State-by-State Divorce Rules and How Much You'll Pay or Receive in Support

Financially Planning for a Divorce

ByMoneyGeek Team

Updated: December 8, 2023

ByMoneyGeek Team

Updated: December 8, 2023

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Going through divorce is hard. The relationship with the person who pulled you head-over-heels in love has probably disintegrated into a maelstrom of bitterness and anger. Now that you've made the decision to go your separate ways, you might feel as though you're embarking on the road to recovery. But getting through the divorce comes first. The process is as much about your financial health as it is about your emotional state because divorce greatly affects your financial security. Divorce is a financial disruptor that requires planning and usually hiring an attorney.

Divorce often affects finances in these areas:

  • Assets
  • Child care and custody (if children are involved)
  • Debt obligations
  • Housing
  • Income (decrease resulting from taking on child care duties or from elimination of spouse's income)
  • Income taxes (change from married filing jointly to single filing status)
  • Insurance
  • Legal expenses (attorneys' fees, mediation, court costs)
  • Retirement or Nest Egg
  • Spousal support (also called alimony)
  • Transportation (perhaps from traveling more frequently or longer distances to visit children)

This guide breaks down what to expect in your divorce. It gives pointers to understanding divorce laws in your state and highlights mistakes to avoid as you wade through the process of reshaping your life after the Big D.

How a Divorce Works: A Timeline

In a sense, divorce is the final showdown between you and your soon-to-be ex. You don't get to walk away until certain matters are settled. The traditional divorce process, sometimes called litigation, is often highly contentious, during which you pull at each other to get what they want. Fortunately, there's an alternative, which is called collaborative or mediated divorce. Let's look at the timeline for both.

Adversarial Divorce Timeline

From start to finish, an adversarial divorce — conducted through court proceedings — can take years to play out. Some states, such as California, require a minimum of six months before allowing a judge to terminate a marriage.

State laws vary but here's generally what happens when you initiate an adversarial divorce:


Collaborative Divorce Timeline

A collaborative divorce is less adversarial in nature and format because you come to agreement over divorce issues outside the courtroom. You and your spouse may cringe at the idea of spending the remainder of your lives together, but you can still address each other without spiraling into a shouting match. You hope to lessen the financial cost and emotional toll — particularly if you have children — through a collaborative divorce that involves alternative dispute resolution. This means you and your soon-to-be ex, with your attorneys, reach a divorce agreement before presenting it to a judge. Unlike an adversarial divorce, which can take years to finalize, a collaborative divorce generally takes a much shorter time, at much less cost.

One caveat: If you fail to reach agreement through this process, you and your spouse may end up going back to the drawing board with an adversarial divorce, which would only add to the total cost of your divorce.

Here's what you can expect in a collaborative divorce:


8 Common Financial Mistakes to Avoid in Divorce

Nobody wins in a divorce, but some lose more than others. You can avoid being the bigger loser by avoiding these nine common financial mistakes:


Coming up Short on Cash

A particularly acrimonious divorce can cost more than $20,000. Failing to plan for the cost of the divorce can easily send you into debt and much worse off financially from the divorce.

    If you see your marriage heading toward divorce, as early as possible, begin shoring up savings and alternative funding sources. Divorce itself is costly — with legal fees, professional consultants and court costs — but smart money moves and estimating your savings plan before the divorce can prevent you from ending up in the post-divorce poorhouse.

Filing Before You Formulate a Plan

Maybe you can't stand being in the same room as your spouse and jumped ship as soon as you decided you wanted a divorce. Filing those divorce papers was a huge relief. But lack of careful preparation means you'll end up reacting to divorce developments without a clear, strategic plan. There's only so much an attorney can do to help if the damage has already been done.

    Understand how long and winding the road of divorce can be before you file by educating yourself about it, online or the good old-fashioned way, through books. Consult with legal and financial professionals about your situation. You need a plan, and professionals are much more well-versed with divorce issues.

Failing to Keep a Paper Trail

You might have a good argument for property division or child custody, but failing to back it up with hard documents is of little help. With inadequate proof, you'll only end up pitting your words against your spouse's.

    As soon as possible, preferably before your divorce begins, obtain copies of all financial records — for both joint and separate accounts — that prove ownership and interest amounts. Include things like tax returns, credit card statements, property titles, loan documents, car registrations and investment brokerage statements.

Discounting Income Tax Changes

Forgetting to factor in taxes can result in paying more taxes or failing to fight for what you need. When it comes to the IRS, the government treats married couples and singles differently. A single person often ends up paying a higher tax rate than a married person. Or, if you end up receiving spousal support, you fail to calculate the taxes you'll pay on it and end up with less than you need.

    Property division decisions should always consider the tax ramifications. Figure out the after-tax value of the disputed property. You may need to consult with a CPA to determine whether getting the brokerage account and passing up the retirement plan is a better move. A CPA can tell you whether you are better off selling the house or keeping it a few more years.

Failing to Piece Together the Big Picture

You can't argue effectively if you don't fully understand where you stand financially. You fail to properly investigate your spouse's investments and overlook assets, which means you don't get your fair share.

    Make the effort to take inventory of all assets and investments. Doing so may jog your memory of your spouse's separate banking account or safe deposit box that was opened years ago. Carefully review documents — such as retirement plans and insurance policies. Even your spouse's hobby equipment may be a worthwhile asset to include in negotiations. Sometimes, engaging a forensic CPA can be helpful.

Allowing Emotions to Rule

Divorce is emotional, and there's no way around it. But letting your emotions dictate your every decision can easily result in financial decisions that exact long-term damage. Basing decisions on revenge can prolong the divorce, adding exponentially to attorneys' fees and court costs. Emotions may also push you to fight over every issue, including inconsequential ones, while your attorney charges you $5 for every minute you seethe at your spouse.

    Keep your lid on your emotions and consider whether mediation can work in your situation. As much as possible, treat your divorce like a business transaction. Your attorney is not your friend. A friend doesn't bill you $300 for a tear-filled tête-à-tête. Take a step back and consider the long-term ramifications of your decisions. Consulting with professionals who can help you see beyond your emotional motivations may act as a damper on the flames of acrimony.

Neglecting Your Post-Divorce Livelihood

Focusing too much on ending your marriage leaves you vulnerable to the aftermath — how to stay afloat financially in the long term. The stress of flying solo is already hard enough without the worry of finding a job and bringing in income. If you receive spousal support, those payments may simply not be enough. Even more, your divorce agreement may require you to work.

    Take on an "act, not react" attitude. Before or during your divorce, work on boosting your career or reviving it if it's been on the shelf during the years you spent raising your children. Getting a head start on this likely scenario means you've created some job security or you're that much closer to a salary raise.

Shunning Professionals

Hiring an attorney for your divorce is a given for most people. But ignoring the long-term financial benefits of other professionals who can bolster your divorce arguments can prevent you from getting the best outcome from the judge.

    Ask your attorney about other professionals who can help solidify your property division and custody arguments. A forensic accountant may be useful for locating your spouse's hidden assets. A financial adviser who specializes in divorce may help you work out the best strategy.

How Much Will You Receive or Pay in Alimony?

"Alimony" is a popular term people use when describing support payments one ex-spouse pays the other. How much you will receive or pay in alimony depends on many factors, including the state where you reside. In some states, like California, courts use a formula that factors in the income for both spouses, any minor children or dependents, and the length of the marriage. In other states, judges use their discretion to come up with a support amount, if any. In these states it's anyone's guess how much you might expect to pay or receive. This uncertainty is a significant reason to consider a collaborative divorce where you and your soon-to-be-ex-spouse answer the support payment question yourselves.

Courts look at many factors when deciding how much support, if any, one spouse needs to pay another:

  • Length of the marriage
  • Age and health of each spouse
  • How much both earn or could earn in their chosen industries
  • Years both attended school and any degrees or certifications
  • When either attended school (before or during marriage)
  • Work skills for each spouse
  • Work experience for each spouse
  • Work during the marriage
  • Who will care for any children and dependents
  • If either used marital money unreasonably, if so how much
  • How any property and debt is divided
  • Any other relevant factors

State laws use technical terms to describe alimony payments. No state offers all of the following;


Reader Resources

States handle divorces, so you'll need to look at the state laws where you live to understand what to expect in your divorce. You can still gain some understanding of the divorce process and its issues through these resources:

American Bar Association
Learn about the factors that determine child custody, child support and visitation decisions in divorce. Also understand the issues that may alter custody arrangements and child support amounts.

The Center for Divorce Education
Find educational articles, tools and programs about divorce and minimizing its negative effects from this non-profit organization.

MedlinePlus (U.S. National Library of Medicine)
Access information and resource links to journal articles, statistics and research that help you better manage the stress of divorce for yourself and children.

Utah State University's Utah Divorce Orientation
USU offers helpful divorce courses and documents for both adults and children affected.

Women's Institute for Financial Education
Retrieve information and answers to commonly asked financial questions relating to divorce and its impact, as part of this non-profit organization's mission to further women's financial independence.


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The MoneyGeek editorial team has decades of combined experience in writing and publishing information about how people should manage money and credit. Our editors have worked with numerous publications including The Washington Post, The Daily Business Review, HealthDay and Time, Inc., and have won numerous journalism awards. Our talented team of contributing writers includes mortgage experts, veteran financial reporters and award-winning journalists. Learn more about the MoneyGeek team.