Monday, February 15, 2010

The Great Recession and the American family

I work in the core of what makes families tick, sometimes like a bomb.  Day in and day out I hear the brutally real life stories of how American families are living, are attempting to survive in this economy.  And I'm here to tell you, by and large we are not doing well.

What we hear on the news I hear in my office several times each week: "we're struggling to keep our home."  Or, "we lost our home."  Or, "we can't afford shoes for our children anymore.  Or, "the church has been helping us out with food."  And these folks, until very recently, were middle class folks, working in regular jobs, living in regular neighborhoods, sending their kids to regular schools.  But now, they are losing everything. 

And the house values have plummetted.  Borrowing against equity was probably always a bad idea, but even folks who hadn't used their homes like a piggy bank are watching their houses appraise at tens of thousands dollars less than they thought, and often tens of thousands of dollars less than they owe.  What do you do with a home that nobody wants and nobody can afford? "I don't want it, you take it," doesn't work well in mediation.

Financial stress is one of the great catalysts toward dissolving a family.  How much worse it is when the couple weren't liking each other very much even before these hard economic times?

I have heard many judges contemplate a time when divorce became so expensive and complex that couples just walked away from each other, not bothering to divorce any more.  The legislature has made getting a divorce ridiculously complicated.  Some judges have thrown up additional barriers for unknown reasons.  Legal representation can get quite expensive and the complexity of the law often makes a mockery of anyone who tries to handle it on their own.

For many people, the day when they just walk away has already come.   For some, that day came some time ago.  I often meet with people who have put off doing things officially (legally).  It's kind of like waiting for a tooth ache to get better or a breathing problem to self-resolve.  It might get better, it might resolve, but odds are, it won't.  Odds are, waiting will just make it worse.

In the practice, waiting will always make it worse because the client doesn't hire me while the times are good, only when something awful has happened, like the mother has moved away with the baby.  "But our private agreement on custody worked out so well for several years.  Now's she's in Michigan and I can't see my baby."  Or another example, "I need a divorce quick because I need to get remarried real soon."  Now it's complicated.  Now its expensive.  Before it would have been relatively simple and manageable. 

There is no great answer.  There's only the best answer.  And you can't know the answer if you don't ask.  Ask your questions.  Talk is cheap.  Not asking?  That can get costly. 

And costly doesn't help anyone in a recession.

Michael Manely

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