Deciding to end a marriage is never easy or simple, but one of the major considerations beyond the emotional and societal relationship's ending is the cost. In some cases, legal fees are the greatest expense in a divorce. As with most expenses, planning can save money.
How Much Does a Divorce Cost on Average?
The national average cost of divorce is about $15,000 per person. The cost includes attorneys' fees, court costs, and the cost of hiring outside experts like a tax adviser, child custody evaluator, or real estate appraiser.
The time involved is what often determines the cost. For instance, the average divorce takes between four months and 11 months. And if a trial is necessary, it can take more than a year.
What Factors Impact the Cost Of Divorce?
Just like whether to divorce or not, the average cost is not an easy question to answer. The costs depend on a variety of factors - whether or not you or your spouse agree on specific things, and if you or your spouse require or want to use an attorney.
Factors affecting the average cost include:
- If the divorce is contested or uncontested
- The hourly rate of lawyers versus a retainer fee
- The location where the divorce is being filed, and the local filing fees
- Child custody
- Child custody evaluation
One of the first things to realize is that a divorce is, technically, a lawsuit. When one spouse files a divorce, they are suing for divorce.
What if the Agreement Is Mutual?
The more factors or issues are unresolved by the person filing for divorce and the other party, such as custody or care of children or maintenance of the property, or other shared assets such as investments, pensions, financial support, the more likely it is to cost the person filing for divorce. The more major issues resolved by both parties, the less it is likely to cost.
If you and your spouse agree on major issues, regardless of how many there are, you can file an uncontested divorce - the least expensive - which could cost you even under $500 if you write and file your divorce papers. All states charge their fees for filing for divorce, even an uncontested filing, so a precise cost isn't predictable. Some states also will grant the filer a waiver on the filing fees based on income. For an uncontested divorce, if the state where you file has a mandatory waiting period, once that period is up the divorce decree is final. An uncontested divorce is the least expensive, and the most straightforward because no lawyers or mediators are needed to help both parties agree to the terms.
The Average Cost of a Divorce Without a Lawyer
The minimum charge on divorce is the filing fee. Filing fees can range from around $70, the lowest, in Wyoming, to $435 in California. If you're using a lawyer, these fees are usually part of the lawyer's retainer.
Very few couples can agree on, identity, and amicably split assets in a divorce without a lawyer. If you don't have children, have few assets - if you entered the marriage owning your cars and rented your home, for instance - and agree no spousal support is required of either party because, perhaps, the marriage was short, you can do it yourself online.
At least one person in a couple will have to file a legal petition for dissolution of marriage with the clerk of a local county court. As noted, each court charges a filing fee. The average is $300 but can be closer to $500 in some states, like California.
When you file a divorce petition, you also need to serve the case, or papers, to your spouse. In the case of a divorce, the papers can be served either in person or by mail. In the case of an online, "do-it-yourself" divorce, the person who first filed the petition with the court usually submits the petition and a summons to the local sheriff's department for the papers to be served by law enforcement personnel or arranges for a private process server to deliver the petition - a signature from the other party indicating they either agree to the terms or wish to contest it. A private process server to serve divorce papers usually costs about $50.
Some states, like California, provide resources online for filing for divorce, including forms for responding to a divorce filing. State websites sometimes even include resources for filing online for an annulment, requesting support, or to change or end order for spousal or child support.
The Average Cost of a Divorce With a Lawyer
If there are significant assets to divide, or child custody, child support or alimony to decide, both parties usually benefit by hiring their attorney.
Using a lawyer, of course, increases the cost for either party. With a lawyer, your divorce could cost you a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on how much time of the lawyer you are billed. Lawyer fees, billed by the hour, can range from several hundred dollars an hour to more than $500. For some lawyers, a 15-minute consulting phone call, or email, could cost you half a billable hour. And a half-hour could cost you a billable hour. Lawyers charge for phone calls, emails, text messages, court preparation, depositions (questioning others on the record), discovery (getting information from your spouse's lawyer related to your case), paper preparation and review, and research.
Lawyers charge an average of about $1,000 for an uncontested divorce. In states with a higher standard of living, such as California or New York, lawyers can charge an average of $3,500-$5,000 to help you complete an uncontested divorce. A contested divorce -- in which major issues like division of assets and child custody or support, or even actually divorcing, can't be agreed on -- can cost from an average $2,500 up to several thousand dollars or more. In a contested divorce, the issues may ultimately have to be hashed out in front of a judge. A divorce that has to go to trial can cost couples as much as $20,000 on average to complete, with at least $15,000 going to attorneys' fees, according to some lawyers. Settling a case out of court can cost closer to $15,000.
Most lawyers charge a flat fee or retainer to help with a divorce, but in general family law attorneys charge an average between $150-$250 per hour, though some might charge as much as $650 or more an hour to help clients through a complicated or difficult divorce, like one in which couples have their businesses or other more complex shared assets. A retainer should cover most of the court fees, filing fees, and the lawyers' time to meet in person, correspond with you by email or phone or text, and appear at court hearings or other proceedings in person.
A contested divorce with children requiring lawyers to help work out custody details will cost more because of the lawyer's time involved than an uncontested one. Generally, the more time a child spends with one parent, the less in child support that a parent has to pay. But in a contested divorce where no agreement can be reached on child custody or a schedule, the court can require a child custody evaluation be done by a trained psychologist who interviews each parent. The psychologist also talks to the kids and observes the kids at home with each parent. If the child custody evaluator works for the county, the evaluation will cost an average of $1,000-$2,500. If a private evaluator is used, the charge might be $10,000 or more.
Alimony determination can also take a lot of time and increase the cost to the couple.
You can cut costs by using a lawyer for only part of your case: also called 'limited scope representation.' You could have your lawyer just review documents, or negotiate with your lawyer what you will or won't pay for, such as agreeing to use the lawyer to prepare and review documents but not to charge you for phone calls or emails.
A hearing or trial will also naturally increase your costs. Trials sometimes incur costs to you for several expert witnesses, and the cost of going to trail alone often results in divorce cases being settled out of court. For that reason, family law judges in most states assigned to contested divorce cases require couples to do everything they can to reach a settlement agreement and avoid a trial, because a trial costs not only the couple divorcing but also the city and state where the divorce is proceeding.
If children are involved, yours together or even separately, costs increase with agreements having to be reached or adjudicated regarding child support, custody, and visitation.
Without such issues, a divorce between two people in the agreement can save both parties' expense. That is why an uncontested divorce is the least expensive.
If you and your spouse agree on the major issues of the divorce, you can write your agreement. Your only cost then would be filing fees, serving papers, and the cost of divorce papers themselves if you get them online. Online companies will charge for preparing divorce papers, but they may also have lawyers review them for you. Some courts will give you a divorce packet for free; some states will have them available for free on their website as well.
Besides an uncontested divorce, a way to save money and avoid a trial would be to use the mediation of a collaborative divorce.
In mediation, you and your spouse avoid trial be mediating with a neutral third party, a mediator.
Because it involves a third party, usually a professional mediator, attorney-mediator, or former commissioner or judge, mediation can still wind up costing between a few thousand and $10,000, on average, depending on how long the mediation takes and how much is involved. Mediation usually costs an average of $100-$300 an hour.
Even a collaborative divorce is cheaper than going to trial. In a collaborative divorce, both parties retain attorneys. You, your spouse, and your attorneys meet to hash out contested parts of the divorce. If you and your spouse ultimately reach agreements, while the attorneys will be an expense, the cost of litigation will be saved.