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Can't Afford to Get Married, Wait Until You See the Cost of Divorce!

Freakanomics - books, movies, radio commentaries, and a New York Times blog which attempt to explain the economic motivations and incentives for all the crazy things humans do. Recently, the Freakanomics blog in the Times asked the question, "What is going on with marriage?" in response to recent reports that the marriage rate was declining at a faster rate, due to the recession. Apparently, many people assumed that the cost of getting married (over the top weddings and such) was preventing folks from tying the knot. Even the Times reported that the "long-term decline in marriage accelerated during the severe recession."

Turns out, not so much. Justin Wolfers, a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, looked at the last 30 years of data (new marriage certificates issued each year, per 1000 people) against a timeline of recessions. His view - it turns out that the data for 2009 is as boring as the numbers for the past 30 years. While there is a tiny "blip" in the rates, the marriage rate is "sticking doggedly to the trend line." Fewer people are getting married in general, and at older ages, but marriage "remains a central institution in American life."

Makes sense - we may waiting until later in our lives to get married, but essentially it makes good economic sense to be married. Two people generally live more inexpensively together than separately. Everything from housing to insurance to toilet paper is cheaper when you are buying for just one household.

So can you afford to get divorced? Besides the normal costs (Lawyers, filing fees, child and spousal support) divorce raises the costs of debt to a point where it might make more sense to just stay together until at least your finances are straightened out.

For example, a family is struggling with debt. The house is underwater or one of the partners is unemployed or underemployed. They're fighting and ready to be done with one another. They file for divorce and split what little assets there are and attempt to equitably split the debts. The Judge signs the decree and each gives a sigh of relief. Until one of the partners fails to pay up on the debt they agreed to take over in the divorce. Unfortunately, credit card companies and other creditors don't care what you decided to do in family court - they are going to harass you until that debt is paid. If the former partner decides to file for bankruptcy and has the debt wiped out, that creditor is going straight for the non-filing former partner. The non-filer is now either stuck with paying off the debt or filing for bankruptcy as well.

But, you say, there's a court order, a decree, which requires them to pay that debt. Yes, but unless the decree states that the payment of the debt is in the "nature of support" (like child or spousal support), that debt can be erased by a bankruptcy even if the family court reduces it to a judgment.

So, does it make more economic sense to stick it out, pay off the debts together or file for bankruptcy together, before filing for divorce? Freaky.

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