Divorce: It’s Ex-pensive

Money problems are cited as among the top contributors to divorce, but financial stress doesn’t end with the decision to split; it’s just the beginning.

Love and marriage, as Sinatra famously crooned, go together like a horse and carriage. But when the wheels fall off, the gloves can come off, too. Local business magnate Michael Polsky found that out recently, after a Cook County judge ruled his wife of 31 years, Maya, should receive $184 million, half of his fortune.

That figure is based on the Polsky assets. But what does it cost just to work out the breakup? The bills vary dramatically. For an uncontested divorce in which the spouses have reached an agreement and just need an attorney to hammer out the paperwork, the total could top off at a mere $1,500, says Jeff Atkinson, a DePaul law school professor and author of the American Bar Association’s Guide to Marriage, Divorce & Families. On the other hand, contentious litigated divorces with custody battles and complex issues involving assets can easily run into six figures, just for attorney fees.

The costliest complexities stem from emotional issues, says Gemma B. Allen, a veteran Chicago divorce lawyer, who charges $400 an hour for office time and $450 for court time. In the past 22 years, her quickest case was five weeks; her longest, five years. Less complex cases go to her firm’s associates, who charge $200 for office time and $250 for court time.

Typically, for a contested divorce that ends up in court, the parties will spend, on average, $20,000 to $25,000, according to The Complete Guide to Protecting Your Financial Security When Getting a Divorce (McGraw-Hill, 2004; $16.95).

For some splitting couples, a less expensive (and more amicable) option is a mediator-a trained, neutral negotiator who doesn’t offer legal advice to the parties, but helps them compromise and reach an agreement. Beverly Tarr, a local mediator with a law degree (not all mediators have one), charges $200 per hour. Most of her cases take one to three days, meaning $1,600 to $4,800 in fees. Tarr acknowledges that mediation isn’t for everyone, especially not for openly hostile couples. To find a local mediator, visit the Web site of the Chicago chapter of the Association for Conflict Resolution.

More and more separating spouses are also turning to the Internet for relatively inexpensive, uncontested splits. LegalZoom.com, cofounded by former O. J. Simpson lawyer Robert Shapiro, is one of many Web sites that help couples get unhitched. The site charges $250 to prepare all the required paperwork plus a marital settlement agreement for divorces with no minor children. Another increasingly popular and less expensive option is the so-called collaborative divorce: a process of resolving differences through legal cooperation, rather than litigation. Typically, each spouse hires an attorney, a therapist–divorce coach, and a financial planner, who help the parties reach an out-of-court agreement. The collaborative approach can cut legal and court costs. For more information: collablawil.org.

How We Compare

3.7

U.S. divorces per 1,000 population (2004)

2.6

Illinois divorces per 1,000 population (2004)

 

Split Decisions

How your assets are divided in a divorce depends largely on where you live. In Illinois, divorce laws call for equitable distribution of marital assets. “In plain  English,” explains Chicago divorce attorney Jay Frank, “that means the judge can divide property in any way he thinks is fair.” Case law tells judges to start with a 50-50 split, and then shift that distribution based on 12 factors, including the marriage’s length and the earning power of each person. Nine states, including California, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Nevada, have an approach called community property, meaning assets are divvied up evenly. Note, though: about 95 percent of divorces are settled out of court, leaving plenty of room for negotiation of assets.

 

Record-Breaker

The Polskys’ $184-million divorce verdict tops the estimated $150 million that Michael Jordan will reportedly give his wife, Juanita, once their divorce is finalized, according to Forbes magazine. The Jordans’ settlement ranked number one on Forbes’s list of most expensive celebrity divorces.

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