Divorcing an Unemployed Spouse: How It Impacts You

Whether unemployment rates are high or low in the United States, unemployment causes havoc for  happily married couples and for those going through a divorce.

When a spouse loses his or her job, typically financial consequences put a strain on a marriage. Disagreements over money are a major source of tension for couples.  Unemployment in a marriage tends to increase and heighten other negative aspects and contributes to animosity.  The working spouse can easily begin thinking negative thoughts like, “he doesn’t have a job and he can’t even empty the garbage correctly” .  The emotional costs and impact of unemployment can lead to depression, substance abuse, anger issues, and fights over money.  One or any combination of these issues results in a negative impact on a marriage. Divorcing an unemployed spouse, regardless of the reasons for unemployment, can create (often undue) resentment between spouses. Toxic thoughts heighten for a couple – especially if the unemployment lasts for over a year.

There are numerous studies that support the conclusion that a husband’s unemployment greatly increases the chance of divorce for the couple.  Some studies give these marriages a 33% greater chance of divorce. Even though women have made great gains in the workplace and society has a greater acceptance of women working outside of the home, there is still a negative stigma attached to a man who is not working.  Also, many unemployed husbands admit that their self-esteem takes a hit upon employment loss.

Clearly there are spousal emotional costs associated with unemployment and divorcing an unemployed spouse.  There are financial implications for spouses also. The family budget takes a huge hit.  Making car and mortgage payments might be difficult.  Vacations get cancelled.  The family’s lifestyle will suffer.  Of course, this worry and tension causes problems for couples.

A spouse without a job may be a dependent spouse and deserving of alimony or spousal support in a divorce. There are other factors involved that a judge may consider.  But, if one spouse is financially dependent on the supporting spouse, the supporting spouse may need to pay alimony.  A judge may rule that the non-working spouse is entitled to rehabilitative support, i.e., the working spouse may need to pay tuition and living expenses while the non-working spouse attends college or a training program to learn a new skill or trade. This may occur in a situation where one spouse has been out of the work force for many years and/or does not possess any currently marketable work skills.

Unemployment of a spouse will likely impact property distribution, especially if you are the one divorcing an unemployed spouse.  A judge may order an unequal division of property to offset the unemployment consequences that one spouse has suffered.

Often clients may ask:  Can a judge order a person to get a job? The answer is no. But, clients need to understand that a judge can impute income to a party.  At a minimum, judges can impute minimum wage to a spouse for calculating spousal support.  A judge could likely use a higher wage for a more trained and skilled spouse.

Likewise, if a parent thinks he or she can quit work to avoid paying child support, a judge can impute income in this scenario. Intentional underemployment can result in a judge imputing income as well.  Yes, believe it or not, some parents might attempt to take a lower paying job to reduce their child support obligations.

Thus, the range of unemployment’s impact is vast, especially in marriage and divorce.  There are emotional costs that may cause the deterioration of a marriage.  If you are struggling with unemployment, please be sure to visit the NC Division of Employment Security’s website for help with applying for unemployment, appeals, and laws and regulations associated with unemployment in North Carolina. Unemployment can also impact financial obligations between spouses and co-parents, so be sure to account for it when calculating child support.

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