Dec. 26, 2012 at 7:17 AM ET
Going through a divorce during the holidays can be emotionally wrenching, which is why many people don't do it -- they put it off until January.
"People don't want to upset the apple cart over the holidays, and they want a peaceful Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year's. And then, because they don't want to spend another damned year with that spouse of theirs, as soon as the holidays are over they pull the plug and file," says Alton Abramowitz, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
While there are no hard numbers on how many divorces are filed in January, Abramowitz says it's undoubtedly a popular time to act, rivaled only by September, when marriages break up after the summer holidays. Yet waiting for the holidays to pass doesn't all come down to simply wanting a harmonious holiday season. There are sound financial reasons to wait until January.
1. Waiting for the bonus
A husband or wife who waits until January is likely to be entitled to any year-end windfall that might come from a spouse's job.
"In New York, at least, once you file for divorce and you set the cut-off date; anything you obtain afterward is separate property," says Steven Goldfeder, a matrimonial attorney in New York City who acknowledges that year-end bonuses are often fought over, even if a spouse declares he or she wants a divorce in January. "Someone could claim the bonus isn't really for that particular year, but a payment to entice someone to stay at the firm for the future."
2. Cool your emotions
The holidays are a time when emotions run high. "If your spouse always has it in her mind that Christmas was ruined, she or he may not be so eager to settle with you," says Goldfeder. "Your divorce might drag out for months or years longer than it would have."
Once, shortly before Christmas, Goldfeder received a call from a client who said a co-worker had had a baby they both believed was his. The client, married and the father of three, planned to tell his wife and assumed she would leave him. Goldfeder talked him into first getting a paternity test. The client's family had a nice Christmas, and the day after, the client learned he wasn't the father.
Not exactly a warm holiday tale, but by cooling your emotions, you may save your family a lot of stress.
3. Avoid disastrous shopping
December is the shopping season, and that can spell disaster if an angry spouse is set loose with a credit card. "The spouse served with divorce papers may feel that they deserve some kind of emotional gift because of this horrible thing their spouse did to them," says Kevin Worthley, a certified divorce financial analyst and certified financial planner in Warwick, R.I.
An angry spouse may also be more inclined to want to drain the bank accounts and run up the credit cards. "That's a danger any time, but past the holidays, when everything's been bought, there's likely less inclination to buy a big-ticket item out of revenge," says Worthley.
4. Think about April
At year-end, taxes come to mind. "Obviously, the better records you have, the better position you're going to be in," says Andrew Katzenstein, a Los Angeles lawyer, referring to paperwork that you might want to start collecting now.
Katzenstein, who specializes in assisting high-net-worth individuals, businesses and charities, says that in the past there haven't been many tax advantages to filing for a divorce in January rather than December. Filling for divorce is just a beginning step, after all. Many couples end up filing their taxes jointly until the divorce is completed.
But tax brackets may go up in 2013, depending on whether the U.S. budget dispute is resolved. So going forward, the calculus may be different. "The person who pays alimony will get more bang for their deduction buck, and the person receiving the payments will pay more taxes," he says.
5. More time to plan
If you've made up your mind that a divorce is going to be one of your New Year's resolutions, there are things you can do now. Whatever side you end up on -- paying alimony or receiving it -- you need to start preparing.
"You should start collecting all of your end-of-the-year statements," says Worthley. "You really need to know everything -- your household budget, your assets, what's in your checking account, how much you're paying for the mortgage, all of your debts and your credit card balances. It's important to get all of that."
Your financial records will be needed to determine how much spousal support will be paid out, and how the finances will be divided. "The more information you get, the less complicated it'll be when you're negotiating and working things out with a financial mediator, attorney or judge," says Deborah Moskovitch, a divorce coach in Toronto who counts January as her busiest month for new clients.
The turn of the new year can also be a good time to try to salt away some extra money to pay for an attorney, says Worthley.
You don't need to have all of your money affairs in order the moment you and your spouse begin discussing the dreaded D-word. You may want to start the year off with a fresh start by filing for divorce in January, but chances are you'll be lucky to be divorced before that year is up.
"Here in California, if you didn't file by October, you weren't going to get divorced in the next year anyway," says Katzenstein. "And if you decide to divorce in January, it's not like you'll be divorced in February. It's going to be a process."