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After Abuse, a High-Priced Divorce Is the Next Trauma
Survivors who leave an abusive partner often find themselves nearly bankrupt by divorce
- Feb 20, 2019
Emily* estimates it cost her between $30,000 and $40,000 to get divorced from her ex-husband, a man who had been physically and psychologically abusing her for the entirety of their four-year marriage as well as two years prior.
“My ex liked to take me to court regularly, which is why I ended up with so many legal fees,” she says. Which is not to say her divorce wasn’t worth every penny, considering she’s now free of an abusive husband. But what many survivors lament is that, after breaking free from a violent home, many face a new type of torture—financial destruction.
When Emily wanted to attend graduate school, which would require her and their two children to move out of state, she says the payoff was agreeing to far less child support from her ex. She received a little over $200 a month for four years, making it next to impossible to support herself and her children.
Survivors like Emily can end up starting over after divorce—many with no savings and no marketable assets, facing substantial debt and even homelessness. In fact, one study found that 50 percent of homeless women, when asked what the immediate cause of their homelessness was, said domestic violence. Another study surveyed homeless mothers and children and found 80 percent of these women had previously experienced domestic violence.
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Nearly $1 Million Gone
When Michele*, 39, divorced her husband after 12 years of emotional and psychological abuse, she gained her freedom, but that freedom came at a steep price—almost $1 million in shared assets, to be exact. Even though their prenup dictated her ex pay her legal fees, the agreement also said Michelle had to move out of their upscale home when their youngest child turned 5. And he made sure Michelle knew this.
“At one point, and I'll never forget this, he screamed at me on the phone, ‘You are a whore. You deserve nothing. You deserve to be living in the sh*ttiest one-bedroom apartment there is with nothing more than a lawn chair to sit on. You should never see our kids again.’"
He also maneuvered his way out of paying child support for their three children.
“He told me that we needed to both sign off and agree to not pay each other child support. He claimed his lawyer told him that I'd be the one to end up paying him. That's crazy talk, but somehow I believed it.”
Michelle was a stay-at-home mom to their three children for most of their marriage—her ex didn’t allow her to work.
“Although I knew I was a smart woman with a graduate degree, he was my main source of income and I didn't know what I'd do. Plus, the threats to take away my kids if I didn't go along with his plan worked perfectly.”
The Cheapest and Most Expensive States to Get a Divorce
The amount divorce will cost you varies greatly, both by state and depending on how complicated the divorce proceedings become. The more assets you have to divide and the more time you utilize lawyers will factor in to your total price tag.
When there is a custody dispute, the costs are often exponentially higher. Abusers may use the court system to repeatedly change visitation times, holiday access, school choices and other details relating to custody as a way to increase the cost of the divorce. The goal is to typically to make survivors unable to keep fighting legally by draining their financial resources.
According to GOBankingRates.com, the least expensive states to get a divorce in include:
- North Dakota ($80 filing fee, $8,200 average attorney’s fees)
- Mississippi ($50-$75 filing fee, $8,700 average attorney’s fees)
- Wyoming ($70 filing fee, $9,000 average attorney’s fees)
- South Dakota ($95 filing fee, $8,600 average attorney’s fees)
- Kentucky ($120-$180 filing fee, $8,100 average attorney’s fees)
Whereas the most expensive states to get a divorce are:
- California ($435 filing fee, $13,800 average attorney’s fees)
- Connecticut ($360 filing fee, $12,200 average attorney’s fees)
- Florida ($350-$410 filing fee, $10,700 average attorney’s fees)
- Texas ($250-$350 filing fee, $12,400 average attorney’s fees)
- New Jersey ($300 filing fee, $12,300 average attorney’s fees)
Which of course begs the question, can you get a divorce in a state different than the one you’re a resident of? If you’re in Florida, can you drive up to Mississippi and save yourself a few thousand dollars?
Unfortunately, no, not unless you or your spouse meets the residency requirements of that state. Each state has different rules about how long you have to live in a state before you’re considered a resident—Mississippi requires 12 consecutive months of residency, for instance—and most states will require documents like a valid driver’s license, voter registration card or lease to show you are, in fact, living there.
How to Protect Yourself
A traditional safety plan can help you prepare for violence and escaping it, an emotional safety plan can help you heal, but how can you prepare yourself for financial abuse and the financial ramifications of divorce?
- Separate bank accounts are important. Financial guru Suze Orman suggests having “yours, mine and ours” bank accounts and making sure you always have at least one credit card in your name only. Unfortunately, many survivors don’t have the luxury of making such demands from an abusive partner at any point during the relationship—they’re either enduring strict control or are being wooed by an abuser who is as charming as they are sinister.
- Prenuptial agreements can help protect you in some cases, but many abusers also use a prenup as the first tactic of financial abuse, ensuring you’re guaranteed to be left penniless if you leave.
- Prepare for court. In reality, the best bet is for a survivor to arm themselves with information—evidence (collected only if safe), a protection order and professional legal advice— all things that will help them when they go to court. If possible, finding a lawyer who is trained in domestic violence divorce cases is ideal, though this is not always the easiest or most affordable thing to do. However, some do work pro bono, aka, free, so it’s worth checking with your state domestic violence coalition for recommendations or visit the links on this page. If, like many survivors, you wind up sans lawyer, read “Representing Yourself in Court” for tips on how to best prepare going before a judge.
For more tips on preparing your finances before a divorce, read “5 Ways to Get Money Matters in Order.”
Survivors should be prepared for not only financial abuse in the court system, but also a continuation of other abuse tactics. As an abuser finds themselves having less control over a survivor, they are likely, say advocates, to ramp up abuse tactics, like stalking and threats of violence, if not violence itself. However, for many survivors, running the divorce gauntlet is worth it to be free. Says survivor Michelle, “I gave up a lot financially to be free from him, but I'm so much better for it.”
*Last name withheld for safety.
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