There’s a certain level of connectedness that comes from dealing closely with clients’ finances, their families and their dreams for the future. Because of the proximity to a client’s life and everything that makes it unique and worth securing, it’s only natural for brokers to concern themselves with more than just the bottom line.
When COVID-19 came barrelling toward Canada in March and strict social distancing and stay-at-home orders were put in place, one of the many unforeseen disruptions involved couples in the midst of divorces or separations being forced to shelter in place together.
“Pre-COVID-19, couples that were at crossroads in their relationships, someone would just pick up and go. They could easily find accommodations,” says Nathalie Boutet of Boutet Family Law and Mediation in Toronto. “Right now, with COVID-19, it’s very difficult for people to move out quickly. They don’t know where to go, they don’t know what’s available and you can’t see suites in person.”
The inability to separate has put many couples into complex, sometimes violent situations. In those involving domestic abuse, many victims simply have nowhere else to go. Government shelters are full and most short-term solutions, like Airbnb’s, have been taken off the market.
“People are nervous, and they’re accessing mediation services to try and sort out rules and regulations around their current properties,” Boutet says.
For owners bent on selling, one of the ongoing problems is access to a comprehensive appraisal, which is critical in ensuring the separated parties receive a fair share of the proceeds. Realtors can still access data on comparable properties to determine a home’s value, but few would trust the comps established over the last four weeks. Certified home evaluators can provide a more thorough look at a property’s structure – if they can get inside.
Faced with the prospect of selling into an unpredictable market, the advice most mortgage professionals would give would be “Don’t sell!” But Boutet says there may be more at stake than achieving an above-asking sale price.
“It’s really important to figure out what’s going on in the house. Is there a lot of pressure? Is someone really, really unhappy and you can see it?” she says. “If there are children and it’s really, really tense, there should be ways to put the house up for sale.”
That might involve moving more quickly than most mortgage brokers and real estate agents would prefer. Boutet suggests patch-ups over renovations and says sellers could potentially reach out to staging companies for advice rather than waiting for an in-home consultation that can’t legally occur.
Selling rather than waiting out the pandemic may also help alleviate some of the stress involved with selling a home, which will be particularly high in separated households also reeling from COVID-19 layoffs.
“It’s not just a commercial issue right now,” Boutet says. “It’s also an emotional issue, and an energy issue.”
Mortgage brokers don’t have a legal obligation to step in and try to improve a client’s domestic situation, but Boutet urges them to be observant and sensitive and be willing to refer clients to services they may be in need of, whether it’s moderate mediation or full-on therapy.
“Mortgage people are people persons. They have instincts and they’re super good at picking things up,” she says. “Don’t hesitate to refer out to professionals because there are a lot of services that are running efficiently, even under COVID-19.
Source: Mortgage Broker News – by Clayton Jarvis08 May 2020
Mortgage refinancing in Canada is the latest domino to topple in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on our economy.
In fact, all forms of mortgage financing have been increasingly more challenging the past several weeks. Fortunately, most purchase transactions already committed to during these early transition stages are still going through.
Refinances are another matter though. They are uninsurable, so the lending risk sits squarely with the lenders; whereas purchase transactions facilitate changes of ownership, and the associated mortgages are a necessary and essential part of that process. Mortgage refinances are arguably a non-essential process.
When people refinance their mortgage, it is quite simply to get to a better place financially. For some, it is to reduce the mortgage interest rate, lower the monthly payment, and extend the term. For others, it is to extract equity from the home, often for one of the following reasons:
consolidating high-cost consumer debt
combining a second and first mortgage
financing home renovation projects
funding post-secondary education
assisting with a down payment for children buying their first home
paying off a consumer proposal early
funds to pay CRA tax arrears
tapping into home equity to help children with the down payment or closing costs on their first home
Market uncertainties have rendered most of these more difficult than a month ago, and in some cases impossible.
Three Reasons Why Mortgage Refinances Are Tougher For Canadians
The other day one major chartered bank announced:
“In view of the ongoing COVID-19 situation, the following changes are being made to lending policies affecting new applications submitted to us on or after Thursday, April 9, 2020. These changes are required due to declining employment, energy sector impacts, unstable property values, and restrictions on appraisers being able to access properties for appraisal reports.”
But as a result of COVID-19, there are three main reasons why mortgage refinances have become much tougher for Canadians…
More Stringent Scrutiny of Applicants’ Income and Employment
Lower Appraisal Valuations Than Expected
Lender Cutbacks in Maximum Loan-to-Value Ratio
1. Tougher Scrutiny on Applicants’ Income and Employment
Lenders are understandably skittish about income stability in the current market. They aren’t just worried about whether you have sufficient income today, but also whether your employment is safe and you will continue to have an income in the months ahead.
Canada lost a record one million jobs in March 2020 according to BBC News, and you can expect more layoffs and job losses as the full impact of COVID-19 becomes known. The Conference Board of Canada said on April 6th that a combined 2.8 million jobs could be lost during March and April, equal to nearly 15% of total employment.
Even though many of these job losses may prove to be temporary, no one knows.
And if you are in the business of lending money to people, you are going to be looking very carefully at all applicants’ employment income – both for what it is now, and what it might become when the current stay-at-home policy runs well past the month of April, as many experts feel it will.
Prime Minister Trudeau said recently [there will be] “No return to ‘normality’ until a coronavirus vaccine is available.” And that might not be till 2021!
What this means is that even if you had sufficient income to qualify for the desired mortgage amount two months ago, that might not be the case now, and as such, lenders have become more conservative and risk averse.
Mortgage Lenders Now Want to See All Income Documents Upfront.
If the borrower’s income and employment cannot stand up to scrutiny, there is no point going further. Here is what lenders are saying right now:
One Chartered Bank Says:
For any application using self-employed (BFS) income, in addition to standard income documents, the broker must provide us with a description of the business, when established, number of employees, and its current status (e.g., operating, shut down).
Note: we may request additional income documents or conduct additional due diligence at our discretion to verify current income/employment status.
Additional due diligence will be required to assess the viability of the business post COVID-19. To assist in the assessment, please consider asking your client for their most recent financial reporting, i.e., interim tax reporting.
One Monoline Lender Says:
If a borrower has been laid off, we will not use their income to service the file unless an exception is granted by us and the mortgage insurer (if required). Neither EI nor the Government of Canada Emergency Response Benefit are eligible for inclusion in qualifying income.
As you would expect, if your applicants do not work in one of these essential service sectors, we will require additional confirmation of their employer’s commitment for continued pay during the COVID lockdown.
We will not utilize any temporary Canada Emergency Response Benefits in qualifying calculations.
2. Appraisal Valuations Are Coming In Lower Than Expected
Appraisers rely on recent sales data to come up with comparable properties for their appraisal reports. But sales are down so much since mid March there are fewer to compare to. As reported in the Globe and Mail, Carolyn Ireland on March 31, 2020, wrote:
“Ontario remains under a state of emergency, and while the provincial government deemed most of the real estate industry “essential,” it did so in order to permit transactions to close – not to allow the industry to carry on with business as usual.”
And there is no incentive for appraisers to go high on their estimates – in the teeth of so much pessimism and conservatism. I think we will start to see more and more transactions fall off the rails because of low appraisal values.
Anecdotally, I’m seeing behavioural changes among appraisers that will lead to more values coming in lower than would have been expected a short while ago.
For example, some appraisal values are being submitted with a low, medium and high value. The other day a colleague had a mortgage amount cut back with a major chartered bank. The low was $1.5 million; the medium value was $1.6 million and the high value was $1.7 million. The bank had to take the medium value and the loan was cut back by 130k.
And, Actual Resale Values Are Starting to Drop
Rob McLister over at RateSpy notes, “If HouseSigma is in the ballpark, median GTA home prices are sliding hard in April. It estimates the median GTA home value is down to $740,000. That’s a 6% drop from the February peak of $789,000. Of course, these are just estimates and the data for April is volatile and incomplete.
“A couple of my sellers are nervous that things are going to get worse, so they’re taking what they can get.”
The fact is listings are down dramatically, and there are no open houses anymore. Buying a home for many is a luxury to be deferred till things settle down.
So the net is, it appears appraisers are being more cautious today, and there is nothing on the horizon that’s likely to change this. No one knows how fast buying activity will pick up when the dust settles from COVID-19, so cautious valuations are probably the new normal.
3. Lower Loan-to-Value Ratio Lending Maximums
Before COVID-19, only private mortgage lenders could refinance higher than 80% of the appraised value of a property. It’s against the rules for institutional lenders. Mind you, there are not many brave souls who want to lend over 80% these days.
One small bank has quietly announced they will only refinance to 75% of the appraised value. And many B-lenders, on their own volition, have already cut their maximum loan to value (LTV) to 75%, and that is in densely populated urban areas.
Their maximum LTV is less in rural areas and smaller cities. This percentage will face further downward pressure in the coming months.
And right now, private lenders are also exercising more caution than usual, pulling back on their maximum LTV. The individual retail lender has already gotten cold feet and isn’t at all happy over 50% LTV. Mortgage Investment Corporations (MICs) remain open for business at decent LTVs, but many are expecting higher overall returns on their capital.
These lower loan-to-value ratios, coupled with declining appraisal values, are shrinking the number of fundable mortgage refinance transactions.
Is There a Bright Spot for Refinances?
There’s an old adage that lenders like to give loans to people that don’t need it. That is probably more true today than ever, including for refinances.
In the United States, mortgage rates have already begun to fall quickly, especially for terms of 10 and 15 years, and there is rising interest among many to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to refinance for a lower rate and radically reduce the remaining term of their mortgage. If you have sufficient equity that a light valuation doesn’t matter, and secure income, this could be a really great time to refinance.
This hasn’t happened yet in Canada, but could be the next phase for us as well. And, in general, if you have good enough income, have lived in your home for a while, and haven’t borrowed against your growth in equity, you may still be a good candidate for refinancing. (I’ll write more about this in a future article).
It’s a completely different world for mortgage refinancing than just a month ago.
Factoring together loss of income, lower real estate values, tougher appraisals, and lower loan-to-value ratios, it’s not hard to understand why the landscape for mortgage refinances has cooled considerably. Some refinances for specific types of borrowers will still be possible, but most of the typical cash-out deals we’ve seen for the last several years using home equity to solve debt problems, or large cash needs, are going to be fewer, and much harder to do.
Final word on this topic comes from respected industry veteran Ron Butler, who says, “Nothing will be the same for maybe the next two years. The old world of lending is gone.”
61% of first-time and repeat homebuyers in Canada were female, according to the 2019 Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) Mortgage Consumer survey. This is backed up by statistics coming out of the US as well. Single women made up 17% of homebuyers in 2019, according to the National Association of Realtors, while single men accounted for about 9%.
“I’ve definitely seen a shift, with more women showing interest in buying a home. The whole concept of waiting till you’re married to own a home is not as strong as it used to be,” said Rakhee Dhingra, CEO of Mortgage Savvy.
After having a negative experience buying her first home, Dhingra decided to get into the mortgage business herself and created Mortgage Savvy in 2016. Since then, she has been committed to changing the transactional nature of the mortgage process. She is specifically interested in helping the growing number of women homebuyers become more confident in applying for mortgages through different initiatives like hosting homebuyer events and seminars.
“More single women are buying homes and even women in relationships are applying for mortgages as the more-significant income earners. Women are showing up as very strong from a financial standpoint,” she said. On top of that, Dhingra has also noticed in the case of couples going through a divorce, there’s a rising number of women who are buying out their male counterparts so they can stay and own their primary residence.
Not only is she focused on helping women into their dream homes, Dhingra also wants to encourage other female professionals to consider mortgage as a career option. Even though it’s a historically male-dominated industry, she believes her emphasis on building real relationships and the ability to connect with her clients has really been the key to her success. She believes the industry needs more of that.
“I always make an effort to be available if a new professional reaches out for coaching or support. Several women who were part of my team have grown their career and eventually moved on to build their own business, and I really support that,” she said. Dhingra said while she hopes to be a mentor for many young women in the mortgage business, she didn’t really have that opportunity when she was starting out not too long ago.
Dhingra is known by her team and referral sources for calming demeanor and her ability to ease people’s anxiety during the intimidating process of either buying a home for the first time, doing a refinance, consolidating debt or going through a divorce.
“If I can provide concrete information in a digestible manner for clients, and keep them calm through the process, that’s the key. We keep communication timely and detailed, which helps eliminate a lot of the stress,” she added.
In 2019, Dhingra was chosen by CMP as a Women of Influence. The recognition has been incredible positive for her and her business, but what she is most proud of is being able to show her daughter her success.
Dhingra also puts her money where her mouth is. Fifty dollars from ever transaction at Mortgage Savvy goes toward supporting local causes in Toronto, including the Red Door Family Shelter which assists families, refugees and women who are fleeing violence.
In the future, Dhingra hopes to help promote a stronger balance in the mortgage industry by bringing more women in.
“There needs to be more opportunity for collaboration and networking for not just women, but the industry as a whole. There needs to be a safe place for people to share information and knowledge without being seen as competition or a threat.”
Source: Mortgage Broker News – by Kasi Johnston6 March, 2020
When it comes to the division of property in Ontario after a common law relationship comes to an end, many people believe that they benefit from the same legal rights as any married couple, especially when children are involved.
It’s true to say that legal rights pertaining to children will be the same as if you were married, however, the biggest difference between married and unmarried couples is that you’re not automatically entitled to make any claim to the property you’ve shared and possibly contributed to, nor do you have an automatic right to live in the home that you have resided in.
When am I entitled to make a claim on a property owned by my common law partner?
Firstly, you would need to be considered to be in a common law relationship according to the Family Law Act and then you would need to provide evidence to prove monetary or another contribution, such as your time, which significantly bettered the household and benefited your common law partner. You may also have a claim if you can establish that the manner in which you operated as a couple greatly prejudiced you while benefiting the other side; thereby entitling you to have an interest in their property.
How do I know if I’m in a common law relationship?
The rules around this vary from province to province but in Ontario, this usually comes down to the length of the relationship and whether any children are involved. If there are no children involved, you are required to have lived together for at least three years before being deemed to be in a common law relationship and where there are children from the relationship, this time may be reduced to one year, although every case is different.
How can I prove my contribution to the household?
This is where the division of property becomes more complex in a common law relationship scenario as the responsibility falls upon the non-owner of the property to provide evidence of their contribution.
Most people in this situation will need to consult a lawyer to represent them in court as it becomes a matter of contract law as opposed to family law. If you feel as though you’ve made a valuable contribution, monetary or otherwise, over the course of the relationship, there are essentially two claims that you might be able to bring to court; unjust enrichment and constructive trust, both of which have different factors that need to be proved for the judge to make an award.
Protecting your interests
Whether you’re in a relationship and about to move into a property owned by your partner or, already in this situation and concerned about protecting your interests, there are ways in which you can be proactive and feasibly avoid the need for court should the worst happen.
Cohabitation Agreements can be drawn up by an experienced family lawyer, outlining how property should be divided if the relationship were to break down. Although this might seem like an awkward conversation at the time, once you and your partner have come to an understanding about where you both stand, it’s much less stressful to address it at the start of a relationship than it is when things may have become strained. You can get a sample cohabitation agreement but you will each need your own lawyer to advise on what your legal rights and obligations are under it for it to be legally binding in Ontario.
If you’re already going through the process of separation from a common law partner, the other arrangement that you could make is a Separation Agreement. As long as the parties are able to agree, a well drafted agreement sets out how the property is to be divided and can again save on time and money in going to court, but it is also enforceable by court should the need arise (again, so long as each party has made full financial disclosure and had independent lawyers acting for them).
Need advice on your particular situation?
If you want to understand how to best protect your assets or you need some help determining what you might be entitled to, contact our team today to book your free consultation with a member of our Family Law team.
Epstein & Associates, Barristers and Solicitors – Posted on August 12, 2019
As the cost of living soars, more couples are cohabitating, even getting married sooner. But, as Statistics Canada showed, there were 2.64 million divorced people living in Canada last year, and when you throw a family gift into the mix, things get hairy.
“Family gifts are a very complicated area of the law and there are two different ways of looking at it,” said Nathalie Boutet of Boutet Family Law & Mediation. “A gift received before marriage is treated as a pre-marriage asset. There’s a huge exception if that gift is the matrimonial home.”
In other words, pre-marital exclusions don’t apply to matrimonial homes—the reason for which is to rectify a historical transgression that saw women spend most of their time in the matrimonial home but have their name excluded from title, effectively leaving them no recourse upon divorce.
“Parents who want to give money to their child need to understand before marriage that if it goes into a matrimonial home, they end up sharing that with their spouse if there’s a separation,” said Boutet. “If the parents have a condo and they give it to their child who gets married, that becomes equal sharing with the spouse. A parent should understand that first and have a conversation with their child. Sometimes when a person owns a house, they ask the person to sign a marriage agreement as a way to get themselves out of that mess should it ever occur.”
Boutet recommends that in-laws-to-be have the dreaded conversation about signing an agreement that will protect them from relinquishing their asset in the even their child gets divorced.
“I often get called in when parents still own a home and let someone go live in it,” said Boutet. “Sometimes, for planning, have them sign a prenup, or a cohabitation agreement if they’re not going to get married. At the time they begin living together, sign the agreement in case they separate.”
Another interesting scenario divorced couples and their in-laws sometimes find themselves in pertains to cottage ownership. What happens if the couple is married for a period of time during which the cottage was renovated with contributions from the outgoing spouse?
“I have a case right now where the parents own a cottage and the family has been using it for upwards of 30 years, but their child is getting divorced and his wife wants to know what her rights are to recoup renovations,” said Boutet. “The husband’s parents had been very well-advised by their own lawyers and, because they paid for all the materials, the wife could not pinpoint any specific expense she paid out of her own pocket. It was determined that she had done a little here and there, and it offsets the cost of free accommodations she’s had over all the years—she didn’t pay for the land, heating, repairs, things of that nature. So she was entitled to nothing.”
They say about half of all marriages end in divorce—whatever the figure, complications arise when it comes to dividing assets like homes, and determining who keeps making mortgage payments.
“It’s a commercial transaction irrelevant to marital status,” said Nathalie Boutet of Boutet Family Law & Mediation. “If one person moves out and the other stays in the house, they still have an obligation to pay the mortgage to the bank, so the sooner the separating spouses make an arrangement the better because it could impact credit rating.”
According to Statistics Canada, there were roughly 2.64 million divorced people living in Canada last year—a figure brokers may not find surprising. While divorcing couples often fight over their marital home as an asset, the gamut of considerations is in fact more onerous.
“With the stress test, it’s a lot harder,” said Nick Kyprianou, president and CEO of RiverRock Mortgage Investment Corporation. “The challenge is qualifying again with a single salary. The stress test adds a whole other level of complexity to the servicing.”
Additional complexities include a new appraisal, application, and discharge fees.
“If you have a five-year mortgage and you’re only two years into it, there will be some penalties,” said Kyprianou. “Then there’s a situation of whether or not the person will qualify as a single person for a new mortgage.”
As an equity lender, RiverRock has welcomed into the fold its fair share of borrowers whose previous institutional lender wouldn’t allow one of the spouses to come off title because they were qualified together.
If one spouse is the mortgage holder and the other is not, Boutet explains how the law would mediate.
“Let’s say she owns the house and he moves in and pays her something she would put towards the mortgage but it’s still below market rent, she’s effectively giving him a break,” she said. “Would part of his rent go towards a little equity in the house because he helps pay the mortgage? Or is he ahead of the game because he pays less than he would to rent an apartment? What they have decided in this case is that a percentage of his payment will be given back to him as compensation for helping her out with her mortgage and he will never go on title.”
Boutet recommends that cohabitating couples, one of whom being a mortgage holder, should have frank discussions at the outset about where the rent payments go.
“Sometimes the person who pays rent has a false understanding of paying the mortgage. They have a misunderstanding of what that money is going towards.”
When divorcing partners divide their assets, the split isn’t always as fair as it first appears. Here’s what you need to know.
Two weeks after his divorce, Phil Doughty received a blunt letter from his ex-wife’s lawyer. It informed him he’d contravened his settlement by not giving his ex her $100,000 share of his pension within 10 days of the divorce.
“It was a knockdown punch,” says the retired teacher from Montreal. “I had no idea I had to pay her right away, or that the money would come directly out of my pension fund.” Doughty thought his ex would simply get a share of his benefit after he stopped working. “I’d never heard of a company taking money out of a pension eight years before retirement.”
With his pension fund depleted, Doughty’s monthly cheques were reduced by over a third when he eventually retired, yet he was still required to pay spousal support from what remained, leaving him strapped. “I had to find another lawyer to help me get out of those support payments I couldn’t afford anymore.”
Doughty (we’ve changed his name, and those of all the featured subjects in this article) believes his pension arrangement should have been handled differently—at the very least it should have been explained to him properly. “I guess it was just something the lawyers worked out between them,” he says. “My lawyer and I never really talked about the pension.”
It seems hard to believe a lawyer would not talk to a client about how such an important asset would be divided, but Doughty insists he would have remembered such a conversation. His situation is just one example of how partners frequently get divorced without understanding all the financial implications.
“Divorce changes a person’s financial situation dramatically and often there is no planning for it,” says Debbie Hartzman, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst in Kingston, Ont., and co-author of Divorce Isn’t Easy, But It Can Be Fair. (CDFAs are planners with additional training in the financial impact of separation and divorce. See “Where to get help,” at the bottom of this page.) “I’ve had clients say things like, ‘I just spent four years fighting with my ex, I have this cheque for $400,000, and I have no idea what that means in terms of my financial future.’”
Surely part of a lawyer’s job entails discussing financial matters surrounding divorce. Apart from custody of children, aren’t money and property the big issues in divorce? “A family lawyer’s job includes giving advice about a number of financial issues, but we are not financial analysts,” says Bruce Clark, who observed many divorce-related financial problems during his 35-year career as a family lawyer in Toronto.
Lawyers may not anticipate the long-term implications of divorce-related financial matters. For example, Hartzman explains it’s possible to have different divisions of assets that all meet the 50/50 requirements of the law but have profoundly different financial consequences for the divorcing partners. Her book includes a case study that presents different ways to legally divide the assets of a middle-class couple. Both are 58 years old, and the largest assets are the house and pensions (his is four times more valuable than hers). In one scenario, the assets are split more or less equally, so the initial net worth of the two partners is about the same. However, her share of the man’s pension is paid out as a lump sum, and the support payments are not structured to reflect the fact his post-retirement income will be higher than hers. As a result, after age 65 the woman’s net worth and monthly cash flow flatline, while the man’s relative financial situation steadily improves. “The person with the pension can end up in a much better financial position than the person with the house, particularly if the pension is indexed to inflation,” says Jim Doyle, a CDFA with Investors Group in Vancouver.
Here’s a different scenario: she keeps the house and gets only a quarter of his pension. To the untrained eye that seems to be simply an alternative way of dividing the pie equally. Yet this arrangement ensures the woman’s net worth stays similar to the man’s for the rest of their lives, without diminishing his financial situation.
Of course, case studies do not translate into rules that ensure ideal financial arrangements for every divorcing couple. That’s why it’s a good idea to consult a financial professional as well as a lawyer if you’re going through divorce or separation.
Don’t assume every asset must be split down the middle. “People often want to split up each individual asset, but not all assets are created equal. It’s usually better to look at assets in terms of how to divide the whole cake,” says Hartzman.
Doughty is not the first divorced person to be subject to pension shock. Many people don’t even realize pensions have to be shared after divorce, says Clark. “In my experience, most people consider their pensions to be their personal property, as opposed to an asset that must be shared equally after a divorce. In a longer-term marriage the pension is often the single biggest asset.”
This was the case for Doughty and his ex-wife, who had sold their matrimonial home shortly before separating. By law his ex-wife was entitled to half the teacher’s pension that accumulated during their marriage.
“Pensions are very, very complicated assets,” says Sharon Numerow, a CDFA and divorce mediator with Alberta Divorce Finances in Calgary. “Defined benefit pensions must be independently valued by an actuary, and the rules about paying out a spouse vary from province to province.” For example, in Alberta there are no longer any provincial pension plans that allow monthly payouts to an ex-spouse when the member spouse retires. Therefore, the only option is to give the ex-spouse a designated value that is transferred into a Locked-In Retirement Account or LIRA (called a locked-in RRSP in some provinces). “This almost always has to be done after the separation agreement is signed, and not usually at retirement,” says Numerow.
On the other hand, Ontario recently adjusted its Family Statute Law in the opposite direction. Now a portion of a person’s pension payments can be made directly to an ex-spouse after retirement. Another possibility is for the spouse without the pension to get another asset equal to the value.
Bottom line, don’t underestimate the potential for misunderstanding pension division. It’s important to work with your lawyer to understand the legal issues, then talk to a financial planner who can help you appreciate the short-, medium- and long-term implications of the division of this and your other assets.
Close to home
Another key, says Hartzman, is determining whether it’s viable for one partner to stay in the family home. There are two main questions: Can one partner actually afford to keep the home? And how will keeping the home affect that person’s financial future?
“Most people I’ve worked with live in houses that require two incomes, so after divorce one person would be trying to maintain the home on half as much income, and often it just isn’t affordable,” Hartzman says. “Can you imagine how hard it is to tell someone already going through the emotional turmoil of divorce that they can’t afford to stay in the family home they and their children are so attached to?”
Sandra Baron, an Ottawa mother of two, did manage to stay in the matrimonial home after her divorce. A financial planner helped her figure out how to pull this off. “My first lawyer really didn’t seem to understand my financial situation,” Baron explains. “I went to see a financial planner and asked if I could afford to buy out the matrimonial home from my husband. He helped me work it out.”
Baron and her spouse had always lived within their means. They had no debt other than a mortgage with much lower principal than they qualified for. That, combined with support payments and Baron’s earning potential (she had been an at-home parent most of her marriage but began doing contract work after the divorce), meant she was able to keep the family home.
The financial planner also gave Baron some tax-saving advice on how to invest some money she had brought into the marriage. Since she had that money before the marriage and kept it in a separate account, it was not an asset that had to be shared equally. However, had she used that money to help pay down the mortgage, it would have become part of the value of the matrimonial home and therefore a joint asset.
This is also the case if one spouse receives an inheritance or gift during the marriage. In most provinces, as long as the money is kept in a separate account it does not have to be divided equally after a divorce. But if it is used to purchase a joint asset, such as a house, it becomes the property of both spouses. (In some jurisdictions growth in the value of the inheritance or gift may count as an asset to be shared.)
Perhaps the biggest factor in Baron’s situation was that she and her husband actually saved money for their separation. “It was almost five years from the time we realized the marriage was likely not able to be repaired that we saved for the eventual separation. Unless the relationship was harmful, I felt it was in the best interest of everyone—particularly the children, who are all that really mattered in the end—to plan and wait so things would be better for them financially.”
It’s a safe bet the path Baron and her ex-husband took is not typical of divorcing couples. Obviously they got along well, even after deciding to separate; they had no debts other than the mortgage and were both well acquainted with their family financial situation. The opposite is much more likely, says Numerow. “It’s common for one partner to know very little about the family finances, and they often don’t know the extent of their debts.”
Lady in red
When Anna Masters, of Taber, Alta., separated from her husband she moved in with her sister and started a new job at a bank. She also applied for a new credit card through that bank, so the person doing the credit check was one of her colleagues. When the Equifax credit report came through, the coworker quietly asked Masters to step into her office. “You are behind in all your bills and credit cards. Most of them are in collections,” the embarrassed colleague said.
“I was horrified,” says Masters. “Even the cell phone bills weren’t paid. I didn’t even know my ex had his own cell phone.”
That’s not the worst of it. Masters’ ex-husband had a line of credit she didn’t know about it, which listed her as a co-signer. Masters says he must have forged her signature on the application.
It’s not hard to find similar tales of woe. Alan Leclair of Winnipeg tried to remortgage his house not long before he and his wife split up. “When the credit check came in the banker said to me, ‘You’ve got debts you didn’t tell me about. You’d better go home and talk to your wife about it,’” says Leclair. These debts were considerable—between $30,000 and $40,000 in unpaid credit card balances. Fortunately, Leclair’s ex-wife eventually agreed to take responsibility for them.
Masters was less fortunate. She got stuck with a big chunk of debt—loans and credit cards her husband was supposed to pay off, but didn’t—as well as the line of credit he’d fraudulently put her name on. “I could only get part-time work at the bank, but I worked every other junk job I could find. It took me three years, but I paid off my share, and in a way I’m glad I went through the experience. I’m in control of my finances now,” Masters says.
The one smart thing Masters feels she did in the lead-up to her separation was to start setting aside money (“Omigod money,” she called it) so she’d have something to fall back on in an emergency. “Even before I realized the full extent of the financial mess we were in, I knew my ex was spending irresponsibly, so I started squirreling money away.” That money—about $3,500, which she kept in a sock hidden under a pile of towels in the linen closet—ended up being used to cover her living expenses during a spell of unemployment after moving to a new town after she was separated.
Leclair did something similar. “I had a friend who was going through a divorce and I asked him for advice. He said, ‘Put a few bucks away.’ So I did.” He hid cash in his house and even left about $500 at a friend’s house. “When the separation happened I was in scramble mode, dealing with all kinds of things. It was comforting to at least know that money was there,” he says.
Clark, the family lawyer, explains any money you stash prior to separation “will still be subject to division, but you will have the use of it while property issues are being sorted out. There is nothing illegal about this as long as you declare the amounts you have put aside.”
It’s hardly surprising that people have trouble working through issues like asset division and debt. But the path to divorce is laden with other potential financial mistakes.
One is trying to settle too fast. “People want it settled tomorrow,” says Jim Doyle, the financial planner. “Emotions often determine the choices rather than making the numbers make sense. I say to people, ‘Let’s slow down and do the math.’” He says it’s common for partners to make hasty, ill-advised decisions about asset splitting just to avoid conflict. “Sometimes in relationships where there is an imbalance of power, one person might simply capitulate, resulting in a financial decision that may have negative consequences down the road.”
Don’t ignore the tax implications. “One of the biggest items that is often overlooked in separation and divorce agreements is tax deductions, such as child-care expenses, and credits that may apply to separated and divorced parents,” says Numerow. For example, a divorced parent can claim one child as a dependent, but both parents cannot claim the same child.
Another dangerous road is trading property for time with children. “Big mistake—just don’t do it,” says Numerow. In addition, remember that spousal or child support and asset division are, for the most part, completely separate issues.
Finally, if you’re a common-law spouse, don’t assume the process is the same as it is for married couples. Generally, legal requirements regarding spousal and child support are the same, provided a couple has been living common-law for at least two years (three in some provinces). However, the division of assets is not automatic, as it is in a marriage, which comes as a surprise to many people, Numerow says. “Go to a lawyer and find out what you do and don’t have to share. Laws concerning common-law separations vary by province.”
One message Clark, Numerow and Hartzman all want to get across is this: both partners should always be aware of the family’s financial situation. If one partner is more hands-on with the money, the other at least needs to understand the big picture. “I’ve met a lot of spouses who weren’t involved in the finances and they’re ashamed,” says Numerow. “I tell them, ‘Don’t beat yourself up over it. Now is the time to begin your learning.’ However, if both partners were on top of the family finances it would make divorce a lot easier.”—written by John Hoffman
Where to get help
Certified Divorce Financial Analysts usually charge between $175 and $250 per hour. “If people do their homework and bring in all the relevant financial information, we can usually get a fairly good handle on the situation in two hours,” says CDFA and author Debbie Hartzman. “For an individual, it usually takes no more than three hours overall. With couples it usually takes three sessions of an hour or an hour-and-a-half each.” She notes that a better understanding of your financial situation can save your lawyer’s time, which is much more expensive.
To find a CDFA, do a web search for your town and CDFA, or visit the website of the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts (www.institutedfa.com) and search by city, town or area code.