fighting over money divorce

Money is often cited as the No. 1 thing divorcing couples fight over. Financial disagreements clog the courts and wrack up attorney bills — not to mention burn untold units of stress and misery for each party, their children and anyone within earshot.

This money-related financial tension carries over after breakups and divorce. Often, women tell me that they can't move forward with their lives because they are stuck financially because of money their ex owes. They tell me: I can't afford to go back to school / advance my career by traveling or taking additional responsibilities because there is no money for child care — because he won't pay. 

He may very well owe you that money. Morally and legally, you may be entitled to it.

But sometimes you can be so right, you are wrong. After all, the average sum of child supported ordered monthly is less than $300, and total child support owed is actually paid just 40 percent of the time. What if you let that all go and focused on earning big, big money. I want every woman to understand what it feels like to be financially independent. Only then do you truly step into your power, and live your life in the biggest, most authentic way possible.

15 signs your wife or husband is ready for divorce—and what to do now

Signs you should stop fighting your ex for child support, alimony or other money

1. It's costing you more in legal fees than you stand to receive 

Life is not fair. There are laws designed to protect women and children in divorce, and there is also the universal law of what is just. But there is also the legal system, and it is messed up, unfair and is designed to support mainly the rich. Unless you're Elin Nordegren and Tiger Woods, there is often a very low threshold to cross before it stops making sense to spend money on lawyers to get what you are owed. Do the math. Then take a deep breath. Let the breath go. And let that money go, too.

What every mom should ask for in a divorce

2. You're fighting for money he doesn't have

You can't get blood from a stone, as the old adage goes. Sure, he may owe you tens of thousands of dollars in back child support. You could have the courts take his car and send him to jail. But if you honestly know that he doesn't have that cash, do you really want to do that? Yes? What do you get in return?

How to deal if you're a woman/mom paying child support

3. You're building a lifestyle around someone else's money — that you may never get

When you create a budget based on money you get from someone else, you are dependent on them. This is never a good idea. For financial reasons, that money may never materialize — or suddenly disappear. Men's child support and alimony doesn't show up if he loses his job, becomes disabled and cannot work, dies, refuses to pay for whatever reason, or has another child and is allowed by the courts to pay less. Plus, don't you just want to stop fighting and earn your own money? Doesn't that sound really, really delicious — to never be dependent on him or another man again?

Why alimony hurts gender equality

How to deal when you're a woman paying child support or alimony

Close the pay gap? Get dads involved? No child support and shared parenting

4. You're fighting for money in divorce out of spite

Anger and spite are normal. God knows I've spent a lot of time being pissed at my ex! But exuding all that negative energy to take revenge is not a good reason to fight for money — even if you're entitled to it. Good reasons include providing a better life for yourself and your kids and/or because the money is genuinely yours.

[7 single-mom stereotypes that keep women broke, exhausted and alone]

5. He needs the money more than you do

Maybe each of your financial situations have changed. Maybe you have indeed moved on and are now killing it financially. Maybe he lost his job and is struggling. Maybe you're both stable, but you see that the money in question could help him out a whole lot more than it could help you. And now that you've moved forward, and you are no longer spiteful and angry, you have the energy to do the right thing.

[17 highly paid work-at-home careers for moms]

6. Fighting for money is exhausting and bad for the kids

Divorce is one of the most stressful, draining crises a person can go through. In many cases — especially if there are children and significant assets involved — it is worth taking your time with a good lawyer to negotiate a fair settlement. But until the mailman delivers the manilla envelope containing your signed divorce decree, you will likely feel that your whole world is in limbo. Letting some stuff go moves everyone forward — including the kids.

After all, the more conflict between you and your ex, for whatever reason, means the children suffer at the hands of it. He might legally owe you, but sometimes you can be so right you're wrong.

Co-parenting is your priority now, and that is hard to do peacefully if you are fighting over money. Read my tips on how to co-parent with your ex, peacefully, as well as all the science-based research on why equally shared parenting is best.

One of the first co-parenting apps, and widely used app, OurFamilyWizard, which features chat, information storage (like pediatrician and teacher contact info, prescriptions, etc.), and financial record-keeping. 30-day free trial,  discounts for military families, and a program to provide OurFamilyWizard free to low-income families. Each parent can add unlimited numbers of other people for free, including children, grandparents, step and bonus parents, as well as attorneys.

Try OurFamilyWizard for free for 30 days now >>

Read OurFamilyWizard review on >>

7. You hold yourself back when you fight your ex for money

Deepak Chopra tells us that human beings have infinite energy, and I accept that to be true. But we are also physical beings living in the real world, and a girl only has so much energy to go around.

When you are dependent on his money, you are dependent on HIM. Dependence is never healthy. It holds you back, keeps you embroiled in a romantic relationship that is over, with someone who you likely don't care for much.

You have a choice: Spend your time, energy and power to fight with him, or invest that time and energy and power in yourself to earn far more money than he owes you from his 401(k). After all, when it comes to earning and building wealth, the sky is the limit!

[7 ways to get your single mom money act together this month—once and for all!]

My mantra: The best revenge is living well.

More thoughts on fighting for child support:

Dear Emma, WTF?! 

My kids received child support from their dad for six months — three years ago. He is now in contempt of court and $30,000 in arrears. I’ve been to court three times this year, and have another date scheduled. I don’t have to go at this point, of course, but I do. I feel that I am the only advocate for my kids so I go for them. At what point do you just let it go? It’s exhausting. I’ve taken off so much time from work. I’ve tried to talk to him. He does whatever he can to hide from from his responsibilities as a dad, and we fight about it constantly. 



Dear Chrystal,

This is a great question, and I’m glad you asked it. Yes, your ex morally and legally owes the kids and you that money. He’s not paying it now, and he probably won’t pay it in the future. Perhaps in your state you can punish him via loss of driver’s license, or even jail.

When considering whether to chase after unpaid child support, do simple math:

Write down …

How many hours you have spent chasing down that money?

How much time have you taken off work to drive to, and spend time in court and your lawyer’s to deal with this?

How much did those trips cost you in gas? Time away from work?

How many hours have you spent complaining about this issue to your friends and family? On mom boards?

How many hours have you spent arguing with him about this? How many hours have you spent arguing with him in your mind?

Now, how much ENERGY did you spend being so angry at him for being such an ass? Regretting choosing him as a father? Feeling sorry your kids don’t have a better role model?

Now, add it all up. How did those hours and watts of negative energy impact the rest of your life? Take away from your ability to enjoy your kids? Thrive at work? Relax during your free time?

Now, if you were to redirect that energy into earning and building your career and wealth, how much could you earn? A shit-ton more than $30,000. The sky is the limit to earning!

So, you do what you can. File what you need in court, and let them do what they will (which is probably a whole lot of nothing). You did your part to hold your kids’ dad accountable to them. Now you let it go, because you can’t control him.

You can control your own actions, time and energy. Focus on EARNING. BIG EARNING. Building a life you and your kids enjoy and are proud of.  That is resilience, and that is about as fantastic of a role model as your kids could ever have.

The best revenge is living well.

Example of a mom who thrived after she stopped being afraid of losing child support

Erica, 32, a research biologist in Washington, D.C., is mom to a 3-year-old son (Erica asked I not use her last name). She sent me this email last week about how she stopped taking child support payments from her ex. So many lessons here. PLEASE READ!

I have a three year old son, and his dad has recently hinted he planned to take me to court to reduce his child support payments, which I depend on to pay for child care. His comments about how “his” money was supporting my lifestyle made me furious. I make my own money, and his share covers daycare for our son.

None the less, I freaked out and started running numbers about how I was going to make money work without child support.

Life works in crazy ways. Soon after I was called into a meeting with my upper management to discuss my career path. They wanted to promote me into a higher track. I currently get performance-based raises every year, and for the last three years I have ranked No. 1 in my track. This year, I was promoted up a level due to my excelling performance. But my upper management wants to move me into a more competitive track that is a better fit with my current career responsibilities. The upside would be a more prestigious title (and more respect from my majority-male colleagues), while my base salary would be the same. The big drawback with their proposed promotion is that I would not be eligible for the 10%+ raises each year.

As I sat in that meeting I kept doing the math about income vs. child support eligibility, worrying about how I would have to go back to court, argue to keep my current child support, so I could make child care bills, yet keep advancing at the same time. That’s when I remembered your article about not holding yourself back just to get child support. I realized how much easier my life would be if I could cut all financial ties with my ex — regardless of what he legally or morally owes me.
So, I put my big girl pants on and was brutally honest with my upper management. I explained that in the last two years I had become a single mother. I told them point blank that I did not want to be moved to the upper track they were discussing. I explained that I wanted the raises, and it is the money that motivates me.

Unknown to me, my lab director is a single mom who was allowed to work part time from home as her kids were growing up (which is unheard of in a science field) so she could remain relevant in her career and best take care of her family. She asked me what my five year plan would be if I was allowed to stay in my current track. I told I wanted to stay in my current track for three years, at which time I would max out my pay band. Then, I wanted the promotion to the higher track, with the fancier title. I cited papers, presentations, and travel requests I have been a part of and how my career is indeed advancing in my current track, and a “lesser” title isn’t holding me back professionally.

She applauded me for having a career plan that put both my son and I in an advantage to be financially independent. She then told me about a mentoring program, and asked me to be her mentee. I agreed, and told her I would love to learn from her because she is an amazing scientist and has navigated a field that is run by men which has put her in the race to be our next Institutional Director. She then agreed to my plan to max out my lower position before being promoted to an upper position. But she threw in a curve ball: she wants me to get my PhD in genetics. They will pay for everything, and I will start everything once my son is in school in two years. I will work part time at my current job and part time on my PhD, receive a stipend for my PhD and whatever my salary is (in full) at the time as well. She and I drafted everything into a formal career plan, signed the agreement, and filed it away with HR. We also set up quarterly progress and mentoring meetings so that I can start thinking about what research project I want to work on for my PhD.

I stuck to my guns about wanting to make more money right now and was thrown a huge curveball with a “free” PhD to begin in two years. It all scares the shit out of me. And puts me so far out of my comfort zone (the negotiating, the deal making, the PhD), but it also sets me up to be more of a rockstar than I already am in a male-dominated field! This all just became really real for me!

So, thank you for the real life articles about not holding yourself back because of fear of losing child support —and negotiating and fighting for what you are worth!

About Emma Johnson founder  Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist and author. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Emma's Top Single Mom Resources.


  1. Abby on October 19, 2017 at 9:10 am

    I entirely agree that there,s a continued economic abuse by parties who fail to meet their obligations after a divorce. It’s understandable where one has lost a job, but in instances where ones financial standing is intact refusing and or not prioritising payment is continued war against the other party whose effects are on the children. In other societies men who have been divorced or have divorced their wives never want to see their ex,s doing well or feeling good.

    For a woman that has the means, the earlier you let go the better for you and your children. For the less privileged woman get what you should, use it wisely and invest in yourself and move on.
    Forgiveness is great,.but conditions around may delay the process for some. It would also depend on what family support system one has in such times.

  2. Cakes on September 30, 2017 at 9:15 am

    I have mixed feelings about this.

    There’s a big difference between parents who work and do what they can, but don’t earn a lot and those who use financial resources as a source of power and control.

    I think the problem that underlies unpaid child support issues is this: unacknowledged financial abuse. I wish we knew the demographic of these cases rooted in domestic violence. In many cases, I suspect that this behavior is a continuation of this pattern after separation.

    Local child support enforcement and state agencies need better training, guidelines, and structure to be able to address this economic abuse as a problem. It’s wrong to allow families to be re-victimized in this way, especially vulnerable populations who have been subjected to abuse already.

    I also wish that there were more programs for abusers out there to support reform. I have only lived in one city that offered programs that helped to break the cycle at the source.

    I do feel that fighting it is emotionally and psychologically painful for families. Letting go is easier for the individual and allows healing– I agree with that completely. I also agree that when you think you need that money, you focus on the negatives. Reframing is a powerful way to reclaim your power from an unhealthy situation.

    Unfortunately, walking away without intervention to nonpayers leaves a system that continues to permit these behaviors. This perpetuates a cycle of economic inequality.

    The reality is this: The struggle of unpaid support isn’t just felt by the custodial parent, it impacts the children. The results are devastating when health issues are a concern, but other aspects of their lives are limited by unpaid support as well. While most parents who struggle with this strive to provide opportunities for their children without making them aware of it, realistically it often negatively impacts the lives and futures of the children.

    This issue should be acknowledged as what it is: economic abuse of children.

    • momof6 on July 3, 2018 at 7:00 pm

      You are so correct in your analysis of the situation of continued abuse that many of us face, thank you for this.
      I have been taking the attitude that this article suggests and doing quite well, but my children’s lives are still impacted because it takes time to make it, meanwhile debt piles up as you pay for groceries on your credit card. This system has to change and it takes holding grown ass men or women who owe and can pay child support accountable.

  3. Steveark on September 21, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    I am a guy, long married, never divorced but thought I’d read that post because the title was intriguing and because I’m inclined to think that guys that don’t pay child support and don’t spend time with their kids are, I don’t know, bad I guess. I thought I could have a great mental argument with an extremely bright woman (read you all the time so I know that to be true). But, I couldn’t find anything to argue with. Those are great reasons and without being a post on forgiveness they indirectly pointed out why forgiveness is such powerful magic in people’s lives because it flushes out so many toxic emotions and thoughts. I’m glad it didn’t turn into a mental argument, I’d have been hopelessly outmatched!

  4. Briana Bueno on September 21, 2017 at 11:25 am

    I get what your saying but most single moms are out there working hard and trying to raise good kids either way. We all know its hard without the child support but from my own experience, I have a full time job in an industry I don’t even like because my kids need a stable life with money coming in weekly. Child support would help. Immensely. When do I have time to go out and find this dream power job that will earn me more money? I supported a deadbeat and a family for almost 20 years, never finished college and now I do absolutely nothing for myself. I live for my kids. I work for my kids. I cant put my dreams in front of theirs. So yes, I feel like we should fight for child support. Believe me, in a perfect world I would be working in that great paying job, giving my kids everything they deserve but I married a deadbeat in disguise.

    • Emma on September 21, 2017 at 11:28 am

      It sounds like you were a martyr during your marriage, and are now a martyr for your children. Study after study support the message that children do best when mothers prioritize earning and professional success. Sounds like what you have been doing is not working, so try another mindset.

  5. Hilarie Rock on September 21, 2017 at 11:07 am

    Thank you for this Emma. I needed to see this from a single mom. My ex-has NO money and has NO plans to make money. He is $30,000 in the whole and the only step left to take is to throw him in jail. But I reason with myself and pray and come up with it’s not the Christian thing to do and he cannot earn money in jail. But I HAVE TO HAVE SOME PEACE for my sake and my child’s sake. I now need to come up with a plan to earn more money. Anyone know how to publish a book at no cost?

  6. TeeInDC on September 21, 2017 at 10:59 am

    I separated in 2010; divorce final in 2012. My ex lost his six figure job and then become seriously ill. He is better now, but relocated to have support from his sister while he recuperated in 2013. He is gainfully employed now and has been for some time, but now, I make probably double what he makes. As a result, his child support payments are now 40% of what he used to send me. The few members of my family and friends know about my situation, all want me to go after him for the approximately $50K in back child support with a vengeance. They don’t care if he is financially ruined. He got ill after he lost his job. He drained his 401(k) to pay his hospital bills (He was in the ICU for a few days). Now, he makes less than me. Bill collectors call me looking for him. Law enforcement officers have come to my house to serve him papers to appear in court for debts owned. He just does not have it. I am grateful that he contributes every 2 weeks by direct deposit and has a positive relationship with his sons. I have healed, moved on and just don’t want that negative energy in my life. I know a few women who have pursued back child support, and NOT ONE has achieved the desired results, so ladies, definitely think long and hard on this one.

  7. Eric Schwartzman on May 17, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    What kills me is not being able to even give my children their own room(s) in the apartment they share with me. At least my child support allows their mom to keep our old three bedroom apartment and their my kids have their own rooms.

    I have accepted that the child support allows her a rent free existence but when her fiancée moves is after their marriage I will be paying for the roof over his head. My child support won’t be reduced at all.

    I hope he makes my children’s lives better in other ways. G-d forbid I mention that to her.

    We divorced using a mediator to minimize the adversarial process. In the end she got half my 401k, bought me out of our Mitchell Lama 3 bedroom apt for literally a song, and I can never retire. I have no idea how I will even afford their college costs. At least at 18 my child support will go to college room and board.

    Sorry griping again. I am one of the cant get blood from a stone former spouses.

    • Emma on May 17, 2014 at 5:32 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Eric – I’m re-evaluating my position on alimony in the framework of a) what is fair, and b) what is feminist. Wondering: Can’t you re-visit the alimony? Especially since she is getting remarried (which, I believe, can be calculated in the event of the lesser-earning spouse remarrying)? Paging Morghan Richardson ….

  8. Kim on March 8, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    I also am working on all these points a lot – in my head (“I can do it! I can earn much more money myself, even when I can only work part time because of my 2 boys, 4 and 7 years old”) and on paper (writing applications for further employment, I am a freelancer). My therapist says something like this: it’s not about justice – it’s abourt taking responsibility and being in charge yourself, not seeing oneself as a victim. The other day, 2 days before moving houses because of the separation, with tears running (because of our apartement) I wanted to put batteries in scales which we hadn’t used for a long time. I was holding it in my hand – and it broke in a thousand little glas stone pieces – it hadn’t fallen down, I did not do anything, I just had it in my hand and it broke with some strong power. I am seeing it as a symbol of my ‘old’ idea of justice which was very very important for me (and would normally be very important for me now). The breaking as a symbol and an impulse to letting go of this idea and move forward – to living my life without expecting too much of my former husband.

  9. Anne on March 2, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    Yes, it has been a long road getting to this point, and I know there is a long way to go, but it is good to believe in myself. I am a teacher, and luckily I was able to get a job quickly when my world fell apart. However, I know with 3 kids and lots of debt (from his schooling), I will need something else to get me out of this financial hole–the money spent on milk alone for 3 boys is crazy–ha! I am working on starting a business and seeing your blog is inspiring–thank you!

  10. Anne on February 25, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    I especially like #6 because that is where I am at. The only way out of this mess to take matters into my own hands and prove to myself (and to him) that I can over come this emotionally and financially. I love your mantra–so true!

    • Emma on February 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm

      Thanks Anne – It really is amazing that once you make the shift internally, the world immediately changes. Good for you!

  11. Pauline Gaines on February 24, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    I agree with all of this, although in my situation I have a very rich husband who has managed to hide a lot of his money. I recently have had my son come to live with me 100% of the time, and I have my daughter the majority of the time, and soon will be completely out of savings, so I have no choice but to try to modify support. That said, in the past few years since I received no support, I felt much freer psychologically because I didn’t have to raise a stink to get the child support check every month or deal with my frustration when he deducted small amounts from it. And, yes, unless you’re Elin Nordegren, it sucks being a divorced mom.

    • Emma on February 25, 2014 at 3:43 pm

      Hi Pauline – so what is the conclusion? Have you decided to fight after all? What are you doing to be financially independent moving forward?

    • Liz on November 1, 2017 at 1:36 am

      I’m sorry but I take issue with so much of the book the Kickass Single Mom. Who is this about??? Bc it’s certainly not my situation. I got married young never even had a real job even tho I have a Bachelors degree in Sociology. So I have no fancy resume or old coworkers to tap into… my ex is super successful still living in the home we had built with a huge garage full of hobby trucks and our boat and the fancy mustang he bought behind me back before asking for a divorce – and I stayed home to raise my two children that I adore. and now we’re divorced. Soooo… now what??? We also moved to another state that doesn’t have alimony. I get child support but what am I supposed to do for work after a decade of unemployment and no real actual job experience to lean on??? Hmmm??? Lol I mean come on… I’d be lucky to get an hourly job here that pays what I made ten years ago in California. This book makes everything sound so very easy I don’t know what planet you’re living on. And maybe some of WANT to stay home and volunteer at our kids schools. Maybe we thought that was what we were always gonna be able to do and maybe our kids actually DO better with their moms involved. I really don’t feel good at all about suddenly being on the cusp of adolescence with my kids and now I have to work full time and deal with that rat race??? This is an unrealistic and rather elitist spin on this situation. The intro kills me – as tho wow! I suddenly whipped up all ohs new income poof! Well lady good for you…. meanwhile i’ll Be working at a grocery store for the next 20 years while my kids fend for themselves… Shame on you who are making women who are legitimately scared out to be lazy and playing victims.

  12. Faiza on February 24, 2014 at 9:17 am

    EXACTLY! I always tell women don’t bother trying to get blood out of stone. Save the energy and money and depend on yourself, you won’t be disappointed.

    • Emma on February 24, 2014 at 2:56 pm


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