Divorce is one of the worst destroyers of wealth. May you never have to go through one. Love birds beware. The following is a guest post from FS reader and medical doctor, Xrayvsn.
Few words in the English language can elicit as negative a visceral response as that of divorce.
Despite its increasing prevalence in society, stories of divorce and the subsequent impact on one’s finances are rarely discussed in the personal finance community.
Like the subject of money, there seems to be an unspoken rule that divorce is a taboo subject and should not be discussed by members of polite society.
I think that by keeping stories of divorce, along with the financial and emotional tolls that accompany it, private, we are losing a wonderful opportunity to benefit the greater good.
Years and years of savings and investing can disappear in a blink of an eye, leaving a divorcee reeling and in a financial tailspin.
Because it is often not talked about publicly, many individuals feel isolated and have the daunting task of rebuilding their lives without guidance.
In a hope to break this cycle of silence and isolation, I share the story of my divorce and the emotional and financial roller coaster I was put on so that someone in a similar predicament can gain solace there is indeed light at the end of a seemingly endless dark tunnel.
The Most Contested Divorce Ever
“This was the most contested divorce I have ever presided over.”
That is certainly not a line you ever wish to hear from a very senior chancery judge as he is announcing the divorce decree.
Unfortunately that was exactly what I heard that day, and I have no doubt that it was the truth, for every person I have since shared this story with has agreed that mine was indeed a divorce for the ages.
My cultural background is Indian and although I am about as “Americanized” as you can get, having come to the US during my first year of life, the traditions from that culture were pervasive throughout my childhood, courtesy of my parents.
My father was a physician (Internal Medicine) who married my mother almost sight unseen as part of an arranged marriage.
Arranged marriages are steeped with Indian tradition dating back hundreds of years.
Marriage in the old country was often looked at as a business arrangement as families sought to combine with other families to maintain or improve their stature in society.
Arranged marriage worked out for my parents as they had a long and happy marriage of 19 years until my dad passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 50.
Fast-forward now a little over a quarter of a century after my first steps on American soil and you now find me entering my final year of radiology residency.
Although there have always been casual talks from my mother about me “finding some nice Indian girl to marry” for several years prior, it was the fact that I was about to become a “real doctor” that seemed to serve as a wakeup call for her.
I truly believe that my mother felt once some real doctor money started rolling in I would be lost to the lifestyle associated with it and the likelihood that she would have an Indian daughter-in-law would be severely reduced.
My mother then enlisted the help of “her global network” to actively try and find me a suitable girl to marry before the opportunity slipped away.
This global search finally produced what they deemed a “suitable match” for me.
This girl was two years younger than me, who was brought up in England and, like me, was a physician (somehow I think this was the only criteria it took for the matchmakers to give their endorsement even though they said they matched our birth horoscope charts as well).
Trying to appease my mother, I reluctantly agreed to see where this could possible take me.
We communicated for approximately three months through emails and phone calls and then it was decided that we should meet in person.
Originally we had both agreed that this would be a no-pressure introduction.
I had expressed concern previously over the phone with her that I would likely be subject to intense pressure from both our families to go ahead and proceed with the marriage from the very first moment we met.
She assured me that this would not be the case.
Tying The Arranged Knot
It was the one-year anniversary of 9/11 when she arrived on American soil.
Members from both families descended to my home and promptly placed me in a pressure cooker type situation, imploring me to go ahead and proceed with the first step of an Indian marriage by undergoing a formal registration with her.
I reluctantly caved in to this pressure and not only were we officially registered later that week, but soon after we officially entered the bond of marriage on November 1st, less than two months from our initial meeting.
I was 31 years old and she was 29 at the time.
Unlike fairytales where the protagonist gets rewarded for taking a leap of faith, my leap caused me to jump off a cliff without a parachute.
Trouble In Paradise
Early in the marriage there were troubling signs that cropped up that made me doubt the veracity of this person being a “perfect match.”
I had arranged for her to start in my radiology residency program by agreeing to stay on as faculty during the course of her training (four years).
Things that I will not elaborate on happened however and, within two months of starting this coveted radiology residency spot, she was dismissed from the program.
This created much strife between us as I had vouched for her in the first place and the unceremonious way she was ejected from the program left her with much disdain, primarily directed at me as I continued to have success in my career.
Throughout the remainder of the marriage she would try numerous times to get back into any residency program, regardless of specialty, but was always denied due to the black marks that were now plastered all over her medical records.
Family members, and myself, thought that perhaps starting a family could take her mind off her career troubles and she could instead move on by concentrating on being a mother.
Therefore in 2005 we welcomed our only child, a daughter, into the world.
I thought surely being a mother would give her a sense of renewed purpose in life and reduce the angst she felt of a medical career cut short.
I was mistaken. In fact things worsened as I saw more behavioral issues start to crop up in day-to-day life.
In Indian custom divorce is shunned upon and, as such, quite a rare occurrence. Because of this cultural pressure, I endured my marriage as long as I could.
Another reason why I tolerated such an awful marriage for as long as I did was because of my daughter.
I did not want her to be a product of divorce if I could help it.
It seemed however that even I could not withstand the depths that my marriage sank to, as the behavioral changes of my wife got increasingly problematic.
The Beginning Of The End
After eight years, which felt like pure hell, I decided that I could no longer remain married and I filed for divorce.
Part of the reason I decided to file was a close friend I confided in about the situation told me that I was actually causing more harm to my daughter by staying in an unloving and quite tumultuous marriage and having her witness it firsthand.
In February 2010 I officially signed the paperwork needed for divorce proceedings.
This act apparently woke up the sleeping giant that was my wife and a truly vindictive person emerged.
As was previously referenced, the divorce proceedings were lengthy and highly contentious.
My wife found an unscrupulous lawyer who saw me as having “deep pockets” being a successful physician in the community and between the two of them they fabricated so many allegations that I had to defend.
In this watered down version of what truly happened, all I can say is I had to defend myself across multiple court jurisdictions during these proceedings, including juvenile court and federal court, constantly being bombarded with the frivolous allegations this nightmare pairing of two people kept conjuring up.
Nothing stuck or held true with their accusations but since they never received any reprimand or financial disincentive, they continued to carry on unfazed.
The divorce was finalized 13 months from the date of filing and required numerous lengthy hearings throughout.
Because of the lengthy and contentious nature of the divorce, just the legal fees I accumulated alone were staggering.
I was hemorrhaging money each month as all money coming in would be earmarked for my legal defense.
When all was said and done, the damage to my net worth breached $850k:
- $300k+ for my own attorney fees.
- The entire value of our 401k ($140k). The judge awarded her the entire amount to balance the $125k worth of shares I had in my office practice that I kept.
- The entire value of my Health Savings Account ($25k).
- Alimony for 3 years: $75,600.
- Child Support for 6 years before I gained custody of my daughter back: $151,200.
- Equity in two condominiums ($60k).
- $100k cash due 30 days after divorce decree to offset her legal costs.
By this time I had completely depleted my savings and had to pay using credit card access checks.
“Do you know why divorces are so expensive? Because they are worth it.” – Willie Nelson
I was left with the marital home which was underwater with respect to the mortgage balance due to the housing crisis that had just occurred as well as my student loan debt.
I wish I could say that I completely washed my hands off of my vindictive ex when I finally divorced her, but unfortunately her lawyer and her had one last parting shot at me that caused me to incur another $225k of expenses when all was said and done.
This brought the financial damages from this ill-fated arranged marriage over the 7-figure mark.
Climbing Back Up The Cliff With Broken Legs
I was truly financially devastated and, at the end of a very painful and emotionally intense chapter of my life, I was running on fumes.
I could have called it quits and fully complete the death spiral I was currently on (believe me I came close on more than one occasion).
But something kept a small spark going in me and that, coupled with the fact that I did not want to give my ex-wife any more satisfaction from seeing me fail, motivated me to pick myself up from the rubble and build anew.
I was about to turn 40 a month after my divorce was finalized.
I knew that I had to do something drastic that would allow me to retire at all, let alone early, as I was essentially starting from square one again.
It was at this financial low point that I saw the financial light.
I developed a keen interest in personal finance, frequenting sites such the Bogleheads, and later Financial Samurai.
I would voraciously read through personal finance books that helped shed light on the financial mistakes I have made in the past so I would not repeat them in the future.
As I employed the tried and true methods championed by these personal finance giants, I not only saw my net worth grow to its pre-divorce levels, but I quickly saw it surpass it by leaps and bounds.
The best revenge on someone who has caused you harm is to show that person that, despite his or her best shot at you, you not only survived but are now flourishing.
I decided to throw all extra cash coming into my household to pay down what remaining debt I had, and became completely debt free April 2015.
I was especially proud of this achievement, as it was just a mere 4 years after I had just experienced my financial lowest point.
By following the principles of saving, living below your means, and avoiding lifestyle creep, I positioned myself to my current financial standing where many would say I have already achieved financial independence status at the age of 47.
I have shared a version of this story on my blog as part of my multipart series, “I Made Every Mistake In The Book” and have received so much love and support from that particular post that I thought others may receive similar benefit.
I therefore opened my platform for readers to share their divorce stories (anonymous or not) in the Divorce and Fire series I created.
Every participant has written back to me expressing the gratitude of being able to release something that he or she had been bottling up inside as well as from receiving encouraging words of support from other commentators.
Advice Before Getting Married
1) Be on the same financial page. It is of utmost importance to find a life long partner that has your same financial beliefs. If one is a saver and the other is a spender you will never make any financial headway, much like a colander will never fill with water despite how much you pour into it.
2) No shame in a prenuptial agreement. A prenuptial agreement should be strongly considered, especially if one partner is bringing in a disproportionate amount of assets into the marriage of if there are prior children involved (“blended marriage”).
3) Seek premarital financial counseling. Premarital financial counseling may help bring to light concerns from both parties that can be addressed prior to combining finances.
4) Do not cave into familial/cultural pressures. You are the one that will be living day to day with this person, not them. By trying to appease others like I did, you are putting your own emotional health at risk if you were forced into something you felt inside was wrong.
Thanks for reading. -Xrayvsn
Readers, anybody go through a contentious divorce? What are some lessons you’ve learned? What would you do over again besides never marrying that person? Is marriage overrated? Female perspectives more than welcome!