The choices we make, or, why choosing to settle is usually better

October 9, 2020

Let’s say you are a perfectly normal middle-class family living outside St. Louis. You have a perfectly normal house, car, job, retirements, debts and a spouse you are done with. This is the reality of about 3,500 metro-east families every year. Let’s say that house, retirements, car and all the stuff is worth about $60,000. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. You have a mortgage, a car loan, credit card debt, student loans, and a few doctor’s bills, The mortgage is for $150,000 and your house is worth $175,000. Your cars are about half paid off. You owe $30,000 for your student loans, he owes $33,000 for his, and another $4,000 on a credit card. Both you and the spouse make about $60,000 a year. And, you are both done. It is hard to be in the same place at the same time. It hurts. You fight. You can barely agree who is going to sleep on the couch or guest room.


So, you hire a lawyer and start the divorce process. Your goal is to kick the other side out, make him or her hurt as bad as you do, and maybe get your attorney fees paid for, while they have to fork over part of their salary, and take all of the stuff. You are assured by the lawyer that he or she will fight hard. Your soon-to-be-ex also hires a lawyer who makes the same promises. Your savings accounts are now drained.


The lawyers go to court, without you, and they send you emails from staff telling you noithing happened in court. They ask for 2 year old bank statements and charge for the email, and charge for the court appearance where nothing happened. They send bills every time you call, ask a question, or send a document, and soon, you have to make monthly payments that really hurt. In one of the court appearances where nothing happens, the judge rules that both parties are paying for their own lawyer and neither person is going to pay maintenance (alimony).


The court cancels hearings because the judge is out of town, the other side’s attorney’s kid get sick and they are gone, your attorney takes a vacation. Now it is a year later, and you are not divorced. At this point, you have spent $7-10,000 and feel you have little to show for it.


Then, the court sets a trial date. You have to produce even more documents to the lawyer, learn how to testify, and review these documents. And you have missed 6 days of work, and now your boss is not real pleased with you.


Then it is trial day. The judge listens. Occasionally she or he gets a little grumpy with the attorneys. You spend 3 hours on the stand, after which your attorney buys you lunch, which you pick at. And then the Judge says that the Court will take it under advisement and notify everyone when there is a ruling. Court ends. Your and your attorney, both exhausted, pack up and leave. You still are not divorced. You are emotionally spent, in debt, and worried. And you get a bill for the luch you picked at, your attorney’s trial preparation and the 10 hour court day that is more than you make in 2 months.


A decision arrives in the mail. It might be a week, it might be 5 months. You are finally divorced.


I can tell you approximately what will happen in that decision. The debts will be split up in some fashion and the house might be sold. And the equity in the house is probably going to end up in a lawyer’s trust account. That will probably go to paying for the litigation. Your credit card debt will grow because that is how you paid your lawyer. You might also borrow against your 401(k), or borrow from family. You will spend over a year getting divorced, and spend $20,000 or more paying your lawyer. Oh, and you learn that you do a terrible job of maintaining documents, and wonder what 2 year old bank statements actually show. That $60,000 in equity and value in your stuff? You just each spent $20,000 going after it. There is next to nothing left.


This all makes it pretty hard to buy a new house, so you are probably going to rent a house or apartment, maybe move in with a roommate for a while to save. All so you could get justice and a day in court. But you never got to say the mean things that you wanted, you never explained how awful your now-ex was, and you got grilled by his lawyer. The judge never heard why your marriage ended, just about how much your debts were. Your day in court was, at best, anti-climactic.


You also learn it is nothing like what happens on TV. The judge is not going to hear about how he spent money on sports stuff, or she spent too much on her stuff. The judge cares about the bottom line, getting through your case, and making a equitable decision. You are not going to likely find a large pot of money at the end of this journey – judges are not leprechauns that hand those out. Instead, the litigation system hands out debt like candy.


Or, you could divide stuff up yourself and come to agreements. You call my office. You pay me a fraction of the cost of litigation and are probably divorced this year (although I might advise for tax purposes to wait in 2021).


So, if you are contemplating the end of your marriage, do you want to spend your small nest-egg on legal services or on your new house? If the scenario I just told you about does not sound like what you want, I offer a different way to get divorced. A peaceful way, but it is one you have to choose for yourself. If you can make the choice to be fair, civil and realistic with your soon-to-be-ex, then I have your solution to save yourself time, tons of money, and your ability to move on with a lot less debt.


The details of your situation are important. Hire an attorney to ensure your rights are protected and your divorce is handled properly.