What To Expect When Divorce Settlement Gets Ugly

A woman and man doing the dishes in an all-white tiled kitchen.

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Nothing makes divorce more difficult than negotiating the final settlement with an ex who's angry—and the nastiness of a former spouse during these negotiations can negatively impact what you'll ultimately receive once all is said and done.

While married, most of us feel a sense of responsibility for the well-being of our spouses. But for some, divorce eradicates this loyalty and shifts our priorities to protect our own interests first, very often at the expense of a soon-to-be ex. Divorce can actually instigate a scary Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy: Even if your ex had been kind, respectful, and nonaggressive during your marriage, consider all bets off once divorce proceedings are underway.

If you want to come away from your divorce with an equitable settlement, it's important to anticipate what your ex will do and tailor your legal strategy accordingly. Say your ex is bitter, hostile, or worse, wants revenge: If your ex is behaving like the enemy, use every weapon at your disposal to prevent a paycheck-to-paycheck living situation post-divorce. Here are some tips on what to expect during the course of your divorce settlement, and what to do when negotiations turn ugly.

Common Predictors of a Nasty Divorce

Trying to predict how your ex will act and what they'll say and do during your divorce may seem futile, but nasty divorces actually share many commonalities.

For example, do you have the feeling that your spouse will attempt to swoop in and take all the spoils? Were they the top earner in your marriage? Do they have legal connections? Have they hired an adversarial divorce attorney with a reputation for engaging in high-conflict divorce? If you've answered yes to any of these questions, then be ready for a battle and consider the following points while you're preparing your settlement strategy.

Financial Power

If your ex was the breadwinner and/or controlled your finances during the marriage, divorce won't miraculously change them into someone willing to relinquish dominance. If anything, divorce will make them even more relentless in maintaining financial, and often emotional, power.

So if your spouse has big money and hires a big-name divorce attorney, it's likely they're gearing up to litigate in a proverbial fight to the death. You should, therefore, arm yourself with the same legal arsenal—and attitude.

If your ex is behaving like the enemy, use every weapon at your disposal to prevent a paycheck-to-paycheck living situation post-divorce.

Emotional Instability

No one is more dangerous during a divorce than a spouse who has become unraveled. If your ex is thinking and behaving irrationally, it's safe to say that any negotiations will be particularly rough. (And yes, divorce psychosis is actually a thing.)

If an ex grows mentally unstable, then they cannot advocate their own financial welfare, let alone gauge whatever may be in your best interest. After you've hired a qualified divorce attorney, consult with a psychologist so you can best understand and process your spouse’s instability and come to a mutual understanding as best you can.

Another Love Interest

When an ex demands a sudden divorce, it can, understandably, send you into an emotional (and financial) tailspin. The discovery of an extramarital affair is upsetting enough: Learning that your ex is positively chomping at the bit to build a new life with said love interest is an even tougher pill to swallow.

Despite your pain, understand that your ex wants to remain as whole as possible once your divorce is finalized, taking with them as much as they can while still retaining what they brought into the marriage. (If this sounds a lot like they want to have their cake and eat it, too, you're not wrong.) Like divorce, building a new life with someone else is another money-intensive endeavor so your ex will likely fight for every dollar. Tough love: Find a good shrink, and then gird your loins.

A man handing a woman a pen to sign a divorce settlement.
 Pattanaphong Khuankaew / EyeEm / Getty Images

Dumping Your Spouse

If the shoe is on the other foot and you're the one who has fallen for someone else, your jilted ex may attempt to drag out the divorce and stall the litigation process by contesting the divorce, refusing to sign or respond to filings, or asking for multiple court extensions. It's possible they could be banking on reconciliation, but they could also be vindictive in trying to wear you down. In some cases, the left-behind spouse comes away with a sweeter financial settlement, so watch your back.

Protect Your Legal Interests

Like it or not, once you've come to the realization that your divorce settlement will be a particularly grueling process, it's absolutely crucial to guard and protect your own legal interests throughout the journey. To mitigate the ordeal, keep the following tips in mind.

Perform Due Diligence

Start by researching your state's divorce laws concerning how property and debt are to be divided post-divorce. Some states equally split all property purchased during the marriage while others let judges weigh both arguments, and then rule on the equitable distribution of assets. Any debts and liabilities (think: shared credit cards, a mortgage, outstanding bills) may also be divided equally or based on each party's income. There's power in knowing exactly what to expect.

Curb Your Emotions

While it's perfectly justifiable to feel irate, heartbroken, and hostile (or a mixture of the three), divorce is a business matter so emotions have no place in your negotiations. Take your emotional pain to a therapist and leave the legal issues to your lawyer.

Refuse yo Be Intimidated

Although your ex may lead you to believe otherwise, you both have the same rights and you'll both enter divorce negotiations on the same footing. Don't allow yourself to believe empty threats in the vein of "I'm taking the children" or "You'll have nothing when this is all over." And, although it may be tempting, don't respond in kind, either. Instead, let your attorney deal with the rancor.

Manage Expectations

Just because your ex did you dirty every which way (this includes cheating, emotional abuse, and a host of other ugly transgressions) doesn't mean they'll be forced to pay your bills for the rest of your life. Don't go in expecting more than what you have a legal right to; you'll only set yourself up for a major letdown.

Stand Your Ground

If you know for a fact that you have a legal right to something, don't let your attorney talk you into settling for less than what you're entitled to. And finally, never sign a settlement agreement without reading every word and feeling satisfied that the settlement is fair. 

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