Expert comment: ‘Nothing comes for free in the contemporary British divorce’

Responding to the news that money worries are cited in one in ten marriage break ups, Dr Ruth Cain from Kent Law School comments that ‘apart from having a child (estimated lifetime cost £230,000), a divorce is probably the highest cost life event you will face.

‘An entirely uncomplicated so-called ‘quickie’ divorce would cost at least £550 in legal fees alone, simply to dissolve the marriage and obtain the necessary decrees. The quickie divorce is very rare, since the existence of children or even shared assets creates unavoidable complications for most couples.

‘There is not likely to be any financial help with fees or costs (except for the most hard-up, such as those on benefits who may be exempt from certain fees). Since 2013, legal aid for those on low incomes no longer exists for private family law issues such as divorce and disputes over children.

‘2016 estimates by the legal profession suggest that the average cost of a UK divorce is £70,000 and rising – with £8k of this total being legal fees, and £52,000 comprised of lost assets and debt repayments (usually a shared mortgage).

‘The cost of housing alone, especially in the South of England, generally absorbs most of the cash and shared assets of any couple. Accommodation costs are particularly onerous if rooms are required for children, meaning that the supposed ideal of ‘shared care’ of children is often simply impractical; lack of access to acceptable overnight accommodation for children can estrange the ‘non-resident’ parent (usually not always the father) if he is unable to have his children to stay.

‘Legal conflict over property and/or arrangements for children can ramp up the costs of divorce dramatically. Family law solicitors cost upwards of £200 per hour in most parts of the country, and an exchange of stiffly-worded letters about a contested point can soon cost several thousand pounds before the matter even reaches the courtroom.

Prolonged and unrestrained conflict can and sometimes does lead to catastrophic levels of debt, even between formerly relatively wealthy couples. Contrary to some popular opinion, it is women and not men who suffer the greatest financial hit from divorce; while men may lose significant amounts of capital if they for instance hand over the family home to an ex-wife with children, the earning capacity of a divorced woman with children is severely restricted, as she is likely to have the lion’s share of care responsibilities and to lose her footing in the job market.

‘Moves to restrict the amount of maintenance paid to women left caring for children after divorce have been clear in some recent high-profile cases; arrangements to, for instance, have the family home sold after the youngest child reaches 18 or 21 are also becoming increasingly common.

‘Meanwhile, an employed and/or highly qualified mother is less likely to receive as much maintenance as a ‘homemaker’ who took full charge of childcare, and is more likely to be expected to submit to a geographically restrictive ‘shared care’ arrangement.

‘Theoretically, men who have 50/50 care of their children may not pay any maintenance at all – but both ‘halves’ of the split family will need to cover their increased costs alone.

‘The government now aims to channel divorcing couples down the mediation route by making an initial Mediation Information and Assessment meeting (MIAM) compulsory in cases relating to divorce or child arrangements. This will be cheaper than solicitor-led litigation – if it works and the couple are able to sit in a room together and reach an agreement.

‘Fees for a MIAM average at about £65 per person (but this will vary from location to location) and subsequent meetings could cost upward of £120 per session.

Nothing comes for free in the contemporary British divorce: should financial arrangements for children prove elusive, the government now charges both parties upfront for access to the Child Maintenance Service and takes a cut of the amount paid at both ends.

‘An entirely private agreement about property, children and cash will thus save both parties considerable amounts of money, but peaceful agreement is probably the one thing that is in even shorter supply than money in most divorce situations.’

Dr Ruth Cain

The primary area of research for Dr Ruth Cain, Kent Law School, is the regulation and representation of reproduction and parenting, especially maternity. She is interested in tracking relationships between law, literature, popular culture and the media, and how these shape perceptions of gender, sexuality and embodiment.