Death is the final stage of life, something we all must face. But many people go through another kind of death well before the coffin. It’s divorce.
Divorce is death of a marital relationship that is supposed to last a lifetime. For whatever reason — broken promises, infidelity or poor communication — some marriages do not work out.
"We did not enter into divorce lightly. We sought counseling. We tried to overcome our differences," says Sue Reddy, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident whose divorce was finalized December 1998. "I gave 100 percent to my marriage. But we just could not get along."
Divorce is big business in the United States. According to maritalstatus.com, a Web site geared toward divorce and remarriage, divorce is a $28 billion-a-year industry with an average cost of about $20,000.
If you’re contemplating divorce, there are short-term and long-term costs you should consider before legally saying sayonara to your spouse. Short-term costs mainly pertain to paying a lawyer, if you decide to hire one. Long-term costs will include financial lifestyle issues.
Do-it-yourself divorce kits
There’s no law that says you have to hire an attorney. You can purchase a divorce kit if you feel that you and your spouse can rationally come to an agreement on who will get what. It’s perfect for the couple who has nothing to dispute and no children.
The kits generally include legal forms that cover a variety of details such as personal property and real estate, alimony and name changes. You file the finished documents with the court and make an appearance before a judge to explain your reasoning. The divorce becomes final when the judge signs the documents.
The kits range from $25 to $70 and are valid in many states and Washington.
"Each state is different, and each one has different legal forms. In getting a divorce kit, I would use caution and get one that is particular to your state," says Ginita Wall of San Diego, a Certified Public Accountant who specializes in divorce.
Getting an attorney
When a divorce is contentious, most couples hire an attorney to ensure that assets, child support, alimony and other aspects are handled fairly and equitably.
If your divorce is uncontested, meaning you and your spouse have worked out the terms, then it’s usually a matter of the lawyer making sure all issues have been addressed. The legal fees are generally lower than a mediated or contested divorce.
Here’s a general rule of thumb: The more complicated and emotional the divorce, the more expensive it will be, according to several attorneys nationwide. Reddy knows all too well how a cantankerous divorce can drive up costs.
Most of the disagreements in her case, she says, pertained to the custody of her 5-year-old son. The divorce ended up costing her $25,000 in legal and court fees. That money, she says, could have been used for more important things.
"That was my child’s (college) education fund," says Reddy. "But I still have 13 more years to save."
Most lawyers charge an hourly rate, so expect to pay between $100 and $450 an hour, says Jan Warner of Columbia, S.C., a divorce attorney for 30 years. Some lawyers may charge as little as $75 an hour, according to maritalstatus.com, with an up-front retainer of $500 to $10,000.
A retainer is the initial fee you pay the lawyer for his or her services. The attorney’s hourly rate is then deducted from the retainer. Once the money is gone, you pay additional money to keep the attorney on your case.
California divorce attorney Marilyn S. Slifman says many couples simply cannot afford to hire a lawyer and are forced to look for other ways to settle matters.
Some couples hire an attorney only for certain services, such as reviewing a settlement agreement or handling alimony particulars. The choice is yours.
There are other lawyer-related fees to keep in mind. Slifman says couples should factor in the cost of the initial court filing fee, process serving and subpoenas. If the case goes to trial, then allow for daily court fees for witness preparation, temporary orders and discovery.
Some lawyers charge for faxing, photocopying, travel expenses and phone calls.
When you talk to your attorney over the phone, even for a minute, it can cost you.
Let’s say a lawyer charges $120 an hour. He may have a minimum billing unit of $30, which is the fee for a 15-minute call. Even if you call to ask if he received a copy of the apartment lease, that 30-second call will still cost you $30.
The true cost of a divorce encompasses much more than just paying off the lawyer’s fees and court bills. Often, the bigger issue is dealing with a drastic reduction of income since your spouse is no longer helping you financially. For some, that can be a challenge.
Wall says it’s difficult for many to adjust to the economic realities of life after marriage. Without the help of your ex-spouse, it’s virtually impossible to maintain your previous standard of living when your income is cut in half, maybe more — yet you don’t lose half your expenses.
Prepare for this blow from the beginning.
"Separate the finances from the emotions. Think about the divorce as a business deal and what is best for you. Formulate goals and work toward them," says Wall.