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Financial Management Strategies for
Women in Divorce Transition

Debra L. Craig, M.S., CPA, CFP®
Graduate Student
Department of Human Development and Family Studies
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Andrew O. Behnke, Ph.D., CFLE
Assistant Professor and Human Development Extension Specialist
Department of 4-H, Youth Development, and Family and Consumer Sciences
North Carolina State University


Although marital dissolution is characterized by economic adjustments for both spouses, women continue to be considerably more economically vulnerable in the transition to divorce than men. Extension educators are ideally positioned to provide effective financial management strategies to women facing or recovering from divorce. This article reviews the literature on marital dissolution in terms of the immediate and extended consequences of divorce for women. We also review the research of professional financial planners to identify the specific content areas in which women in divorce transition seek financial management assistance. Finally we describe five specific financial management strategies (adaptive budgeting, negotiation of the division of marital assets, management of post-dissolution debts, attention to individual retirement planning, and establishment or revision of an estate plan), that have been identified by professional financial planners to provide Extension educators with specific content suitable for interventions tailored to meet the needs of women in divorce transition.

Keywords: Divorce, Financial planning, Financial resource management, Personal finance, Women


For most couples, the transition to divorce is characterized by economic hardship, as the income that supported the marital household must be extended to sustain the spouses’ separate households. Although both husbands and wives typically experience a lowered standard of living immediately following their marital dissolution, research consistently suggests that women are considerably more economically vulnerable in the divorce transition than men (for a review, see Sayer 2006). That is, despite recent gains in the labor force, women continue to bear a disproportionate share of the economic costs associated with divorce, and these effects are particularly pronounced for custodial mothers (Braver, Shapiro, and Goodman 2006) and Black women (Sayer 2006). Indeed, Black custodial mothers may be among the most vulnerable women in the transition to divorce, in part because child support from noncustodial fathers is inadequate (Orbuch and Brown 2006). Among all women, demographic data, including measures of educational attainment and labor force participation, suggest that divorce is most common for women who are least able to maintain a separate household (Sayer 2006). Moreover, the economic effects associated with divorce are widely regarded as deleterious to women’s short and long-term economic security and often not attenuated until remarriage (Holden and Smock 1991).

Although the economic challenges women face in marital dissolution are well documented in the literature, there are few comprehensive financial education programs designed to address this vulnerability. This article is designed to address the needs of Extension educators in three ways. First, the literature on marital dissolution is briefly reviewed briefly to describe the immediate and extended consequences of divorce for women. Related to these findings, potential opportunities for Extension education are suggested. Second, research conducted among professional financial planners is reviewed to identify the specific content areas in which women in divorce transition seek financial management assistance. The appropriateness of interventions in these areas is discussed as it relates to Extension learners’ preferences. Finally, five specific financial management strategies that have been identified by professional financial planners are enumerated to provide Extension educators with specific content suitable for interventions tailored to meet the needs of women in divorce transition.

The provision of financial management strategies to women in divorce transition is important for several reasons. First, demographic data suggest that divorce is increasingly normative. In a review of the literature on divorce, Amato and Irving (2006) cited demographic projections estimating that 50 percent of first marriages and 60 percent of second marriages will end in divorce. Second, divorce is often a precursor to women’s poverty, particularly among single mothers. According to U. S. Census Bureau (2004) data, 29 percent of families headed by women live in poverty, compared to only 5 percent married-couple families. As Rank (2000) noted in his review of the literature on single-parent families, the disadvantages for single mothers— including higher rates of poverty and mobility— often reflect the economic consequences of divorce. Third, economic decline is an identified stressor in the adjustment to divorce for adults and children of all economic strata (Amato 2001). Financial management education that effectively provides strategies to counter the economic challenges associated with marital dissolution may ease the transition to divorce for all women and provide a particular benefit to those who are most economically vulnerable.

The Economic Consequences of Divorce for Women

For most women, the transition to divorce is associated with economic stressors, and, for many women, divorce has many there are short and long-term economic consequences of divorce (for a review, see Sayer 2006). Women with children suffer greater economic declines related to divorce, and they recover from the setbacks more slowly than their childless counterparts (for a review, see Braver et al. 2006). Similarly, women who are poorly educated (for a review, see Amato 2001) and who have few marketable skills (Hetherington and Kelly 2002) are less resilient in the aftermath of divorce than their well educated, gainfully employed peers. However, the most economically fragile of women are also the most likely to experience divorce (Rodrigues, Hall, and Fincham 2006). For these women, the economic consequences of divorce are both immediate and extended (Holden and Smock 1991).

Immediate economic effects
The immediate erosion of women’s economic security in the transition to divorce reflects three primary factors (for a review, see Sayer 2006). First, the reality that both spouses must now care for all household duties (from meal preparation to car maintenance) often leads to purchase of services that were previously rendered by a spouse. Second, the household economy of scale (the economic benefits of sharing a household) is lost. Third, women often lose institutional access, such as health insurance benefits. Further, for women who remain in the marital household, fixed household expenditures are unchanged, but the income available to meet those expenses is reduced. Because four statistical methods are commonly used to account for changes in the family economy of scale, the literature reflects a wide range of observed economic declines in women’s transition to divorce. In an attempt to reconcile these findings, Sorensen (1992) estimated that, in the immediate aftermath of divorce, Caucasian women suffer median income declines from 12 percent to 42 percent, and African American women sustain corresponding declines from 20 percent to 47 percent. Moreover, as Sayer’s (2006) review of the literature suggests, women’s economic decline in the transition to divorce is substantially greater than men’s whether family income, per capita income, or the income-to-needs ratio is considered.

For many women, the years following the transition to divorce are characterized by a gradual recovery of their pre-dissolution financial status. Women ameliorate the immediate economic consequences of divorce by improving their personal earnings, receiving child support from their former husband, and availing themselves of the tax advantages of a non-marital status (for reviews, see Braver et al. 2006 and Sayer 2006). Additionally, for most women, remarriage is associated with economic recovery (for a review, see Sayer 2006).

Extended economic effects
The recovery associated with women’s income immediately following the transition to divorce is not reflected in divorced women’s economic security in retirement. Divorced women, particularly those whose workforce participation is truncated during their years of marriage, are unlikely to have adequate employer-sponsored retirement benefits or individual retirement savings. Moreover, complex marital histories, such as multiple marriages lasting less than ten years each, may have adverse implications for divorced women’s Social Security retirement benefits. The effects of contemporary divorced women’s failure to adequately plan for retirement may be profound: Butrica and Iams (2000) used U. S. Census data to project poverty rates for birth cohorts of women and estimated, for example, that among women born between 1946 and 1950, 16 percent of those who are divorced will live in poverty at age 67.

Designing Interventions for Women in Divorce Transitions

The benefits of educational interventions designed to meet the needs of adults in divorce transition are well documented in the literature (for a review, see Blaisure and Geasler 2006). Although research has been conducted primarily on the effectiveness of programs targeting parents, there is ample evidence that participants value information of the economic adjustments associated with divorce (for a review, see Blaisure and Geasler 2006). Indeed, the active seeking of information is an identified protective factor in adults’ adjustment to divorce (Hetherington and Kelly 2002), and programs providing financial management strategies meet a need that is seldom the primary focus of interventions.

Recruiting and retaining divorcing/divorced women as participants in educational interventions can be fairly challenging due to the additional pressures faced by these women. Employment, childcare, housework, errands, among other things are significantly hampered post divorce by time and financial factors. Considering these circumstances, Extension educators should involve divorcing/divorced women as they plan their programs, and use their feedback to tailor their programs to meet the scheduling needs and circumstances of these women. Childcare, prepared meals, and individualized support may be key to effectively engaging these women. The financial education setting can also function as a type of support group for divorcing/divorced women, that women will be more likely to return to. Building a quality relationship with each participant is essential to retain his or her interest and commitment to the program.

In designing interventions for women in divorce transition, Extension educators may consider research on the financial education content areas in which women have expressed an interest. Drake’s (1993) report on the effectiveness of the Extension publication Handbook for Divorcing Families in Geauga County, Ohio suggests that Extension learners are receptive to financial and legal education in the transition to divorce. Moreover, reports of professional financial planners suggest that women experiencing divorce require assistance in the areas of budgeting, the division of marital assets, debt management, and retirement and estate planning (Maton 1993; O’Neill 1992; Wall 2002; Wilson 2000). However, engaging profession planners may be cost prohibitive for some Extension learners, and interventions designed to meet these needs may be of particular benefit to women for whom the transition to divorce is fraught with financial stressors.

Additionally, emerging themes in financial management education research suggest that these content areas are consistent with the interests of Extension learners. For example, when asked to select the preferred topics for personal finance education, respondents in a survey conducted by O’Neill and colleagues (2000) most often selected “best day-to-day financial practices” and “reducing expenses/living on less.” In the transition to divorce, particularly as spousal and child support payments are negotiated, women may have a critical need for these daily conservation strategies. Retirement and estate planning and debt management have also been identified as preferred areas of interest for financial management education (Joo and Garman 1998). Additionally, Hogarth and Swanson (1995) found that many learners of financial management strategies enjoy small group participation when group members have common challenges. Collectively, these findings suggest that women in transition to divorce may uniquely benefit from Extension education programs that provide financial strategies.

Moreover, programs tailored to meet the needs of women in divorce transition can assist women in reframing the stresses associated with the experience. Divorce is often a pathway to personal growth, and women are more likely than men to pursue these avenues of stress-related growth for a review, see Tashiro, Frazier, and Berman 2006). Indeed, women often respond to the financial setbacks associated with divorce by returning to school, retooling their job skills, and discovering new careers, and many women embrace their newfound financial independence despite its stresses (Hetherington and Kelly 2002; Kitson 1992). Extension educators may be uniquely positioned to provide women with strategies that facilitate a swifter recovery to the financial consequences of divorce and reframing of the stresses as opportunities for personal and professional growth.

Financial Management Strategies for Women in Transition to Divorce

To provide Extension educators with content to consider in designing interventions for women in divorce transition, five specific strategies are enumerated. Although these strategies may be applicable to men in divorce transition or, more generally, to Extension learners who are not experiencing divorce, they are consistently recommended in the professional and academic literatures for women who are dealing with post-dissolution financial stresses (e.g., Maton 1993; O’Neill 1992; Wall 2002; Wilson 2000). These and additional strategies are available in popular press publications, as well, including Surviving Separation and Divorce: A Woman’s Guide to Making It through the First Year (Oberlin 2000), The Divorce Sourcebook (Berry 1998), and What Every Woman Should Know about Divorce and Custody: Judges, Lawyers, and Therapists Share Winning Strategies on How to Keep the Kids, the Cash, and Your Sanity (Smith 1998). Because divorce laws are complex and vary by state, women should be cautioned against substituting general financial management education for personal legal representation. However, the following strategies are often helpful in combating the immediate and extended economic interruptions that characterize women’s transition to divorce.

Strategy 1: Employ adaptive budgeting for transitional cash-flow management.
The transition to divorce often requires adaptive budgeting techniques, particularly when household income is reduced, but fixed expenses are unchanged. Transitional cash-flow deficits are effectively addressed by dual approaches that focus on increasing cash inflows and reducing expenses.

Women may benefit from Extension education that assists them in identifying overlooked opportunities to increase income. Women who are employable may work more hours in their current position, seek better paying alternatives, or supplement their employment with home-based businesses that do not require capital investments, such as providing weekend childcare or gardening for neighbors. Additionally, women may consider other avenues of increasing their cash flow, including having garage sales, asking children to contribute to the household overhead, and leasing to others a portion of the home or farm. Finally, employed women may increase their net pay by adjusting their income tax withholdings to reflect their post-marital filing status (e.g., head of household) or eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Extension educators may also be pivotal in making women aware of the public benefits for which they are eligible. As Rupured, Koonce, and Bales (2002) noted, in the aftermath of Welfare reform, women often fail to take full advantage of public assistance. Additionally, women may be encouraged to seek emergency assistance from other sources, including social service agencies, community resource groups, charitable organizations, and family members.

The reduction of expenses begins by targeting expenditures that are not fixed. Ordering discretionary expenses according to their necessity facilitates their elimination in order of least importance. Because expense reduction often involves the overall adjustment of lifestyle expectations, Extension learners may require interactive assistance in identifying discretionary expenses.

Despite the constraints of transitional budgeting, participation in a private health care plan is essential for Extension learners who are ineligible for Medicaid or Medicare. Women in divorce transition may conserve health care costs by exercising their rights under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) for continued coverage under their former husbands’ group health care plan.

Finally, women may be relieved to learn that many of the challenges associated with the immediate transition to divorce are often temporary. If women in divorce transition maintain a positive outlook, these adaptive budgeting techniques may facilitate longer-term planning that reflects new opportunities.

Strategy 2: Skillfully negotiate the division of marital assets.
Extension educators should encourage women in divorce transition to enlist the services of an experienced divorce attorney. Negotiating the division of marital assets requires the careful identification and valuation of all marital assets, including spouses’ separate retirement accounts and pension benefits.

In the division of retirement assets, it is important for women to understand their rights to former husbands’ employer-sponsored retirement plans. Employer-sponsored retirement accounts and pension benefits are typically best divided in a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO), as QDROs permit transfers of assets for the retirement benefit of non-employee spouses. Because the specific type of retirement plan and the nature of its benefits determine the optimal QDRO drafting, women in divorce transition should be encouraged to seek the counsel of an attorney experienced in all aspects of QDROs.

In negotiating maintenance payments, women are well advised to have child support and alimony properly identified. Although the payment and receipt of child support have no income tax consequences, alimony is taxable to recipients and deductible by payors. Women may also wish to address future support obligations, such as educational funding for children, in negotiating the division of marital assets.

Women may protect future child support and alimony awards by insuring the lives of their former husbands. To guard against these life insurance policies lapsing due to premium nonpayment, women should own the policies.

Finally, if marital assets may be sold to generate cash, women should evaluate the potential tax liabilities associated with their contemplated sales. That is, sales of assets with equal values may result in unequal after-tax funds. For example, the tax liability associated with liquidating an asset reflects the asset type (e.g., personal residence, investment property, or business asset), means of acquisition (e.g., purchase, gift, or inheritance), cost basis, and holding period. Women are well advised to consult a tax accountant regarding the division of marital assets when post-dissolution sales are possible.

Strategy 3: Manage post-dissolution debts.
When divorce involves the division of marital liabilities, such as credit card debts, women are often unduly burdened by making the payments on these obligations as they come due. Prioritizing payments on secured debts, such as home mortgages and car loans, over unsecured debts minimizes the risk of foreclosure. Additionally, restructuring debts, if possible, may lower monthly cash outflows by increasing the periods over which they are repaid or lowering their associated interest rates. Women may also benefit from the assistance of an accredited Consumer Credit Counseling Service.

It is important to note that both spouses may remain liable for debts that were formerly jointly held (such as credit cards that were jointly opened) regardless of which spouse is deemed responsible in the divorce proceedings. Thus, women in divorce transition should be encouraged to close jointly held credit cards and lines of credit and transfer balances to separate accounts when possible. When joint accounts must remain open and former husbands are responsible for their repayment, women should request a duplicate monthly statement to ensure that their separate credit worthiness is not damaged by former husbands’ delinquencies.

Finally, although women in divorce transition should be cautioned against using credit cards to finance their living expenses, they should be encouraged to establish independent credit. Accounts with utility providers, local merchants, and credit unions are often avenues for recently divorced women to demonstrate their independent credit worthiness. Divorced women should also begin the periodic monitoring of their independent credit reports and credit score.

Strategy 4: Design an individual retirement plan.
Qualitative research on women’s experiences of retirement suggests that retired women who did not actively financially plan for their individual retirement regret this oversight (Price 2003). Retirement planning is particularly important for women, as they have, relative to men, fewer economic resources and a longer lifespan over which to sustain themselves. Because the division of marital assets involves the valuation and assignment of both spouses’ retirement assets, the transition to divorce is an excellent opportunity for women to establish or revisit their individual retirement planning.

Women in the transition to divorce may also need to verify their projected Social Security benefits. Women who are divorced after a marriage lasting at least ten years are entitled to receive auxiliary benefits based on their former husbands’ earnings.

Women who are employed should be encouraged to participate fully in employer-sponsored retirement plans. To the extent that employers match employee contributions, employee contributions enjoy an immediate 100 percent return on investment. Effective retirement planning also requires that retirement assets be diversified, and Extension learners should be cautioned against overweighting retirement accounts in their employers’ stock. Lastly, when changing jobs, it is important to rollover retirement accounts associated with former employers to avoid involuntary distributions.

Women whose resources permit annual contributions to traditional or Roth IRAs should be encouraged to save for retirement using these tax-advantaged vehicles, as well. These and other retirement assets should not be withdrawn for emergency needs, as the income tax liabilities associated with premature distributions from retirement plans can be substantial.

Finally, Extension education may help to facilitate women’s commitment to planning for retirement. Like diet, exercise, and preventive healthcare, retirement planning is important to long-term well-being.

Strategy 5: Establish or revise estate planning.
The transition to divorce requires that several estate planning issues be revisited. First, women should reexamine beneficiary designations on their insurance policies, retirement accounts, and savings and investment accounts. During marriage, wives routinely designate husbands as beneficiaries, and women may wish to change these designations prior to or in the aftermath of divorce.

Additionally, as women in divorce address their individual comprehensive financial planning needs, a number of legal documents should be drafted or amended. These include wills, revocable trusts, living wills, durable powers of attorney, and health care powers of attorney. Women should be encouraged to meet with an estate planning attorney in their state of residence to ensure that these documents are properly drafted and executed. Once executed, these documents should be safely stored, and women’s representatives should be given access to them.

The Emotional Context of Financial Management in Women’s Transition to Divorce

The transition to divorce is typically tumultuous, and women may feel particularly burdened by post-dissolution financial management challenges. One-on-one support to help women cope during this time might can ameliorate the emotionally difficult decision faced by many divorcing women. . For example, adaptive budgeting may necessitate stressful redirections, including selling the marital home and seeking new employment. Extension educators are encouraged to be sensitive to the emotional context in which women in divorce transition are challenged to employ sound financial management strategies.

There is also compelling evidence suggesting that financial management education is most effective when learners develop a sense of financial control. That is, financial empowerment may contribute to a more general sense of well-being in the wake of economic interruptions (Rettig, Leichtentritt, and Danes 1999). In the transition to divorce, many women experience a newfound sense of independence in the management of their everyday lives, including management of their household and economic affairs (Schneller and Arditti 2004).


Although marital dissolution is characterized by economic adjustments for both spouses, women continue to be far more economically vulnerable in the transition to divorce than men. Particularly among women who are disadvantaged in the labor market and those who are custodial mothers, the transition to divorce is often a time of economic hardship. The five financial management strategies presented in this article, adaptive budgeting, negotiation of the division of marital assets, management of post-dissolution debts, attention to an individual retirement plan, and establishment or revision of estate plan, are intended to empower women in their transition to divorce. Although a time of economic and emotional upheaval, the divorce process presents opportunities as well as challenges.


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Cite this article

Debra L. Craig and Andrew O. Behnke. 2008. Financial Management Strategies for

Women in Divorce Transition. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, 13 (2).

On-line:  http://ncsu.edu/ffci/publications/2008/v13-n2-2008-summer-fall/index-v13-n2-summer-2008.php

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