Hastily starting divorce procedures without knowing the costs is the same as diving into unknown water without knowing how deep it is and what could be waiting for you on the bottom… dangerous!!
As a professional divorce mediator in Southern California, I helped couples achieve a Marriage Settlement Agreement (MSA) through negotiating. At that time I still believed in divorce. But over time two profound things have become abundantly clear to me that were not apparent to the couples who were going through the process until they were entrenched in it:
- The pain. Divorce is an attempted escape from a failing marriage which then turns out was not nearly as painful as the pain experienced from the divorce itself. Except in rare cases, divorce usually means jumping from the frying pan into the fire. That’s the bad news.
- The effort. I discovered that the effort needed to save a marriage is less than a fraction of what’s needed for the divorce process… and is MUCH cheaper.
I no longer work on the “death of marriages” side. Now I help people save their marriages. Commonly used methods used by traditional marriage counselors are simply ineffective for most people and some marriage “professionals” actually encourage couples to split. More on that later.
In this article, I’ll summarize the financial variables that are part of the three main ways to get a divorce so that you’ll have a rough idea of what your own divorce could cost. I will also share with you the harsh realities of divorce and provide practical suggestions on how to navigate these treacherous waters. Finally, I’ll conclude with a plea to consider an alternative to divorce, i.e. to fix your marriage. I will also give you suggestions on how to set about doing this. So even if you qualify for a “do-it-yourself” divorce and might skip over the lawyer section, be sure to read everything else.
This article only addresses measurable costs of time and money, which at the end of the day are still only money or time. You will pretty much roll with the financial impacts, even though they will be painful. But the “immeasurable ones”, on the other hand, are deadlier. They will affect you and your family for generations to come. That is why I strongly advise reading my article, Should I Get A Divorce?
The 3 Main Ways To Get A Divorce
There are 3 basic ways to divorce and they will also determine how much you will pay:
With or without professional guidance, this is the least expensive. These divorces can cost as little as filing fees; under $500 in some states. This option is fine if you and your spouse are talking, and you have no children or assets.
Either the marriage or just specific issues can be resolved with the help of a mediator. This is by far the best value for money, but only if you qualify. If you combine mediation with a do-it-yourself divorce you may still be able to end your marriage for under $1,500. If you prefer to have a mediator do everything for you it can still be under $7,000. It could go as high as $10,000 or more, but only if your marriage is complex or if a lot of negotiating will be involved.
The purpose of mediation is to help you both to agree on all the sub-agreements that comprise the whole of the settlement agreement. In my practice, I broke issues down into ‘discussions’, ‘negotiations’, and ‘arbitration’. Because of the shifting-sands-nature of divorce agreements, I never allowed arbitration (when the mediator becomes a judge) to stick because nobody should ever be forced into something they do not understand. Make sure you understand the way your potential mediators work so that you will be comfortable with the process.
Lawyering up and battling it out is the “oy vey” way. These usually cost at least $20,000 and the average is about $30,000, however, there is almost no limit. Divorce for a normal middle-class family will average between $30,000 and $60,000. This is also the longest and most painful way to get a divorce. It is not unusual for a case to last well over a year. Some cases can last three years or longer.
All three methods end with two final conclusions: a Marriage Settlement Agreement and a final decree signed off by a judge.
The Marriage Settlement Agreement, aka an MSA, is the final legal resolution of everything material:
- Division of property
- Child support
- Child sharing plans
- Spousal support
An MSA has to be court-approved. Most people don’t realize that partial agreements are not binding. Only the final agreement, including all the sub-agreements, is valid, and only after it has been signed off by the judge.
The final divorce decree signed off by a judge signifies you are technically divorced. Litigation means a judge will settle disagreements.
Getting a divorce professional to scrutinize your agreements, even if you do a do-it-yourself divorce, is very important. They will alert you to hidden pitfalls and important things you may have missed.
The Financial Costs Of Divorce
Unless you are wealthy and don’t care about money, there is always a tendency to underestimate costs. But, that is dangerous. It’s much safer to overestimate expenses (and also the suffering involved).
Next, you need to decide on the professionals you might need based on the options available. Create a budget that is relevant to your situation.
Below are the professionals whose services you may or may not have to pay for. You may need help in determining the combination of services you will need. A mediator who has a good reputation can help here, too.
- Court staff and fees– Do-it-yourselfers can get forms, court dates and such from the court staff. The staff’s help (I use the term “help” loosely) is often less than what you would hope for. They think you should know what you will need, and in many cases they are right.
It’s a bit like the ‘Department of Motor Vehicles’, they won’t give you much in the way of advice, and they shouldn’t, but they will possibly tell you the general process. Likewise, the court staff will know the fees you have to pay, forms you need to submit, how to fill them out, and how to serve your spouse. They also set court dates, etc. You will pay for forms, filings, and services like court fees. Everyone pays these. State courts typically charge between $400 and $1000 to file. Look up the cost in your state, but then add $300 to cover ancillary costs like serving your spouse legally, etc. There are always going to be costs that you hadn’t thought of.
Many courts have volunteers who, at no cost, will help you with technical questions. They generally do the best they can to help you but should never be asked for any information “above their paygrade” (such as “how will the judge rule on this?”). Never complain about them not being more helpful. If they are volunteers, be grateful.
If you hire a lawyer, mediator, and/or a paralegal you won’t have to go to the courthouse. But going to the court is honestly not a big deal unless you are seriously fearful of this.
- Paralegals– Good ones are worth their weight in gold. If you hire a lawyer, the cost for these “workhorses” are included but are billed separately.
There are paralegals who work for themselves, which is much cheaper for do-it-yourselfers. It is legal, ethical, and a great way to save money; there is one reservation: it only works as long as your spouse is not lawyered up.
You should strive to do the divorce ‘together’ – so try and keep the channels of communication open.
Only hire a paralegal who works exclusively in family law because the laws and rules for divorce are so unique. Experienced ones will not “officially” give legal advice as it is a huge no-no, but they almost all do it, anyway.
Unless your case is incredibly simple, you would do well to hire one if you are a do-it-yourselfer. Your total costs for a simple case should be under a thousand dollars. They usually charge by the hour and rates are based on supply and demand. So ask around.
- Second Saturday divorce advice workshop– They provide lectures explaining the entire process of divorce. I used to speak there and helped to save many marriages which were thought to be over. My sense was that their pros are generous with their time and information; nor did they pay me to recommend them.
Hopefully, the organization still upholds the same high standards. Going to their one-day seminar is critical, regardless. You will learn about ‘current’ court trends in your area. I understand there are now competitors but I have no experience with them.
- Accountants– Your current accounting firm is probably a bad choice, regardless of what they say, because your accountant will really have to be specialized in divorce cases.
Rules for pensions, taxes, retirement funds, etc. are confusing to anyone but an expert who off the cuff, already knows the laws and future ramifications with IRS and such, so won’t have to research everything.
There are other accounting and business specialists who can help you with valuations of small businesses etc. Again, the rules for divorce are specific so stick with the industry’s specialists. The accounting firm you hire for your taxes and planning can maybe help you find one. If you need a valuation, that again is a different skill.
If there is contention, or you have a privately held business that needs scrutiny, you might also need a forensic accountant. They are the ones who “dig” into the books to find hidden money and such. Again, you need a family law oriented professional.
Bookkeepers are not accountants. You need a fiduciary; one who is legally responsible for the information they provide. The “best you can afford” is who you should use, and you and your spouse should go and see them together to avoid further conflict. A high-end cost for a great CPA can easily be about $750 an hour – or it could be as little as $300 an hour. Count on more hours than you think it should take, sometimes 5 times more. These folks are accountants because they are meticulous by nature, so gauge your expectations accordingly.
All of the above can be done without litigation. Once you step into litigation it is like getting your sleeve caught in a wood chipper. Avoid litigation even if it means taking a course in non-confrontational communication!
- Lawyers– The best way to use a lawyer is to visit one together with your spouse. That way you both hear the hard facts about how the court will view your case. Who knows better than someone who goes before the court every day?
From my experience, as well as my conversations with family law lawyer friends, there is really only a small window of results that you should expect no matter how much you battle it out. So, if you visit a lawyer together you will know ahead of time what the likely outcome will be, and, by arriving at a negotiated settlement, you will save a great deal of money compared with litigation The lawyer you choose for this advice should be well-seasoned and have a great reputation. Better to agree to two hours even if you don’t use it all (you will still pay it all) so there is no pressure to get everything out quickly. They will even tell you how “side issues” will likely be adjudicated if it got to that.
Another advantage is that when you go together you can divulge everything, and neither of you can then hire that lawyer for yourselves, it would be a conflict-of-interests for them.
Count on one hour costing anywhere from $250-$800. Usually, a low-baller will also end up costing you a fair amount of money because they don’t know as much as the expensive lawyer.
Litigation is the path to misery; every time! Of course, sometimes there is just no choice, but the results are never “good” even when you think you have won. It’s the nature of litigation to cause defensiveness, anger, and confusion.
Avoid litigation! Everyone spends far more on lawyers than they will ultimately win in the court.
Family law lawyers are combatants. Think of them as gunslingers. Some people think they can “go easy” on their spouse, but that’s like asking a gunslinger to aim for the toe.
How Much Does A Divorce Attorney Cost?
Here is the harsh reality of choosing to litigate. The factors that determine your cost of an attorney represent your level of hostility and your “community worth”. Let’s break it down:
- The cost of litigation – This cost is defined solely by what, and how much you are fighting over. You have some control. Compromise and a realistic detachment will help you lower these costs. But you should do that first before seeing the attorney.
- Your “community worth” –This is your total monthly family income along with the net value of your community assets; assets and cash-flow.
From a legal perspective, your marital estate is essentially a business: assets and income. This is how the worth of your marital estate is defined using the specific rules of the family court. You will, in fact, fill out individual “Income and Expense” declarations. Here is an example of a California I&E form. Of course, each state has their own, but they are basically all the same.
Divorce means separating your lives, thus splitting the “business”, meaning your combined assets (acquired during your marriage) and income (for a determined period, then you are each responsible for your own income).
When you have children the court will always put their needs at the top of the list, and this is where things get hairy because taking care of the kids requires more cashflow.
Unfortunately for children, nearly everyone puts their own desires (which they call needs) ahead of their kids’ needs. People use their children as weapons in their fight to get a bigger portion of the money. They try to get a bigger share of time spent with the kids and that translates into keeping or getting more money. This tactic is both typical and horrible. However, lawyers typically tell their prospective clients they need to “protect” themselves, all because a scared client is going to generate more money by wanting/agreeing to battle as much as possible. Then the costs will just skyrocket; psychologists, depositions, slander (always), and betrayal.
Self-interest is the usual cause of divorce. Had you been loving, considerate, respectful, and cared more about your spouse than about yourself you would probably not be getting a divorce. Now, because of the drive-to-survive, self-interest may change you from a parent to a competitor.
Lawyers do a quick calculation when they meet with you. During your initial consultation, you give all the information that reveals your dollar value to them. Remember, your case is their income.
Stay mindful that when a lawyer is nice to you it is only business. He wants a sale, exactly like a car salesman is nice because they want a sale. Be nice back, but never forget what you really mean to them: income!
Here’s an example of how they value you. If your combined income is around $100,000, you have a couple of kids, own a $400,000 house and a couple of cars, and live a typical middle-class lifestyle you can expect to spend – and the lawyers will earn – between $30,000 to $60,000 – that is the total for both lawyers; not a bad sale!
You will likely be asked to pay a $5,000 retainer, then in a month or less, you will pay another $10,000 to $20,000. That is pretty typical.
Ads that offer lowball prices are sales pitches, pure and simple. Although there are really expensive lawyers who handle high-income clients, most people will fall into one and the same range. There are no “deals” to be had and I will explain why.
The “cheapo” lawyers fall into one of two categories. They are either inexperienced and need the business, or they are “businessmen”-lawyers who hire newly graduated lawyers to do the work, while they themselves are mostly salesmen. And that is who you are going to meet: the salesman!
Even though their newbie lawyers are ‘supervised’ by the person whose name is on the door, they make a lot of irreversible mistakes, which will be blamed on the judge or some other vague culprit. It is never their fault.
Good lawyers are seasoned and have a good reputation among other family law lawyers. If you have to hire a lawyer to represent you, the best course is to interview at least a handful and ask them who has the best reputation, who they like, etc.
- Ancillary costs – You will be billed for everything. I’m not being judgmental when I tell you lawyers never miss an opportunity to charge you. From their point of view, you are a one-time client who won’t refer more business.
Read their engagement letter thoroughly so you are not caught off guard. A phone call, for instance, will be billed at a set portion of their hourly rate, like 20% (.2) of an hour, even if the call only lasts 10 seconds. Some even charge when you just call their office. Copying a single page may cost a dollar fifty, or five dollars; find out.
Many times there are costs you won’t see coming and that you cannot control, like “case reviews”. Some lawyers build in things that are less than transparent. Their bills grow like weeds after a rainstorm.
Please don’t think that I’m exaggerating. I had a friend of mine, who is a very intelligent and highly moral divorce lawyer and who has practiced for over 25 years, read my article and he agreed with my findings. He confirmed the often less than professional attitude of many lawyers I have come up against. He also told me that the time commitment to bring a divorce case before the court is tremendous – and therefore costly. They will try to keep the costs down by having new, and therefore less experienced, lawyers do much of the work for them, often leading to situations as mentioned above.
My friend agreed with me that the costs are tremendous, partly because of the time involved as just mentioned, but also because of the court- and ancillary costs. These grow rapidly halfway to trial: depositions, discovery, copying, courier, subpoenas; then grow again when approaching trial. Then, because all courts nowadays require meticulous and massive preparation, the appellate costs are now several thousand dollars: e.g. filing fees for both appellant and respondent, clerk’s record, reporter transcripts, producing the bound briefs and serving them to all parties and courts, mandatory software, etc.
So please do your homework and make very sure that you both fully understand what is involved in getting a divorce. If it becomes clear that you do indeed need a lawyer, then please review all the suggestions I am giving you in this article so that you will be able to avoid the biggest pitfalls.
Practical Advice For Each Situation
I have seen every type of divorce and marriage situation. Here is what you can expect at each level depending on the state of your marriage.
No Children, No Assets
The simplest divorce is when you and your spouse agree to part amicably. You don’t have children or complicated assets like retirement plans, so you can easily divide up your possessions and debts and go your own ways.
This level only requires filing a form and paying fees. Quick and easy.
Self-representation is fine as long as you learn the ropes and both you and your spouse represent yourselves. If your spouse has a lawyer, you will get crushed if you try to go up against him/her.
Newlyweds who discover and agree they made a mistake are in this category. If this is you then just go to the court, ask for a form, pay the fees, decide who gets what and seal the deal, parting as friends. Then you find a new apartment, help each other pack, and so on. I have more than one friend who did this when their first marriage turned out to be a mistake..
Be nice! No blaming or anger is appropriate because it was just a mistake and it happens. Be friends.
Other costs, such as new apartments, household items, etc. will not be a big deal to either of you. Both of you have your own incomes so you will be able to just move on with your lives.
If You Have Assets
If you have retirement plans, a couple of cars, or anything that is not easy to divide, you can still keep it simple, but you will need a professional – sometimes just a paralegal for easy stuff and a qualified mediator if it is more complex – who can help you with guidelines that the courts use and are savvy about generally accepted legal methods for dividing things up as well as the tax consequences. Even though common sense is useful, it is better to use tested ideas that have been proven over time. That assurance will really help you remain calm.
As long as you are on speaking terms with each other, and are generally getting along, you can manage to get a divorce that will allow you to transition into your new lives with less stress.
If You Have Children
Don’t use your kids as weapons to cut a better deal by seeking more time with them just so that you will get more money. It happens all the time and is shameful.
Child and spousal support are based on strict formulas that every family law lawyer has in their computer, and every judge uses. They just punch in the numbers. So, agreeing on a child sharing plan that is based on what is best for the kids will really help you avoid drama and suffering.
The calculators found on the web are usually not current so do not count on these numbers being accurate, but they will give you an idea of how it works. Child support is too much of a wild card because there are so many variables. I cannot give you ranges. Visiting a certified family law professional who you both trust, together, will save you thousands of dollars and endless fruitless battles.
A mediated divorce in this category is not always pretty and not easily accomplished, but it is so much better than lawyering up. Individually hiring a lawyer should be a last resort. Even if your spouse has already hired one, it is not a situation that is cast in stone. Talk to your spouse about cooperating.
Marriages with children are complicated by the fact that it’s not just a couple splitting up. Now you are affecting others who are innocent and really don’t deserve to have their family broken up just because you two can’t get along.
I wish our society would not be so laissez-faire about parents who want a divorce. You have no idea how tragic it is!
You will create a broken family that your kids will have to live with for the rest of their lives. Be sure to read my article on The Effects Of Divorce On Children because a divorce, which in nearly every case is a choice, will impact the little innocent people you are obligated to protect. Straight up, getting a divorce when you have children is not okay, so read the article!
Tips For All Couples
The more cooperation, the better off everyone will be.
The most important thing, regardless of what is going on and why, is to keep communication open and to be as unemotional and productive as possible. Although you should always be civil, especially now is not the time to blame, accuse, try to garner sympathy, or anything else. A divorce is ALL business! You are presumably getting a divorce to end all the pain (which is rarely true), so don’t create more pain now for yourself or your spouse.
If it is only your spouse who wants a divorce, you will not accomplish anything positive by fighting them. If there is a chance your marriage can be resuscitated, then it must be done in a positive venue, not in an atmosphere of arguing and fighting.
You can and should, try to get your spouse to the mediation table if at all possible. Use whatever means they will accept to do so. Even if you were served by a lawyer, you are still allowed to contact your spouse directly (unless there is a restraining order).
Do your best to reach an agreement with your spouse on important issues so you won’t waste money fighting senseless battles. Behave in a businesslike manner. When I was a mediator, smart couples used me only for select issues, not their whole case.
It is better to settle your affairs without litigation for a host of reasons. Don’t fight if your spouse catches you off guard. Be cooperative. Never argue. Be thoughtful, considerate, and calm.
Talk about each topic. List the easy ones and write down your agreements. That will isolate the contentious issues, which you can get professional help with. This exercise will save you thousands!
If You Or Your Spouse Decide To Litigate
This type of divorce is the worst, period.
You will spend more money than you thought; the sky is the limit.
It will take longer than you thought; sometimes years.
It will be more painful than you thought; emotionally and financially.
You will feel isolated, beaten up, abused, confused, threatened, depressed, and generally miserable for years.
Where will you get the money? Do you have savings? How much can you put on your credit card? How will you pay it back? Interest rates on credit cards are unreasonably high and will put you in a desperate place. Can you borrow the money? Will your family help with the costs? What will happen to your lifestyle, and to your kids? Do not go down this road without reading the article I mentioned before, Should I Get A Divorce? It’s a checklist that will ask you questions you probably have not considered.
Divorce is NOT a life-saving operation where costs don’t matter. Be practical.
Some people set aside a little money every month to hire a lawyer. That is common, but in most cases, it is also cowardly. Be upfront. Being sneaky only adds to the pain and suspicions and almost never benefits anyone.
Some women think the court will make their husband pay for everything, ignoring that he only makes a fixed amount.
Some men hot-headedly move out without proper planning. They foolishly spend money the court is going to take away later, putting them into near destitution. Their wives, who are almost always left with the kids, then get caught short financially, which will hurt the kids. Over 50% of all divorces cause poverty.
If your husband did this, it is better to respectfully let him know that ‘you prefer to work on things, but if he is set on a divorce you won’t fight him.’ Try to work toward mediation.
Some people jump the gun with credit cards or cash, without creating a budget and considering costs over the long term.
Litigation guarantees you will suffer financially. Your income is going to drop precipitously… for both of you! It’s not going to “work itself out”; it won’t!
You Don’t Have To Get A Divorce
Nobody wants to stay married if their marriage is horrible, and I don’t want that for you either. But, the price paid by children who go through a divorce is far too high to just shrug it off.
Divorce is a killer on so many different levels that you should do everything you can to avoid it, even if you think you’ve “already tried everything”. You haven’t. Trust me on this one because I saw it first hand on a daily basis.
Fortunately, you CAN have your cake and eat it, too. You CAN fix your marriage and still live happily ever after. You CAN create a safe, loving environment for your children.
When I had my divorce mediation practice, I was sometimes shocked by the weak reasons people told me they were divorcing for (e.g. couldn’t get along). These reasons were all the more surprising because all my clients had worked with traditional marriage therapists before they came to see me, so I naturally thought they had given it their best.
One couple got a divorce because in-laws who lived next door were too involved in their marriage. The therapist never suggested moving!
One wife was “tired of him not taking care of the kids”, as if a divorce would improve that!
The couple that finally motivated me to become a marriage healer told me “we don’t get along but don’t know what else to do”. They do now!
It was only later that I found out the success rate of couples who go through traditional marriage counseling is under 6%! Then I learned the divorce rate for marriage therapists themselves is significantly higher than the average, and I just had to wonder.
The bottom line is that most “experts”, I am sorry to say, are not experts at all, otherwise, we wouldn’t have an over 50% divorce rate. Think about it. Would you bring your car to a mechanic if his success rate was below 10%?
I know you are beyond discouraged and think divorce is the only remaining solution to your pain. I hope you’ve seen in this article that it is not a solution at all, but will cause even more pain for you and others.
I’ve worked with so many individuals and couples in your situation. The many people I met at the Second Saturday divorce workshop had given up too. Yet, virtually all of them who used my system completely turned their marriage around. Why?
I didn’t approach marriage from a psychological paradigm.
Did you go through psychological testing when you got engaged? Of course not! So, why would you focus on the psychology of your relationship, just a small part, when fixing it? It misses the point, as do virtually all the articles based on psychological issues and personal experiences. You need science.
I see marriage as a union of two souls (yes, that IS scientific). We are souls, each an individual consciousness or awareness. We each have a mind and a body, which should be seen as controllable possessions. This is the biggest missing part in our societal thinking. We think we are our minds when in fact we are supposed to be its masters.
Religious explanations aside, we are a consciousness driving around in a body. The mind is a multi-tasked calculator that facilitates thoughts, emotions and subconscious operations. But it is in our soul where we experience love, joy, awareness, and conscious choice.
Your daily thoughts, emotions, words, and actions are almost wholly driven by your body’s needs and desires because you never learned about controlling them. These drive us to achieve “its” goals: consumption of food, relieving itself, attracting a mate for reproduction, acquiring assets or social status for security, etc… does this make sense to you?
But the body doesn’t care that you are married; that you consciously chose to love your spouse forever. It only recognizes them as a means to achieve its selfish goals and will react as negatively as if you were in danger if they appear to threaten those goals. This is the underlying reason of why you have been fighting and getting so emotional over the years.
At The Marriage Foundation, we provide the understanding and methods you need to help you control the negative emotions and motivations driven by your body, and then you can allow your love to flow unhindered. Though we don’t teach from a religious context, we essentially teach you how to identify with your soul rather than your body, so that you can reconnect with your soulmate. It is spiritual, absolutely. And guess what? You are a spiritual being.
It turns out that this approach to marriage is far, far more effective at producing lasting results for couples, religious or not.
What if you are all in but your spouse is “done”? It is quite common in your situation that only you are the one willing to do anything positive or proactive for your marriage, that your spouse is “done”, or may have already moved out. In that case, I recommend you read my article, How To Save Your Marriage, Alone. Our save rate is very high for individuals.
Before going too far down the road toward divorce, there is an explanatory video (42min on Youtube) that I put together and that I would like you to watch. If it resonates with you, then my system will work for you.
Finally, feel free to contact our counselors to get truthful feedback regarding your own situation. It is a service we provide at no cost to you, so please take advantage of it.
No matter what you do next, you and your family have my love and blessings.