It’s easy to think of filing for divorce as some sort of ending, but while it may be the official end of a relationship, it’s really just the beginning of a long — and for many people, extremely annoying! — process.
You often hear about people losing their house or their fancy things when they end up dividing the assets. Thing is, though, sometimes those things are sold off just to pay for the divorce itself. So how much does the process cost? Alongside Bruce Beals, a family law attorney of 43 years in San Diego, who’s handled cases big and small, representing famous names and Average Joes, we’re going to try and figure it out.
Before we begin, let’s be clear though: We’re speaking broadly here. No two divorces are alike — far from it, in fact. “Each one is unique, and therein lies the issue about cost,” says Beals.
Why do some divorces cost more than others?
There are several different ways to get divorced — the typical route, where each spouse lawyers up, is just one of many (more on them in a bit) — but mostly it’s to do with the complexity of the case.
Well, let’s start with those different routes of handling a divorce. What are the options?
Your cheapest option is actually free: Some states, like California, offer self-help programs, called a facilitator’s office. It’s funded by the state and staffed with real attorneys. They help you with the paperwork and assist you in filing it. It’s generally used by low-income people, but it’s available to anyone. As you can imagine, it’s best for divorces that are straightforward, without much haggling needed.
Then there’s mediation, where the divorcing couple hires a lawyer who helps mediate their case. The appointed lawyer sits down with both people, and if either spouse has an attorney representing them, the mediator will consult with the attorneys. The mediator processes all the paperwork for you as well. Beals says the price varies, but starts at around $3,500.
Next there’s a hybrid between mediation and litigation, called collaborative divorce, where each spouse has a lawyer, but there’s also a mediator and a panel of specialists involved (for example, if children are involved, this arrangement will include a child psychologist). As you might expect from this description, collaborative divorce is expensive! Sometimes, Beals says, more expensive than if the parties had gotten it resolved in court (it’s — surprise! — mostly for wealthy people). So why on earth would someone want to go this route? “It’s a way of keeping tensions down because they’re not in court,” says Beals. “Anytime you’ve got court proceedings, take the tension and multiply it by a hundred.” It’s just nerve-racking, his clients tell him, so collaborative divorce is a way to minimize this.
Finally, there’s traditional representation, where each party gets a lawyer and things can either get resolved, or they can get messy and drag the hell out. That’s all to say that costs vary wildly — Beals has seen cases where attorney fees on both sides were $800,000 each.
Sheesh — what’s that about?
When Beals says “complexity,” what he means is the level of hostility. Meaning, both parties might be working together and are on the same page — or the opposite. Take, for example, a divorce in which one party wants to keep the home or the business. For this, you’ll need to get it appraised. Now, the spouses can either work with one appraiser, or they can each hire their own, in which case the dueling appraisers might come out with different numbers, and then it’s left to the attorneys to resolve this (and probably many other disputes). A more acrimonious divorce will obviously use more resources, take more time and dispute more things. And that means it’ll cost each spouse more money.
That’s because attorneys bill by the hour, right?
Actually, no — they bill by the tenth of an hour.
And what can they actually bill for?
Everything. Every single phone call. Every single email. Every single letter written. Every single court appearance. Attorney fees vary, but in a big city, an attorney’s rate can range from $250 to $500 per hour. Do the math! It’s not pretty.
How would I pay my attorney?
They usually ask for a retainer up front, to cover out-of-pocket costs like paperwork and court filings. Retainers start at around $3,500, though some are $10,000 and on up, depending — again — on the complexity of the case. Beals says the standard retainer at his firm for a run-of-the-mill case is $5,000.
After the retainer, how do you pay for an attorney’s hourly rate?
By law, lawyers are required to send out an invoice every month, itemizing by the penny (and by the tenth of an hour) all their activity on your behalf. Most attorneys demand that the bill be kept current, otherwise they’ll walk away. So think of it as another (probably huge) monthly bill! Some lawyers might work out some kind of payment plan of installments, or let it ride in hopes that they’ll get paid based on the sale of your home (or speedboat, or whatever). It’s all down to the attorney.
So… I wouldn’t be getting off cheaply, huh?
Nope. Unless you do this through the self-divorce route or represent yourself in court, you’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars. Some sources around the internet suggest (bearing in mind that, as we may possibly have mentioned, divorces vary wildly) $15,000 to $30,000 combined. Though, if it goes to court, it might run north of $100,000 total for both parties.
So: Do you think you can play nice with your soon-to-be-ex-spouse? Or would it be more like a knife fight? If it’s the latter, be prepared to pay bigly. Because if you think marriage is expensive, divorce is really gonna cost you.