The expat financial equation looks healthy for a married couple, but the numbers change dramatically in the case of death or divorce. After I posted Feminism and the Expat Spouse, my dear friend, let’s call her Chloe, shone a light on career decisions from a different perspective. She says, “Giving up our careers, even if it is a joint decision, leaves us vulnerable. The fall-out from a broken relationship is magnified by the financial and emotional dependence created by expatriate life. We are left trying to rebuild our careers and our lives while mourning the loss of our family and expatriate community.”
People work for different reasons. Foremost, we must put food on the table and a roof over our heads. We also seek emotional and psychological benefits: working with others, a sense of achievement, expressing creativity, helping others, problem solving or other forms of self-fulfillment. In an expat scenario, the working spouse usually earns enough to alleviate the financial need and in some countries, the trailing spouse can’t work due to visa requirements or lack of suitable employment. So, often, the trailing spouse foregoes paid employment and turns to volunteering, treats a hobby as a job and/or focuses on their families. These are wonderful lifestyle choices—I’m all for it, I’ve done it myself—but if I had to support myself financially, I’d be in dire straits.
In Chloe’s case, she loved her job. Throughout all her expat moves, she worked and continued her education. When she returned to the United States 17 years later, she struggled to find a job due to her lack of recent corporate experience relative to her seniority. Undeterred, she returned to study and completed a Masters. After that, employers said she was overqualified.
And then she got divorced. No one starts off expecting a marriage break up, certainly not Chloe. She never saw it coming, never anticipated her husband having an affair. Besides the emotional trauma of a broken heart, she now feared for her financial future.
Now let’s chat about divorce law. Every country treats division of assets, child support and spousal support differently. In Australia, assets are split based on the length of the marriage, what each partner brought to the marriage, contributions during the marriage (looking after the family is given weight along with being a bread winner) and potential future earnings. Child support is based on who looks after the kids, schooling requirements and other details. Spousal support is lower than in many other countries and usually terminates after three or four years.
As an example, say Fred and Sarah make a joint decision for Sarah to stay home while Fred builds his career. If they divorce after 20 years, Sarah might get 60-70% of the joint assets to recognize that giving up work to support the family will cost her in future earnings. Fred can continue earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, while Sarah will be virtually unemployable.
Family lawyer, Sally Nicholes, says, “Consideration is given for career sacrifice in division of assets and spousal support, but it can never really fully compensate for the loss of a livelihood.”
Chloe finally found a job because somebody recognized the value of her overseas experience. She now makes ends meet, but it’s a struggle and her lifestyle has significantly diminished. The legal process to obtain spousal support was intrusive to the point of being humiliating. Her husband asked the court to order a career evaluation. His lawyer tried to get the judge to make her quit her job and find a more lucrative one. There was no recognition for how hard it had been to transition back into the corporate setting.
So, does Chloe regret her expat years? Not one bit. “The experience was full of amazing opportunities and beautiful people. But there are things I would have done differently. I should have had a better understanding of our finances. I let him handle everything.” She believes it is important for people who relinquish their occupation to be aware of the repercussions. If she hadn’t continued her career to the extent she was able, she would have been in an even worse predicament.
Chloe talks abut her mother—a role model who survived many hard knocks. Her advice was to always keep working, for self-worth and self-reliance, even when in a secure marriage and a strong financial position. She understood the value of maintaining choices. A wise lady. With financial independence, comes a degree of freedom. Enjoy those expat years, but make decisions wisely, and take every step possible to keep your career viable.