America’s No. 1. Unfortunately, it’s for a troubling trend. According to statistics, the U.S. has the highest divorce rate, with 45-50% of first marriages ending in dissolution. The numbers only get worse for those who choose to exchange vows multiple times, with a 60-67% failure rate for second marriages and a 70-73% failure rate for third marriages. With the average divorce proceedings in the U.S. lasting about a year and lawyer’s fees ranging anywhere from $250 to $500 (if not higher) an hour, getting a divorce can be quite a costly process. More times than not, the hardest financial blow hits men, who, in the event the couple has kids, rarely get custody and—traditionally earning more than women—have to pay alimony, hence the old saying, “It’s cheaper to keep her.”
“About 84% of all alimony and/or child support awards go to the wife,” says Palanda A. Brownlow, Esq., a California-based lawyer who specializes in child and family issues. “Unsurprisingly, it’s generally the woman who drops out of the workforce to give birth, raise the children, and maintain the household. And a woman should never be penalized for making that decision simply because the marriage dissolves at some point.”
While the general perception is that men get the short end of the stick in a divorce, the courts actually follow a non-gender specific formula that varies from state to state to determine post-marriage payments to the lower earning spouse, which could be the husband or wife. In determining child support, presiding judges take into account a number of factors, including each parent’s individual earning capacity, the number of children they have together, and how much time each parent spends with the child or children. Spousal support, however, is a bit different. “In many states, including California, there’s no uniform formula used to determine spousal support,” says Brownlow. “This means that judges have wide latitude when awarding alimony.”
Despite the room for leeway, the courts still make their decisions based on specific factors, such as length of marriage, earning capacity of each spouse, the standard of living established by the marriage, and whether or not one spouse sacrificed his or her career to advance the career of their partner. In the event someone feels the ruling is too high or there’s a major financial change, he or she can put in a request to have the payments reduced that will then be reviewed by the judge overseeing the case.
Take a celebrity like rapper Nasir “Nas” Jones, for example, whose monthly child and spousal support to ex-wife and singer Kelis Rogers-Jones originally totaled $50,000 a month, before being reduced to $25,000 in early January. Although those numbers may seem high to some, Lori A. Colbert, a family law attorney based in Anchorage, Alaska (which averages 4.4 divorces per 1,000 people) believes it’s all relative.
“With all divorce/custody cases, everything is dependent on the facts and circumstances of the individual case,” says Colbert. “$50,000 per month may seem high for child and spousal support, but it’s not outrageous [for someone in a higher tax bracket]. I’ve seen cases where one party is an average doctor, dentist or lawyer and is paying $10,000 per month in child and spousal support.”
Colbert adds: “Child support and spousal support can almost always be lowered or raised because it’s based on the paying party’s income. Generally, the state has a built-in indicator to determine when child support can be changed. In Alaska, the threshold is a 15% change up or down to change child support. In states that have spousal support guidelines, there are probably similar threshold numbers.”
Regardless of the potential of payment deductions and caps, the expenditures associated with a divorce are massive. An average divorce can easily cost $30,000 to $50,000 a piece. As a result, some estranged couples find themselves struggling through a rocky marriage or unofficially separating because they simply can’t afford to go through the process of a legal split.
“What we see as attorneys are two different groups of people,” says Colbert. “One group is living in poverty and cannot afford the $150 filing fee and definitely not the services of a lawyer. The second group has not made it a priority to direct their money toward getting a divorce, but once a divorce becomes a priority for group No. 2, we see them because they have found the money to pay for the divorce.”
That’s actually what Paul Carrick Brunson, a professional matchmaker and life coach from Washington, DC, suggests, especially if there are children involved. “The worst thing you can do is to remain in a relationship that is unhealthy and then to grow your child in that unhealthy relationship,” he says. “I understand the financial concerns with the recession and the limited funds families have, and of course the lawyer fees; but the cost to stay in a relationship where it’s emotionally broken is much larger—it’s way more expensive to keep her.”
“Rarely does the decision to divorce come down to something as black and white as finances,” adds Brownlow. “The reasons behind a divorce are often complex and intensely emotional. But, when one or both parties are unhappy in the marriage, someone’s going to start looking for the exit sign, and it won’t matter that the exit costs them a substantial amount of money.”
- What are your thoughts on the finances of divorce? Is it cheaper to stay in a bad marriage or worth the price of freedom? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
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