Key Takeaways

  • Divorce is different for Stay at Home Moms because it represents such a massive change to every part of their life
  • It’s particularly important they start early to protect their access to cash and build a path to income
  • In reality, alimony or spousal support is incredibly rare and almost all SAHMs will go to work
  • You ✨can✨ achieve financial security in your new life post-divorce. Here’s how!

Stay at home mom divorce can be particularly daunting

Many women outside the workforce put off divorce because their husbands hold so much financial power. But there is hope!

You can take steps to protect yourself (and your kids and your marital property) during and after the divorce process. In this post, we’ll discuss strategies such as negotiating a fair child support arrangement, enforcing payments, negotiating spousal support, building financial independence, reentering the workforce and more. You ✨can✨ achieve financial stability in your new life post-divorce.

We have a number of divorce posts that apply to a wider range of women, so this one will be specific to SAHMs. Here are some general resources on divorce for women:

Stay at home mom divorce – why it’s different

Despite the hype, divorces and divorce settlements are less likely to favor women financially. This is especially true for SAHMs, who have a bigger transition to make than other divorcing women. After divorce, most stay-at-home moms will have to re/enter the workforce and will still end up economically worse. The majority will be the custodial parent AND not receive their full divorce settlement or child support. Plus, about half have an adult family member living with them.

There are many demographic differences between women who stay at home vs those who work: disability rates, average education, wealth, age, and cultural affiliations, to name a few.

About 80% of stay at home moms will go to work after divorce, if they can and are not in school. (The other 20% are probably already past retirement age.) This includes both part time (30%) and full time work (50%). The good news is that this can be great. For my mom, we called her post-divorce transition “The Renaissance of Helen.” I can tell you, her kids were really proud.

Do stay-at-home moms have a higher divorce rate?

Yes. According to a 1995 study, families with stay at home moms divorce at a rate 14% above average. This finding was reinforced by a 2018 study. Each partner can feel dissatisfied at being “stuck” in a single role, as breadwinner or stay-at-home parent, and these families face more economic pressure and stress. Additionally, marriages where a woman has economic power may be more durable.

However, this is a correlation, not a cause. There could be other factors, because SAHMs and working moms are fairly different.

What are the rights of stay at home moms?

A stay at home mom or housewife has the same right to fair property division, custody and restitution, as any other person under US law, all other things being equal. Division of property is determined by state law, and every state has a different interpretation of what “divided fairly” means.

However, having a right to something and getting it are two different things. About half of custodial single moms with a formal divorce settlement see all the money they are entitled to. But only half of women even have formal agreements. That means that about 75% of single moms do not get what they are owed. (2020 Census Data).

It takes money, time and energy to enforce a divorce agreement, and there are personal and financial tradeoffs to pursuing one.

For these reasons, it’s worthwhile to put up a fight upfront, to ensure that any division of assets is fair and that a marital asset like your family home doesn’t go poof. This require pulling together financial documents and maybe even some legal bills, if you have a major marital asset.

Child custody and support

Divorce can be a difficult transition for any family, but especially so for those with stay-at-home moms. In the 21st century, many kids don’t live full time with one parent after divorce. Formal divorce usually means shared child custody and equal parenting time. This can have a big impact on family dynamics and divorce finances. It’s also one of the biggest emotional aspects for SAHMs facing divorce.

Shared custody arrangements involve both parents having an equal say in decision making related to their children’s lives such as medical care or schooling decisions. Equal parenting time means that each parent gets equal, regular visits with their children according to a schedule agreed upon for their best interests.

These arrangements are becoming increasingly popular as they enable both parents to remain actively involved in their child’s life. And while studies show its good for kids, it also reduces the possibility of child support and alimony for stay-at-home parents.

It also fundamentally changes the role of SAHMs, who are less likely to continue as the primary caregiver with primary custody.

Stay at Home Moms and Alimony

Alimony provides a type of income separate from child support. It can be used to cover basic living expenses, such as housing, food, and transportation or to provide a financial cushion while mom is building a career or retraining.

What is alimony?

Alimony is a payment from one former spouse to another after divorce, typically for a specific period of time. It’s intended to help the spouse who earns less, or may have been out of the workforce for a long time. Alimony is also known as spousal support or maintenance.

Alimony isn’t automatic and is actually rare. Today, it is much less likely to appear in a divorce settlement. Alimony was included in 25% of divorce cases in the 60s, a rate that fell to 8.6% in a 2011 study by the University of Marquette Law School. Temporary alimony, where financial support ends with the divorce process, is more common than permanent alimony, which is paid for as long as someone is alive.

Keep in mind: only about half of divorcing couple have a formal or legal separation agreement, and a lot of women rely on informal support from a former partner. That can look like groceries, gifts, cash. This is very, very financially risky, but very much reality.

How does alimony work?

Alimony is based on the idea of fairness or equity. Generally, the “recipient spouse” (the one who earned less during the marriage) gets a financial boost from the “supporting spouse,” the higher earner. The goal of alimony is generally to get the recipient spouse back to work and financially independent.

Alimony is typically based on need. The court considers factors such as:

  • Length of your marriage
  • Age and health of each spouse
  • Earning potential of each spouse
  • The standard of living during the marriage

When alimony is awarded, it’s usually for a limited time or paid in a lump sum (recommended). That payment can either be in cash, if the family has it, or through an allocation of an asset, like a house or other property.

But again, the expectation of family courts in most states are that the recipient spouse will become financial independent and self supporting.

How long do you have to be married to get alimony?

Alimony guidelines are set at the state level, so make sure to research the guidelines for your state. Sometimes the family courts will not order any alimony payments for very short marriages, but there is no set rule across the country. Marriages as short as six months can result in alimony orders and longer marriages can have alimony denied.

How long does spousal support last?

In most cases, the term of alimony is based on the length of the marriage. The shorter the marriage, the shorter the alimony term. This also varies from state to state, and can be paid as a lump sum.

Has a woman ever had to pay alimony?

Yes. It’s becoming more common for women to pay, but still unlikely. In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled that spousal support payments are gender-neutral. However, according to 2010 census data, 97% of alimony recipients are still female.

It would be very unlikely for a stay at home mom to be required to pay alimony in a divorce, unless she also had a killer side hustle or home based business.

Should a stay at home mom get a job before divorce?

Yes, yes, yes. She will probably have to get one anyway – over 80% of custodial parents work full or part time, according to 2020 Census data. Most state divorce laws assume you will go to work, so starting that path should be your first step, even before you start divorce proceedings. More importantly, establishing an income before divorce increases financial security.

Three reasons SAHMs should get a job before divorce

  1. Divorces can take a long time, and you want an independent source of cash. Shenanigans happen. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for spouses trying to protect “their” money by moving it, hiding it or cutting off access to it by removing them from a joint account or credit card. This is another reason it is important to document your financial assets and establish your own credit and banking accounts.
  2. Financial stability decreases for most women immediately after divorce. Getting a job as soon as possible helps accelerate your path to financial empowerment, while removing some of the risk of entering or reentering the workforce.
  3. You can do some resume building. Often one has to work some crappy jobs to get established in the workforce. I sure did. Those “foot in the door” gigs of the way open the path to better roles and higher earning. You don’t control the timing of the job market, so you want to start your own career as soon as possible, especially if you have young children and need to juggle child care.

Divorce advice for stay at home moms

When it comes to leaving an unhappy marriage, a stay-at-home mom can often feel like she’s at a disadvantage. But, there are steps you can take and the earlier you start, the easier it is to gain back control over your finances. This is true whether you go through the process of a formal divorce case or if you are splitting up a partnership.

These include negotiating an equitable distribution (fair share) of marital assets, fair child custody arrangements and support payments; enforcing these payments from the other parent; building financial independence by building your own income; and creating long-term income stability for yourself and your family.

1. Protect your access to cash while separating

There are two parts to this. First, build independent cash. Second, protect your access to joint cash.

Even if you don’t have an outside job, make sure to obtain your own banking accounts and credit cards as soon as you separate. In your name only. At a totally new bank. New income, loans from a family member, etc. can be deposited into that account so only you have access.

Ideally, you should retain access to all joint assets. But even if you trust your soon to be ex, shenanigans happen. Make sure you know which accounts are joint (not an authorized user), and watch those balances closely.

Finally, try to negotiate temporary support payments from your spouse. Divorce can take a year or two, so regardless of your feelings about feeling financially dependent, temporary support will give you a better financial picture in the long run.

2. Negotiate a fair child support arrangement

Child support is calculated differently in every state. Get familiar with your state’s child support guidelines and make sure to negotiate a fair arrangement. This can be complex, and you should consider seeking legal advice if needed.

As I mentioned before, about half of women have a formal agreement with their ex. Try to be in that half. It gives you more options for enforcement later.

3. Enforce child support payments

About half the time, an ex will not make any child support payments or provide any assistance, even if ordered to by the court. You can protect yourself from this early by making it clear from the beginning that these payments are not optional. There is no grace period. Be your toughest self.

Most states have child support enforcement offices, but their processes can come with a lot of strings attach. You might have a long, legal process, or you might have to surrender the child support payments to the state. Research how it works before you engage with any state agency.

4. Build your own income quickly

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your wealth won’t be either. But you can take one step every day to make it better. Over time, small successes will not just build wealth, they will build confidence.

Establish a source of income quickly, even if it’s just a side gig or part time job (we have a step-by-step post on building income). Get your own bank accounts. Make your own money. Lock your credit report and get familiar with your score.

The faster you end financial dependence, the faster you can start building wealth, confidence and options. That is a rosy financial future.

5. Build financial stability and wealth

The foundation of most family finances is insurance. Since a stay at home mom generally has insurance through the ex, you’ll need to make sure you stay covered during separation and get your own after divorce.

Make sure you have health, disability and life insurance for yourself, and that your ex carries enough term life insurance (with you as the beneficiary) to cover his child support responsibility. It’s a good idea to ask for proof he’s paying the premiums.

Divorce entitles you to COBRA for health insurance, but you may qualify for subsidized health care through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Marketplace. Depending on your financial situation after divorce, you and your kids may also qualify for MedicAid or a state program, such as medi-Cal. Many divorcing women use medicaid as a bridge as they are getting back on their feet.

Additionally, divorced SAHMs should consider life insurance and disability income protection policies which provide a safety net in case something unexpected happens in their lives or if they become unable to work due to injury or illness. These are particularly important for single moms.

Finally, a note of caution

Many posts about divorce as a stay at home mom are offered by divorce mediation services or a divorce lawyer firms. These sites often have helpful information but they also have an agenda – they want you to hire them! Free consultation!

Divorce mediators will shade divorce attorneys for their high legal bills. A divorce attorney, in turn, can sow a deep sense of fear into stay at home moms. Most of their content is designed to show why using their service would be beneficial.

Don’t get too caught up in the sales pitch and instead consider all your options carefully, including collaborative divorce, DIY divorce, mediation, legal aid and a retained lawyer.