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Cutting the cost of divorce

A contentious marital split can be a recipe for economic disaster because of legal fees. Divorcing couples can save by recognizing reality, getting organized and even seeing a therapist.

February 06, 2011|Kathy M. Kristof | Personal Finance

It may seem unromantic, but just about the only people who are busier than florists this time of year are divorce attorneys.

Whether it's because Valentine's Day forces couples to face romantic disappointments or because many people put off cutting marital ties until after the holidays, February tends to kick off high season for divorce.

And nothing could be worse for your finances than a contentious marital split, said Mark Baer, a family law attorney in Pasadena. Baer has compiled data to prove it. Married couples have significantly more assets than similarly situated singles until they divorce, he says. Then the economic advantage is more than wiped out. Call it the cost of acrimony.

"Couples let their emotions take control and they spend it all on attorneys," Baer said. "They're now worse off financially than if they'd never been married — just because they refused to act like mature adults."

To be sure, the cards are stacked against you if you hope to make divorce affordable.

Divorce is the second-most-stressful lifetime event after the loss of a spouse or child, Baer said. When you lose a loved one, most people will counsel you not to make any important financial decisions until your emotions settle. But when you divorce, everyone tells you that you immediately need to make a host of economic choices, and they urge you to hire the meanest, toughest, most contentious bulldog attorney money can buy.

It can be a recipe for economic disaster.

"The cost of litigating the heck out of a case doesn't benefit either person. It destroys the family financially, and that doesn't even consider the emotional toll," Baer said. "By the time you pay the legal fees, you're going to spend more than the amount you were fighting over."

How can you do it differently — and more cheaply?

Get real

You may be outraged by whatever conduct led to your divorce, and your friends might tell you to take your ex for all he or she is worth. But reality is another story. The judge doesn't care that you, and everyone you know, thinks your ex should spend the rest of his or her life in the poorhouse because of whatever was done to you.

"Half. You get half of the assets accumulated during marriage," said Diana Mercer, coauthor of "Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life." "I just saved you $400 in attorney's fees."

Every state has a slightly different formula, but they mostly boil down to an equal distribution of marital assets, she said. Except in rare circumstances, each of you is able to keep the money that you brought into the marriage and any inheritances that were given to you alone. Otherwise, the money you earned and assets you accumulated during the course of your union are split evenly, in most cases.

Get therapy

You may want to hire a therapist before you hire an attorney, Mercer suggested. Only about 20% of the issues you will confront in a divorce involve questions of law, she contended. Yet Mercer said she's had clients run through a $3,000 retainer in 10 days telling her about every little thing that the ex wants or says.

It's not that your attorney doesn't care. But this is a profession that bills in 15-minute increments, and that can add up to much more than visits to a psychologist. Besides, seeing a therapist may be covered by your health plan. Your attorney is not.

If you need to work through anger or fears — or even custody issues — you'll get more and spend less by hiring a skilled psychologist who can help you deal with the emotions before you have the attorney work through the legal filings, Mercer said.

If you can't see eye to eye on how to handle the kids, consider enrolling in co-parenting classes, which typically cost less than $500 and can help you work through a custody arrangement, she said.

Get organized

To divvy up assets and income, you need a comprehensive list of what you've got and what you owe. Your attorney can get this information for you, Baer said, but that would require dozens of billable hours, subpoenas and a pile of paperwork. It will cost you thousands of dollars more than if you just did it yourself.

Pull together your tax returns and your bank, brokerage and credit card statements. Get an appraisal on your house and an actuarial estimate of the value of your pension plan, if you have one. Also write down your budget, showing both income and expenses. You'll need that to help establish whether one spouse will require support.

Finally, consider what possessions you'll want to get in the financial negotiation and why you want them, Mercer said. Do you want the house? Cars? Particular personal items? What do you think your ex will want?

There are many ways to split assets in half. If you can compromise over the items that have significance to your ex, you may get more of the things that are significant to you. Anything you can do to reduce fights will reduce costs.

"The more organized you can get your thoughts and finances, the less you have to spend on divorce," Mercer said.

business@latimes.com

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