Saying “I do” has always been something of a gamble, with nearly 50% of all marriages in the U.S. ending in divorce or separation. But throw in a global pandemic that turns the world upside down and sends everyone into lockdown, and the odds of staying together suddenly get a lot worse.
In fact, divorce filings in the U.S have spiked since COVID-19 struck. A new survey from LegalTemplates showed that divorce agreements made between April and June 2020 increased 34% in sales compared to the same time period in 2019. Additionally, divorce-related keyword internet searches are up by 11%, reported data analytics company SEMrush.
Divorce costs and protocol largely depend on your state, but you can expect to shell out at least a few thousand bucks — and possibly quite a bit more. The shocking price tag is darkly ironic considering that one of the biggest drivers of divorce during quarantine is unemployment and financial strain, the LegalTemplates survey revealed.
While divorce is seldom easy and never free — and going through it during a pandemic brings some added complications — there are ways to end your marriage safely and relatively cheaply.
Process Your Feelings
It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of questions once you start googling about divorce. So, ideally, before you get to that step, spend some constructive time with your feelings and why you want to split. In an article for Divorce Magazine, Dr. Susan Allison suggested journaling and planning on your own before bringing up the “D” word with your partner.
Enlist a Therapist
RoseAnn C. Branda, an executive partner and co-director of the Family and Matrimonial Law department at Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Formato, Ferrara, Wolf & Carone, LLP told NBC News that seeking a therapist is a crucial early step in the divorce process.
“Anyone going through divorce needs an emotional outlet to discuss the irretrievable breakdown in a relationship,” Branda said. “To keep legal costs down and get assistance, a therapist is something you need.”
Booking a teletherapy session has never been easier. You can likely find a provider through your insurance company or by searching platforms such as Talkspace, BetterHelp and Amwell.
Have a Heart to Heart
Getting on the same page with your spouse is crucial to getting the divorce process started smoothly. Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Ann Gold Buscho says that the goal here is “to be kind, firm, direct and neutral.” Buscho also recommends having this talk while kids are not present, which admittedly might be tough during COVID-19 lockdowns.
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Aim For Amicability
The more amicable you are as you head into divorce, the better your chances are at cutting costs and expediting the process. This might be challenging, but you can start by taking Buscho’s advice and “acknowledge your spouse’s emotions and thank him or her for listening.” Make sure your spouse understands that you intend to move forward with divorce before announcing your separation to the world — aka, posting the news on social media.
Prepare Your Financial Documents
In a blog for the law firm Fox Rothschild, attorneys Laura S. Hayes and Jamie-Lee Denton wrote that even when a couple is in agreement on how to divide property and other assets, lawyers will want to see any and all financial documents.
Save time and money on legal fees by having the following ready:
- Three years of tax returns
- At least one year of bank records
- Credit card statements
- Any other financial statements including information on mortgages, auto loans, retirement accounts, healthcare documents, etc.
The blog points out that in families where one spouse controls the finances, “staying at home is a great time to review the assets and bank records to get up to speed, to the extent possible, on where the assets are located.”
Know Your Options
There are several ways to legally end a marriage, with the right divorce process depending on your specific situation. In a piece for MarketWatch, divorce finance specialists Janet Tighe and Susan Miller broke down the following types of divorce as follows:
- Pro Se: Parties agree to a settlement between themselves and file all paperwork on their own.
- Mediation: A mutually agreed-upon neutral third party guides the discussions to reach a settlement.
- Collaborative process: A collaboratively trained team consisting of attorneys for each spouse, a financial “neutral,” such as a certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA), a counselor, coach or child specialist (as needed), meet as a team with the spouses to reach a settlement. Attorneys agree not to litigate, even if no settlement can be reached.
- Traditional attorney-to-attorney: Attorneys structure a settlement for the parties and discourage the spouses from communicating with each other.
- Litigation: A judge makes the final decisions on issues that cannot be agreed upon otherwise.
Technically, yes, you can divorce without a lawyer or mediation, but you still need your financial documents ready and in either case a paralegal must be on board to assist you. While it’s tempting to opt for no lawyers or mediators because it looks like the cheapest option, it could cost you more in the end. It’s highly recommended that both you and your spouse (yes, you will each need your own) at least consult with a lawyer to know your rights.
To find prospective lawyers, scour client testimonials and ask any friends in your state who have gone through divorce for referrals. To weed out any bad players, contact your state bar to find out if any complaints have been filed against the lawyers you’re considering.
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Schedule a Zoom Consultation
With in-person meetings largely off limits due to the pandemic, many divorce lawyers are still working, so a Zoom consultation or phone call should be easily arranged. Be sure to ask about the fee before you book. Some lawyers will give a consultation for free, but experienced divorce attorneys will often charge their normal hourly rate for a consult.
During the consult, don’t hesitate to go straight for the big questions and concerns. And again, have those financial records ready. Also ask what their retainer fee is, and if you decide to proceed with them, be sure to get everything on a contract.
Look at Free Online Resources
As of Sept. 4, the unemployment rate has been hovering at 8.4%, while the economy continues to suffer the effects of the pandemic. If you’re one of the many who has been financially hard hit by COVID-19 and can’t afford an attorney, the Rosen Law Firm in North Carolina suggests utilizing free online resources, including child support and alimony calculators, as well as e-books and e-courses for educating yourself on your rights and how to move forward. You can also seek the counsel of a pro-bono attorney.
Create a Thorough Budget
It seems no matter what life change is underway, creating a budget is imperative, and divorce is no exception. An article on Woman’s Divorce highlights that with a well-documented budget, each spouse can give proof of the standard of living that was maintained during the marriage. This budget will also help you plan for living on your own. Bear in mind that real estate values are uncertain right now given the tumultuous state of the economy, so your house may not be worth quite as much as you think; but only a realtor and appraiser can tell you for sure.
Factor Virtual Schooling Into Your Co-Parenting Plan
Dealing with child custody is often the messiest part of a divorce — and the costliest. This issue might be even pricklier now, when the pandemic has forced millions of kids to rely on virtual schooling.
A survey by Nolo.com found that, on average, an uncontested divorce took 11 months from start to finish, while cases that advanced to trial had an average duration of 18 months. The virtual schooling nightmare of the pandemic might be over by the time your divorce is finalized, but you also might part ways well before then. In either case, do your best to work out custody details now so that all the lawyers have to do is finalize them.
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Look For Your Own Place
Moving during the pandemic is a headache, but the real estate world is still turning — albeit, more virtually than in person. You’ll probably need to hold off on any major investments (like buying a place) until your divorce is over, but if renting an apartment is financially viable, don’t let the pandemic stop you. Just be prepared to view properties over Zoom or on a self-guided tour.
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Secure Your Own Credit and Cash
If your finances are intermingled with your spouse’s, now is the time to start branching out on your own. In a blog on his company site, attorney James M. Lynch recommended setting cash aside and applying for a credit card “with a high limit, then stash it away for a rainy day.”
Depending on your state, you might be able to e-file your divorce paperwork through the court’s e-filing system, enabling you to do much of the process from home. Your legal counsel can guide you on this, as well as instruct you on what can be signed and scanned over. However, notaries may be backlogged and/or limited in their hours.
Hurry Up and Wait
Divorces historically can take a long time (hello, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who are still going through their divorce after filing in 2016), but the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down the process even more. How courts are handling hearings depends on the state, but in general, one can expect the divorce process to be even more drawn out when it comes to court dates. Delays can be expected not only because of current COVID-19 safety regulations, but because of a serious backlog.
Consider that as of May, only four of Connecticut’s 36 courts were open, The New York Times reported. But just how long this takes really depends on the couple’s situation. Ultimately, aside from the slowdown and rise in virtual meetings, the divorce process itself hasn’t much altered during the pandemic. At least some things never change, right?