It's a familiar story. A husband and wife in their 50s have been married for 25 years with grown children. They've always bickered and then one day, after an argument erupts, the wife blurts out, "I want a divorce."
What's not so familiar is the way the economy influences the outcome.
In this real-life scenario, the husband worked on Wall Street earning $1 million a year, but he lost that job and his new position pays only $300,000 a year. The wife never had more than a part-time job paying very little, something that's always been a sore point in the relationship. Now, money is tight, tempers are flaring, and the couple has had a fight. When the wife demanded a divorce, the husband did the math: Since his assets and income are down, he would take less of a monetary hit in a settlement. Divorce, he suddenly realized, wasn't such a bad idea. In fact, for the wealthier partner in a marriage, the timing couldn't have been better.
"After the initial shock and dismay wore off, the breadwinner began to see how advantageous the timing of the split would be," says his attorney, who preferred anonymity.
Then there's the husband who has been on the verge of divorcing his wife for years. He owns commercial real estate, which he's seen plummet in value. His wife has never worked. But because they've been married for a long time, he knows if they do divorce, she'll be entitled to 50% of everything. The down market has given him the opportunity to work out a divorce settlement where he can buy out his wife's interest at an affordable price and save millions. When he thought everything through, he commenced a divorce action the next day, his attorney says.
"People who have large estates are looking at the economic downturn as an opportunity," says Gary Nickelson, president of the American Association of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML). "If they ever had any intentions of getting a divorce, this is a great business opportunity for them."
It's a matter of simple mathematics. If the breadwinner has a $100 million estate, and it's now worth $50 million, they can buy out their spouse for $25 million and then wait for an economic recovery that, hopefully, brings the value closer to $100 million.
The math isn't going unnoticed by the wealthy. The AAML represents 1,600 attorneys. Of those members Nickelson speaks with on a regular basis, most say they've seen a spike in divorce among the rich. Even in his own practice, in Forth Worth, Texas, Nickelson says he's seen divorces among his wealthy clients double in the last year.
"In a divorce, it's not what the property is worth later. It's what it's valued at today that matters," says Alan Plevy of SmolenPlevy in Vienna, Va.
Of course, if one side of the partnership is winning, it's because the other side is losing. For the non-wage-earner in a wealthy marriage, the timing couldn't be worse. They're likely to walk away with a lot less than they would have, say, two years ago or perhaps two years from now.