Author tells divorcing women: Take the money and run

Esther Berger's brutally honest advice to women going through divorce is as bracing as a shot of Slivovitz:

Leave emotional baggage at the door when it comes to demanding a fair share of the assets.

"I have one thing to say about guilt: Forget it," Berger said. "Get over it."

Berger, a 43-year-old Beverly Hills financial planner with primarily female clients, is just as blunt in her new book, "MoneySmart Divorce: What Women Need to Know About Money and Divorce."

Sections with subtitles, such as "Be on the Lookout for These Dirty Divorce Tricks" and "Resisting Emotional Blackmail," reveal her determination to put the kibosh on noble intentions of fair play when it comes to money.

With the exception of Berger's "Ten Commandments" for smart financial moves, the book is absolutely secular. It mixes detailed financial pointers with old-fashioned sisterly encouragement.

But if she were to write an extra chapter especially for fellow Jews, Berger would rip the cultural attitudes toward marriage and guilt that she believes particularly haunt Jewish women.

Regardless of women's advancement in the 20th century, Berger asserted, Jewish culture still places an emphasis on wives as caregivers. In divorce, this selfless role can backfire and work against women who fear they might be asking for too much.

"The worst thing you can say to a Jewish woman is that she's selfish," Berger said in a recent interview in San Francisco.

But when a marriage is ending, she added, "it's your job to take care of yourself."

One might assume Berger's candor about divorce springs from personal experience. Not so. She has been married for 22 years and has raised three sons.

But as a first vice president at investment firm PaineWebber, she has met woman after woman who learned harsh lessons during divorce proceedings — and ended up with a raw deal.

She has heard of the man who transferred all the family's savings into his own account two days before he filed for divorce, leaving his wife broke. She knows of the husband who asked his boss to withhold part of his salary until after the divorce, so his income appeared lower and his wife wound up with a smaller settlement.

Berger decided to write the divorce book while promoting her 1993 book of financial tips for women.

Women kept coming up to her and saying: "Where were you when I was getting my divorce? There is nothing out there to help women."

As a modern Orthodox Jew active in the community, Berger is also aware of obstacles specific to observant women. She talks openly about the problems that some observant women endure trying to obtain a get — the legal document that a husband must approve in order for the couple to divorce under halachah, or Jewish law.

Without a get, an observant woman cannot remarry.

Observant men know that a get can be used to coerce their wives into forfeiting assets as part of the civil divorce settlement, Berger said.

"The issue of get is heinous in my opinion," Berger said. "Gets shouldn't be used to hold a woman hostage…it's very ugly."

Her advice: Find a Jewish attorney who knows halachah and obtain the get before the details of the civil settlement become an issue.

To avoid the dilemma altogether, Berger counseled, observant women should include language in a prenuptial agreement stating that a get will be given freely.

"It makes the get a non-issue," she said.

She also advises Jewish women pondering prenuptial agreements to head to a good Jewish attorney, not a rabbi who might just say: "You're not going to get divorced."

Berger is adamant that women, Jewish or not, should use prenuptial agreements to protect their financial interests.

However, this may be the hardest advice for women to follow. Even the most financially savvy women fear they'll insult their fiancés by raising the possibility that the marriage might fail, Berger acknowledged.

But half of all marriages end in divorce, Berger noted, so women shouldn't presume that any marriage is fool-proof.

"They believe it's an issue of love and trust," she said. "I think it's denial."