Filing a lawsuit is serious business. It is often expensive, consumes precious court time, and is typically emotionally exhausting. Many litigants find themselves in courtroom brawls over "principle," while others are seeking compensatory damages due to a perceived "wrong" they are trying to "right." At the end of the day, very often litigants are left wondering, "Was it worth it?"
Wouldn't it be nice if we could go into the process with a better understanding of what it may actually cost to litigate a claim, so we can weigh the pros and cons and make our own, informed decisions? Clients often ask their attorneys, "What will it cost to get divorced?" or, "What will it cost to modify child support?" The answer is usually, "It depends."
Through no fault of counsel, "It depends," is code for, "I have no idea." In family law, the cost to challenge issues such as alimony, child support, or time-sharing is highly dependent on many factors that are simply out of your control. According to South Florida Family Law Attorney, Richard Gaines, "You and your lawyer can only control what you do, not what your ex-spouse and his/her lawyer do." Whether using litigation or mediation as your method-of-resolution, there are some real considerations before embarking down a road that, in the end, may not yield the results you seek. Or, maybe it will.
Let's face it: no one affirmatively wants to pay alimony. However, there are realities that accompany most divorces that are simply unavoidable, and spousal support is one of them. But fret not! There are "substantial change in circumstances" under which alimony can be modified or terminated! Three of the top reasons (of course, there are many others not addressed by this article) alimony may be terminated are (1) death; (2) remarriage; and (3) cohabitation. The first two are rather clear and obvious, but the last (cohabitation) is fraught with ambiguity in definition. What is cohabitation? How is it proven? Will the costs it takes to gather evidence and prove the claim outweigh the overall benefits? Consider the following:
• Lawyers and Support Staff
o Time: $250.00-$500.00/hour
o Initial Filings (Motion, Subpoena): $500
o Attending Hearings: $250.00-$500.00/hour
o Hiring Experts: $3,000 - $5,000
o Hiring Private Investigators: $3,000.00
• Filing Fees
• Private Investigator
• Expert Consultant
• Emotional Tolls - Unquantifiable
After a 16-year marriage, a Pennsylvania man was obligated to paying alimony for 10 years. Less than two years after the Final Judgment Divorce Decree was entered, his former wife had invited a new boyfriend to live with her and the children. After almost a year of waiting for his ex to acknowledge that they were living together, the man confronted her and offered a generous step-down of alimony over the course of 6 months. This was, of course, immediately rejected, and the ex and her boyfriend went into automatic subversive-mode: hiding his car in the garage, telling the children to lie about his "sleepovers," and denying each and every allegation that they were living together. With nearly 8 years worth of $2,100/month alimony payments at stake (nearly $201,600 total), the man decided to file a termination of alimony claim based on cohabitation, which was a violation of the Marital Settlement Agreement and contrary to the basic tenets of spousal support in family law. "I had no choice," he commented, "She was blatantly cohabiting with this man, and refused to admit the truth because she didn't want to give up the money. I was essentially paying for their vacations, their new home, his children's birthday presents, and all the things that married couples do together." The financial cost for litigating the claim, which she fought vigorously, was close to $18,000. Was it worth it? "On the first day of trial, my alimony obligation was permanently terminated. Was it worth it? You bet."
A critical strategic analysis that should be held before pursuing any termination of alimony claim is the cost-benefit analysis. According to Mr. Gaines, "If the financial exposure to future alimony is equal to or less than the costs associated with pursuing such a claim, it's probably better left alone. If, however, the cost of the future alimony substantially exceeds the likely litigation cost, then from a financial perspective, it makes sense to pursue the claim to terminate the alimony subject to your consideration of the soft costs, namely, the time and emotional expense related to the claim." It is noteworthy that in some jurisdictions, cohabitation may only lead to a reduction in the alimony, not a complete termination. As with any potential litigation, careful consideration and analysis is a critical step before committing to pursuing any claim.