Divorcing couples in hard times try to save money

Sunday, May 31, 2009

CLAYTON, Mo. -- Uncertain economic times are leading to an uneasy truce in the War of the Roses, as divorcing couples try to save some money -- and perhaps some dignity.

With retirement accounts in tatters and homes losing value, many couples are dividing debt, not assets. The last thing they want is a mountain of legal bills to add to it.

"They don't want battles in court," said St. Charles lawyer Rebecca Magruder.

"We're seeing more people being more realistic about what they will get, more willing to settle," said Alisse Camazine, a Clayton divorce lawyer.

If a married couple are barely covering their current household expenses, the same income is not going to support two separate households.

"The judge or attorneys cannot wave a magic wand to solve financial problems," said Alan Freed, a family law attorney in Clayton who specializes in mediation.

Freed and Camazine, who both work at the law firm of Paule, Camazine & Blumenthal, have recently published a step-by-step guidebook "Divorce in Missouri" to help the roughly 22,000 couples in the state who call it quits every year.

Job uncertainty

The slumping real estate market and uncertainty over jobs also are causing more couples to remain under the same roof, even after they've decided they don't want to be married anymore.

Tom Weber, manager of domestic relations services of the Family Court in St. Louis County, says his staff is seeing more co-habitating during and after divorce. Mediators say this type of arrangement seems to work much better in low-conflict situations. "It's all about using your party manners," said Sue Amato, a lawyer and mediator in Clayton.

In St. Charles County, one such couple are still living together, even though their divorce was finalized a few weeks ago. They continued to share their home during the three-month-long divorce process, and tried to keep things as efficient and civil as possible for the sake of their young children. The couple, married just shy of 10 years, recently refinanced their home, so selling it was out of the question.

"I didn't have the means to get a temporary apartment, nor did I have anybody with whom I could go live," said the husband, 38, who works at a local university. "When it got too stressful ... I went to the movies, or she went out with friends."

To hold down costs, they tried to resolve their differences on child support and maintenance.

"My attorney was very up front with me," he said. "She said, 'The more you guys [argue] about this, the more it's going to cost you."'

Divorce rate dropping

Some warring couples decide the financial fallout of a divorce just isn't worth it right now.

In a survey last year, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that more than a third of its members reported a drop in divorce cases during national economic downturns.

But the pressures of recession can lead to more fighting about money and more struggles with financial problems. And that could have a rebound effect on divorce rates once the recession eases.

"People's finances -- or lack of finances -- and the way they spend money are the biggest reasons for divorce," said Alan Zvibleman, a family law attorney in Clayton. Zvibleman usually advises separating couples to try to find friends or family to stay with to avoid the confusion, tension and state of denial that living together can prolong. It also can be confusing for children to believe their parents are really divorced when they continue to live together, he said.

Camazine and Freed are hoping their book will lead to fewer divorce horror stories.

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