In what may be the most expensive divorce in history, last month Russian fertilizer tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev was ordered by a Swiss court to pay his former wife Elena $4.5 billion. That's more than half his estimated net worth of $8.8 billion, according to the latest Forbes rich list.
Wealth is no guarantee of marital success and, in fact, issues around money can extend the painful process of divorce, especially when one spouse is much richer than the other.
Money can be a costly weapon
"One thing I noticed in wealthy divorces is that money is not the real source of the issue," says Susan Colpitts, co-founder of Signature family office. "The real issues are around the children and lack of trust. Money ends up being the tool, particularly for the less-wealthy spouse, to punish the wealthy spouse."
Colpitts says many times couples leave the negotiating to their attorneys, with the result that an already stressful situation often escalates in vengeance. "The person who feels wronged in the marriage will always get the bulldog lawyer," Colpitts says. "That person is frequently the non-wealthy spouse and they go after the money even if it's more than they need. They can also tie up the divorce in court for years just to make the ex-spouse miserable."
Save money and stress with mediation
One way couples can prevent an extended battle in court is to go through mediation, Colpitts says. By sitting down together, with a professional trained to ensure a productive conversation, the two parties can ease the transition for the entire family. "Mediation allows grownups who have had a loving marriage in the past try to figure out what's fair," she adds.
This is particularly important when children are involved, says Colpitts. "If one spouse is much less wealthy than the other, there's a lot of bickering around what's a fair lifestyle for the non-wealthy spouse," she says. "If that spouse ends up with a very different lifestyle, it can be confusing and create some stress for the children going back and forth between the wealthy household and the less-wealthy household. It's not a problem you see as much in middle class," she adds.
Prevention is the best medicine
The best way to head off problems caused by a split is to spell everything out ahead of time. Prenuptial agreements detailing the division of assets in the event of a divorce are typically signed before the wedding takes place and can help ensure agreement between spouses.
But Colpitts says the business of writing and signing such agreements comes with a high level of emotion that can create a different set of problems.
While in the midst of wedding plans and dreams of future bliss, the conversation can be delicate. Colpitts says that, once again, rather than allowing an attorney with a potentially overly aggressive mindset decide the terms for the spouse who is not wealthy, it's healthier for the couple to sit down and discuss what they think is fair for each other should the marriage fail.
Thinking of splitting? Be prepared for the five ways divorce can cost you.
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