The Exit Interview: Sally J. Boyle Wants to Help People Divorce Better
Hanover resident Sally J. Boyle wants to help people divorce better. A certified financial planner, certified divorce financial analyst and principal of SJ Boyle Wealth Planning, she drew upon her experience — both personal and professional — to create a primer, released in January that demystifies the divorce process. Here, Boyle breaks down strategies to make splitting up as peaceful as possible. (Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
What prompted you to write your first book, Deconstructing Divorce: Taking the Mystery out of Divorce and Its Impact on Your Family, Finances, and Future?
I had people coming to me pretty consistently after their divorce settlements, and when I would see their agreements, I realized they’d made mistakes similar to mistakes I made when I got divorced 18 years ago. So I said to myself, “I got this certification, I’m going to get ahead of this and write a book that is a one-stop education piece around the emotional impact of divorce, the financial impact of divorce and legal options you have available to you in approaching divorce.” Those are things I wasn’t fully aware of. I wanted to write an easy-to-read resource so people could educate themselves in advance instead of going to see an attorney or someone like me so they wouldn’t make the kind of mistakes I saw people making, and made myself
In your opinion, what’s the biggest myth about divorce?
I think people assume that divorce has to be settled in court, and it doesn’t. I think most people assume the first thing you have to do when you decide to divorce is go find an attorney, and it’s not. The best thing you can do is educate yourself about divorce in the first place; the divorce process, secondarily; and alternatives to litigation and settling your divorce.
And there are several (alternatives): Mediation, if the circumstances are fairly simple, or you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse can come to an agreement; pro se divorce — if the assets are fairly simple, you can just divide them yourselves. You can do much of it on your own if you own a home and very little else, you don’t need to hire an attorney to file for you. Once you’ve had children and have custody (situations), you do need advice because those particular agreements become more complicated.
Another process is collaborative divorce. It’s for more complicated or emotionally charged situations, but each party is represented by an attorney, there’s a financial person right at the table with them or demonstrating different financial options, and there’s a family therapist who really serves as a facilitator when the conversation gets difficult. Their job is to keep the conversations on track, and I’ve seen really difficult divorces where they’ve done a really good job of doing that.
People are unaware of these alternatives, so they go to the attorney thinking litigation first, and it’s not the only option. Sooner or later you need an attorney, but that doesn’t mean you need to go to court.
What are some common pitfalls people fall into when approaching or going through a divorce, and how do you dispel them?
Sometimes people take all of their divorce settlement (and put it) in retirement accounts, for example, and then don’t have any money because you can’t take that money out. I’ve seen people paying attorneys, taxes, penalties out of their retirement accounts. One woman had enough equity in her home that she could have taken a line of credit against her home instead of taking the money out of her retirement, but she took it out of her retirement and had to pay taxes and penalties on it. No one advised her. Sometimes people elect to hold onto a home that isn’t really affordable for them or in their best interest, because that’s where their kids are or they want to stay in the home. Doing so might not be the best option in the long run, but they don’t really understand that because no one advised them.
From a financial standpoint, what’s the best advice you’d offer to couples going through or considering divorce?
I would suggest to them that they really take a view of their total financial resources and imagine themselves after the divorce: What do they have, what sort of lifestyle can they afford? It’s similar to doing financial planning, but it’s with half of your assets and it really gives people a genuine sense of what it’s going to feel like after their divorce. … Divorcing couples should build a balance sheet based on what their finances might look like after they’re divorced: What will they each have, what can they afford? It helps you make decisions about how you should divide things — what should you keep, what should I keep, and why?
Do you find that women have a harder time getting financing post-divorce?
Yes. I don’t have a lot of experience with young women with established careers — most of my clients are in their 50s or 60s, so this could be unique to the age group, but a lot of them have stepped out of the workforce to maybe take care of children, or weren’t the primary breadwinner and their income was less than their spouses’, and the mortgage is more than they could qualify for. For example, women’s ability to refinance a mortgage is difficult. Separating debt is one of the most challenging things in a divorce because it is a matter of what the lenders give us, not what we agree on. It really comes down to whether lenders will approve you. I do find quite often that women can struggle with that. I have a client who, if she goes into mortgage underwriting for her home, even though it might be the best lifestyle option for her — she lives in Hanover, she’s renting part of (the house) out — she will be challenged to be able to qualify for the mortgage. Sometimes you need spousal support to allow (you) to qualify for a mortgage; I generally recommend all women apply for refinancing before the divorce agreement so we know she can do it if she wants to. Lenders also can be creative and helpful in post-divorce options to help a spouse qualify.
I do find women initiate divorces more often than not — two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by women — but one of the things I don’t think they think about is what their financing is going to look like after the divorce.
What’s the biggest advantage of taking an alternative approach to divorce?
The advantage of an independent project is you’re not subject to the court calendar. I would say most mediated or collaborative divorces can be completed in a year or less. (With litigation), it takes a year to two years to do the exact same process, which is more to do with the court calendar itself than your circumstances. Here, you have control of the calendar, and I think that’s the most important factor, because then (your divorce) can be resolved sooner than a litigated divorce. Also, by not litigating, your divorce remains private — anything litigated is public.
Having said that … some partners just don’t want a divorce. Mediation allows them to remain engaged, but they won’t accept an offer because they really don’t want to settle anyway. So sometimes mediation takes longer than a year.
Do you find there is a particular financial hurdle couples have to clear when they divorce?
Sometimes the most complicated thing is just coming to an agreement as to how to divide things. Every couple’s assets are unique in that way; every single couple you work with presents a unique situation in terms of how you might divide things up so there is an agreeable separation. Sometimes it can be complicated if tensions are involved and things like that, or sometimes there’s an emotional attachment to a particular asset, so dividing is one of the challenges, but I also think even more than that is entering into a child support or spousal support agreement. Negotiating those, if needed, can be tricky.
How would you advise people to begin exploring their options for divorce proceedings?
The first place I’d go to would be my state’s family law website, and I’d just really read through exactly what your jurisdiction is. There are two general broad categories: Community property and state equitable distribution states. So in New Hampshire, as an example, I’d go to the New Hampshire family law website and dig right into divorce and see what the process looks like. There are very clear parenting responsibilities and you have financial affidavits that will help you understand what you’re going to communicate, what you own, budget info, financial info.
Then I’d look at other resources. (That’s) part of the reason I wrote the book. If I really understood mediation was an option and it appealed to me … I’d probably try to educate myself as to the alternative processes.
The third thing I probably would do is learn about the attorneys or mediators in my area, and I would interview more than one. Depending on how my jurisdiction treats divorce, the options available to me and if mediation is preferable to me, for example, I would look at local mediators in my area and interview a few. I do think it’s rare that couples can completely go through a divorce without some advice, but where that advice comes from (can vary, and doesn’t have to be an attorney). There are other specialists who can help.
If the circumstances are really unique — say, a family business where the couple has been partners — you really want to go to someone who has extensive experience in (those situations), not to a general divorce attorney. Not only do you want to feel comfortable with who you choose, but you want to determine that they have experience with circumstances that are similar to yours.
In your view, what is the key to a dignified divorce, particularly as it relates to a couple’s finances?
Divorce is so emotional, and I suggest people make financial decisions when they feel calmer than (they do during) the first conversation. With a divorce, we are entering into the biggest financial transaction of our lives, so to do it when we’re most prepared is most important. It’s not easy to do, but it’s important to do. It’s similar to what I’d suggest to widows: Don’t do anything for the six months. You need to make sure that you’re going to be emotionally ready to make the decisions you’ll be making during the process of divorce. Take a little bit of time, take a breath.