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A Solid Vote for Divorce Insurance

November 02, 1986|PHILOMENE d'URSIN | D'Ursin lives in San Diego.

Divorce insurance is a concept whose time has come.

I came to this conclusion after enduring, several years ago, two surgeries for benign brain tumors and, more recently, a divorce.

The brain surgeries were cheaper.

Why is it that we can be insured against virtually every catastrophic loss except divorce? Part of the reason, I suppose, is that divorce is considered to be a disaster of one's own choosing, a natural and possibly just punishment for those too selfish or weak to work out their problems--as opposed to floods, heart attacks and broken gaskets in the dryer, which occur against our will. Yet, as many have found to their sorrow, the decision to divorce does not have to be mutual; one party can divorce the other without that party's willingness or consent.

Last year, 1,187,000 divorces were granted in the United States. And it's safe to guess that just about all of them brought on financial strain, simply because two households had to be created out of one--in many cases on the same income. What most couples aren't prepared for, however, is the legal cost of divorce. Even the simplest divorce involving two lawyers and a modest amount of divisible property can easily run $5,000 to $15,000. This is due to a combination of factors.

Lawyers have what can only be described as a unique way of billing. My attorney charged me $175 per hour, his paralegal $65 per hour. The paralegal had a minimum charge of 0.2 hours (12 minutes), so even leaving her a message, or her leaving me one, cost me $13. The balance due accumulates with staggering speed, and there's no way to prove--or disprove--that all those hundreds of 0.2 hours were spent on your case. And to mediate your dispute, the California Bar Assn. charges $100 plus 1% of the bill.

Then there are the many occupations related to divorce: appraisers, accountants, mediators, counselors. We had appraisals of one baby grand piano ($45 fee), the exterior of the house (three at $300 to $500), the interior of the house ($360) and my husband's business (bids ranging from $800 to $2,000). Fortunately we were able to use the "blue book" for our two cars.

One might argue that these fees could be avoided if the parties in question would simply agree among themselves on the value of these items. I would point out, however, that if the couple could behave so agreeably, they probably wouldn't be getting a divorce in the first place.

The real villain that ran up our bill (at least doubling it) is one that catches many divorcing couples by surprise: "waiting time." Having a court date doesn't ensure that your case will be heard.

The day we went to court about temporary child support, we spent three hours and $850 on lawyers' fees waiting for 15 minutes of the judge's time. When we came back for our final decree, we sat for an entire day with our lawyers, collectively paying $325 per hour for their time, only to be continued to another day.

The second day, our judge was reassigned to a priority case. The third day, the other attorney was unavoidably delayed, but I had to pay my attorney for being there anyway. The fourth day, the case was settled.

The four days were spread out over a month, and each time the attorneys needed--and billed for--"reviewing time." In addition, each day we were in court, my husband and I forfeited a day's income from work, and incurred expenses for child care and downtown parking.

Can anyone afford a divorce?

While I realize that there are problems with the idea, there are also a number of advantages to insurance covering divorce-related legal, accounting and appraisal expenses.

I envision divorce insurance encouraging less costly solutions to the property, custody and support issues of divorce through the use of mediation.

Lawyers would have the advantage of being paid immediately as opposed to receiving installment payments from their wiped-out clients over a period of years.

Finally, 1,187,000 divorcing couples a year and their children might be able to begin picking up the pieces of their lives without years of legal debt stretching out before them.

Realistically, one has to ask: Would anyone buy divorce insurance? Don't we all want to believe that we're in the statistical one out of two marriages that won't fail?

From my experience, I see an analogy in smoke detectors. They're ugly, and their implications are a bit unnerving, but they're in millions of homes that wouldn't be secure without them.

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