Love Hurts: The Cost of Divorce

by Kenneth Medford III

Getting married doesn’t take much. For those that want to be super low budget about the wedding, you sign a couple papers at the court, grab a witness, and boom you have forever to be together. Even if you want the fairytale wedding, there’s no need for a lawyer, judge, or even a priest depending on how you feel about religion.

If you want to get out of your marriage though? Well, there’s the rub. It is often very easy to see the aftermath of a divorce emotionally on most people. What we don’t always see is the devastation the cost of divorce can have on someone’s finances.

Why Is It So Expensive?

Long story short: outdated legal procedures. This excerpt from The Atlantic really shows how ridiculous the divorce process is from a procedural standpoint:

“Divorce doesn’t need to be this hard. In an earlier paper on the topic, the Philadelphia divorce-study authors write that the procedural complexity stems from a ‘state-enforced, cartel-like system’ of lawyers, perpetuated, perhaps, out of ‘habit, neglect, indifference, ignorance, and/or stupidity.’ In other words, the system was designed by lawyers, and lawyers don’t like change.”

Yes, you read that correctly and no, you’re not crazy. As much as people spend on weddings (as of 2019, $28,000 in the U.S., according to data from The Knot), lawyers make it more expensive. After all, lawyers are the gatekeepers of divorce and make it big business. According to a survey conducted by legal website Nolo, the average (mean) total cost of divorce in 2019 was $12,900, increasing to $15,000 when kids are involved. 

The thing is, even if you decide you don’t need an attorney, you’ll still face fees filing the paperwork at the courthouse. These fees can range from $400 in Alabama to $120 in Maine.

Still, one must also consider these costs when considering a divorce:

Personal Problems Raising the Price Tag of Divorce

This is the most volatile element in divorce proceedings. Laws, lawyers, court costs, etc are what they are, but your relationship with your soon-to-be ex-husband/wife can drag this process out to a maddening degree. This quote from U.S. News explains how things can go in a perfect world:

“…try to discuss how you want your post-marriage life to look, and see if you and your partner are in agreement. If you two genuinely like each other – you just don’t love each other in the way that two partners should – you might be able to work everything out, mostly on your own. You’ll still want to each have an attorney look over your divorce paperwork and make sure you haven’t accidentally done something you weren’t intending.”

Communication is key even at the end of a relationship and can help save both of you money, but unfortunately, this is how exes end up eating away at each other’s bank accounts. Pet peeves, bad blood, and unresolved conflicts tend to blind people to how much more difficult they’re making the proceedings. 

Brent Morgan, speaking with U.S. News tries to remind people that your lawyer is not your friend: “Clients get the impression I am there to listen to every single thing their spouse has ever done wrong in a marriage. They will find a sympathetic ear but a hefty bill,’ Morgan says.”

Try to stay focused on resolving the marriage, not fixing or breaking the relationship through this process.

Other costs to consider when divorcing

Start tracking and budgeting for your expenses with the money app.

1) Living expenses

This may be obvious, but you’ll notice a steep rise in living expenses after a divorce. You’ll have to cover rent/mortgage, utilities like water, electric, and gas on your own. Household income may be slashed if you are going from a two income household to one after divorce. That combined with the living expenses from two separate households, you may notice some increased financial stress.

2) Spousal support and child support

If you’re going to pay spousal support or child support, that’s something else to budget for after the divorce

3) Dividing debts

Examine your credit reports. You’ll need to identify which debts are shared and whose name is on it. Just as there are many ways to divide assets from your marriage, there are also many ways to handle the debt. You can share the financial responsibility evenly, agree to take on more debt for more assets, or even try to pay the debts off before the divorce. Either way, you can’t avoid it.

4) Health insurance

If you or your spouse had coverage through one of your employer’s, you’ll need to look into the cost of individual coverage. Luckily, divorce is a qualifying event for enrolling in new insurance. Your change in household income may also qualify you for government subsidies. Check out this full length article for what to do if you’ve lost your insurance.

How Can You Soften the Financial Blows from Divorce?

Being preemptive is the best strategy for mitigating some of the damage of a divorce. My second favorite site, Investopedia, puts it perfectly:

“Before you approach your spouse about a divorce or separation, you’ll want a plan about where you’ll live, how much money you’ll have coming in, and how much will go out. You’ll also want to take inventory of your shared financial assets including investment accounts, insurance policies, and other assets like cars, boats, and homes. If you’re a parent, consider how you want to handle custody and what you’d like to tell the children about the break-up.

The more you’ve considered and thought through ahead of the conversation, the more likely you are to get what you want.”

Basically, the best thing you can do for yourself is to be proactive rather than reactive. Get out ahead of what could be over a year of legal back and forth and you can cut down on time and cost. Of course, you can also:

1) Don’t Get Married

Hear me out. . .you don’t HAVE to get married. I’ve been super happy in a 15-year relationship and have ZERO intention of getting married. If things happen to go left, I can just grab my stuff and keep it moving. No muss, no fuss, no lawyers, or courts. It’s not like I don’t have friends that are married and I don’t think any less of them for it, but when I see stories like this from The Atlantic

“Sara met her future husband when she was 18. He struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, but Sara thought marriage would change him for the better. It didn’t. Sara gave birth to two kids before the age of 25, and she says her husband grew controlling and abusive. A few weeks ago, he got drunk and punched her in the face repeatedly, she says, and she realized they had to divorce.”

I tend to tell people to maybe think juuust a bit more before they take that leap. Your finances, your property, any businesses you may create, there are just so many things that become entangled in the contract of marriage that we don’t consider until things go wrong. (And if you money talk is causing you problems, we have some tips.) Not to say that your marriage won’t be forever, but the numbers according to Wilkinson & Finkbeiner Family Law Attorneys 

  1. Almost 50 percent of all marriages in the United States will end in divorce or separation.
  2. Researchers estimate that 41 percent of all first marriages end in divorce. 
  3. 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce. 
  4. 73 percent of all third marriages end in divorce.

Things are not exactly in your favor.

2) Communicate With Your Partner

Just because you’re on the outs doesn’t mean you should go radio silent. Keeping the lines of communication open can help keep things amicable and, as previously discussed, keep time and costs down. Basically, whatever you can do to not antagonize your soon-to-be ex, you should probably go that route. 

3) Start Saving Now

Automate your savings with Auto-Saves

I mean, it’s hard to put it any better than Investopedia did:

“Divorce isn’t something you can do for free. Be sure you have money to cover the attorney and other legal fees. You also want to have a cushion for the expenses associated with moving into a new home or daily living expenses. The last thing you want to do is end up in a bad financial situation and then accept a divorce settlement that doesn’t fully compensate you. If you have money in the bank ahead of time, you’re in a stronger position to demand what you deserve.”

Whether you’re saving for a divorce or more general financial goals, our tips to save more are the same. Here is a list pulled from this article:

  1. Write down your financial goals
  2. Automate your savings
  3. Track what you’re spending daily
  4. Find an accountability buddy, or better yet, get a money coach
  5. Categorize your spending

As they say, hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Even if everything goes as smoothly as possible, you’ll have a head start on your new life. If things go completely FUBAR, you’ll be ready to fight the good fight. Either way, stack that money.

This isn’t going to be easy. One way or another, divorce is going to hurt. Take control of what you can and brace yourself for what you can’t. Check out the links to other helpful articles so you can get through this with your head high and get back to the positive life that you deserve.

Related Reads:

How to Save More Money

How to Get on the Same Financial Page with Your Partner

Ask the Money Coach: What to do if your partner is shutting you out financially

Complete List of Things You Need to Update Before You Get Married

Pre-Nups Explained


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