I am often asked questions like “Do I have to go back to work after our divorce when we agreed I would I care for our children?”

Many couples, while together, make a decision that one parent will leave their employment/career to stay home once they have children. Sometimes one parent decides to stay home against the wishes of the other parent. In any event, the decision is made because one or both parents feel it is in the best interest of their child(ren) that a parent stay at home full time.

When a relationship ends, parents are often forced to re-examine their parenting decisions, priorities, and choices most frequently for economic reasons as they may feel they cannot afford to meet their respective financial needs on one income when they are faced with paying for two residences, and the added expenses of living apart. That may or may not in fact be true.

The parent who has stayed at home, sometimes for many years, has in many cases sacrificed their career to stay at home with the children and that parent may feel very invested in that role and resentful that they are being told they need to return to work. The parent who has stayed at home raising children may have an emotional attachment to that parenting role which can make it very difficult for that parent to see themselves having that role taken away. This is especially true when it is the other parent that is ending the relationship and is now asking them to return to work. The stay at home parent may have also been out of the workforce for a lengthy period of time, and may have some very real challenges restarting a prior career or creating a new career path.

For the parent who worked outside of the home, they often feel overburdened with being the sole source of financial support for the family especially when there are not enough resources. That parent often becomes frustrated with the stay at home parent because they may no longer place the same value on the stay at home parent’s role and they may want the stay at home parent to begin to contribute financially to reduce the financial strain on the family. They may also be resentful that the stay at home parent has more time with the children because they have to work outside of the home and are away from the children more than they would want.

In other words, there are a lot of emotions that are triggered around this issue in addition to the financial issues. When parents end their relationship, and move into two separate residences, the costs for the family usually increase substantially. For some families, they cannot financially survive separately if both parents are not generating income.

If there are adequate resources, parents are better able to consider whether their choices for one parent to stay at home can continue. If there are not adequate resources, there are ways for families to adjust their expectations around how they live by, for example, reducing their standard of living in order to prioritize having a parent to continue to stay at home. Outside of a court setting, parents have a lot of flexibility and creativity in how to prioritize what is important to them both when it comes to raising their children.

If this issue is in front of a judge, unless there are extraordinary circumstances, such as a special needs child, or a disability, the judge is likely to order the stay at home parent to return to work “as soon as practicable.” What that really means and how quickly that can be accomplished is very specific to each family.

The court may order the stay at home parent to participate in a vocational evaluation to help the judge understand what the best path might be towards gainful employment. The judge can also make what’s called a seek work order requiring best faith efforts at a job search.

Ultimately, if a person refuses to return to work, in a court setting, the judge can impute income to that person based upon what they could be earning at the time when setting child and spousal support. Then, it would be up to that parent to either return to work or reduce their standard of living if they want to continue to stay at home to raise their children.

When facing this issue, the best way to approach it is with as much information as possible by using professionals to help you evaluate what is possible both emotionally and financially, and focusing on your family’s needs first.

Lissa Rapoport, JD is a family law attorney practicing in Marin and San Francisco Counties.  More information in her bio on the “Find A Professional” page.