The True Costs of Divorce

Kimberly Rotter

Kimberly Rotter | Blog

Sep 02, 2014 | Updated Apr 27, 2016

In a jam? Jump straight down to our “Must Do” Divorce List…Otherwise, begin reading from here.

Notions of marriage are ever romantic and full of hope. But ask any survivor of an ugly divorce, and the heartfelt advice will be to think long and hard before tying the knot, for fear of the mess that can ensue if you want the knot untied. Most people don’t consider the complexities of divorce when they decide to marry, especially for the first time, but it helps to learn from the hard-won experiences of others.

A few unfortunate realities:

  • More than half of all marriages end in divorce, including 41% of first marriages, 60% of second marriages and 73% of third marriages.[1]
  • Couples who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce than couples who don’t.[2]
  • More Americans aged 50 and older are divorced than widowed. [3]
  • Of people who divorced in the last 12 months, more than 1 in 4 is over the age of 50.[4]
  • For professional athletes the divorce rate is between 60 and 80 percent.[5]
  • Lower education levels correlate with higher divorce rates.[6]

While a couple can be married for under $100, average divorce costs nationwide are $15,000 per party. People with sizeable assets can expect to pay ten times that or more before the final decree. The union made during a 20-minute ceremony may take months or years to dissolve. Why are divorces so notoriously expensive and antagonistic? Because it costs money to fight, and our legal system rewards fighters.

An aggressive spouse willing to challenge every detail and to dish out whatever dirt is necessary walks away with winnings. By contrast, a quiet, agreeable or non-confrontational person can easily be left with nothing. Judges make decisions only when presented with evidence, and that means the parties must speak up and offer evidence. Even people who don’t want to do battle are encouraged to do so. Lawyers, friends, family members and others usually argue that the other spouse will launch a full-scale attack, even if you don’t.

Myths About Marriage And Credit

MYTH: Your Credit Reports Automatically Merge

FACT: Absolutely nothing happens to your credit reports when you get married. Your credit reports aren’t updated to reflect that you’re married, nor do your and your spouse’s credit reports merge into one “joint” report. Credit reports are maintained on an individual level and do not provide any indication of whether a person is married, single, separated or divorced.

MYTH: Your Credit Scores Automatically Merge

FACT: As with credit reports, when you get married your credit scores remain separate. Your credit scores are based on the information reported in your credit reports and as I pointed out in the previous myth, nothing changes in your credit reports when you marry. There is no such thing as a “joint” marital credit score, and both parties will continue to maintain their own individual credit scores after the wedding.

One reason these two myths seem to perpetuate is due to how credit reports and credit scores are used when a married couple applies for a mortgage. When you and your spouse apply for a mortgage, the lender will pull all three of your credit reports and all three of your FICO scores for both applicants, a total of six reports and six scores.

Rather than trying to decipher six individual credit reports, mortgage lenders simplify the process by merging the reports together, which often leads couples to assume they have joint reports. This is purely cosmetic and no actual merging of credit scores or credit reports has occurred.

MYTH: You Have To Apply For Credit Jointly As A Couple

FACT: No, no, no.  There is no rule that requires married couples to apply for credit jointly, ever. I’d even go so far as to encourage you to keep your credit separate unless you’re applying for a home or auto loan where you may need both incomes to qualify.

When you apply for credit jointly, both of parties are responsible for the payment and the account will be reported in both of your credit reports. If one person forgets to pay the bill or the account goes into default, both of parties will suffer from the negative credit impact. If that’s not enough to convince you to maintain separate credit accounts, perhaps the next myth will.

MYTH: You’re Not Responsible For Your Spouse’s Debts If You Get Divorced

FACT: Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce and if you have joint accounts, you will be just as responsible for the debts as your newly “x’ed” spouse. Joint accounts are the single most common cause for credit damage after a divorce. Just because a judge may order one party to be responsible for paying a debt in the settlement agreement that doesn’t mean the other party is released from liability by the lender.

A divorce decree won’t remove you from a joint account, and both you and your spouse will be legally responsible for the terms you jointly agreed to when you opened the account. If one party is late or doesn’t pay the debt, both of you will suffer from credit damage. Let me put it this way…it’s infinitely easier to divorce your spouse than it is to divorce your creditors.

Interested in learning more about your credit? Check out our learn section »

Typical Costs To Get Divorced

A do-it-yourself or one-day divorce costs as little as $200. An uncontested divorce in a courtroom might cost $2,000. Divorces that involve division of assets, custody of children and details that parties do not initially agree upon can easily run upwards of $30,000.

Typical expenses include:

  • Attorney
  • Financial advisor
  • Court fees
  • Process server
  • Mediation
  • Real estate fees
  • Temporary spousal and child support
  • Moving expenses
  • New residence set-up expenses
  • Therapists for spouses and children

“When you factor in me returning to school and sending my girls to school, repurchasing many items we did not have for the home, etc., my divorce cost $35,000 over the past year and a half. And we are by no means rich!” Suzette S., Chula Vista CA

Typical Post-Divorce Costs

The time to rethink your budget is before the divorce. When the breakup seems imminent, start developing a new budget and have it ready when you negotiate terms. In addition to the legal costs, one household will become two and each party will be responsible for bills that used to be shared. Here are a few of the typical expenses encountered.

Health Insurance

Health insurance is a common after-divorce cost that goes up for one spouse and down for the other. The Affordable Care Act ensures that no American can be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition, but subsidies are income-based and not available to everyone.

Selling The Family Home

If one spouse ends up with ownership of the family home, he could be fully responsible for the eventual sale costs including staging and all real estate fees, which can cut badly into total equity. Furthermore, if the home has appreciated significantly, capital gains taxes could apply For a couple, the first $500,000 is excluded from taxable income. For a single person, the exemption drops by half.

Renting Or Buying A New Home

At least one spouse will need to find another place to live.

Moving Expenses

Some items will be moved, others will be replaced. Start-up costs associated with a new residence (utility setup, down payment, damage deposit, etc.) add up.

Counseling Or Therapy

Spouses and children may need professional mental health treatment. Divorce comes with big aftershocks that can last for years.

Paid Help That Used To Be Free

Newly single adults might need to hire a nanny or require help with yard maintenance and house repairs. Non-working spouses often need to go back to school to freshen up skills or get a degree.

Childcare Expenses Not Covered By Child Support

Someone has to pay for basics like a computer, perhaps a phone, sports equipment, tuition, college application fees, summer camps, a first car, and any number of things that child support funds alone won’t adequately cover. “My ex-wife pays the mortgage plus enough extra to cover grocery expenses for our son. She could step up and pay for other stuff, but she doesn’t. I don’t ask for reimbursement for everything.” Monty B., San Diego CA

Child And Spousal Support

When there is significant income disparity in salary, the high-earning spouse is often ordered to pay support to the low-earning spouse. However, child support does not depend so much on income disparity and is a common line item for couples with children.

Credit Card Debt And Divorce

Divorce is messy not just from an emotional aspect, but it can also wreak havoc on both parties’ finances, often causing major credit damage in the process. When you’re going through a divorce, divvying up the financial liabilities is part of the process and not understanding how joint liabilities work can cost you your solid credit scores.

In most cases you are only responsible/liable for joint or cosigned debts – meaning accounts where both of you opened the account jointly or one of you cosigned for the other, regardless of which spouse incurred the debt. And even then, during the divorce proceedings, the judge may order one or the other responsible for making the payments on both joint and individual accounts.

However, even though the judge may order you or your ex-spouse to pay a debt, the judges “divorce decree” does not override the original agreement with the creditor. This means that if both of you are on the loan, you’re both legally liable for the debt regardless of what the judge orders in the divorce decree.

So, what about individual debts – credit card debts in particular? Are you responsible for your spouse’s credit card debt even if you weren’t on the account? Rules for credit card debts are different in different states, but there are a few guidelines that can help you get a better understanding of where you stand regarding your spouse’s or ex-spouse’s credit card debts.

Common Law States

Common law states generally hold you accountable for credit card debts in your own name, which means that if the credit card account was opened solely in your spouse’s (or ex-spouse’s) name, then you wouldn’t be liable or legally responsible for paying any debts associated with the account.

Community Property States

Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Texas and Wisconsin are all what’s called community property states. Alaska may also be a community property state, but only if both parties agree to community property rights through a trust or legal agreement, otherwise all property is considered separate.

Community property is based on the law that all property acquired during a marriage is legally owned jointly by both spouses – the exception being gifts or inheritances. In short, community property states hold both spouses responsible for debts incurred during the marriage – regardless of whether or not one of the other is on the account or not.

For couples that reside in a community property state, both spouses are held accountable and equally liable for any debts, including credit card debt, that are incurred either by you or your spouse–even if you aren’t technically listed on the account and the account is in your spouse’s name. These include any of the debts incurred during the time you were married. Debts that were acquired before or after the marriage/separation are not considered community debts and are therefore excluded.

The state also weighs various factors when determining whether or not a debt is viable as a community property debt. Any debt that the state feels benefited the marriage will be considered community debt. However, if the state determines that the debt only benefited your spouse, then the chances are that it will not be deemed a community debt and you will not be held liable for it.

Divorce Proceedings

Even if you are not found eligible for a specific debt incurred by your spouse, you might still end up being indirectly accountable for it during divorce proceedings. For instance, if the judge assigns you the obligation for your spouse’s credit card debt, then although the credit card company will not hold you accountable, you will still need to pay the debt as ordered by the judge. If you stop paying the debt, the credit card company will most likely go after your ex-spouse, who in turn can sue you for violations and can seek reimbursement for damages incurred.

Learn how to better manage your debt here »

Spousal Support

The issue of alimony, or spousal support, can be contentious. Temporary support may be ordered at the initial stage of the divorce process. Eventually, the court renders a final spousal support order that covers a prescribed number of years. Lastly, some couples revisit the issue of spousal support at regular intervals to make adjustments when appropriate. Each change can involve attorney expenses.

Some states have formulas for calculating the temporary spousal support amount. In New York, the figure is 30% of the high-earning spouse’s income minus 20% of the low-earning spouse’s income, so long as the recipient does not end up with more than 40% of the couple’s combined income. So an engineer earning $150,000 married to an administrative assistant earning $60,000 would pay about $33,000 per year, or $2,750 per month.

Colorado, Pennsylvania and other regions have devised formulaic guidelines for temporary support. They differ significantly and result in very different bottom lines. In Fairfax, VA, temporary spousal support (with no child support) is equal to 30% of the high-earning spouse’s income minus 50% of the low-earning spouse’s income.

In the example above, the high earning spouse would pay $15,000 per year or $1,250 per month. Child support is factored separately and causes temporary spousal support to be lowered: 28% of the high income minus 58% of the low income, so an award of $7,200 per year or $600 per month. Temporary awards are subject to reconsideration and can be very different in the final divorce decree. Ultimately, amounts are at the divorce judge’s discretion. Everything can be renegotiated after the divorce is final unless modification is precluded in the divorce decree. Each state has its own guidelines for post-judgment modification. Again, expect to pay more legal fees.

How Long Will Spousal Support Last?

“In Virginia, many judges and attorneys use duration guidelines that are not law or binding but were proposed in legislation that never passed and now serve as a starting point for negotiations,” explains Kristen Hofheimer of the Hofheimer Family Law Firm in Virginia Beach. “If the marriage was under 5 years, no spousal support; 5 to 20 years, spousal support for half the duration of the marriage; longer than 20 years, support lasts until death or remarriage.”

Financial Surprises

The total cost of a divorce is a shock to many people. Other surprises that can directly affect the bottom line:

Down Market

Even when the plan is to divide the proceeds of a home sale, the housing market might not cooperate.

Bad Behavior

Spiteful behavior can surface. People also lie about their income and assets or hide property. “I never would have dreamed that my husband would empty our bank accounts.” Sue R., San Antonio TX

Credit Problems

Just because a divorce decree identifies the responsible party to a debt doesn’t mean that person will continue to make payments. Creditors and the credit bureaus do not relieve responsibility based on a divorce. The non-responsible spouse’s credit can be trashed.

Close joint accounts, and get your name off debt that won’t be yours any longer. (Some mortgage lenders will rewrite the loan in one person’s name without a total refinance.) “My husband was supposed to refinance the mortgage within six months to get my name off the loan, but his credit wasn’t good enough to qualify on his own. I had no way to know if he would keep making the payments or how to get my name off the debt.” Teresa O., San Diego CA

Tax Consequences

Deductions will be fewer. Hidden assets uncovered during the divorce proceedings trigger an audit.

Lack of Knowledge of Rights

Many people don’t know – or find out too late – that they are entitled to spousal Social Security benefits if their marriage lasted for ten years or more. Anyone in their ninth year of marriage could benefit from a delayed divorce.

Custody Battle For Pets

Some people fight just as hard for their pets as for their children. Some even use pet custody battles to leverage concessions on other issues of importance to them.

Continued Fights

Legal and travel fees are ongoing expenses when the ex-spouse has to be summoned in court on non-compliance issues, such as refusal to allow visitation or failure to honor support payments.

Sudden Financial Independence

If you haven’t been managing the household finances, prepare to learn quickly. “I was suddenly and unexpectedly living on my own. I had to rely on family/friends for temporary living solutions and learn to live minimally and on a strict budget. It was a wake-up call to how much money I was spending beyond my means.” Tracy P., Vista CA

Unexpected Post-divorce Expenses

Secret accounts are revealed when collections agencies call for payment. The cost of raising children is underestimated. Modification to the decree incurs legal expenses.

“My wife had credit cards I didn’t know about. I found out that I was liable for the debt because she ran it up while we were still married.” Dale F., Albuquerque NM.

“I can no longer home school because I have to work. So now I have to pay for school supplies, lunches, gas.” Suzette S., Chula Vista CA

Unusual Solutions

Some couples with children devise amicable housing solutions to minimize the physical disruption and emotional trauma. They take turns living in the family home instead of constantly moving children between Mom’s place and Dad’s. Some choose not to divorce at all, preferring to establish separate lives while remaining legally married. Health insurance coverage is a very common motivation.

“Must Do” Divorce List

  • Big decisions with even bigger implications are in your near future.
  • Being organized will help you identify priorities and avoid careless mistakes.

Build Your Team

  • Seek out referrals from friends and family members to find attorneys with fair fee schedules and a reputation for working efficiently.
  • A financial or tax expert may be needed to advise on division of assets and tax implications.
  • Interview several prospects before committing.

Line Up Emotional Support

  • Friends and family are great for ongoing support, but they can also fan the flames of discontent.
  • Find a neutral counselor to help navigate the sea of emotions that comes with a divorce.

Be Informed

  • No matter whose name is on the account, know what you owe.
  • Inventory valuable possessions.

Be Educated

  • Learn about the peculiarities of divorce in your state.

“Virginia doesn’t offer divorce based on irreconcilable differences. A no-fault divorce is based on living apart for a year (six months if there are no minor children) even when both parties want to split. To prove grounds for divorce, you need to prove you’ve been separated. So if you’re living in the same house, you need to provide proof that you’re not sharing a bedroom, not buying groceries together, not attending social functions together, not doing each other’s laundry, and so on for a year.” Kristen Hofheimer, The Hofheimer Family Law Firm, Virginia Beach VA

Gather Documents

  • Organize relevant paperwork.
  • If you manage your life electronically, print out account statements for all assets and debts.

Clean Up Accounts

  • Close joint accounts.
  • Open individual accounts.

Monitor Credit

  • Order and review your credit report.
  • Sign up for online credit monitoring.

Rewrite The Budget

  • Calculate what post-divorce life will cost.
  • Predict future expenses, especially if children are in the picture.

Consider Your Approach

There are two major schools of thought: (1) Get a lawyer and energetically put your own interests first, or (2) work things out and skip the lawyers, saving a fortune. “My husband had a great lawyer who advertises on T.V. and the radio. I couldn’t afford one. I was making minimum wage but I was ordered to pay spousal support and my husband’s attorney fees.” Gwen G., San Diego CA

Whatever the case, go slowly. Consult someone you trust. Walk through the process with that person and get feedback. Even if things are going well, don’t sign anything on the spot. Sleep on any agreement. Divorce does not have to be a hostile affair.

However, self-represented divorce increases the risk of inadvertently waiving a critical right. Workshops exist for those who can’t or don’t want to hire an attorney. Some programs suit couples that have worked out the core details, have no dispute over child custody or property and are not in need of financial support.

The San Diego Superior Court and the Sacramento County Superior Court offer a free One-Day Divorce Program for those who have filed for divorce and served divorce papers. There may be similar services in your area. Divorcing couples arrive fully prepared, having already agreed on division of assets and debts and child support. They leave with a divorce judgment. Other programs are for people who have questions and need guidance. Second Saturday offers low-cost workshops nationwide. Wealthy couples should defer to sound legal advice. One-day programs are not for them. Divorce is a process, not an event. Although the demise of the relationship might have been years in the making and the divorce itself seems like it will never end, it will.

Additional Resources

  • Learn what you need to know about financial planning before getting married.
  • For New York residents, the Pace Women’s Justice Center offers a free downloadable divorce guide. It is also available in Spanish. Domestic violence victims can get free help.
  • People who have sizable assets but not enough liquidity to fight for them may be able to find an investor to cover divorce expenses in return for a share of the assets awarded.


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