The cost of divorce is ‘like the death of a thousand cuts.’ Inflation is only making it worse

September 29, 2022, 2:02 PM UTC
couple having argument.
The average cost of divorce is $15,000. The financial and emotional toll, from people who went through it
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For nearly a year after Jerry Proctor and his ex-wife separated, the once-couple continued to live together in the house they rented throughout their marriage. 

The arrangement made an already fraught time even more emotionally difficult—but Proctor simply couldn’t afford to leave. The divorce had financially depleted him, costing him hundreds of dollars.

“I was numb,” says Proctor, who finalized his divorce in 2005. “Part of me couldn’t believe it was happening.” 

Most of the couple’s assets were split equally in the divorce. Eventually, Proctor saved up enough money to move out, but between coming up with a housing payment on short notice and paying for a moving truck as well as the monthly storage for his personal belongings, the cost continued to overwhelm him. 

“It was kind of like the death of a thousand cuts,” the 50-year-old IT worker says. When he thought life was starting to revert to normal, another cost would creep up on him.

While you can budget and save for a wedding and a home for years, if need be, people rarely plan to get divorced. The process can add up quickly—and ripple throughout the rest of your life. Proctor’s divorce was enough to shatter his finances for years.

Today, decades-high inflation and the most expensive housing market ever make it even more costly.

Homes, cars, and retirement accounts can complicate the division of assets, as can whether or not the couple has a prenuptial agreement or children. But in general, the price depends on the length of the proceedings, the willingness to divide assets, and court filing and attorney fees, says Sara Stolberg, a certified divorce financial analyst based in Illinois. 

“If you’re considering divorce, take whatever amount you think you’ll need, and double or triple it,” says Proctor. 

All told, the average cost of a divorce itself in the U.S. is $15,000, according to a survey by Bankrate, though it can add up to much more than that in Stolberg’s experience—especially lately. Most divorce attorneys ask for a retainer up front to cover the anticipated cost of their services, which can cost up to $10,000 per spouse.

With inflation restricting budgets and depleting savings accounts across the country, more couples are now choosing to settle outside of court through a mediator to save money, says Stolberg.

“Clients choose mediation to reduce their legal expenses, in order to save money that they need to support their post-divorce lifestyles,” she says. That can lead to creative solutions that couples may not have opted for under different economic circumstances. “Clients may come up with ideas for sharing the costs of a house that doesn’t sell before the divorce is finalized.”

Making sacrifices

Perhaps more expensive than the process itself, however, are the unforeseen and possibly even intangible costs: Splitting the home, investments, furniture, and other belongings. Child care expenses can also increase, or a spouse may have to pay alimony or child support. Social Security benefits can also be impacted.

Robin Hill’s divorce cost her $3,000 upfront; she and her ex-husband settled using a mediator to save money. While she had enough savings to cover that bill, it’s her life in the aftermath that has turned upside down. 

“The divorce emotionally was extremely tough; my best friend of 22 years is no longer my person,” says Hill, whose divorce was finalized in June 2022. “Then to have to look at our two teenage boys and tell them I can’t [afford to] do what they are used to doing is even more tough.”

Hill received the house in the divorce settlement, which she was thankful for—but that has meant taking over the full responsibility of the $2,250 mortgage payments with only four months to prepare financially. 

“I had to sell my dream car to be able to afford to stay in the home,” says Hill, a 41-year-old hair stylist in Illinois. 

Even though she made significant sacrifices to afford her home—in addition to selling her car, she picked up additional hours at work, limiting her time with her family—she says it was worth it to provide a stable home for her two children. 

This is common for the spouse who takes over the full expenses of a previously shared home, says Stolberg. 

While Hill and her ex-husband had a somewhat amicable divorce, not everyone is so lucky—some couples have trouble splitting up equity in a home that they both have contributed to over the years. Say you have a $400,000 home with $200,000 in equity and $200,000 left on a mortgage. If one spouse decides to move to a new home and needs their half of the capital, and fast, it can be difficult for the other spouse to come up with $100,000 to buy them out.

That could leave the spouse who doesn’t get the home now struggling to find a new place to live, especially with rent and housing prices reaching record highs.

Long-lasting impacts

Most people in America don’t have that kind of money just sitting around. One option is to refinance the home and take on a heftier mortgage to cover the lost equity, says Stolberg. 

To avoid that, some couples choose to exchange one asset for another—one gets the home, the other the retirement accounts.

Stolberg advises couples not to take this route. People who get divorced in their peak earning years tend to retire later than other couples and have less saved in general, according to Stolberg’s own research. Americans already are in the midst of a retirement crisis—giving up a retirement account can set them back even further. 

While divorce impacts both parties in retirement, women in heterosexual relationships are hit especially hard, on average: 18% of divorced women aged 65 or older live in poverty, compared to 12.8% of divorced men. 

Hill is learning this the hard way. “I settled and did not take a lot of things, which I know will financially hurt me as I retire and get older, but I just wanted it to be done,” she says. 

Regardless of your financial situation or how couples choose to split their assets, divorce has a major impact on both parties’ financial well-being. 

“Nobody walks away from divorce feeling financially free,” says Hill.

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