Divorce Too Expensive For Poorest Americans, New Study Says

Too Poor To Divorce
Unhappy couple lying in bed facing away from each other after and argument or fight.
Unhappy couple lying in bed facing away from each other after and argument or fight.

For one-percenters like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, it's easy to get the world's fastest divorce. Their legal split only took two weeks. But for the poorest of Americans, divorce is still a luxury item.

Long-term separations are an alternative for poor couples who cannot afford to legally end their marriages, new research suggests. The research was presented at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting on Monday.

The longitudinal study looked at 7,272 people who were surveyed on a regular basis between 1979 and 2008. Most people in the study who separated from a spouse reported getting a divorce within three years of the break up.

But 15 percent of people who separated did not get a divorce within the first 10 years and researchers said there was an economic reason for it: They simply could not afford to get divorced, especially when there were children involved. The study found that the married-but-indefinitely-separated group generally had only a high school education, were black or Hispanic and had young children.

"Those with young children may find it difficult to support themselves and their children if they divorce," Zhenchao Qian, study co-author and professor of sociology at Ohio State University, said in a statement. "Divorce may not protect them because their spouse may be unwilling or unable to provide financial support."

In the past, separations were usually linked to strict divorce laws that required one spouse to prove the other did something wrong -- they could have cheated or abandoned their partner. But today, as laws around "no-fault" divorces have become more lenient, researchers from the study suggested long-term separations are mostly done to avoid the financial stress of going through a divorce.

There is no definitive cost to getting a divorce -- the cheapest ones can cost as little as several hundred dollars. Hiring a lawyer, who might charge anywhere between $200 and $400 per hour, to sort out child support payments can add up to thousands of dollars. But the financial costs and benefits of divorce extend beyond the lawyers and the paperwork. Married couples, especially those with children, get substantial benefits from filing joint tax returns or sharing health care coverage.

But estranged marriages may not be limited just to low-income couples as the study indicated. A 2010 article in The New York Times suggested a new trend toward long-term separations among older professional-class couples who appear less inclined to get a legal divorce -- though perhaps more by choice rather than by necessity.

Financial reasons such as shared real estate, retirement savings and health care coverage appeared to be the primary motivation for staying married by living apart.

"People split up and have these God-awful joint custody agreements, so you would think that they stay separated for the kids' sake, but I am not seeing that," couples therapist Toni Coleman told The New York Times. "It usually comes down to the money."

While there are some financial benefits to long-term separation, there are also risks in remaining legally married, such as being liable for a spouse's debt or having to share earnings (even windfalls like a lottery win) that are considered community property in some states.

But for couples who think that a separation only makes the heart grow fonder, the Ohio State study also revealed some disappointing news: 5 percent of couples who separated attempted to get back together -- but half of those ended up getting a divorce anyway.

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