Splits

Why Is Getting Divorced So Expensive?

One lawyer has seen former couples pay millions to split. Millions.

Getting married is easy — you can tie the knot at City Hall for the price of a marriage license. Getting a divorce? Good luck.

But why? Why is it so expensive to get out of an unhappy marriage? Many ex-couples move on emotionally with new partners while remaining legally married to their ex because it’s so damn expensive to legally part.

Personal Space called Christopher Melcher, founding partner of family law firm Walzer Melcher in Los Angeles, to explain why. Basically, divorces drain the bank account because the parties can’t agree. Yes, the bickering to the end is what costs so much.

He breaks it down:

"The reason a divorce is so expensive is the same reason why the marriage fell apart. A lack of trust, a lack of respect, and the inability to communicate,” Melcher said. “These three things cause marriages to fail and it’s the environment they are now getting divorced in. How do you make a deal with somebody with no trust, no respect, and no communication? It’s a toxic environment.”

He added that in a divorce, 90 percent of the fight is emotional, and 10 percent is actually stuff that needs to be worked out, like custody or the family home. Belcher has his own unique approach to get things done in a reasonable amount of time so both parties can move on.

“I’m trying to be objective when I go in. I come to the scene trying to be a first responder — the parties are in shock, they don’t have the ability to see beyond themselves and their own hurt, and they need to understand what the pathway is to get out. Because of the mess they’re in, they’re stuck.”

In a normal divorce litigation, a lawyer and a couple sit and do a cost-benefit analysis. They determine how much will it cost; what are the chances of winning and what they could win. They weigh all this out and decide what’s worth what.

That said, Melcher told us many people getting a divorce are often dealing with a lawyer for the very first time. “They’re getting $350 an hour to $1200 an hour for a lawyer, often they hire a team of two lawyers plus paralegals… Now with a $350-per-hour divorce lawyer you spend 10 or 20 hours on this, you can see how quickly these bills add up. What happens is there is initial fighting and the parties blow through 10 to 20 grand in lawyers fees already. All their savings are wiped out and no money is left to solve the problem permanently.”

Many couples are so bitter they waste 20 to 30k on fighting over who gets custody on the holidays, rather than work on the big picture. “They don’t know how to use the lawyer properly, and the lawyer doesn’t have the skills to say this isn’t getting you anywhere,” Melcher explained.

Couples need to separate lawyers from therapists (and go to therapy!), he added. “A mental health professional should be involved because [as noted above], 90 percent is emotion and 10 percent is math. We are putting them into a legal system that has no way of address the mental health aspect of the problem and they are being led by lawyers untrained in the area.”

Anger and bitterness are often what causes these divorce cases to get out of control. Is there a solution?

"What I do is work on restoring those three things [trust, respect, communication] and that’s the way I communicate the other side. I say what we're gonna stand ground on and what we're gonna give up. We take the lead and can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

And if you want to battle over furniture or a painting? Melcher said he’s seen couples argue “into the millions.”

“Often when they have vast wealth, it doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “The hardest cases are when they’re just getting by just paying rent or mortgage, maybe even have a little savings and it’s a very fragile situation. There’s not a lot of money and we have to be surgical in our approach. [If they want to drag it out] now they’re each paying lawyers and there are not many people who can survive that.”

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