Hang on during the end of your divorce as a coParent, because the ride can still get bumpy. If the emotional aspect of a breakup is traumatic, the practical side can be truly exasperating. Like cleaning out your garage, there’s always more there than you realized.
We’ve touched on the biggest mistake people make in their zeal to sever ties quickly: signing over the deed to the house without resolving the mortgage issue — that is, without selling the property or having the other spouse take out a new loan on it. That’s an easy trap to fall into, because quitclaiming a deed is a relatively simple procedure, whereas liquidating a mortgage takes time and effort. But you must still avoid taking the easy route. With all such life-changing choices, it’s important to be patient and methodical.
As risky as it is to sign over the house too quickly, there’s also risk in remaining on title together — even if you’re the one who keeps the property, and even if you’re making the house payments yourself. Your ex could be doing things without your knowledge that jeopardize your interests. Many divorced homeowners are surprised to find new liens attached to their property — courtesy of their former partners. These may be caused by irresponsible activity or, as with Brad and Shirley, it’s sheer vindictiveness. In the worst cases, those lienholders can actually force a foreclosure. You may not have caused the problems, but you’ll bear the consequences.
What if your ex, who shares the title with you, declares bankruptcy? Suddenly, your house is an asset under the control of the bankruptcy court. And the court can make decisions regarding the house against your wishes. You may also be vulnerable if you simply allow your ex to stay in the home without resolving the title and mortgage issues, leaving you responsible for a home you no longer live in. When marriages end, people are often angry, depressed, or some volatile combination of both. Some have been known to trash their own homes out of spite or simple neglect. If you leave the home to your ex, you don’t know what may occur after your departure. You could end up as the proud co-owner of a wrecked house.
Judge Martha Bellinger has seen this scenario up close. She is now a licensed mediator with Inland Valley Arbitration and Mediation Services (IVAMS) in Southern California but served for years as a family law judge and commissioner. She recalls a case she presided over involving a professional couple, whom we’ll call Tony and Diane.
They had a large estate, but behind the façade of success, their home life was wracked by strife, caused largely by Tony’s high-conflict personality. By the time Diane led for divorce, Tony had stopped working but was “more than happy to take any money that she was bringing in,” as Bellinger notes. Diane had left their home and was taking steps to sell it, but Tony asked if he could stay in the meantime; he was unemployed, emotionally distraught, and had no place to go.
Diane took pity on him and agreed — a critical mistake. She didn’t understand the depth of his dysfunction and resentment. “So, just out of hatred and wanting to wreak revenge on her — because the house was going to be sold — he just trashed the place,” Bellinger says. “It wasn’t just a matter of taking things; he had literally thrown paint on the walls and destroyed several rooms of the house! And what was going to have to be done to bring this house back to a salable position was incredible.” It might seem odd that Tony would trash a home that he was part owner of, but people don’t always act rationally, especially during such a traumatic period of their lives. Plus, Tony was known to be mentally unstable. As Bellinger notes, “ The bottom line is, he’s angry, and this house doesn’t mean anything to him. And he’s willing to sacrifice any amount of equity he might get out of that home to make it worse for her.”
Diane’s compassion cost her more than she could have imagined. Beyond the trauma and wasted time, she now faced the challenge of selling a distressed property that might be ineligible for financing. That meant seeking a cash buyer—who would likely expect a below-market deal. In the meantime she was still responsible for the mortgage payments. The costs of impulsive decisions can be high indeed!
In light of all these unpleasant possibilities, the wise course is to dissolve the joint ownership of the property — but only after carefully examining all the factors, especially the mortgage liabilities. These issues are complex; as we’ve noted, lawyers and even judges often don’t fully understand them. That’s why it’s imperative to seek the help of experts who deal with such matters every day. And the old saying holds true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.