totaled -- which she would have still likely chosen not to pay.  The mortgage company would then go after my dad for even more money, and his already paltry credit score would get worse.  I told him to ask for the house to avoid any of that happening.  The house had been custom built to be handicapped accessible for him, so I said he should argue that point.  It turned out not to be necessary.  My mother has a history of refusing to ask for what she wants or needs, wanting instead for people to simply know and give it to her.  I believe she made this mistake when she offered him the house.

My mother had a rough time with the divorce.  She went through phases in which she wouldn't even respond to her own lawyer.  I believe she was in a depression during these times since that was generally the only thing that kept her silent.  She sometimes missed court dates, even though they were conducted via phone for my bedridden dad's benefit.  Her behavior annoyed the judge, which did not go well for her.  She drew out the divorce proceedings for years.

First she tried to have the divorce thrown out by arguing that she had cared for my dad when he was disabled and that he was discarding her now that she was disabled and mentally ill (she had never admitted to the possibility of being mentally ill before this point, and now it was in court documents).  I found a court case of a woman in their state who had tried this same tack to no avail.  My parents lived in a "no fault" state.  The only cause for divorce was "irreconcilable differences."  None of her arguments helped her.  She couldn't force him to stay married to her.

When my mother finally asked for more money as spousal support -- she was currently receiving $1,500 per month of my dad's almost $10k monthly income -- the judge told her if she wanted more money she should get a job.  He said he saw no evidence that she had any kind of disability that should prevent her from working.

She asked the court to require my dad to buy her a new car.  Denied.

My mother asked the court to require my dad to keep her as primary beneficiary on his life insurance policy, including all the new life insurance policies she had taken out against him in recent months.  He and I had both worried for his physical safety during his last stay at home from the hospital.  My mother doesn't have a history of violence, but she was not the same person who had raised me.  I didn't know her anymore.  She rarely seemed lucid, and she sometimes seemed psychotic.  Even if she never became violent herself, I could see her promising someone else money to cause harm to someone she hates, like my dad.  No one had to mention this seemingly ridiculous concern to the court.  The judge just told my mother no, and my dad canceled all the new life insurance policies she had taken out against him.  He still had a small one that the VA paid for, and he made me the primary beneficiary.  The understanding was that I would use it to pay for his cremation and then split any leftover money 50/50 with Dante.  I think he knew as well as I did that any money given to Dante would disappear as quickly as it would with my mother.

The divorce became final when my mother's lawyer asked the court to excuse her from the case because she wanted her money and my mother wasn't responding to phone calls anymore.  The judge ordered my dad to pay my mother's attorney, which I did from his account, and everything was final.  My mother was given three months to move out of the house, which she mostly spent sleeping in what used to be Dante's bedroom.  She had ordered a portable storage pod, which sat empty in the driveway.  Whenever Dante visited the house, he said she hadn't appeared to have packed anything.  After the three months came and went and my mother had made no attempt to vacate the house, my dad went back to the court, which granted her more time, during which she made still no attempt to pack or move. 

The court eventually ordered her to leave.  She moved in with her parents in a neighboring town, taking almost nothing with her since she never packed.  The storage pod remained empty in the driveway when she left.  Her brothers came by their parents' house each day to care for them, cook, clean, and do laundry.  Since she did nothing to care for herself, they looked after her too.

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