Divorce Corp. hits theaters this weekend, and according to how they depict the problem in the trailers and on CNN, it seems they are trying to blame the attorneys and suggest that the legal system is somehow being unjust. To set the record straight, putting all emotions aside for a moment, in the legal world there are really four key issues that need to be addressed in a divorce:
1. Custody– (1) What schedule will you follow for sharing the kids? (2) How will you make major decisions about their welfare– education, medical care, etc.?
2. Child Support– How will you both contribute towards the children’s expenses? Thankfully, there are guidelines that each state follows, and most are available online. Generally, the formulas take into account (1) the income of each party; (2) the health insurance cost for the child; (3) work-related daycare/aftercare expenses; and (4) the time-sharing arrangement. This should be straight-forward, except when someone is self-employed or under-employed– that is when things can get murky.
3. Alimony– If someone needs support, and the other has a demonstrated ability to pay, then there really are just 2 questions we need to answer: (1) what is the amount needed and (2) for how long? Some states have guidelines that they use for alimony calculations, others may want to refer to the formula proposed by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (www.aaml.org).
4. Property Division– How are you going to split up the assets (and debt) accumulated during the marriage?
Of course, the more you want to fight about these issues, the more it’s going to cost. After you consult an attorney regarding your rights and obligations, you normally have 3 choices: Mediation, Litigation or Collaboration. In all three processes, the goal is the same– to address the 4 main legal issues stated above and get you divorced. The average length of time ranges from 6 months to 2 years, and if you do wind up with a trial here’s a sobering fact: the national average is about $20,000 per side in legal fees.
This brings me to Key Point #5: how are you going to pay for the divorce? 68% of American households lack a real emergency fund, and the average family is carrying about $15,000 of credit card debt, meanwhile the average household income in the DC Area is about $88,000. Simple math shows you that there is no way the average divorce costs $50,000 as suggested by Dr. Drew on CNN– now perhaps he means litigated divorces, and I would bet that average is driven way up by the cases we call “high conflict” like the one in Texas last year that cost $7.4 Million.
The harsh truth is most Americans are not going to be able to afford a litigated divorce– but maybe that sobering reality is what leads most couples heading towards a divorce to work out an amicable agreement outside of court. According to Dr. Emery’s research over 2/3 of divorced couples are either amicable or can cooperatively co-parent. (Dr. Emery is the head of UVA’s Psychology Dept. and author of several books, including The Truth About Children and Divorce). It is indeed my experience over the last 15 years that less than 20% of cases actually go to trial.
It is unfortunate that some have chosen to blame the divorce industry for making the court process so expensive, when in fact most of us in the industry have found that it is the clients driven by anger and revenge that drive up their own legal fees.
The sooner people accept that perhaps having their day in court is NOT the best end game, perhaps the sooner they can begin to focus on addressing the 4 key legal issues in a reasonable manner, and this way put their legal matters to rest without committing financial suicide.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.