Research, agreement provide protection in divorce

October 09, 1994|By Adriane B. Miller

Since a house is usually the most valuable asset a married couple has, each spouse should work to protect themselves from financial catastrophe in the event of a split, say people who have been through divorce.

Here are a few of their suggestions for men and women happily married, and for those contemplating separation or waiting for divorce:

* Find out about potential liens and encumbrances on property you both own before the divorce. Even if marital property is in only one spouse's name, Maryland law entitles both spouses to an equal share of it.

But as recently as 15 years ago, husbands could legally offer a house as collateral for bank loans without their wives' signatures, or knowledge.

* Make it your business to know your own financial assets and liabilities and those of your spouse so you can make informed decisions when a lawyer suggests a settlement.

* Before selecting an attorney, talk with friends, relatives, acquaintances or members of a support group for referrals.

* Before calling an attorney with questions, make sure the questions are organized and pertinent.

"If you call them, talk for 15 minutes, because you know they are going to charge you for it," advises Pat, who is waiting for a divorce and wished to remain anonymous. "The more you can do for yourself the better."

*"The main thing is to take your time," says Barbara, whose divorce is not yet final after more than two years of negotiation. "By not rushing it, I've had the time to think more clearly." She said she'll stretch the process out as long as necessary to get what she believes is fairly hers.

* Write a premarital agreement or, if you are already married and on good terms with your spouse, a "post-marital" agreement. The agreement spells out the rights each person has to the other's property if the marriage ends in divorce or death.

Stacy LeBow Siegal, an attorney who practices domestic law in Baltimore, says there are pros and cons to drawing up a premarital agreement. "The down side is it makes the marriage a business. There's an emotional cost to that. But there's nothing wrong with protecting yourself," she said.

Ms. Siegal and others say making a premarital agreement can become liberating for a couple, because ownership worries are no longer barriers to intimacy.

"Even if you and your partner are a young couple, with no significant property . . . there is some evidence to indicate that premarital agreements actually promote stability in a marriage," writes Edward A. Haman, an attorney and author of "How to Write Your Own Premarital Agreement" (Sphinx Publishing, 1993).

"Discussing a premarital agreement, even if one is never finalized, will make you realize that by getting married you are entering into a legally binding contract with financial rights and obligations," he writes.

"Usually this side of marriage is totally overshadowed by the romantic and religious aspects, and by the ceremony and

honeymoon planning," Mr. Haman adds.

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