The Cost Of Breaking Up: Getting A Divorce Is Trapping Women In Debt

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
Around 42% of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce and although the divorce rate may be falling, that’s due to the trend towards cohabiting in lieu of marriage, rather than because we’re becoming better at matrimony. This means that a lot of us are going through the emotionally fraught – and expensive – divorce process each year.
In England and Wales filing for divorce costs at least £550 and, depending on how complicated your case is, legal costs can add up to tens – or even hundreds – of thousands of pounds. The latest estimate puts the average total cost of divorce at £14,561, with legal fees the most common expense when a relationship ends, costing 54% of couples an average of £2,679 per person. Factors affecting the cost include solicitors’ fees, whether the divorce is contested or not (the former being more expensive) and how complicated it is to reach a settlement to separate your finances and assets.
Most people won’t be eligible for help with divorce costs, such as legal aid, because of existing savings and/or income. This leaves many vulnerable women needing to borrow eye-watering sums of money in order to leave their marriages, whether that’s through bank loans, overdrafts, credit cards, from friends and family or elsewhere. These loans often come with a high interest rate, adding money woes to an already emotionally fraught situation.

The average total cost of divorce is £14,561. Legal fees are the most common expense when a relationship ends, costing 54% of couples an average of £2,679 per person.

Some women who experienced abuse in their marriage may be able to access legal aid to cover the costs of solicitors and barristers. But if you have savings, own a property or your income is over a certain threshold, you may not be eligible for help.
This was the case for Charlie* from Gloucestershire, who got divorced at 38 after her year-and-a-half-long marriage to her physically, emotionally and financially abusive partner ended. She describes her financial situation at the time as "dire" and the divorce cost her £60,000, £50,000 of which she borrowed – a combination of a loan from one of the big five banks, credit card debt and money from friends. Six years later, Charlie is still repaying the money.
When she fled the marriage, Charlie and her two young children had nothing but £100, one bag between them and the clothes on their backs. The prospect of having to pay back such a vast amount of money made her stressed and anxious. "It brought back memories of the abuse I endured and gave me sleepless nights. But having my children and knowing I needed to support and protect them gave me the strength to carry on."
Charlie had to leave a stable job for a higher paying, more pressurised role to focus on repaying the debt. "I collapsed on the Tube three times from the stress and tiredness," she recalls, admitting she was also exhausted from the years-long abusive relationship. "All you want to do is to curl up into a ball and hide away. Even waiting to see if you’ve been accepted for a bank loan is stressful enough. It also puts your credit rating on red, which is another source of stress going forward."
Shelley*, from Surrey, was 23 when she married her now ex-husband, who was 28 at the time. During their marriage, she suffered physical, economic and mental abuse and experienced coercive control. Five years since their separation, her loan to cover the litigation, from a legal loans provider, has come to over £350,000 and is secured against the home she now lives in.
The proceedings involving her three children, which were instigated by her ex – despite her claims that he never disparaged her parenting during their marriage – have cost Shelley over £150,000 so far and she has been a litigant in person for the last year and a half (that is, without legal representation). The impact of having to take out such a huge loan to fight for her children – so far without success – has been "catastrophic, traumatic and exhausting". She says her hair has fallen out, she can’t sleep, she’s gained weight and frequently feels "complete, utter despair".
"Because of these loans, I am childless, homeless and penniless," Shelley says. "These loan companies prey on vulnerable women who are in the middle of their divorces and desperate for resolution." 
Shelley believes that litigation loans aren’t offered with consumers’ best interests in mind. "My previous solicitors were in cahoots with my ex and also brokered a loan for him through [the same legal loans provider], which is a direct conflict of interest. He was also awarded less by the courts than what he took out in the loan. It’s crazy."
Stephanie Orr, housing policy officer at Surviving Economic Abuse, believes that the cost of divorce is prohibitive, particularly for vulnerable women on low incomes. "We know that women don’t pursue options that they cannot afford and often stay with abusive partners for longer, experiencing more harm, due to not having the economic resources to leave."
"Sixty percent of domestic abuse survivors are in debt as a result of economic abuse, so it may look like someone can afford to pay for advice, however their income may be consumed by paying monthly debt repayments and other liabilities," Orr continues. "The primary reasons women return to abusive partners after leaving are economic, so it's vitally important that women can afford to separate and aren't left in more debt when they do."
Surviving Economic Abuse regularly encounters homeowners who struggle to reach a financial settlement during their divorce. Orr says: "They often tell us that their ex-partner will deliberately draw out proceedings to run up costs. This is a way that the abusive partner can stay connected to them and is a method of exercising control post-separation."
Many women are unable to get legal aid because they have a property in their name but their ex-partner won't allow them to access the equity, known as 'trapped capital', Orr continues. "These women often have to represent themselves in court, facing their abuser, and many get into debt through loans or other means."

Because of these loans, I am childless, homeless and penniless. These loan companies prey on vulnerable women who are in the middle of their divorces and desperate for resolution.

In a recent survey, Surviving Economic Abuse found that just a third of women were able to access legal aid, with divorce being the most common court proceedings. One in five women took out a personal loan to cover the costs and many used a combination of money lending, such as loans, credit cards, overdrafts and informal borrowing from friends. Huge debts generated by court proceedings were frequently raised as an issue. The charity recently supported a High Court challenge of the legal aid means test, brought by the Public Law Project.
Even when no abuse is alleged to have taken place within the relationship, the financial fallout from divorce can be crippling. Georgina*, from Portsmouth, is going through the final stages of divorce after being married for 10 years and having four children with her ex. She was 29 years old when they married. He didn’t want to divorce and only agreed on the grounds that Georgina paid all costs; to date, she has put £2,000 on her credit card as she wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise. She’s currently paying back £70 per month, which covers the interest plus £20 off the total amount. "It will take ages to pay off," she says.
Georgina was already in debt, relying on credit cards and living paycheque to paycheque before the divorce, but now she feels "overwhelmed" by her financial situation. "I don’t have the mental capacity to think about it at the moment. I’m on a knife edge. If something else happened, everything would collapse. I’ve started taking antidepressants and feel close to tears most of the time, and I’m made to feel bad as I’m the one who chose to split."
Nick Hill, money expert at the Money and Pensions Service, says borrowing money to pay for a divorce should be a last resort. "Think carefully about the long-term implications of using high-cost credit and if possible try alternatives such as credit unions or borrowing from family and friends first." If you are going to take out a loan, he adds, be sure to shop around for the best deals on 0% interest credit cards or specialist divorce loans.
Georgina believes the current cost of divorce is "unacceptable" and should be about the same as a wedding licence. "Then it’s accessible for most. I think I paid about £100. At the moment, it’s only because I have a decent professional job that I was able to get a credit card. A lot of people wouldn’t have that option and so couldn’t divorce."
Charlie agrees that if you don’t have any savings or have been financially abused, the system makes it difficult to secure loans and financial help. "However, I don’t want this to put women off from leaving an abusive relationship, as I know women stay due to the financial worry. The government and financial institutions need to recognise the struggle and do more to help, especially for women who don’t have any income. There should be a lender specifically for women who want to leave these [abusive] relationships."
*Names have been changed or withheld to protect interviewees' identities.

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