When Marci Needle and her husband began to contemplate divorce in June, they thought they had enough money to go their separate ways. They owned a million-dollar home near Atlanta and another in Jacksonville, Fla., as well as investment properties.
Now the market for both houses has crashed, and the couple are left arguing about whether the homes are worth what they owe on them, and whether there are any assets left to divide, Ms. Needle said.
“We’re really trying very hard to be amicable, but it puts a strain on us,” said Ms. Needle, the friction audible in her voice. “I want him to buy me out. It’s in everybody’s interest to settle quickly. That would be my only income. It’s been incredibly stressful.”
Chalk up another victim for the crashing real estate market: the easy divorce.
With nearly one in six homes worth less than the mortgage owed on it, according to Moody’s Economy.com, divorce lawyers and financial advisers around the country say the logistics of divorce have been turned around. “We used to fight about who gets to keep the house,” said Gary Nickelson, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “Now we fight about who gets stuck with the dead cow.”
As a result, divorce has become more complicated and often more expensive, with lower prospects for money on the other side. Some divorce lawyers say that business has slowed or that clients are deciding to stay together because there are no assets left to help them start over.
“There’s an old joke,” said Randall M. Kessler, Ms. Needle’s lawyer. “Why is a divorce so expensive? Because it’s worth it. Now it better really be worth it.”
In a normal economy, couples typically build equity in their homes, then divide that equity in a divorce, either after selling the house or with one partner buying out the other’s share. But after the recent boom-and-bust cycle, more couples own houses that neither spouse can afford to maintain, and that they cannot sell for what they owe. For couples already under stress, the family home has become a toxic asset.
“It’s much harder to move on with their lives,” said Alton L. Abramowitz, a partner in the New York firm Mayerson Stutman Abramowitz Royer.
Mr. Abramowitz said he was in the middle of several cases where the value of the real estate could not be determined. “All of a sudden,” he said, “prices are all over the place, people aren’t closing, and it becomes virtually impossible to judge how far the market has fallen, because nothing is selling.”
For John and Laurel Goerke, in Santa Barbara, Calif., the housing market crashed in the middle of what Mr. Goerke said had been an orderly legal proceeding. At the height of the market, Mr. Goerke said, they had their house appraised at $2.3 million, which would have given them about $1 million to divide after paying off the mortgage. But by the time they sold last year, the value had fallen by $600,000, cutting their equity by more than half.
“That changed everything,” said Mr. Goerke, who is now nearly two years into the divorce process, with legal and other fees of several hundred thousand dollars. “The prospect of us both being able to buy modest homes was eliminated. The money’s not there.”
Now, with both spouses living in rental properties, their lawyers still cannot agree on what their remaining assets are worth. Their wealth is ticking away at $350 an hour, times two.
“It’s got to end,” Mr. Goerke said, “because at some point there’s nothing left to argue about.”
For other couples it does not have to end. Lisa Decker, a certified divorce financial analyst in Atlanta, said she was seeing couples who were determined to stay together even after divorce because they could not sell their home, a phenomenon rarely seen before outside Manhattan.
“We’re finding the husband on one floor, the wife on the other,” Ms. Decker said. “Now one is coming home with a new boyfriend or girlfriend, and it’s creating a layer to relationships that we haven’t seen before. Unfortunately, we’re seeing ‘The War of the Roses’ for real, not just in a Hollywood movie.”