Pulse: Chatter: Matrimony: The Marriage Penalty

Why divorce in Philly just isn’t what it used to be

One of the most unexpected victims of our current economic crisis? The Nasty Divorce. And — sorry, Rick Santorum — the reason has less to do with any return to old-fashioned values than it does with the fact that knock-down, drag-out breakups are just too damn expensive. Just ask William Donahue, who’s been divorce-lawyering for 20 years. He says the average price tag for a litigated divorce is $35,000 — and that doesn’t even cover dividing dwindling 401Ks and unloading the house in a bad market. Yet even though those dollars line the pockets of people like Donahue, the Center City lawyer is offering a cheaper alternative to pricey splits: mediation.

“Divorce is difficult in the best of times, but when times are tough, spending money and going through a long, litigated divorce is really difficult,” says Donahue, who’s going so far as to host a free seminar — “How to Survive a Divorce in Tough Economic Times” — at the Bellevue on July 29th. In the meantime, at his Transitions Mediation Center on Walnut Street, couples work out — with his guidance, and without separately mounting legal fees — who gets the Calder and who drives away with the Jag. Then they get a memo outlining the agreement (not a legal contract; when he’s mediating, Donahue can’t act as a lawyer). Sessions run about $300 apiece, with clients determining the number of meetings and then handling the court filing (around $300) themselves — spending up to 90 percent less than they would on a traditional divorce.

But it’s Donahue’s success rate — he says 95 percent of his mediation clients end up with less messy divorces — that emboldens him to encourage everyone to try mediation first. Even couples who detest each other: “Those are the
people the legal system eats alive. They fight over everything, and make their lawyers rich.”