Broken hearts are easy to fix– it may take time to heal, but with the support of family and friends, you will get there. This is not only my personal experience, but what I have professionally observed for over 18 years with all of my divorce clients. However, if your ex broke your wallet, well that is a lot more difficult to recover from unfortunately, especially the closer you are to retirement.
Most couples have a house, their 401(k)s and some investments to split up when they are getting divorced. Usually, we can agree on a buy out, or reasonable time-frame for selling the home, and then we just do some basic trade-offs with the other assets taking into account the contributions each made to the family’s well-being and acquisition of assets. This actually runs pretty smoothly in over 65% of the cases with reasonable attorneys and cooperative clients. But, then there are those with angry clients or “shark” type attorneys that go for scorched earth. These do not end well for anyone, let me explain why.
Divorces that are fueled by anger and/or a desire for vengeance lead to very expensive court cases that involve discovery, including depositions, and retaining various experts to prove a variety of points. Clients (not the law firms) must finance these expenses either by using liquid investments available to them or by borrowing money, often from their 401(k)s, home equity lines, family, friends, personal lines of credit or credit cards. They keep begging for cash from any source they can tap into until the case is over– at which point there may be very little left to divide because fighting over principal (like wanting to share custody of the kids) or to disprove someone’s sense of entitlement (like an unreasonable request for “life time” alimony) often comes with a whopping legal bill in excess of $50,000 per side.
Let’s put this in perspective, over 50% of U.S. households do not have money in retirement or a rainy day fund. Furthermore, 81% of the U.S. households earn less than $100,000 per year. But do you think that divorce or custody disputes only impact the top 19% of our country’s wage-earners? Obviously not– family issues impact everyone, from every race, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status. And when one spouse is trying to ruin the other, if the lawyers fail to be the voice of reason, the blood bath that ensues will leave everyone involved with permanent scars.
Over the last year, I have taken five very difficult cases to trial because settlement or compromise simply was just not an option for the parties involved. It’s like Mnookin said in his book “Bargaining with the Devil” sometimes you have to know when to just fight. But for these clients over the age of 50 with kids that need to go to college, I do wonder, how will these families ever recover financially?
Their hearts will recover, of that I have no doubt because I see how their families and friends rally around in their time of need, and it is that very generous part of humanity that fills me with hope each and every day. But will their wallets ever recover? I highly doubt it.
Pay attention to money– both during your marriage, and during your break-up. Don’t ignore the cost of litigation and naively believe you’ll make it all back later. Maybe you can, but what if you can’t? Financial suicide should not be an option for anyone.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.