Nancy Michaels was 40, a mother of three and a successful businesswoman when her husband of 16 years told her he wanted a divorce. Beyond the emotional cost that followed his announcement, Michaels eventually found herself shocked by the pricetag as well — more than $100,000 in legal, medical and moving costs.
“I hadn’t planned for his departure,” she said. “I wish I had…Having a safety net or money set aside is smart to do…”
How much does a divorce really cost for the average American? Every situation is different, experts say. “There’s an old saying, ‘Love is grand. Divorce is twenty grand’,” said Ginita Wall, a certified public accountant and divorce financial planner. Wall’s advice: “The best time to get divorced is when you have nothing: no kids, no property. He takes the CD player. She takes the TV. And they drive away in their leased car.”
Every year nearly 2.8 million people go through the emotional and financial trauma of divorce, said Wall, who estimates that most marriages end in divorce before the 10-year mark.
California attorney Kelly Chang Rickert estimates that a divorce “can run anywhere from $1,820 (uncontested divorce) to hundreds of thousands of dollars. There’s always Britney Spears, who paid over $1 million to her attorneys for her custody case…”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest statistics in 2006, the average American family is married, has two children, makes between $50,000 to $74,999 a year and owns a home worth about $185,000. (The numbers change based on geography. In California, homes average about $535,700, 303,000 in New York and $135,000 in Ohio.)
Using those statistics, divorce360.com estimates it could cost anywhere from a low-end of $53,000 to a high-end of $188,00 to divorce. The costs include attorneys fees, financial help and real estate costs for selling, buying or renting a home once you’ve made the decision to divorce. The costs can be significantly cheaper, as little as $1,000, if the couple — usually without children or assets — agrees to forego an attorney and use a divorce kit, which costs about $200. The cost adds up with filing fees and other court costs.
But for a a couple with an average income of $60,000 a year, at least one child and a home worth $185,000, the average cost of a divorce using U.S. Census statistics would be about $53,000. The pricetag would include short-term marriage therapy for themselves and about 20 weeks of therapy for their child. It would also include the cost to hire an attorney, sell their marital home, purchase another at a lower value for one spouse and rent an apartment in the same area for the other. For a couple making $150,00 a year with a home valued at $535,000, the pricetag increases to an average of about $188,000 for 10 weeks of therapy for themselves, 20 weeks for their child, hiring an attorney, selling their home, buying a new one and/or renting an apartment in the same area.
“While there is no true “typical” divorce, the point here is there are many hidden costs — selling your home, hiring an attorney (or two), financial advisors, a new mortgage, it all adds up,” said Cotter Cunningham, CEO of divorce360.com.
The cost of divorce increases, of course, with the amount of income the couple makes each year, the assets they’ve accumulated — from a home to retirement funds — to the number of children they have and the amount of time they’ve been married. Geography makes a big difference in the costs for emotional, financial, legal and real estate help to get through the process, experts say.
And a divorce gets even more expensive, they say, if a spouse lets their anger get in the way of letting go. New York psychotherapist Dr. Jay Granat said seen clients take as little as six weeks or as long three years.
California attorney Michael Heicklen said his typical clients are a working husband, a stay-at-home mom and two kids. They have between $300,000 and $500,000 in home equity, a pension and at least two cars. They’ve decided to end their marriage because they’re fighting about money, sex or an affair.
They underestimate the cost of a divorce, particularly the women. “…TheThe average cost to litigate a contested divorce (in California) is $45,000 per side. I’ve seen more women break down and cry in my office, after hearing my fee structure…than I can count. The men generally control the finances and use that power to try and squeeze the women financially. Many say they’d rather give it to a lawyer to teach the wife a lesson than hand it to her.”
And in the downturn in the economy has had a significant effect on divorcing couples, Heicklen said. “This financial climate is a train wreck,” he said.
Cunningham suggested mediation as an alternative. “Couples divorcing in this market should really consider ways to cut costs. Mediation can reduce costs in some situations. Do your research,” he said.
Divorce financial analyst Cynthia Anderson Thompson said the reality of today’s economy is simple: “Many spouses to be divorced stay in the same home, occupying different floors, rooms” until they can afford to make the financial investment in divorce. “It can work ok or be a stress nightmare for all, but it’s the only way to work it out financially until both spouses are up and running.”