The Harsh But True Realities Of Divorce
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 30.8 percent of all marriages have ended in divorce. But for all of the women who have filed for it or are about to, oddly few actually know what they are getting into when their marriages hit the end of the road, says Kristin Willadsen-Smith, an Indiana attorney who recently remarried after her first marriage ended.
"When I got divorced, I had been practicing as a lawyer and sitting on the other side of divorces for 10 years," she says. "But I was still shocked at some of the things I experienced going through my own. Like in most everything, knowledge is power. The best thing you can do is arm yourself with knowledge."
And the more, the better. So we spoke with divorce attorneys, marriage therapists, and divorcées to find out what every woman who takes the plunge should know:
The Process Pretty Much Works Like This
While every state has its own laws and ways of doing divorce, here's the 30,000-feet view of the typical divorce, called a litigated divorce: You find a divorce attorney and figure out what experts you'll need in your case (custody experts, forensic experts to value businesses, real estate appraisers, pension valuators, etc.), says attorney Vikki Ziegler, host of Bravo's Untying the Knot.
You then either discuss mediating before filing what’s called a Complaint for Divorce, or you just file the complaint outright. Next, you get your financials together to get an overall picture of your assets, income, expenses, and debts. You and your attorney then create a settlement plan, which you exchange with your spouse in a meeting or letter, says Ziegler. This process repeats itself until you can both agree on what each person will walk away with. If a case can't be settled, then you will have to appear at various mandatory court appearances, file financial statements, and possibly serve discovery (requests for financial documents), she says. The court will hold settlement conferences to help try to resolve issues, but if that still doesn’t work, you will go to trial and have to testify along with any called witnesses including friends, family, and coworkers.
You May Be Able to Go for a Fault or a No-Fault Divorce
While many states still grant fault divorces (which used to be the only way they came), most also allow for no-fault divorces, meaning that you don't have to prove that someone has messed up big time in order to get a divorce, says Willadsen-Smith. In a no-fault divorce, you pretty much just have to say that it's not working and you want out. In that case, then, the divorce is basically just about dividing assets and liabilities like houses, cars, and bills. "At the end of the day, it's a math problem," she says. Fault divorces, however, require proving that the other person was responsible for ruining the relationship, generally so that the other can get more assets out of the divorce. An attorney can tell you what your options are if you opt for a litigated divorce.
Mediated and Collaborative-Law Divorces Are Also Options
In an attempt to make the process smoother and quicker, increasingly more couples that split elect to pursue either mediated divorces or collaborative-law divorces. In a mediated divorce, a neutral mediator helps couples reach agreements on their own before any lawyers come in and papers are signed, according to the New York State Council on Divorce Mediation. (However, both parties generally consult with a lawyer on their own.) Meanwhile, collaborative-law divorces use attorneys who will take you through the negotiation process so long as you agree that you will not go to court, according to the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota. If you simply cannot settle and need to go to court, you will have to start the process over with a traditional attorney, which would suck. But the point of collaborative-law divorces is sidestepping court anyway.
Costs Vary Widely
"There is no one-size-fits-all cost," says New York divorce attorney Bruce Provda. Court costs for an uncontested divorce will cost a few hundred dollars, while having a company fill out your paperwork will cost a minimum of about $500, he says. But that’s with no disagreements, disputes, nothing; you just fill out the paperwork and submit it. Done deal. It rarely ever goes that way, though. "In my experience, I have seen legal fees as low as $5,000 to $10,000 and as high as $1 million and up," says Ziegler. "It really depends on the emotional and financial acrimony [legal speak for bitterness] of a case, the assets in dispute, and how ready both parties are to finally compromise and move on with their lives."
If Things Get Ugly, Your Social Media Posts Can Get Dragged Into Things
This is especially of concern if you are entering into a fault divorce. "If you don't want the judge to read it, don’t say it to anyone," says Willadsen-Smith. "People will vent frustrations or post compromising photos online, and those can be used in court against you." Reboot your mom’s old rule: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
It Can Take a Couple Months to Several Years
All states are a little different, but a divorce doesn’t happen lickety-split. For example, in Indiana, it legally takes a minimum of 60 days to finalize a divorce, and on average, divorce proceedings take between six months and a year. After all, you have to factor in home appraisals, sorting through investments, and tallying up debt—divorces take stock of everything you both have and owe, says Willadsen-Smith. Meanwhile, in New York, most uncontested divorces (meaning that you don't have huge disputes and can settle out of court) wrap up in fewer than 90 days, says Provda. If things aren't so smooth and exes can't reach a financial agreement or are fighting over custody of children, though, you can end up appearing in court two years or more after someone originally filed, she says.
You'll Need to Enlist Emotional Support
Divorced and separated women have lower levels of wellbeing and higher stress compared than their male counterparts, according to a recent Gallop poll. "It's just a scary upheaval sort of process," says Willadsen-Smith. "I was lucky because my ex-husband is a therapist and I'm a family attorney, so we worked through the divorce to make everything as fair as possible with our three kids, but it was still emotionally difficult." She found support through friends, family, and going to therapy a couple times per month. "The law doesn't afford you emotional support," she says. "You'll need more than an attorney to get through it."
You'll Have a Battle Between Your Brain and Heart
"In retrospect, what surprised me most about my divorce was how much I doubted myself during it," says Willadsen-Smith. "Even though I knew intellectually how the divorce would go, I still worried and doubted myself. Self-doubt is probably the biggest enemy of anyone going through a divorce." It's hard to put your emotions aside because, after all, divorces are all about love and loss—and it doesn't get more emotional than that, says licensed marriage and family therapist Paul Hokemeyer, J.D., Ph.D.
You Need to Know Your Worth
The divorce process can be a big hit to your self-esteem. "Women need to diligently remind themselves of their considerable worth and value independent of romantic love," says Hokemeyer, who notes that some people may feel unattractive or ugly during a divorce. Not only does a divorce drag out everyone's worst side, but it comes with stress, sleepless night, and out-of-the-blue crying sessions. "As a result, women need to surround themselves with other women, friends, and family who validate them for their internal strength and grace under pressure."
More from Women’s Health:
11 Tips for Dating After a Divorce
"Conscious Uncoupling": The End of the Ugly Divorce
These 8 Women Left Their Toxic Relationships—and Are Now Happier Than Ever