Divorce rates are expected to jump significantly in the second half of 2020—and that’s coming at a time when we can least afford it. Plus, how to divorce when money is tight.

By Brienne Walsh
October 26, 2020
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When Katherine, 40, and her now ex-husband, John, 38, decided to get divorced in January, Katherine knew she was embarking on a difficult journey. She had no idea, however, that they would have to continue to live together for 10 months after they separated, as neither of them could afford to move out of their shared home amid the pandemic.

Katherine, who is based Washington state, had not been in love with her husband for a long time. “It’s terrifying to get a divorce,” says Katherine, who adds that it still felt necessary, in part, so she didn’t “teach my kids that a marriage is basically like having a roommate,” Katherine says.

Katherine and John hired a mediator and began the process of separating. The total cost of mediation ended up being roughly $5,000, which was cheaper than hiring a lawyer, and they used their joint savings to pay it. (The average cost of divorce in the United States, according to Nolo, a self-help legal publisher, is $12,800.)

The couple, who have two kids ages 7 and 4, decided that John would keep the house they bought in 2016 for $230,000. They planned on doing a cash-out refinance on the mortgage so that Katherine could take out her equity in cash and use it for a new place. “My goal was to get situated somewhere stable, where I could build a home for my kids,” she says.

But things did not go as planned. In March, Washington state, which was hit early and hard by the pandemic, went into lockdown. Katherine, who planned on moving out in the spring, was stuck in her marital home: She didn’t have enough money saved for a down payment on a house or leased space, and the process of applying for a mortgage refinance was slower than usual, due to the banks being overwhelmed with re-financing requests. Plus, with daycares and schools closed, it made sense for the couple to stay in one place so that they could both safely take care of their children. Katherine moved into the guest bedroom.

At first, the lockdown was good for the family. “It gave the kids time to process what was happening, and ask questions,” Katherine says. “It also forced me and John to learn to work together while not being together.” After a few months, however, the couple began to fight. “Our differences became more and more visible, and the tension just rose,” she said.

Then it got even worse: As the state eased restrictions, John began to date. He started a new relationship with a woman, and as the summer progressed, he began to grow impatient for Katherine to move out of the house. “I began to feel more uncomfortable, less welcome, and more observed,” says Katherine. “It became clear that I was in the way of his new relationship moving forward.”

Katherine’s own frustrations were growing too. Like many women, Katherine, who works in financial aid at an educational institution, was doing the vast majority of childcare, which was made harder by the fact that her kids were out of school amid the pandemic. (The Census Bureau found in August, the percentage of mothers aged 25 to 44 not working due to COVID-19-related childcare issues grew by 4.8 percentage points; there was no similar increase for men.) “His time was always prioritized over mine because he makes more money,” says Katherine, who earns $42,000 a year. John, on the other hand, makes just over $70,000 a year. “It was assumed that I could do my job and also do childcare and virtual schooling because I’m not as financially successful.”

It’s stresses like these, and many others, that are leading to what experts say is a rash of pandemic-related divorce inquiries: In the spring, Legal Templates, a company that provides legal documents, reported a 34% increase in the sales of its divorce agreement as compared to the same period in 2019. The National Law Review noted that experts expect a 10 to 25% increase in divorce rates in the second half of 2020.

And it couldn’t come at a worse time. Despite some job gains over the summer, 860,000 Americans filed for unemployment insurance during the week of October 12 alone; plenty more are experiencing income cuts. These financial struggles may lead some couples to delay getting divorced, says Morghan Richardson, a matrimonial partner at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron in New York.

For Katherine, it became impossible to stay in the house with John, and at the beginning of October, she began staying with a friend who had an extra room. On October 16, Katherine and Jim’s divorce was finalized (though the refinance has still not come through). Katherine is feeling alternately excited and terrified. “I don't miss the discomfort and pain of slowly disentangling my life from someone else’s,” she says. “But I miss feeling secure, and I miss parenting my kids in a place where they feel at home.” She hopes, in the next few months, that the refinance will get approved, and she will then be able to secure the mortgage for a new home, where she can have a fresh start.

If you want a divorce, but don’t have a lot of money, here’s how to proceed:

Get your financial paperwork in order. This includes your credit report, bank and brokerage account statements, prior tax returns and utility bills—for both yourself and your partner. “You need to understand the financial landscape of your family, especially if you don’t trust that your partner will be honest with you,” says Richardson.

Make a budget. Understanding where money is coming from, and where it is going, helps you form realistic goals post-separation, even during a pandemic. For example, how much you will have to pay for health insurance, or if you will be able to afford your own home. “You might need to move in with family or friends for a while before you get your financial footing,” notes Amy Lins, the senior director of enterprise learning at Money Management International.

Get representation. The average cost for a divorce is roughly $12,800 with a lawyer—and roughly $1,500 with a mediator, which experts say can be a decent option for couples on a budget who already agree on many aspects of their split. Even if you don’t have the money saved—or can’t save it right now because of job or wage loss—many lawyers will give you a 30 or 60 minute consultation for free. Lins notes that your employer may very well provide some legal counsel through their employee assistance program, so ask your human resources department.

Richardson recommends looking at your state bar association’s website for referrals. She also likes AVVO.com, which provides information about a lawyer’s disciplinary records or bar violations, if they have any, as well as reviews from clients.

Start saving money. “Money is power,” says Richardson. Even if you ultimately decide not to go through with the divorce, she recommends to all her clients that they have separate bank accounts and credit cards so that they have resources to fall back on in case of emergencies. Saving money right now can feel impossible. Richardson says she had a client who began buying store-brand grocery items rather than big-brand grocery items as a way to save a little cash every time she shopped. Within a few years, she had enough for a divorce.

Consider asking friends and family for a gift to get started. Any money you make during your marriage, unless you have a prenuptial agreement, will likely count as shared marital assets, notes Lins. Gifts, however, may be considered personal assets in most states. Consider asking your close friends and family to donate money to a GoFundMe account, Lins recommends, which can be used towards your divorce proceedings. Or, consider selling gifts you received in the past for cash.