Sunday, September 17, 2006

Is Divorce Bad for Your Health?

In this episode we’re going to talk about divorce and health issues and we’re going to speak with attorney Emily Doskow, author of Nolo’s Essential Guide to Divorce. There’s little dispute that divorce has a negative impact on health.

For example, a study published in the August 2006 Journal of Marriage and Family indicates that women who had been divorced, widowed or remarried were more likely to develop heart disease than those who were married continuously. Other studies have shown that divorced males have higher rates of some types of cancer than their married counterparts. Premature death rates -- defined as occurring between the ages of 15 and 64, -- are significantly higher among divorced men and women compared to married persons of the same sex and age. There is considerable evidence that divorce can cause short-term and long-term emotional problems for children. And the National Institute of Mental Health has stated that "the single most powerful predictor of stress-related physical as well as emotional illness, is marital disruption."

Since divorce appears inevitable for many couples -- approximately forty percent of the marriages in this country end in divorce -- what can be done to alleviate the stress in the legal process and what can be done to preserve the health of everyone involved in a divorce?
We asked attorney Emily Doskow some questions that relate to divorce and health.

NOLO: Emily, in your book, you make the point that there’s not just one way to divorce. Perhaps you can summarize the various ways couples divorce and then explain – at least in terms of stress and emotional turmoil, which methods might get the highest ratings for preserving your health.

EMILY DOSKOW: There’s definitely a continuum that goes from “do-it-yourself” uncontested divorce where there are no lawyers involved and you just do the paperwork and figure it all out yourselves, to the opposite end, which is the sort of knock-down drag-out divorce trial that’s ugly and expensive and horrible for everybody. And then in between, there are a lot of other options, like a mediated divorce, a collaborative divorce, arbitration, or even a divorce that you settle by having lawyers negotiate for you.

From my perspective, a mediated divorce is the most conducive to people’s mental and physical health, because mediation is a process that supports everybody having their say, everybody getting heard, creating solutions that work for both people and for the kids, and promoting good communication that will support the ongoing relationship, especially between parents.

NOLO: Let’s talk about something that has a direct impact on people’s health -- health insurance. Many people are insured through their spouse’s health insurance. Can a divorcing nonemployed spouse ask that as part of the settlement, the health insurance will continue under the other employed spouse’s policy?

EMILY DOSKOW: The nonemployed spouse actually doesn’t need to take any approach…it’s not really a negotiation. That spouse has a legal right under a federal law called COBRA to continue their insurance coverage for three years after the divorce is final. All they have to do is make sure that they comply with some very strict time limits for notifying the employer and the insurer that they want the COBRA coverage, and then paying the premiums in time. They continue it at their own expense, but they have the right to keep it for up to three years.

NOLO: Can the nonemployed spouse request those COBRA payments be included as part of the spousal support payments?

EMILY DOSKOW: Sure, the employed spouse can continue covering the nonemployed spouse, and that could be considered spousal support, or in lieu of spousal support.

NOLO: What about health insurance for children? Can continuing health insurance be part of the child support package?

EMILY DOSKOW: If the employed spouse has coverage for the children, they’ll just continue to be covered, because there is no change in the parent-child relationship after the divorce, so again, it’s just a matter of making sure that you get a special order that notifies the employer that the employed spouse, especially if the employed spouse isn’t the custodial parent, if they’re the non-custodial parent. Occasionally, an employer or an insurer will balk at continuing to cover the children, but they have to by law, so you just have to get a special order.

NOLO: Let’s consider an example: A couple with a child divorces. The divorced husband is ordered to provide the child’s health insurance. The woman remarries, and her new husband adopts the child. I know that terminates certain child support obligations, but does it also terminate the obligation to continue health insurance payments for the child?

EMILY DOSKOW: Yes, if there is a step-parent adoption by the mother’s new spouse. The only way that that could happen would be if the biological father relinquished all his rights and that would also relieve him of all obligations toward those children. He wouldn’t be a parent anymore, so he wouldn’t be responsible for support or health insurance.

NOLO: Another important health issue in divorce and custody is substance abuse. Often in television dramas, this issue is portrayed as the basis for an ugly custody fight. Is this true in real life? What effect does one spouse’s substance abuse problems have on the divorce and on custody issues?

EMILY DOSKOW: Right, and what you see on TV is if somebody has a substance abuse problem of any kind, the other spouse is probably going to use it to try to get whatever advantage they can. I think most judges, if you were in front of a judge, and there was evidence that you have a substance abuse problem, the judge will order that your visitation with your kids be supervised and probably will order you to get treatment and be in recovery and be able to show that you’re in recovery, and that you’ve been sober a certain amount of time before they’ll take the supervision requirement off.

NOLO: Everyone agrees that divorce has an effect on a child’s short-term and long-term health. Any suggestions for parents?

EMILY DOSKOW: I think it’s universally agreed among experts on this issue that the single most important thing that parents need to do for their kids is to insulate the kids from the conflict between the parents, to make sure that the kids understand that the divorce isn’t their fault, to make sure that the kids understand that they aren’t losing either of their parents. So that means, for the parents, not to fight in front of the kids, for neither parent to bad-mouth the other parent in front of the kids. If it’s possible for the parents to be in the same space together, to continue doing things as a family, those are the kind of things that help children understand that they’re not losing either of their parents, they’re just having a restructuring of their family, and they can continue to feel secure in their relationship with both of their parents.

In terms of taking care of your kids on a day-to-day basis, you need to make sure that you’re listening to what they say to you, pay attention to what they DON’T say to you, making sure that there’s room for them to express their feelings and ask their questions so that you can do what you need to do, which is repeat, over and over, “it’s not your fault, you’re not losing your parents, both of us still love you”, all of those things that kids sometimes need to hear more than once.

NOLO: One factor contributing to health issues for women after divorce is economic. Studies indicate a woman’s standard of living drops an average of 27 percent after divorce while a man’s rises 10 percent. And it’s also been shown that these economic factors have an effect on health. One thing that may contribute to the disparity here is when a spouse hides assets. What are some red flags that a spouse is hiding assets and what are some things you can do to locate those assets?

EMILY DOSKOW: I would say the first thing that should clue you in that your spouse is hiding assets is if they don’t want to share information with you. So if you’re in a situation where you’re trying for an uncontested divorce, for example, but your spouse doesn’t want to give you financial information, you might want to reconsider the uncontested thing, and at least get a mediator, or somebody who’s going to require that information is turned over.

NOLO: What’s a common place where a spouse might hide assets?

EMILY DOSKOW: Spouses hide assets in businesses. If your spouse owns a business, there are a lot of ways in a business to hide assets. For example, paying fake salaries to relatives who aren’t actually working, and then the relative turns the money back over, or deferring a big sale until after the divorce is final, so those assets aren’t included in the marital property, or taking a big loss earlier, so that the loss is included in the marital property. Those kinds of things are what people do to try and hide money.

NOLO: So, if you suspect your spouse is hiding assets, you’re probably going to want a lawyer’s help.

EMILY DOSKOW: You probably want a lawyer. The other professional you might want is called a forensic accountant, somebody who is trained to look for hidden assets.

NOLO: Again, focusing on the women’s economic issues: What effect does a spouse’s bankruptcy have on spousal or child support?

EMILY DOSKOW: Spousal and child support are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy so if your spouse owes you past-due child or spousal support, they can’t get rid of that obligation in bankruptcy, they still owe you that money. So if you’re doing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, where all your debts are just wiped out, the child and spousal support debts are excluded from that. They’re not wiped out. You still owe them.

If you’re doing a Chapter 13, where you’re reorganizing your assets, the Chapter 13 repayment plan has to call for repayment of 100% of those debts.

NOLO: One person who studied the health of divorced people remarked that divorce is deceptive because legally it’s one event, but psychologically it is a chain of events. One element in that chain of events may be a sense that the divorcing spouse has made the wrong decisions about divorce. Is it common for there to be some equivalent of “buyer’s remorse” after a divorce or custody settlement has been reached?

EMILY DOSKOW: It’s true and it’s part of why, for many people, anytime there is significant assets, anytime there’s a retirement plan, anytime there’s a good amount of money changing hands, even people who are doing an uncontested divorce, are wise to get an hour or two of a lawyer’s time to just look over their deal, and have somebody say to them “this is a fine deal”, or, “this is a deal you may regret later.” And people make a lot of different decisions. Oftentimes, people do things that don’t look like they are in their interest. But they do it for reasons. For really valid reasons, in terms of what they think is best for their kids, or why they feel like it’s fair for their partner to get more, or various reasons that they have for making a deal that doesn’t look like their best deal. And that’s fine, to make a decision like that. You just need to be sure you’re totally educated.

NOLO: And part of that education can be accomplished by reading Emily Doskow’s new book, Nolo’s Essential Guide to Divorce. Nolo has other books on the subject of divorce, and you can find an excellent selection of divorce books at

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