Eliza, 31, wants a divorce. Both she and her husband, Sam, have changed a lot since they got together in their early 20s. She’s tried everything she can think of to repair their relationship — couples therapy, individual therapy, lots of soul-searching — but nothing can fix the fact that she just doesn’t love him anymore. She’d like to have kids someday, and can’t picture raising them with Sam as a father. In fact, she can’t envision their future together at all.
The problem is Sam makes a lot more money than Eliza. She teaches English at a high school, and she’s dependent on Sam’s income (he’s an investment banker) for a part of their expenses, including the mortgage on their house. She feels trapped and guilty, and wishes she’d maintained more financial independence. She also knows that Sam will be hurt and angry when she confronts him about her desire to end things, and she’s worried he’ll be vengeful. How can she get divorced without losing everything that she’s built her life around?
In some ways, divorces aren’t so different from weddings. They can be quick and cheap — just a few hundred bucks — or they can be giant, expensive affairs that devour vast reserves of emotional energy and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Either way, they tend to cost more than you anticipate and unless you have a prenup (which only 3 percent of married couples actually get, and come with their own set of problems), it’s impossible to plan for a divorce, let alone budget for one.
That’s why your first step is to stop feeling bad that you aren’t better “prepared.” Could you have made different financial decisions in your 20s that put you in a stronger position right now? Maybe, but there’s nothing you can do about it now. Divorce law states that you’re entitled to a portion of what you and Sam share, and feeling guilty for wanting to claim it shouldn’t stop you. “Women shouldn’t shy away from bargaining hard,” writes economist Kate Bahn. “We are more socialized to prioritize relationships at the expense of our financial security, and I’ve seen many women try to avoid conflict in divorce and therefore not get what they are legally entitled to.”
Bahn would know. Three years ago, her husband walked out, thrusting her into a financial bind: She had recently decided — with her husband’s encouragement — to quit her job to focus on her dissertation while he supported them. Without him, she couldn’t pay rent, let alone afford legal counsel. But before putting her Ph.D. on hold to frantically search for a job, Bahn discovered that she was entitled to support during divorce proceedings. This is known as pendente lite relief: The less-monied spouse (usually a woman) can petition the court to receive “reasonable” coverage for legal fees and living expenses until a divorce agreement is finalized. This is something you should consider.
This is no time to conflate your rights and your regrets, Eliza. What’s legal and what weighs on your conscience may be two very different things, and you can probably guess which one will look different in hindsight. Research shows that the financial effects of divorce hit women much harder than men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, married women make an average of 10 percent less than their single counterparts — even after controlling for other factors like education, experience, IQ, and number of children — while married men earn a whopping average of 44 percent more than bachelors. Sure, one could argue that it isn’t Sam’s responsibility to make up for structural sexism in your divorce settlement — but should you have to pay the price instead?
The cost of your actual divorce proceedings will vary from state to state. Once an attorney is on the clock, the minutes add up quickly, which is why it’s common — not to mention cheapest — for people to try to avoid counsel entirely. Self-representation is known as a pro se divorce (pro se is Latin for “for oneself”), and it’s a perfectly decent option when the split is “uncontested,” meaning neither party wants alimony and there are no children or major assets to squabble over. You just fill out the proper paperwork, often available online, and pay a filing fee (somewhere in the neighborhood of $300, depending on your state).
Since you and Sam own a house together and have disparate incomes (and you seem doubtful that he’ll go quietly), a pro se divorce isn’t the best idea, as there’s more at stake. So, stop right there and go find legal counsel. Most lawyers will offer a free consultation. Go without Sam and bring documentation of all your financial assets. Almost everything that you and/or Sam have amassed during your marriage, including income from your respective jobs and things you bought with it. This is called your “marital estate,” and it will be divided between the two of you based on a cocktail of factors. During your initial meeting, an attorney should give you a rough assessment of what to expect. “The lawyer will provide a road map, and tell you what you’re entitled to,” says Laurie Israel, a Boston-based lawyer and marital mediator. “Considerations will include how long the marriage was, what type of marital property you have, and the earning potential of each spouse.”
For your next step, you and Sam will need to decide what flavor of divorce to pursue. Aside from pro se, your options include any one of the following (or a combination thereof), in order of least to most expensive and starting at about $2,000.
1) A version of pro se called an “unbundled” divorce: You engage a lawyer for only specific tasks, such as drafting up a separation agreement, and handle the rest of it yourself.
2) A “surgical” divorce: You enlist a lawyer to represent you with the intention of reaching a quick settlement that both parties will agree on (thereby minimizing legal conflict and go-between).
3) Mediation: The couple meets with a trained professional, together, to come to an agreement (you should also hire your own lawyer to review said agreement and provide advice).
4) A “collaborative” divorce: The couple and their respective lawyers hammer out details through a series of face-to-face group meetings, generally facilitated by a neutral “coach” (often a trained therapist or psychologist), and agree not to litigate during the process. This typically ends with a sound agreement, but if not, the attorneys who represented you in the collaborative process are not allowed to do so during subsequent litigation (this ensures that their objective is “pure” — neither party is secretly trying to be litigious).
5) Arbitration: An out-of-court trial presided over by a lawyer of the couple’s choosing.
6) Litigation: War.
The good news is that divorce litigation has become increasingly rare (in fact, over 95 percent of divorce cases are now ultimately settled out of court). “When I started practicing, lawyers were expected to take an adversarial position on pretty much every issue on behalf of their client,” says Israel. “Now, lawyers are more cooperative, and tend to view a divorce as a ‘problem’ that needs to be mutually solved.”
In Bahn’s case, she pursued a blend of the “surgical” and “unbundled” routes. “I didn’t have to pay my lawyer to talk to my ex’s lawyer,” she says. “I was lucky to have some attorney friends help me neutralize my language, and I was able to propose some reasonable terms to my ex directly. Once he agreed to them, my divorce attorney drew up the settlement.” The total cost of her divorce was $2,500, and she received alimony while she finished her Ph.D.
In general, divorces tend to cost less when there’s still good faith between parties. “There’s a way of discussing things so that each person can get more of what they want,” says Israel. “When people care enough about each other to have been married, you’d hope that this would be the objective.”