In the midst of separating from her partner of 10 years, Jude* would wake in the night, terrified about becoming financially ruined.
She’d spent years trying to establish herself as a writer, and had finally started to make a good income.
Now all that was under threat — along with the home she lived in.
The financial fear led to panic attacks, which — two years later — have only just subsided.
“It was the most traumatic thing I’ve lived through,” she says.
Jude’s stress was exacerbated by a legal process she describes as a “horrible game” — one that cost her thousands of dollars.
She remembers thinking: “Wow, is this really the best we can do? Surely there are other ways to do this.”
Tens of thousands of Australians break up every year. In 2016 alone, there were 47,000 divorces.
The emotional costs are huge: pain, stress, instability.
But, as Jude discovered, there are often heavy financial consequences as well — and they’re not always obvious.
Determining assets ‘intrusive’ and ‘humiliating’
Jude says she was “completely blindsided” by the way her ex went after her money.
He hired a lawyer and pursued a percentage of her earnings, including her future assets — projected royalties from her books over the next decade.
“I thought he was joking. I thought, there’s no such thing. Obviously we split everything accumulated in our relationship — but future royalties? That’s a pretty big call,” she says.
But it wasn’t a joke.
The projected amount of money she would earn over the next 10 years became an asset, and was added to an asset pool. Her ex-partner was then legally entitled to half of that.
Determining future assets involved a forensic accountant interviewing her publisher and her agent about her income.
Jude says she felt like she was being stalked.
“It was really intrusive… and also humiliating,” she says.
“I like to keep my relationships quite professional with my publishers and I had to let them know, sorry, my ex’s lawyer will be contacting you.”
Separating without a plan
When Carly’s* marriage broke down suddenly and unexpectedly, she also developed anxiety, as well as insomnia.
The repercussions of her separation were far-reaching.
“It impacted on my ability to parent, it impacted on all my roles in my life: being a daughter, being a friend, being a mother,” she says.
“It overtook my life because I wanted that sense of security back and until I got that, I felt like it consumed me.”
The worry about her finances was equally as burdensome.
Carly was the primary carer of her small child and working part-time, while her partner was earning more than double her income.
“The financial side of things — I can’t even put into words how stressful and how all-consuming it was,” she says.
She wondered how she would afford to live.
Like many, she didn’t have a plan for what would happen if she and her partner split up.
“You don’t enter into a relationship planning for it to end,” she says.
A thousand uncertainties struck her. How would she afford the mortgage, working part-time? If she lost the house, how would she afford rent, and pay for childcare? And where could she go for help?
“I was very lost,” she says.
Carly’s legal fees amounted to $10,000, but that wasn’t the only financial blow.
She was surprised to learn just how intermingled her and her husband’s finances actually were.
“I became aware that not only are our assets shared but so are our debts, our super, our HECS debts — all of a sudden I was facing my partner’s $50,000 HECS debt,” she says.
“At the same time my super was also significantly less because I’d worked less. I’d been on maternity leave working part-time.
“It was a very, very overwhelming time and the only reason I got through it was because I had the support of my family. Financially I wouldn’t have been able to afford it or do it otherwise.”
Jude outlaid even more money in separating from her partner.
“I was haemorrhaging money,” she says, adding that the biggest cost was legal fees.
“I don’t know exactly what I would’ve paid over that period but it was tens of thousands of dollars.”
Both women were able to avoid going to court, which would have exacerbated their costs significantly.
Family law specialist Scott Wedgwood says the litigious pathway, specifically the period of time between filing an application and being allocated a court hearing, lasts about three years.
It can take another six to 12 months to receive a judgement.
“It’s a very long timeline,” he says.
“That protracted period is one of immense pressure — emotional pressure and of course financial costs beyond the emotional costs.”
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The costs often start at around $20,000, he says, and they only go up from there.
“For difficult, for sophisticated matters, we can certainly be talking hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Mr Wedgwood says.
He says people going through separation need to take a commercial and pragmatic approach.
“Quite often I’ll hear people early in proceedings talk about ‘the principle’,” he says.
“That’s often cured by them receiving accounts and starting to understand that they are no longer sharing their wealth with just their partner or children, but they are starting to divide it four ways with a couple of lawyers as well.”
‘Don’t do anything spiteful’
Family lawyer Rebekah Mannering says separation can be easier — and less expensive — if both parties act in good faith.
“The most important thing is to really keep a level head. Don’t do anything particularly spiteful or irrational because that’s not going to help things,” she says.
Though it was tough, maintaining a functional relationship with her ex-partner was a priority for Carly.
“Our relationship was incredibly tarnished through the separation and the divorce but we agreed to try and keep it together for our daughter,” she says.
“We went and saw a psychologist for her, to know, how do we go forward? How do we put her first?
“Regardless of our situation I wanted us to maintain some sense of ability to carry on and co-parent no matter what. I didn’t want it to be a fight down to the last dollar.”
Driven by a desire to end the separation process as soon as possible, Carly and her ex-husband were able to quickly and amicably agree on the division of their assets.
For Jude, reaching that agreement was more difficult — in part, she says, due to her ex-partner’s approach.
“When someone’s hurting and very wounded — because I instigated the separation — that can transform into fear,” she says.
“I’d taken everything from him, in his mind. It’s a little bit like a beaten dog. I felt like he felt backed into the corner so, to feel like he had some dignity or had something to stand on, he had to come out growling.”
She soon accepted that extrication from her relationship was more valuable than her assets.
A high-profile writer who’d experienced separation advised her to do whatever she needed to get back to writing.
“He said, just walk away. Walk away with your imagination, they can’t take that from you. Nothing is worth the inability to write. This just takes it from you,” she says.
“So I did. I just totally walked away; I walked away with nothing.
“I handed the house over to him [but] what I did take with me was my freedom.”
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.