After my husband lost his job in December 2010, I didn’t question taking on the weight of supporting both of us while he went back to school to get his bachelor’s degree. We’d had issues in our marriage before, but I soon found out about debt he’d hidden from me — which shone a spotlight on all the other things we desperately had to address. We tried couples therapy and attempts at budgeting, but after two years I chose divorce to relieve myself of the emotional and financial burdens of the relationship.
A divorce meant adding legal fees to the $10,000 student loan I cosigned for my spouse, my own graduate school loan, my orthodontia payments, and accounts that had taken a serious hit during my marriage. I wasn’t fully prepared for the price I’d have to pay.
I made the mistake of thinking a lawyer would be “cheap” because friends of mine who’d gone through divorce had told me it cost only a few hundred dollars for a lawyer to shepherd paperwork, review the division of property, and register files with the court. When it came time to initiate my divorce, I chose to put down a $5,200 retainer instead of paying the lawyer as we went — in hopes that I’d get some money back later on. To pay the retainer, I ended up deducting from my savings and checking accounts, plus charging a lot on my credit card.
My lawyer’s office sent me invoices with itemized deductions from the retainer, noting charges for things as small as an email to postal and delivery services. Before I knew it, my retainer was down to less than $2,000, but we had made little progress on the case because my spouse ignored the petition for divorce. The charges continued to pile up as my lawyer made more efforts to contact him.
My monthly salary as a production editor wouldn’t be enough to pay off my debt, let alone leave me with much money after the legal bills were settled. I weighed the pros and cons of taking money out of my 403(b) retirement account, and looked at moving my savings to an account with a higher yield, but realized that it wouldn’t add more than .03 percent to my monthly interest. The verdict: I needed more income.
I hustled for extra work and took on a ton of freelance copyediting and proofreading assignments. I made another $12,000 that year thanks to freelance work, and would make more than $8,000 the next. My full-time job paid for rent, utilities, and my own student loan, while all the money from my freelance work went straight to new debt from the divorce.
As much as the freelancing helped with finances, it drained me emotionally. I accepted quick turnaround times that allowed for little sleep, and because my divorce was sapping all my income, I couldn’t justify any “fun” expenses. I didn’t socialize, and my focus was seeing the numbers go down on the debt I owed instead of taking care of myself.
I openly wept when the judge finalizing my divorce said she wanted to reschedule her decision for a later date to allow my husband more time to respond to the divorce petition. This meant another visit to the courts, where I’d be charged hourly for my lawyer’s presence alongside me. The next invoice I received depleted my retainer. I owed my lawyer’s office several hundred dollars, plus another retainer, which upset me more because I felt like there was no end in sight, financially or emotionally.
I began to use installment plans rather than pay large lump sums that I didn’t have. While it wasn’t ideal to keep stretching out payments, it allowed me to have a life again and decompress with friends instead of constantly working. I’d been living a life of someone in debt, but knew I’d always owe some amount to some entity. What I wanted was to enjoy the life I had.
I finally paid off my lawyer the same day I delivered the final documents declaring me a divorced woman. What came after that was an understanding that although I couldn’t completely prepare for the unexpected, I could’ve been better prepared. There are several things I would have done differently if given the chance — like not cosigning my husband’s school loan while I still had my own to pay off (even after the divorce, it’s a debt I have no control over until it’s paid in full).
I can breathe a little more easily without the crushing weight of the legal fees. The grand total? About $7,000. But while the cost of the divorce was stressful at the time, I can now look back on it as one of the best investments I made to move forward in my life.