How to Avoid Paying a Large Divorce Settlement
Divorce settlements are inevitable, but they don’t have to be punishing. You can negotiate a fair split.
Working with an expert, such as a mediator, can help you communicate clearly and effectively with your ex so you both get something you want for your new lives.
Top ways to avoid a large divorce settlement
An unfair divorce settlement can leave you with huge monthly expenses and few assets. Once the paperwork is signed by a judge and filed with the courts, it’s hard to make changes.
Preventing an unfair split of assets is an easier and more effective option. These steps may help:
Draft a prenuptial agreement
About half of all American adults say they’re open to signing prenuptial agreements. If you haven’t said “I do” quite yet, draft plans for a fair split. Then, if you head to divorce, you’ll have a lot more protection and security.
You can’t write prenuptial agreements after your wedding day. But if you have one in place when it’s time to divorce, protections are baked right in.
It's also possible for married spouses to sign a postnuptial agreement while married. This has a similar effect to a prenup in that you can dictate how your estate should be divided before you are in the throes of the divorce process.
Highlight your ex’s earning power
About half of all American households have a male primary or sole breadwinner. If a couple like this splits, the husband could get hit with spousal support payments to allow the wife to develop marketable skills.
If your ex makes as much as you do, spousal support payments are not as likely to be part of your future. Proving that your spouse is capable of work but unwilling to try it could reduce your financial penalties even more.
Gather information about your ex’s education, prior work experience, and references. Match that data to your local job market, and you could have a formula for a favorable settlement.
Document your split early and often
In some states, anything you buy before you complete your final divorce paperwork becomes community property to be divided. In other states, you can keep anything you obtained after you declared your intention to split.
The more proof you can offer about the date of your split and the seriousness of your intention, the less confusing it will be when it comes time to divide your assets. Documenting your split in multiple ways can help. For example, you might rent an apartment in your name only. If you do, keep that signed lease agreement with a date on it. You might also express your desire to break up in a time-stamped email or text message. If you need to prove your date of separation later on, it will be easier to do so with such evidence.
FAQ: Would it help to prove my spouse was at fault?
Some states allow courts to consider fault when approving key parts of your divorce settlement, including the following:
- Property divisions
- Spousal support or alimony
- Child custody
If you have proof of your ex’s infidelity, abuse, or bad behavior, let it infuse your negotiations. Your spouse may be forced to agree to a more favorable settlement to atone for prior mistakes. Know, however, that the judge presiding over your case is not there to punish either one of you. The court's primary goal is a fair split and the best interests of any children involved.
Avoid these common money mistakes
With documents in hand, you’re ready to start negotiating a beneficial divorce settlement. Avoiding the following missteps can ensure you don’t give up too much or get too little:
Trusting your ex
Remember that your ex isn’t your financial partner. You’re in negotiations for your future, and there’s a lot at stake. While it’s not smart to negotiate from a place of anger, it is wise to be careful.
As part of the divorce process, you’ll trade financial disclosure paperwork with your spouse. In states like California, you’ll take this step multiple times. Read and fact-check everything your spouse gives you.
It’s common for Americans to sign documents without reading them. In fact, more than 90% of consumers accept legal terms and conditions without checking them first. Don’t make this mistake when you’re negotiating with your ex. Read everything carefully. Make sure you fully understand the details before you agree to anything.
Failing to do your research
Once your divorce paperwork is signed, stamped, and filed, it’s hard to make changes. Things you forgot, like your spouse’s 401(k) or Roth IRA, become much harder to access once your divorce settlement has been approved.
Walk through all of your family paperwork carefully as you negotiate your divorce settlement. Look for any assets you’ve forgotten, and dig into the value of everything you have. You can’t create an equitable split if you’re not even sure what you have.
Underestimating your expenses
In 2021, researchers said 80% of Americans create a household budget. Most did so to help themselves stay out of debt. While it’s common to lean on these plans when you’re crafting your post-divorce lifestyle, doing so could lead to serious financial problems.
After your divorce, you may have reduced household income due to a loss of salary or a need for spousal support payments. You may have additional expenses associated with setting up your own household, caring for your pets, and other changes.
Develop a realistic budget before you start negotiating your divorce settlement. When you know just what you need, you can ask for it.
Hoping to win it all
A divorce settlement is a negotiation. If all goes well, both parties get at least something they want. Neither of them gets everything they want.
Enter the negotiations in good faith. Set your sights on some assets that are vital to you. And be prepared for some pushback.
Try to stay calm and collected as you negotiate. If you seem reasonable and ready to talk, your ex might be more likely to treat you the same way.
Should you get outside help?
Some people can discuss their divorce settlements with their exes clearly, calmly, and patiently. Others can’t make this work.
Professionals, including the estimated 9,000 mediators in the United States, can help you hold sensitive conversations during your divorce negotiations. These experts can’t take sides or advocate for your position. But they can help you see the other person’s point of view and come to an agreement that benefits you both.
Financial planners can be helpful, too. For example, a financial planner could help you develop a budget that works for your post-divorce life so you know exactly what to ask for. This person could also help you understand how much your shared assets are really worth so you can know what to ask for (or trade).
As a last resort, you could hire a lawyer to help you negotiate with your spouse. But this approach can be combative, and it could make your ex even more likely to fight you over every dollar. Plus, you'd have to pay the divorce attorney for their time (and probably a retainer fee).
At Hello Divorce, we offer flat-fee attorney consultations without retainer fees. We also have mediators and financial planners who stand ready to help. If you and your ex are willing to work together, the process will be faster, less stressful, and less expensive than going to court.
ReferencesAmerica Embraces Prenups: 50% of Adults Open to Signing. (September 2023). Axios.
Fault Divorce. (June 2021). Cornell Law School.
In a Growing Share of U.S. Marriages, Husbands and Wives Earn About the Same. (April 13, 2023). Pew Research Center.
You’re Not Alone, No One Reads Terms of Service Agreements. (November 2017). Insider.
Americans Are Budgeting Now More Than Ever and It's Getting Them Out of Debt, says New Debt.com Survey. (May 2021). PR Newswire.
Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators. (September 2023). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.