January is a peak month for divorce, with the first working Monday of the year dubbed "Divorce Day" by lawyers because of the spike in enquiries. Thirteen people in England and Wales applied online for a divorce on Christmas Day, but most people, for whom the festive period can be the final straw, wait until the holidays are over.
Divorce is expensive, though, and the cost is prohibitive for many. In the UK, couples now spend an average of £14,500 on legal and lifestyle costs when they divorce or separate – a 17% rise since 2014, according to figures from Aviva in 2018. That means that not everyone can afford to separate from their spouse even if they want to – and women across the country are left stuck in unhappy marriages for financial reasons.
Despite there being less and less stigma surrounding divorce today, the rate in the UK is declining, and some believe the price tag is to blame. There was a 6% decrease in the number of opposite-sex couples who got divorced in England and Wales in 2017 (to 8.4 per 1,000 couples), according to the Office for National Statistics, resulting in the lowest divorce rate since 1973.
The relationship charity Relate says it sees a peak in enquiries every January, and today it announced that it has seen an 84% increase in website visitors so far this month compared to the same time last year – suggesting that people are increasingly seeking relationship support before heading to lawyers.
For most couples, the cost of divorce itself – dissolving a marriage – is not financially crippling, but it's the associated legal and living costs that are so expensive. A divorce costs £550 and can be done by one party online (in some circumstances a fee exemption is available), or through a solicitor. But legal fees add up when the couple need to address separation of assets (such as selling their home, splitting pensions or maintenance claims) or the care of children. Then there's the cost of living independently afterwards.
"The emotions surrounding the relationship breakdown can sometimes make the parties more litigious, which may make it more difficult for the couple to negotiate without lawyers or outside of court," says Melanie Bataillard-Samuel, senior associate at Gregg Latchams solicitors in London. If lawyers are being used by one or both parties, costs may also increase if the parties don't work with their legal team efficiently, for instance, if they're not upfront with their lawyers for fear of being judged by a third party, or are using the lawyer as a counsellor, adds Bataillard-Samuel.
It's common for couples to physically separate but remain legally married, or to dissolve their marriage (the actual divorce) without separating out their finances, because they can't afford the associated legal costs. "Often the parties are unable to separate their assets in a satisfactory manner – the family home cannot be sold without making one party and the children homeless or they are tied into a mortgage offer. This can also be due to a lack of knowledge about the divorce process and the negative perception of seeking out legal advice for fear of huge fees," says Bataillard-Samuel.
"Some couples will choose to divorce but will not sort out separating their finances, without realising that their financial claims remain live – i.e. that either party can apply to the court in the future for a financial settlement. This can become problematic if one party ends up doing much better financially and their ex-spouse then decides that now is the time to look at a financial settlement."
Stephanie*, 33, a writer from London, got divorced in 2016 after almost two years of marriage, and split the £550 cost with her ex. The situation was amicable so there were minimal legal costs, they didn't need a solicitor as there were no children involved and she agreed to sign the house they owned together over to her husband. However, the subsequent living costs were a huge issue and Stephanie is still feeling the effects of having to live alone after her marriage ended.
"Having to come up with the deposit for a new flat – which I borrowed from my husband in the end – as well as moving costs, buying furniture and household items to replace everything I left behind – stuff like a kettle, plates, cutlery and towels – was crippling. There were so many little things I hadn't thought about."
Divorce can mean a reduction in your living circumstances, which just heaps more misery onto an already miserable process
Once she was living alone, Stephanie realised how much of a difference it makes when you split bills as half of a couple. "Where before we had shared the cost of gas, electric, water, council tax, internet, etc between two, I was now paying for it all by myself. I hadn’t really anticipated this and I ended up with quite a bit of credit card debt, which I’m still paying off."
While knowing about the cost of living alone before wouldn't have impacted her decision to get divorced eventually, Stephanie says she "might have waited a little or made more of an effort to save some money in advance."
In general, she believes the associated costs of divorce, mainly of living independently, are "a genuine concern" in our current economic climate, particularly given the cost of renting. "Unless you’re very fortunate, divorce can mean a reduction in your living circumstances, which just heaps more misery onto the already miserable process of ending a marriage. It’s totally understandable that women would stay in an unhappy marriage to avoid all that."
Money worries will always be a part of divorce, especially with children in the mix
Isabel Sanchez, 39
The situation is more difficult if children are involved. Isabel Sanchez, 39, a volunteer for a nonprofit from London, got divorced in November 2017 after 11 years of marriage. She has five children from the marriage and 21-year relationship with her ex, and believes that the cost of divorce is higher for parents. "Money worries will always be a part of [divorce], especially with children in the mix," she told Refinery29. "It’s not just the cost of the divorce, it’s also looking at maintenance and the person who leaves them having to pay their own rent and bills independently."
Sanchez's ex-husband took out a £3,000 loan to pay for the divorce and when he left the family home he had to start paying for rent on top of child maintenance and divorce costs. "He is still paying off the loan, which in turn affects what he can currently do with the children, which impacts me."
People can take steps to keep the cost of their divorce down themselves, says Deborah Jeff, partner and head of family at Seddons and legal spokesperson for Divorce Aid. "Most people will physically separate even if they cannot afford the legal fees, to formalise the separation and end their legal connections to each other." She advises doing as much preparation for your case as possible to reduce legal fees. "You are likely to need legal advice at some point in the divorce process, and getting your personal papers and financial disclosure in order early will set you up well for what lies ahead."
Jeff also recommends using a conciliatory form of dispute resolution, such as mediation, where appropriate, as well as keeping good communication with your spouse where possible and using a solicitor only when necessary, not throughout the entire case. "Try to ensure that most discussions take place between the two of you directly, and not via your solicitors."
She continues: "Where a couple is unhappily married but unable to afford the cost of divorce, the legal options regarding the outcome will depend on the facts of each individual case." Support is available online and via the Citizens Advice Bureau and Divorce Aid, an independent source of information and advice, supported by professionals who volunteer their services.
*Name has been changed.