'It’s hell': How divorce laws are designed to create unnecessary financial hardship for women

Dasha Kennedy helps her hundreds of thousands of followers achieve financial stability. Her passion for financial literacy started when, as a 27-year-old mother of two with no debt, Kennedy decided to get divorced in Missouri. In just a matter of months, she started over as a single parent–and accrued $20,000 in debt.

“I felt like I was being punished for filing for divorce,” she told us. 

Kennedy is not alone in her experience of significant financial losses following a divorce. It makes sense that overall wealth decreases and individual spending increases when spouses separate, as they no longer make savings from shared expenses (splitting up previously shared insurance plans is a simple example)–but there’s more to the story. Divorce has a lasting, negative impact on finances that, in heterosexual divorces, affects women the most. After a divorce is finalized, men hold 2.5 times the amount of wealth women do, and women’s household income falls 41% (compared to men’s 23%). 

But it’s not divorce, itself, that leads to these economic repercussions. As a former state policy advisor who’s been divorced and an investigative journalist who grew up in a divorced family, we teamed up to better understand the impact divorce policies have on finances. We found that women, who are already up against systemic gender inequities when it comes to finances, lose out more due to the arbitrary and complicated divorce policies at play from the day they decide to seek divorce to the day the final divorce paperwork is signed.

A conservative reaction to no-fault divorce

The time between making the decision to divorce and having a divorce decree in hand varies from state to state. Unfortunately, data on the length of time a divorce takes is unreliable due to the nature of how people respond to surveys about their relationship history (for example, some people respond with their date of separation versus their legal date of divorce, ). One oft-cited 2019 poll from a legal research firm reported that proceedings took a year on average, with 13% of respondents reporting that their divorce took more than two years. Whether due to backlogged court systems or outdated policies that require couples to wait to divorce, the longer a divorce takes, the more couples are stuck in a limbo period that takes a major toll on their finances.

Betsey Stevenson, a professor at the University of Michigan and former Chief Economist of the U.S. Department of Labor who has studied the impacts of divorce laws, sees policies that intentionally slow down the divorce process as a response to the national movement toward no-fault divorce.

Before the 1950s, divorces were only permitted when one spouse could prove that the other had wronged them under a set of so-called “acceptable” reasons, such as adultery. “You literally had to prove guilt for a person who had committed some fault,” Stevenson explained. Not only did this trap people in unhappy and sometimes abusive marriages but it also contributed to an entire subculture of hired actors posing as someone who was cheating with a spouse, private investigators, and perjuring lawyers, all to technically meet the confines of the law.

Today, however, every state offers a no-fault divorce option allowing an easier out. But some states intentionally make no-fault divorce more complicated by forcing couples to wait. “I think in a lot of ways, the waiting periods were a political compromise to allow the divorce with no evidence,” Stevenson said. 

A handful of states require couples to live separately and apart for at least six months before they can file for divorce, and North and South Carolina are the only states in the country that require a one-year separation period, with extremely rare exceptions, prior to any couple being able to file for divorce. Separation periods that force ongoing interaction between couples can have dangerous consequences for the people stuck in them. 

There’s probably nothing that can cause a more explosive relationship than forcing people who don’t want to be together to be together. And while it shouldn’t be a radical idea that people can get divorced simply because they no longer want to be in their current marriage, some Republicans have recently called for an end to no-fault divorce.

Separation periods are an extreme example of policies that slow divorce down, but even in states without them, divorces take a long time. “Every county, and sometimes every courthouse, can change the rules of the game,” Erin Levine, the co-founder of Hello Divorce, said. Levine spent 16 years as a divorce attorney before she created a tech platform that helps people navigate the legal and financial logistics of divorce. “A state will say that ‘X’ form is optional, but a judge in a particular courthouse can decide that, ‘No, it’s not optional in my court,’ and then reject your entire divorce because of it. They do this all the time,” Levine told us. 

Dasha Kennedy experienced this firsthand. Throughout her divorce proceedings in Missouri, Kennedy experienced delay after delay in court hearings, as the judge granted extensions to allow Kennedy’s ex-husband to attend–which he never did. All of those court visits added up as unpaid leave for Kennedy, while she simultaneously covered childcare and housing costs, using credit cards and payday loans to make ends meet. “’I’m taking off work, coming to the hearings on the bus…I’m making these sacrifices, I’m doing everything right,” she told us, “And the judge just gave the non-custodial parent so much grace to miss hearings, not have the appropriate documents, not make deadlines.”

Wearing women down

We also spoke with a woman in North Carolina about her efforts to get divorced, Keri, whose last name we’ve withheld due to ongoing legal proceedings. When we spoke, Keri was in month nine of the state’s required one-year separation period.

“It’s hell,” Keri told us. During her marriage, Keri helped pay off a joint credit card bill every month, while her husband told her he was saving up their family resources in separate bank accounts held in his name only.

During her divorce proceedings, Keri hasn’t had access to those funds. “For the first seven months (of the separation period), my ex-husband did not give me a dime,” she shared. “Why is it okay that he can just have all this money, have all of our stuff, and I can’t move on with my life or buy a house for my kids?” Keri’s (still, legally) husband could, in theory, spend these assets during their separation, which could impact the final court order of child support and alimony. “He could drain those accounts right now, and I can’t do a thing about it,” she said.

During that divorcing-but-not-divorced dance, some states put automatic orders in place to stop one spouse from manipulating or abusing the couple’s finances. But even those orders are difficult to enforce–and cost money.

Dasha Kennedy and Keri’s experiences highlight just some of the ways that divorce procedures drag out decisions and add more costly hours to attorney bills. The more complicated the procedures are to get divorced, the more time it takes attorneys to support their clients, and the more those attorneys get paid. A longer divorce process also means more wages lost from missing work to attend court, which is the only way to remedy financial inequities and abuse. This cycle–of needing court-ordered financial agreements, but also needing time to negotiate and enforce them–is one that drains bank accounts and puts couples, particularly women, in a financial hole.

For women, the realities of the processes, procedures, and policies of getting divorced have a more severe impact both on their wealth and their opportunity to recover. Women, who initiate 70% of divorces, begin divorce proceedings at an overall economic disadvantage because of systemic inequities.

Women still earn less than men, making on average about 84% of what men make when working full-time, year-round–and the gap is even wider for women of color. “Already most Black women [are] in a position where they’re making less, have fewer assets, so it puts them at risk before they even finalize the divorce,” Kennedy shared. “They’re already starting 10 steps behind because they’re taking a hit immediately.”

That wealth gap is exacerbated by caregiving responsibilities, as mothers incur a $16,000 earning penalty each year. On average, women spend almost 11 hours a week more on unpaid labor than men. That discrepancy doesn’t just lead to missed income–it means that overall, women have less time for education, skill development, and career advancement than men. Drawn-out divorce proceedings exacerbate the time poverty that women already experience. 

Persistent gender expectations also mean that in many marriages, men manage household finances. Kennedy sees this pattern in her work. “In many households, if the woman is involved in the finances, it’s normally compartmentalized where she is just involved in the groceries or the kids,” she said. 

All these disparities add up for women in divorce proceedings, where the two things that are most essential in reaching an equitable agreement are what women have less of: money and time.     

Lori Lustberg, an attorney and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, helps couples navigate the financial implications of divorce. “Before I started working with divorcing people, my preconceived notion was that the children would be the most loaded issue,” Lustberg told us, “but that’s usually a much, much easier issue than the finances.”

As couples are worn down by complicated legal requirements, lengthy negotiations, and a lack of financial literacy resources, women are often the first to capitulate.“That emotional wearing down is very real,” Lustberg shared. “That happens with a lot of women. They think, ‘I’ll just take whatever he’s offering and I’ll deal with it’.”

This is what economist Betsey Stevenson describes as an imbalance in bargaining power during divorce proceedings. “How much bargaining power does the person who wants a divorce have, and how much bargaining does the person who is happy to drag it out have?” she said. Women, as the majority of divorce initiators, come to the table with more systemic financial inequities, and therefore with less bargaining power.

Kennedy experienced this when, due to the expenses of ongoing court proceedings, she didn’t continue to seek the financial support her ex-husband owed her. “It almost becomes easier to just be defeated and accept it…and that’s not fair,” Kennedy shared.

Divorce is not a monolithic moment

The right to divorce should be as accessible as the right to marry, yet the consequences of getting divorced can be financially devastating for women. 

While research has portrayed divorce as a life change that has devastating impacts on women’s finances, Kennedy and Keri’s experiences suggest that it’s not divorce itself that’s the problem: It’s the way we make people get divorced in America. “It’s so broken,” Keri told us. “I can’t believe the way these laws are. I’m astonished that it’s OK.” 

We need more research that focuses not just on the wealth outcomes of former spouses after their divorce decrees are signed but also on the lived experiences of people from the day they decide they want a divorce. When we study divorce as a single monolithic moment, describing individuals as divorced or not, we miss a chance to understand the impact of the process, not just the end result. 

We need to reform and streamline divorce policies nationwide to make the process clear, consistent, and accessible. States with required waiting periods throughout the divorce process need to reevaluate the purposes and impacts of those policies, as well as inconsistencies in how divorce policies are implemented. And just as many courts mandate parenting classes for divorcing couples, the system should make financial education and support more accessible. It is also critical that additional pathways and tools–that don’t require expensive lawyers–are more widely available.

In the meantime, Dasha Kennedy has advice for women navigating the time between wanting to divorce and making it final: Get organized by gathering all your financial documents, such as bank statements, tax returns, and the deed to your house. Create a budget based on what you can afford on your sole income, not on what you expect from alimony and child support. Build and protect your credit in order to increase your access to immediate needs, like housing and food. “And seek professional financial advice,” she told us. “I did not know a lot about how to advocate for myself financially, so it is important to get some type of support or guidance to the finances during the divorce process.”

Though awareness and tools can help mitigate the long-term cost of divorce, the system does not need to be so adversarial, drawn-out, and expensive. It’s time for policymakers to recognize divorce reform as not only an important social cause but also a necessary economic one.

Rebecca Feinglos is a grieving educator, advocate, and founder of Grieve Leave. Previously, she served as a senior early childhood policy advisor for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, and an early childhood policy associate for the Chicago Mayor’s Office.

Sophia Laurenzi is a writer and journalist who covers grief, criminal justice, and systems that impact mental health in America.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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