Emotional, financial links to homes make them battlegrounds in divorces A HOUSE DIVIDED

October 09, 1994|By Adriane B. Miller | Adriane B. Miller,Special to The Sun

After 26 years of marriage, she could forgive his philandering, the expensive toys he bought for himself with their money, and the countless other subtle hurts he brought upon her ego and pocketbook.

But Annie, a resident of Belcamp who did not want her last name published, couldn't forgive her husband for keeping a secret house on the Eastern Shore for 10 years. When she asked him for a divorce and demanded ownership of their marital home -- and nothing else -- he gladly complied.

It wasn't until the divorce was final and she tried to sell the house that she learned about the $100,000 lien on it -- the result of a business loan her husband took out years before, never mentioned and never repaid.

"There are givers and takers in this world," Annie says now. "I guess that's my problem. I'm too much of a giver."

While divorce may force difficult questions about children, it's the house that often gets caught in the middle. Neither spouse may wish to part with a home. Or both husband and wife may need the equity from the house.

With so much emotion and money at stake, arguments are almost a certainty.

"It seems like it ought to be cut and dried. If there weren't a lot of emotions involved it probably would be that way," said Stacy LeBow Siegal, an attorney who practices domestic law on her own and formerly with the firm Siegal and Sugar in Baltimore. "The only thing that's black and white is nothing is black and white.

At a recent meeting for divorced and widowed men and women at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, participants spoke for about an hour about their divorces and their homes. There were 15 women and two men, most of them divorced.

Women seem to be more vocal about their divorce horror stories than men, but plenty of men have been burned, too. One tells of the wife who left him with the house, children and dog but forgot to mention the drawer full of unpaid bills charged in his name. Another man describes the wife who agreed to let him have the house he'd lovingly refurbished if he wouldn't argue about her taking his son to live in another state -- he refused, and is still fighting with his wife.

Under Maryland law, all marital property has to be distributed equally between husband and wife if they divorce. Marital property is the property acquired during the marriage, no matter whose name is on it.

When a house is part of the marital property, the obvious solution for the divorcing couple is to sell it and split the proceeds. But that's not always practical or desirable. And divorce lawyers say divorce settlements are rarely predictable.

Courts can't transfer ownership from one spouse to another in a divorce, Ms. Siegal said. But if neither spouse can agree on who gets what, a court can order the house sold.

"It's a real tragedy," Ms. Siegal said, when a house has been put up for auction by the court and both spouses are on the front lawn trying to outbid each other to get it back.

Some spouses attempt to sell their houses without the other spouse's knowledge. A girlfriend or boyfriend stands in for the absent spouse, unbeknown to the real estate listing agent, and forges their name on documents.

While that's not easy to get away with -- a title search usually reveals who the real owners are --it is a concern, said William Cassidy, a real estate agent with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Baltimore.

"All parties on the deed have to be signing the listing agreement and contract of sale, but when you go to take a listing and you're meeting them for first time, you don't know if it's the wife sitting there," or a girlfriend or sister, Mr. Cassidy said.

"It's becoming more common, at least at the settlement table, to ask to see identification."

Rational move gone wrong

During a divorce, what sounds right can turn out to be regrettable later.

Consider Mary, a resident of Fallston and divorced in 1981. She says her lawyer talked her into giving up alimony for her husband's share of the house. "I didn't want to leave the kids without a home," she says.

Mary re-entered the work force, struggling through entry-level jobs. The children have since moved on. She still has a mortgage payment.

Sometimes, divorce can cause some sticky money situations.

Dolly, a Harford County resident in her 30s, is a widow and dates a divorced man. She received full title to her house when her husband died. Her boyfriend got full title to his house in his divorce. But because of a capital gains tax rule imposed by the Internal Revenue Service, neither can sell their house and buy another house of comparable size together without each getting slapped with a hefty tax.

Not until they are 55 may they sell their properties and get a one-time exclusion to the capital gains tax rule. "It will be a long romance," Dolly says.

Men and women seem to agree that no one profits in a divorce, except, perhaps the lawyers.

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