Divorce Lawyers Cost Money
Key Points
  • A divorce case that goes to trial is an invitation to the bankruptcy party. Emotions often interfere with making sound financial decisions during a highly contested divorce.
  • Mediation is an affordable option to try and resolve divorce disputes. Without the option of divorce mediation, some divorces can easily drag on for years, which costs thousands of dollars in excess legal fees.

When money is tight, a person seeking a divorce should consider the total cost of the action.

Divorces cost money, the amount varying greatly depending on the circumstances, but on average there is an out of pocket expense of many thousands, and you can be sure that the more a couple battles throughout the process, the more they spend on attorney fees. A contested divorce that goes to trial, which is the worst-case outcome of a failed marriage, can bankrupt a divorcing middle class couple. Disputes about family businesses, expensive property, and child custody drive up costs. Custody battles can cost an immense amount of money and time and can be emotionally destructive, which is why custody is a major reason that so many people stay in a relationship feeling stuck and without options.

Mediation, when a neutral third party, the mediator, moderates structured discussion to reach consensus on a disputed issue, costs less than litigation. Mediators are not judges, but are typically attorneys trained in negotiations. Most attorneys need less time to prepare for mediation than they do a trial. Typically, both spouses pay a portion of the mediator's fee, and often they split the cost in half. Mediators usually charge between $200 and $400 an hour, and usually they require at least five hours of time.

Most divorce cases do not end in a trial. Typically, the parties can come to an agreement themselves or they agree to try mediation. Going to trial becomes less likely when the couples remember that money spent on a divorce battle is money not available when the spouses begin again as single people.

Court Costs

Every court requires the person filing a complaint for divorce to pay a filing fee, which can cost between $150 and $200, plus at least $25 for a process server or officer to serve with the summons and complaint on the other spouse. Some states will waive the filing fee if the appellant files an affidavit of indigence.

Even though it can be expensive, when there is a marital estate, and children in the marriage, or a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse it is a good idea to retain a lawyer. Most attorneys charge a retainer or engagement fee of at least $750 and up. This is a "down payment" on attorney fees paid up front, but the attorney charges against the retainer until it's exhausted. Once retained, attorneys charge anywhere from $100 to $500 an hour. Some charge a flat fee, but cut-rate divorces advertised on billboards and television often do not include the division of property or child custody expenses.

The best way to reduce the cost of a divorce is for the spouses to come to agreement on all issues and give each other an uncontested divorce. The spouses should remember every time the attorney is involved, it costs the client money.

The client can help hold down costs. For one, he or she can refrain from telephone calls to the lawyer. A letter or e-mail is an inexpensive way of keeping attorneys up to date on information they need to know about the case. For two, the client can help hold down discovery costs. This means providing any information about bank accounts, annual pension reports, stocks, mortgages, and credit card debt, thus eliminating the need for an attorney to collect the information. For three, the attorney's assistant can often answer non-legal questions dealing with, for example, court dates or bill balances.

Lawyers often ask for a retainer, against which they bill for their services on an hourly basis. Depending upon the county, divorce lawyers charge between $100 and $500 an hour. Some lawyers advertise flat fee divorces, but anyone using this should understand what the flat fee covers.

Even the simplest cases - no children, no property, no assets, and no disagreements - can take at least five hours of an attorney’s time. Depending on the complexity of the issues involved, however, contested cases - cases where the parties don't agree on everything - can take many more attorney hours.

Finally, divorcing people must consider expenses that they previously did not have, such as additional daycare, or moving expenses.

Other Expenses

Some cases that seem simple become complicated. For example, in some complex cases, it might also be necessary to hire professionals - business evaluators, financial experts, appraisers or medical experts to be witnesses in a case. Or the court may appoint a receiver if there are allegations of financial improprieties or a guardian ad litem if there are allegations that someone needs to be appointed to look after the best interests of the children. Like attorneys, other professionals' hourly rates vary, but may be from $100 to $400 an hour.

Useful Online Tools

Suggested Reading
The Property Division Handbook The Property Division Handbook
This book will explain in detail the property distribution aspect of divorce and separation. It will focus on the rights each spouse has under certain laws, situations, and circumstances, and how the division of the property will be decided by the court or through negotiation.

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DATE OF SEPARATION – Depending upon the laws of the state of residence, the Date of Separation – called the DOS – has a profound impact on the eventual division and distribution of property and debt, including credit, pension benefits, and other marital assets. As of the DOS, the separated spouses are now in limbo legally and financially and remain so until the actual Date of Divorce. A great deal of money may be at stake. For example, one spouse may share responsibility for any debts incurred by the other; the value of a retirement plan or other marital asset, such as residential property, may fluctuate, often by thousands of dollars.
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