EP 52: He spent over $1 million in his divorce — Matt Sweetwood of Man-Up Project

"You should assume that you are in for the fight of your life.” - Matt Sweetwood

Today we have a special guest interview with Matt Sweetwood, CEO of BeBee USA. Matt survived a high-profile and infamous divorce in New Jersey where he spent over $1 million in legal fees. On top of that, he had sole custody of his five children and was required to pay lifetime alimony to his mentally unstable ex-wife after an 8-year marriage.

Matt will teach you how to prepare for even the worst divorce, as he says, "Divorce needs to be treated like a business.” He has great tips for how to prepare yourself mentally and physically before divorcing, and teaches you why “picking an attorney is like bringing your car to the mechanic."

This is an episode you do not want to miss!

To contact Matt Sweetwood, visit him at https://msweetwood.com and @msweetwood - on any social media platform.

Full Transcript

Shawn:Today we have a very special guest. I have Matt Sweetwood with me, and he is a very interesting person that you’re going to hear from, not only today, but I know he’s going to be a regular on the Divorce and Money Show. He does three things. He is the CEO of BeBee USA, it’s a social network –he can tell you more about. He’s a Lumix photographer, and he is running the Man-Up Project, and we’re going to get into all of those. Before we jump in, Matt, thank you for joining us.

Matt: Hey! Thanks for having me today. I really appreciate it, Shawn.

Shawn: Matt has a very interesting story when it comes to divorce. Some of the most painful and intense ones that I’ve ever encountered. So, why don’t we start with you just giving a little bit about your background and your experience as it applies to divorce.

Matt: Yeah, I know that. I won’t make the joke that I was going to make. I was going to say “Oh, this is a show on divorce? I was never divorced.” I call that the mental block. It’s so painful I blocked it out. For some guys it’s like coming back from war, they don’t even remember what happened – I sometimes have those moments. I will dig down deep, and I will recall my experiences just for you Shawn.

Shawn:Thank you.

Matt: So, I have a pretty interesting story I think. I was married to a woman, and she was my first girlfriend. I will admit that now because I’m in my fifties, and this was when I was very young. I was in my twenties, I had met her in graduate school, and we can get into why we do this kind of thing when we’re young. We got married right after graduate school, we had children very quickly – it was what she wanted to do and being the people pleaser that I was, I would do anything she wanted, including having five kids with her, over eight years. The only unfortunate part about that is that she had some issues, and as a result of those issues she ended up leaving me and the five children when my oldest was eight and my youngest was eighteen months.

She up and left after doing some “not so good” things, to the children and myself, and abandoned us. Then what proceeded to happen was the state of New Jersey, which is a very pro-woman state. We proceeded with her guidance and the guidance of four attorneys that she went through – some very famous ones, you might even know their names. They proceeded to try and destroy me. They did a pretty good job financially. In that litigation which spanned, I’d say, four and a half years, thirteen motions, twice the appellate court, and one sort of side issue which went to the supreme court, and about a million dollars in legal fees later, she won lifetime alimony on an eight and a half year marriage. Oh, and one minor detail, I won full custody of the children. So she won, which allowed her basically to never work again. I had to raise the children, run a business and pay for it all. That’s the quick version of what happened to me.

Shawn:Wow. Did you subsequently remarry?

Matt: I did subsequently remarry, about five years after I was divorced. And I subsequently remarried the same woman. Don’t think I’m nuts. I’m not a masochist. I didn’t marry the same woman but I married the same kind of woman. From these lessons, I think it actually says in the bible and it’s either the Christian bible or the Jewish bible, “You shall make the same mistakes six times, or seven times,” fortunately I only did it twice.

Shawn:Wow. If I heard you correctly, you said you spent a million dollars on legal fees? How does that happen?

Matt: Basically what happens is… I’ll give you an example of how it happens. I ran a business at that time and it was a photographic distribution business, it wasn’t an amazing business. It never made a lot of money but it was a good business. God was good to me.

So, you go into a business which is very complicated. You have seventy, eighty employees. It does a few million dollars in sales, and under New Jersey law there’s an equitable distribution law. The law says that, “Based upon how long you’re married, and so on, the divorcing spouse gets a percentage of the business.” That is left to the judge’s discretion. I half owned on the business and so in this case my wife was theoretically –because it’s really all up to the judge’s discretion, entitled to a percentage of the growth of the business during the time that we were married. I basically started the business when we first got married and the business was a several million dollar business by the time it was done.

You walk into court and say “okay, what’s the business’ worth?”, and I say, “The business is worth x”, and then she says, “The business is worth 10x.” Then you come to an agreement and you hire an accountant, and you hire a joint accountant. The judge says, “You pick three. You pick one.” That account spends about fifty to a hundred thousand dollars going through your books, and the lawyers spend another fifty thousand dollars arguing up and back. Then the number is presented and then in the lunatic crazy court system that exists in New Jersey, she didn’t like the number that the evaluator came back with –she wanted her own evaluator, which the judge allowed her to do, and then ordered me to pay for it.

Then the other evaluator came in, ironically with basically the same range –it was really funny as I was paying for it all. Then you fight over every financial aspect of the case. There’s psychological evaluation for the children and there’s appeals. So, they made me pay for her attorney, and when her attorney wasn’t doing bad enough things to me she would switch attorneys. When you switch attorneys of course, there’s a whole new start up fee.

Then you show up in court and the judge cancels the motion or he doesn’t decide on it, or he tells you to come back to court. We had thirteen motions and she won every one. So in the end he ordered me to pay. He ended up double and triple dipping on top of that. For example, I was drawing my salary from the business. If I give her, let’s say, a third or a half of my share of the business, in equitable distribution, that business is no longer generating enough money for me to take salary. He still made believed like I was collecting my full salary, and after, you give her, her share. Then, he didn’t decrement the million dollars it cost me to fight the litigation. He made believe like that didn’t happen. On top of that he gave her lifetime alimony.

Shawn:Is this more of a function of the New Jersey process, or the way divorce is handled, or not knowing what you’re going to be getting yourself into when it comes to divorce or any combination of the three?

Matt: That’s a great question. It’s actually all of the above, and a little bit more. So, here’s all the things that I had going against me. New Jersey - I’ll start at the highest level –a sociopolitical level - is really a blue state. It’s as blue as it gets. In the political season I have no problem saying that, everybody will admit that despite the fact that our governor is republican. I’m not making any political comments, that’s not what this is about. He’s republican, and he came because the last governor was a crook, he was a democrat and people threw him out. Basically, we are as blue a state as it gets. In a blue state the judges get appointed by very liberal people. Liberal judges really carry through that there is a war on women going on, and that men have oppressed women since the beginning of time, and it’s their job to write that wrong. They righted that wrong on my arse. That was one fact.

On top of that the judge, I think was a little bit psycho. He was a very jealous kind of guy. You have a guy going into the courts who’s making more money than him, and he didn’t really care for that. I think that he enjoyed punishing me where he could. Adding into that my self, going in naïve and unprepared, not understanding that this was going to be like a WWE steel cage match. I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready physically, emotionally, or mentally.

I had an attorney, and I took the position that I was in litigation with the children’s mother despite how mean and awful she was, and I really didn’t want to try to destroy her. So I had an attorney who was going very gently. In the meanwhile, her goal in life was to absolutely destroy me and her kids. She didn’t care, she just wanted the money. So you put all of these factors –and then on top of that, just New Jersey Law. Some states are equitable distribution states. There’s a whole bunch of laws that go out there, and the laws in New Jersey, are rigged. In fact, Kristy, in about November of 2014, he actually finally got a law passed which prevented judges from handing out lifetime alimony awards. This was a big problem in New Jersey. I have about the worst that anybody has ever heard, but there’s other men that have gotten lifetime alimony awards, on relatively short marriages. So he actually had to have a law pass that prevented judges from doing that.

So I had a perfect storm for a financial disaster.

Shawn:How did you end up paying for all of that? Did you consider something like a bankruptcy route? Obviously, when you have a million dollars in legal fees, regardless of how wealthy you are, and five kids to raise that you have sole custody over, how does that impact you financially? It can’t be easy.

Matt: As a financial guy, I don’t know if you’re going to like this answer but my answer is, it was God. I don’t know how I did it. I somehow borrowed some credit cards, I sold stuff, I worked seventy hours a week, I finagled, I did everything that I could. Somehow through the years, even though I thought I was done, I would just somehow make it. I never had any money, I never was really able to do anything. I couldn’t do everything for the kids that I really wanted to do for them. I wish I could give you an articulate answer, which you could pass on to the listeners so that they can employ the same strategy. Ultimately it came down to “I care for my children. I love them a lot”, I worked incredibly hard for two decades, and somehow I just did it. Keep in mind, I’ll give you the end of the story. It’s perfect timing to do that.

My youngest daughter is going to be a senior in college, at Pace University in New York, next semester. She starts in September, her final year. Her tuition bill is due in eleven days from now. The money I had put aside for their college was gone, but fortunately I had moved to Manhattan, and in moving to Manhattan I discovered I really didn’t need my car anymore. I sold my car yesterday, and that car payment is actually going to make her final tuition payment.

That’s sort of a really good metaphoric example of stuff that I did along the way. Somehow it felt like I was playing a shell game for twenty years. You borrow, you go in debt, and then on top of that I had a business. I was in the electronic business and that business almost went out of business a couple times. Out of desperation, I had to reinvent it. I took more money out of the business at times than I should have –in retrospect I didn’t, at the time I thought I might have been. You know you just do whatever you have to do to survive, it’s as simple as that.

Shawn:If someone knows that divorce is on the horizon, I know most of the people listening are doing their research, they haven’t necessarily filed for a divorce yet but they’re smart and trying to get everything in order before they do it. When it comes to preparing themselves, both mentally and financially, I know we can talk about a lot of different things when it comes to that process but what do you wish you had done that you had not?

Matt: I wish that I was more prepared for the bite. It really took me out. I am follically challenged right now. I just lost all my hair. It’s a little bit of a joke but I did this at the time, not necessarily for the reason that I did it. I was in very bad physical shape, I was an emotional eater, I overate when I was hunger stressed, I’m like a guy with no vices. I don’t drink or smoke or anything like that, so I would overeat. I was in bad shape, and I got myself in really good physical condition and to me that physical conditioning is what saved me. It allowed me to sleep four hours a night, take care of five little children, work, fight the court battle and do all of those things. It put me in the right condition.

My advice to guys is don’t think that the divorce is always necessarily, “Oh my wife is reasonable. We just don’t love each other anymore. It’s going to be an amicable divorce.” Don’t assume that. You should assume that you are in for the fight of your life. Things happen, they lawyer up, stuff happens that you don’t expect. You want to be physically in good shape so you can withstand the stress. We all know that stress does put a physical strain on you. When you become stressed and you become physically tired you make mistakes. I liken it to when we watch sports, what happens when two teams play or when two people are engaged in a one on one match? The person who starts to tire, starts to make mental mistakes. Physical tiredness can lead to mental mistakes. I think a really good analogy is to imagine you got drafted into the army, what would you do if you knew that you were starting boot camp in thirty days? This is the first time I thought about this analogy.

Shawn:You’d work out every day. All day.

Matt: Not only that. What would you do? You’d go read up on what’s required of you, you would ask other people’s advice, you would be mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared for that experience. That’s the same advice I give to men. Don’t just think “Okay I’ll get a lawyer next week”, and they’ll be with it. It’s all good. Do not think that’s going to happen. You need to be ready! Divorce is the most difficult thing that a person goes through in their life, other than a serious illness. I don’t necessarily want to put it on that level, as that would be unfair. It’s essentially as close to that as you can get.

Shawn:Did you have someone you could speak to? Either friends or a therapist? Or some sort of emotional support?

Matt: No. That’s one of the reasons I created the Man-Up Project.

Shawn:Tell us a little bit more about the Man-Up Project.

Matt: So the Man-Up Project came out of my helping other men. I’ve had lots of guys and women come to me for advice. They’ve come for life advice, life coaching, and I’ve started to realize that there’s a commonality, and I was able to help with this.

I have written many articles for the Good Men Project, the Huffington Post, I have lots of videos out there, I have lots of opportunities for people to learn the valuable lessons that take you through life. From men’s perspective we talk about fatherhood and parenting, we talk about dating for single dads, we talk about getting through divorce –I have a lot of materials out there about divorce. Most importantly, my favorite part is the part about having a big life, and what I call having a life worth living. Despite all of this financial horror story that I told you, I had an amazing life. I was able to figure out how to do all sorts of things.

I sit here now and I’m running a big social media network and BeeBee, I am a hired photographer – so I left the photo business and now I just kept the cream, I’m helping other men. I live in New York City, I’m a single guy living in New York City with five successful, wonderful, healthy children who love and adore me, and they’re adults now. I have a great relationship with them, my daughter is coming up this weekend, I had dinner the other night with my daughter, and my son just texted me and we’re having a whole conversation about his career. I have a really big life and I want to be able to share all of this. I sort of translate this trauma that I’ve gone through, and help other people. That’s what the Man-Up Project is about.

I liken it to the woman who’s created Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She unfortunately had a child who was lost, and from that it motivated her to do something and help other people. For me, watching other men go through this and suffer. I’ve watched friends and people that have become friends, and I’ve helped them. That’s what the Man-Up Project is about.

If you go to my website: msweetwood.com. I’m also on other social media platforms as well. Just go to msweetwood.com and you’ll find the Man-Up Project and all the related materials. I’m building it out, and building it out and actually looking to maybe have a TV show about it because this is a very underserved area. People don’t really care about men so much when they go through divorce, in fact, when you hear about a divorce people usually refer to the man as the aggressor and the woman as the victim. That’s really how it’s through about in society. Don’t you agree?

Shawn:That’s the common perception.

Matt: So, the Man-Up Project. There’s stuff in there for women too by the way. I don’t want you to think this is only for men. I write articles about my experience, fatherhood, and divorce, and all that stuff. The number one readers of my stuff are women. Women are always looking for that sort of edge to understand men. If you go out and you look at my articles you’ll see that most of the comments come from them. Guys give me a fist bump like, “Good going dude!” but women read the stuff and question and ask. It’s really kind of interesting.

Shawn:That’s great. So everyone be sure to check out the Man-Up Project. I’ll have links to Matt’s information in the show notes of this episode.

Matt, you have, and we have discussed before some tips for people who are thinking about divorce. We can’t get into depth with all of them right now, and this is why we’ll have you back. Why don’t you give us the abbreviated version of your key things that everyone must do as they think about the divorce process.

Matt: Okay, that’s great. So we’ll start with essentially me repeating what I said before. i.e. you need to get yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared. Physically prepared, if you’re really out of shape, get yourself in better shape. Even if you’re in decent shape, get yourself even in better shape from there. Mentally, understand what you’re about to go through. In other words, you should be planning what this is going to look like. You should even be thinking about what your life is going to look like afterwards. You don’t want to react emotionally to things as they come. You want to sort of think about what’s going to happen. What’s it going to look like? “I’m going be living alone.”, “What’s my relationship with my kids?” and then you want to be emotionally prepared. What I mean by emotionally prepared is prepared in a way to understand that it’s going to be difficult. It’s not going to be easy –it’s unlikely. There are cases but those are few and far and in between. You want to be emotionally prepared for this. Those are the three things: physically, mentally, and emotionally prepare. To me those are very important aspects.

Shawn:That’s great. You had also mentioned to me when we were speaking before, some things about how to make decisions or get your mental state right when it comes to divorce, in terms of just making decisions throughout the process, how to pick an attorney, and things like that. Could you talk a little bit more about those?

Matt: Yeah, of course. And this is part of the preparing process. The divorce needs to be treated like a business, like you’re running a business. The problem is people have slept with the person they’re getting divorced from. We typically don’t sleep with the person we’re doing business with. That’s a different podcast but we’ll move on to that at a different time. You slept with her, you have emotional ties, you may have children with her, and they somehow get “gaga” in the head. You don’t start to treat this as something you want to win. I always say treat your wife like a hard to acquire client. You want to sell her. You want to be nice to her. Even if she’s terrible to you, you want to be nice to her. You want to pick an attorney who is good, if you’re running a business. You just don’t pick an attorney and go do whatever you want. You want to pick an attorney that can articulate the likely outcome of the case, in other words, give you a range of where the case could actually end up. You want someone that explains the law to you. You want to go to somebody who, when you go see him and spend twenty minutes with him, or even half an hour with him, and then speak to him two days later he remembers what you told him. There’s nothing worse than going to an attorney and you give him your whole case and he doesn’t even remember, and doesn’t remember your wife and her name. He doesn’t remember anything about the case, and that’s the worst! That’s why you communicate with him and if not, replace him. This is the way you need to go through the process.

I always say picking an attorney is like bringing your car to the mechanic. You don’t bring it to the mechanic and say “fix it and I’ll pay you anything” or “I don’t need to know anything.” Who does that? You don’t just because it’s so painful, ignore the facts. You want to be on top of your case. Have an attorney you’re comfortable with. You want to understand what the outcome is. You want to manage your case, stay on top of it. Understand all the aspects of it as you go. You manage it like that. Then, with respect to your soon to be ex wife, you want to treat her better in the divorce (I wrote an article about this) than you did in the marriage. You want to woo her, you don’t want to taunt her and make her even more angry at you. She’s probably going to try to kill you anyway. So you sit there and start parading that eighteen year old girlfriend around in front of her, she’s going to do stuff to you that she wouldn’t have even done normally. She’s just going to do it out of spite. You want to think your way through this. It always should be a mental decision, not an emotional decision. Going back again, I can’t emphasize enough. To make those mental decisions you have to be rested, clear thinking, you keep yourself in good physical condition so you don’t wear a gown and start doing things that are dumb –it’s as simple as that. So you want to think your way through it, treat it like a business deal, be smart, and understand what the outcome could be. It’s like a manifesting thing. Say, “This is where I’d like to be. In six months from now, this is what I’d like the outcome to be.” And start focusing on it. Just like you have a business goal, you should have a divorce goal.

Shawn:That’s awesome advice. I think having a divorce goal is one of the best phrases I’ve heard anyone say. That’s an interesting way to look at it and certainly a very helpful one.

Matt: Actually, it just sort of occurred to me right now as I was sort of carrying out the analogy of a business goal. You should understand exactly the point that you want to get to, or you hope to get to and just focus on getting there. Then you’ll start to do things even subconsciously that pushes you in that direction.

Shawn:You have to keep the big picture in mind, otherwise you get lost in too many irrelevant details, or details that hurt you, or not towards that goal that you ultimately envision.

Matt: Right. That’s why in the Man-Up Project, I talk about having a big life. So getting in a screen fight over your wife, over your soon to be ex wife, because she brought the kids thirty minutes late to the pickup point is not going to benefit you in any way. It can’t undo the thirty minutes and it’s unlikely to get her to not do it again, even though you just want to yell at her. So you need to think about, in a way manipulating her. You’re trying to make a sale, you’re trying to sell yourself, you’re trying to sell the outcome.

Shawn:Exactly. The only way to do that is as you said. You have to treat divorce like a business. So Matt, what’s the best way for people to contact you one more time.

Matt: Sure. I am on social media everywhere. I am a pretty heavy social media user. If they tweeted me @msweetwood or go to my website which is: msweetwood.com, they can find everything about me. I am very active on social media, so if they tweeted me or anything on Facebook, I will gladly respond.

Shawn: And you said you’re single, that’s right?

Matt: I am very single, which is a very good thing in New York because there’s a lot of women out here. You promised me by the way. You said if I did this interview you were going to find me a beautiful, rich, intelligent, sane woman. So now, I’m expecting you to pay up.

Shawn: Deal. I have some candidates in mind who I’ve actually worked through as part of the divorce process, believe it or not.

Matt: Just remember the last quality that I asked for. Now, the rich, attractive, smart, successful, those are easy. It’s the sane one again that’s a little bit difficult. Of course now all you women listeners by the way saying, “Oh he’s a misogynist”, I’ve been called worse, trust me.

Shawn:Well thank you for being on the show today, Matt.

Matt: It was a pleasure, Shawn. Thanks for having me on. I look forward to coming on again.

 

Shawn Leamon, MBA, CDFA

Dallas, Texas

Shawn C. H. Leamon is Managing Partner of LaGrande Global, a firm that helps successful families manage large financial transitions like divorce, inheritance and selling a business.

He earned his Bachelor of Arts from Dartmouth College, double majoring in Economics and Philosophy, and his Masters in Business Administration at Spain’s IE Business School.

Before founding LaGrande Global, Shawn helped manage $1.1 billion in client assets at Bernstein Global Wealth Management. He also worked as a credit research analyst at J.P. Morgan. He is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, and he has been an advisor to numerous high-stakes divorce cases.

Shawn is the author of two well-received finance books: Managing Private Wealth: Principles, and Divorce and Your Money: The No-Nonsense Guide, both published in 2016.

In his spare time, Shawn is an ultra-endurance athlete and has competed in events as long as 24 hours. He is an Eagle Scout and a member of the Alumni Board of Greenhill School.