Alimony advice

17th November, 2007

Dear Economist,
My wife and I have separated. Naturally our relationship is not great, but it’s OK. Now divorce proceedings have started and we will be dividing up our assets. Should I hire a lawyer? I am not convinced that it is worth the expense.
Seth, via e-mail

Dear Seth,

You have obviously grasped that this is a zero-sum game with two to four players. The assets will be divided between you, your soon-to-be-ex wife, and any lawyers the two of you bring on board.

I can sympathise with your suspicion that the lawyer is money down the drain.

It is worth considering the scant evidence available.

The Austrian economist Martin Halla has collected data from divorce proceedings in his home country, and he finds a curious pattern. Husbands end up paying the smallest alimony when no lawyers are involved. If the husband hires a lawyer, but his wife does not, the alimony payment rises (and then there are fees to be paid, too). If the wife hires a lawyer, or the couple hires a joint lawyer, the husband forks out still more. Worst case scenario for hubby is if both sides hire their own lawyer. On top of that the proceedings are longer and more expensive.

Interpret that result with caution, because it is not clear whether the lawyers cause poor settlements for husbands, or whether husbands hire lawyers when things look grim. Still, the pattern that Halla discovered does bolster your scepticism.

In the absence of better information, then, Halla’s research suggests that you have a dominant strategy, meaning one that is best no matter what your wife does. That strategy is not to hire a lawyer. And for goodness sake, don’t let your wife see any research from Martin Halla.

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