What the Oscar-Nominated Movie, Marriage Story, Left Out About Finances in Divorce
By: Stacy Francis
February 10th, 2020
Marriage Story is applauded as a heroic and truthful divorce story, but despite its very real portrayal of the emotional toll divorce can take on a couple and their family, the movie only glosses over the role that money plays in divorce.
Marriage Story alludes to money issues, but it fails to elicit a conversation about the real financial implications and struggles a family goes through during and after divorce. There are many financial elements that director and screenwriter, Noah Baumbach, touches upon, but others that weren’t covered in the story of this bi-coastal family, at all.
Choosing an Affordable Lawyer
Following the Barbers’ unsuccessful attempt at mediation, Nicole and Charlie’s first challenge becomes that of choosing a lawyer. Divorce can be costly, with each spouse expected to spend, on average, $15,500, during the process, according to Nolo. Many spouses pay a whole lot more on hourly lawyer fees which are typically around $270 an hour nationwide but can easily run as high as $1,000, or more in major metropolitan areas.
Before Charlie is even aware that they’ve transitioned from mediation to litigation, Nicole confides in and hires Nora Fanshaw. It is said that the character of Nora, a high-powered divorce attorney in Los Angeles, was inspired by celebrity divorce lawyer, Laura Wasser. A go-to divorce attorney in L.A., like Laura, can cost up to $900 per hour or more, yet this cost does not seem to be an issue for Nicole – even though it seems that the family has a modest lifestyle and few assets.
Charlie is much more concerned about the high cost of divorce. In his first meeting with an attorney, Charlie is astounded by Ray Liotta’s character’s high hourly fee and $25,000 retainer. The shock of this expense is clear on Charlie’s face: divorce is going to be even more expensive than he thought.
Charlie ends up hiring a less expensive lawyer but ultimately changes his mind. Fueled by rage and a desire for vindication, Charlie hires the first, high priced lawyer he met with, out of fear of losing his son, Henry. However, if money is tight, how is Charlie able to pay these high in legal fees while traveling coast-to-coast during his divorce while earning a modest income from his Off-Broadway theater in New York City? For both Nicole and Charlie, the costs of getting a divorce are staggering.
Living Situation in Divorce
Nicole made a smart financial decision and moves back into her childhood home and lives with her mother as she begins to pursue her television career in Los Angeles. When paying extra legal fees, it’s a good idea to lean on your support systems before adding another expense to your budget. Kudos to Nicole for that smart financial move! Nicole eventually moves out of her mother’s home to what Charlie calls a “cute house” with a gated driveway. It’s not a secret that housing prices are steep in Los Angeles. The median price of homes currently listed in Los Angeles is $850,000, which is nearly four times more expensive than the national average according to Zillow Real Estate. Median rents are a hefty $3,550 per month.
Ultimately, Charlie also decides to maintain a residence in L.A. for his son through the rest of the divorce proceedings. After a period of trudging back and forth from New York to Los Angeles, he moves into a small, dimly light apartment. Unable to afford furniture, Charlie rents tables, chairs, a couch and other necessities to try and make the space as homey as possible and impress a social worker who is tasked to access Charlie’s parenting skills and help determine custody issues. It’s in these scenes that take place in Charlie’s tiny, sparsely furnished apartment, where we understand the financial toll the divorce is taking on Charlie.
The couple also still must burden the cost of their two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn as well. However, the film quickly skims over how they were able to afford new homes, expensive lawyers and a NYC apartment leaving those who have experienced divorce wondering how they made it all work.
Child Custody and Support
The truly heartbreaking moments in Marriage Story, and in any divorce, comes when the court is called upon to determine child custody. Nicole and Charlie’s lawyers go head-to-head in an unforgettable battle over Henry, questioning the parents’ choices and competence. Custody can become one of the most expensive factors in divorce disputes and can drag on for years incurring more and more legal fees. In addition to lawyers, other expensive professionals are sometimes needed such as psychologists or social workers driving up costs even further as is the case with Marriage Story.
The divorce concludes with Henry and Nicole staying in L.A., while Charlie will continue traveling from coast-to-coast to direct his play and parent Henry. When Charlie is in L.A., the child custody will be split 55/45. The amount of time split between co-parents can affect how much financial support is owed to the other parent however, there is no mention of child support or how other costs will be split regarding co-parenting Henry.
Child support is the amount of money the non-custodial parent is court-ordered to provide to cover the children’s expenses when they are with the custodial parent. Child support can be broken into two categories: basic child support and add-ons. Basic support covers the most necessary expenses, while add-ons include insurance, summer activities, tutoring, schooling, etc. While it’s not possible to predict every add-on expense, it is important to plan out what extracurricular activities your child will be involved in, and or other expenses that may arise in the course of their childhood, and how each ex-spouse will contribute.
New York City matrimonial attorney and author of The New Rules of Divorce, Jacqueline Newman, says that “parents will often minimize the expense of raising a child.” When they are approaching child support, Newman “recommends that each parent do his/her best to list out all add-on expenses for their children including the percentage that each parent would be responsible to pay and for how long. Being clear about who is responsible for what can help reduce future disagreements. Be sure to include those expenses in the budget as those costs can add up fast and the last thing you want to do is accept a financial arrangement that does not consider all expenses for your children.”
The support systems portrayed in the film are only family and the legal system. Nicole has a supportive sister, mother, and a professional relationship with Nora. Although Nicole’s mother is also a minor support system for Charlie, they must keep it secret, as she doesn’t want to look like she’s not on her daughter’s side. Otherwise, the only support system Charlie has is his coworkers.
It is so important for both men and women to have a personal support system, as well as a robust team of professionals aside from their attorney, including a therapist and divorce financial analyst. Few people realize that there are financial professionals trained to help them make important decisions about child support, spousal support and the distribution of assets during a divorce. A Certified Divorce Financial Analysts (CDFA®) can do just that and provide insight into many financial questions including tax impact, division of assets, income needs as well as and the short term and long term financial impact of the divorce settlement.
Marriage Story clearly depicts the emotional hardship that divorce can wreak on a family in divorce, but it falls short of painting the full picture of the financial challenges many people undergo while uncoupling. When it comes to finances, the fact of the matter is that many divorcing couples find it difficult to financially support themselves and their children. The financial reality of divorce is that it is expensive emotionally and financially.