All that glitters isn’t gold – and gold alone doesn’t make for a good marriage. Divorcing isn’t just for the wealthy. When it comes to divorce, people presume splits among the upper crust are somehow fundamentally distinct from the rest. While it’s true that high-net-worth divorces pose some unique challenges, a good divorce lawyer will tell you there are more similarities than differences across tax brackets.
“Wealth doesn’t insulate anyone from the raw, human aspects of a divorce,” explains family law attorney Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder. “There’s still grief, anger, and other intense emotions. There are still two people struggling with communication, co-parenting, a financial reckoning – and ultimately facing an uncertain future for which they didn’t exactly plan. Those things are the same no matter how many zeroes are on the bank balance.”
One might assume the most well-off among us are more likely to get divorced, not only because divorce can be expensive, but also because tales of their breakups are constant tabloid fodder. In truth, America’s wealthiest get divorced at similar rates as the rest of us. An analysis of U.S. divorce rates by Forbes revealed the country’s richest people divorce at a rate that hovers around 49% – right in line with the general population’s 40–50% divorce rate. And while those most prosperous may have less concern with the “for poorer” aspect of their wedding vows, in divorce, much comes down to how – and when – they acquired that fortune, which is the case in any dissolution.
Divorcing Isn’t Just for the Wealthy – Here’s What You Need to Know
Prenuptial Agreements Aren’t Just for the Fortune 500
Money can certainly make life more comfortable. But having more of it isn’t an inoculation against marital strife. And once a couple is on the trajectory of separating, the basic legal issues on the table are generally going to be the same: Child custody, alimony, and divvying up assets and debt.
“Often those entering marriage with more assets are more likely to have a prenuptial agreement,” Rozin-Golinder says. “What’s unfortunate is the pervasive myth that it’s only the wealthy who should have any interest in these agreements. The truth is, so many of the flash points in a ‘typical’ divorce could be resolved much faster – and often more equitably – had there been a prenuptial agreement in place.”
Prenuptial agreements may vary depending on the financial situation of those involved, but among their benefits:
- Fosters healthy communication about finances early on. That’s something a lot more people could use early on in their marriage, possibly avoiding the sorts of financial disagreements that can lead to divorce in the first place.
- Protects your assets. This is especially important if you have kids from a previous relationship and/or you’re close to retirement (as you may not have as much opportunity to make up those losses if you later divorce).
- Protects your business.
- Protects you from debt. It’s possible you could be roped into sharing debt obligations if you don’t discuss and agree on these issues ahead of time. If one person has substantially higher debt than the other, the spouse with less debt may want to initiate a prenuptial agreement to protect their financial future just in case.
Divorce Cause Similarities Across Socioeconomic Lines
As for the source of most divorces, here again, there are fewer differences across financial lines than most people think.
Some of the most common causes cited in divorces:
- Lack of compatibility. This boils down to individuals who have grown apart or who maybe never truly shared the same values – particularly when it comes to issues like parenting, religion, or (increasingly of late) politics. Dwindling common interests can also play a role. Perhaps these differences didn’t seem so significant at the start, but over time, they become amplified to the point of intolerability.
- Money. Time and again, research underscores that finances are a leading cause of stress in relationships – and rich people aren’t immune from that, despite differences in the details. In one survey by SunTrust Bank, more than one-third of respondents experiencing relationship trouble cited finances as the primary cause. Examples of potential issues include mismatched financial priorities, financial infidelity (including hiding assets), and loss of financial control (especially common with women in higher net worth relationships and/or spouses who set aside careers to focus on childcare).
- Constant conflict. Every couple disagrees, but frequent, intense fighting is toxic and typically does not bode well for a marriage. Power imbalances can sometimes contribute to this problem. Couples counseling may help, but only if both parties are committed to more caring, effective avenues of communication.
- Lack of Communication. When one or both parties are stonewalling or withdrawing, the relationship stagnates and often falls apart. Poor communication is frequently cited as a top factor that leads to divorce across socioeconomic lines.
- Infidelity. It’s estimated at least 1 in 5 Americans cheat on their spouses. Wealth and power are known to have a corrupting influence. Even when the details of high-net-worth divorce are kept relatively close to the vest, there are often leaked or thinly-veiled accusations of affairs (e.g., Bill and Melinda Gates). Some studies have indicated wealthier partners – men in particular – may even be more likely to cheat.
- Lack of intimacy. This can go hand-in-hand with infidelity, but in general, low libido, sexual dysfunction, and failures to make physical connection a priority can be major problems. For many couples, physical closeness is the glue that holds them together. High-net-worth couples may have busy careers or constant travel demands that can contribute to this, but it’s a common problem in many marriages.
- Abuse/domestic violence. Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in the U.S., though it tends to be underreported, particularly among those with higher incomes. Safely leaving an abusive relationship often requires outside assistance, and it can help if one has access to more monetary resources.
- Addiction. Drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, shopping, prescription medications – addiction is a powerful pull that can impact relationships of all economic tiers. Primary differences include the consequences one may sustain as a result of that addiction, possibly the extent to which the addict is enabled, and the ability to get help. But when treatment is refused or relapses are frequent, divorce is often the next step.
Issues on the (IKEA or Designer Label) Table
Divorce similarities between classes go beyond the root causes. While the particulars vary, the basic issues are often quite the same.
- Division of assets. There are more dollars at stake in a high-net=worth divorce, but really, that is all relative. Property division is a significant focus for most divorcing couples. Obviously, having a prenuptial agreement can curtail many of these quarrels before they start. If one is not in place and there is substantial disagreement about who gets what, it’s up to the courts to sort out. Most states follow a system called equitable distribution. This means the way it’s divided isn’t necessarily 50-50, but ideally, it will be fair, taking into consideration what each person had when they entered the union, how they contributed during, and their current finances, health, and future earning potential. For the highest earners, it can be slightly riskier to take a case to court, simply because there’s less case law and legal guidance when it comes to who gets the yachts. But litigation is always a risk for any couple because family law judges have a lot of discretion. This is why mediation is a favored approach across the board. Plus, the terms aren’t made public.
- Child support calculations. Where it is a factor, this is one of the most hotly contested matters in any divorce case. It can be more complicated in high-net-worth divorce cases because a simple formulaic approach used in the majority of cases involving most middle-class spouses may not be sufficient to determine the “needs” of a child whose parents are millionaires.
- Expert analysis of asset value. True, a wealthier couple may have a more complex asset analysis process, but it’s fairly common these days to call expert witnesses to accurately evaluate things like houses, business interests, stocks, retirement accounts, etc. Some of these evaluations have inherent elements of subjectivity, which can lead to further disagreement. At some point, both parties must stop and ask how much time, energy, and legal fees they’re willing to spend on the issue. It’s just that point may come a little later when the assets are worth a lot more.
Bottom line: Divorcing isn’t just for the wealthy, and it can be difficult no matter how much – or how little – is in your wallet.
“It’s important not to go without legal guidance, no matter what your circumstances,” Rozin Golinder adds. “You want to be sure that you’re able to move onto the next chapter with few regrets and the best shot at rebuilding – not just emotionally, but financially.”
Attorney Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder has dedicated her career to the exclusive practice of matrimonial and family law. She has worked with a dynamic set of clients ranging from the indigent to the high profile and high net worth. She understands the hardships her clients face when they turn to her for help. www.rgfamilylaw.com