Nancy Michaels was 40, a mother of three and a successful businesswoman when her husband of 16 years told her he wanted a divorce. Beyond the emotional cost that followed his announcement, Michaels eventually found herself shocked by the price tag as well: more than $100,000 in legal, medical and moving costs.
"I hadn't planned for his departure," she says. "I wish I had. . . . Having a safety net or money set aside is smart."
How much does a divorce really cost for the average American? Every situation is different, experts say.
"There's an old saying: 'Love is grand. Divorce is 20 grand,'" says Ginita Wall, a certified public accountant and a divorce financial planner. "The best time to get divorced is when you have nothing -- no kids, no property. He takes the CD player. She takes the TV. And they drive away in their leased car."
Every year, nearly 2.8 million people in the U.S. go through the emotional and financial trauma of divorce, says Wall, who estimates that most of those marriages end before the 10-year mark.
Where the money goesFor average couples, divorce360.com estimates a divorce could cost anywhere from $53,000 (for a couple making $60,000 with at least one child and an $185,000 home) to $188,000 (for a couple making $150,000 a year with at least one child and a $535,000 home).
What's included in those figures? Attorney fees, the cost of selling the home, the cost of buying a cheaper home for one spouse and renting an apartment in the same area for the other, short-term marriage therapy and 20 weeks of therapy for the child. The cost of child support isn't included because many of those costs would have been incurred anyway if the spouses had remained married.
"While there is no true typical divorce, the point here is there are many hidden costs -- selling your home, hiring an attorney (or two), financial advisers, a new mortgage -- it all adds up," says Cotter Cunningham, the CEO of divorce360.com.
More assets, more expensesThe cost of divorce increases with the amount of money a couple make each year, the more assets they've accumulated (from a home to retirement funds), the number of children they have and the length of time they've been married. Geography makes a big difference in the costs for emotional, financial, legal and real-estate help to get through the process, experts say.
A divorce gets even more expensive if a spouse lets anger get in the way of letting go. New York psychotherapist Jay Granat says she has seen clients take as little as six weeks or as long three years to settle a divorce.
Women are more likely to underestimate the cost, California attorney Michael Heicklen says.
"I've seen more women break down and cry in my office, after hearing my fee structure, than I can count," says Heicklen, whose average contested divorce costs $45,000 per side. "The men generally control the finances and use that power to try and squeeze the women financially. Many say they'd rather give it to a lawyer to teach the wife a lesson than hand it to her."
Divorce attorneys can charge from $75 to $400 or more an hour, depending on where the divorce is filed in the United States. There may be a consultation fee, either flat or hourly, to a potential client. A retainer is a fee that secures payment for hourly legal fees in advance.
Do it yourselfIf both parties want a divorce and have no children or property, a do-it-yourself divorce is worth considering. Several companies provide state-specific kits -- books, paper forms, software or a combination of all of these -- for about $200, which doesn't include court filing fees. These kits will save you money, but keep in mind that they will take time to complete properly.
Even in an uncontested divorce, legal documents must be filed according to state laws. If you have any concerns about the do-it-yourself process, consider hiring an attorney to review the paperwork. If you have no children and some assets, you may be able to agree to a division of the property and hire an attorney to file an uncontested divorce, which can cost from $1,000 to $10,000.