Divorce can be emotionally devastating, but the emotional costs may be nothing compared to the financial ones. First Wives World estimates that the cost of divorce ranges between $10,000 and $20,000, with the average cost coming in right in the middle at about $15,000. Estimates provided by the Huffington Post are a little higher, suggesting that it can cost $15,000 to $30,000 to end a marriage.
While celebrities may be able to afford these exorbitant fees (and, as the celeb divorce rate shows, they frequently do opt for expensive and high-profile divorces), the cost of divorce can place a significant strain on the average family.
Breaking Down the Cost of Divorce
While a variety of different factors can contribute to the cost of a divorce, including payment of court costs, the single biggest expense in a divorce is the fee for legal representation. Fees for divorce lawyers vary wildly, from around $150 per hour to as high as $1,000 per hour. Since even a very simple divorce can take a lawyer several hours to prepare, these high hourly rates quickly add up.
Additionally, you may need to pay experts to testify on your behalf or untangle complications with your marital assets. Some of these experts include:
- Tax advisors
- Forensic accountants (to find out where your spouse is hiding assets)
- Financial experts to value jointly owned businesses
- Medical or psychological experts in abuse cases or to determine fitness in custody disputes
- Vocational experts to assess the earning potential for each spouse for purposes of determining support
It is not uncommon for expert witnesses to charge hundreds of dollars per hour to appear on the stand and testify on your behalf. Expert witnesses also must be paid for prep and research time, as well as for travel time to come to court – and you’re on the hook for their travel expenses too. These costs can also become very high, very quickly – especially in complex divorce cases.
Options to Save Money on Divorce Costs
Although a divorce can cause you to spend your family fortune, it doesn’t necessarily have to. There are alternatives that can help make divorce much less expensive, including:
- DIY divorces
- Flat-fee divorces
- Collaborative divorces
What each of these options have in common is that they allow you to avoid a litigated divorce. A litigated divorce is one where you ask the judge to make a decision on the division of assets and debts, spousal and child support, or custody. As soon as you begin to battle your divorce issues in court, this is when expert witnesses may become involved and when your legal fees and court costs go through the roof.
However, if you explore an alternative to a litigated divorce, you and your spouse can come to a decision on divorce issues without the influence of a judge. The process is less time-consuming so you won’t have to pay for as many hours of your lawyer’s time, and the speed at which things are resolved is up to you.
A DIY divorce is the least expensive method. If you obtain the papers from the court yourself, complete them, and submit them yourself without legal representation or without purchasing prepared “divorce kits,” then your costs are limited to the filing fees. These vary by state.
Of course, what you save in money, you may spend in time. You need to figure out all of the required forms and learn how to complete them properly so you don’t inadvertently delay the proceedings. You also need to resolve every single issue with your spouse yourself regarding assets, support, and custody, and create your own divorce agreement outlining your decision.
If you want a DIY divorce but aren’t sure what forms you need or how to find out, you can purchase a divorce “kit,” a prepared packet of the divorce forms you need in your home state. These are available from a variety of local and online sources, but if you go this route, make sure you actually buy the forms from a licensed attorney. Buying from paralegals or unlicensed “divorce experts” may not be a wise move, as the forms might not be up-to-date or complete. The cost of buying these types of prepared packets of forms varies, but they can usually be obtained for $200 or less.
Remember, when you purchase a prepared packet of divorce forms, you buy the forms only. You do not receive any legal advice or any help from an attorney to make sure they are prepared correctly. This means that it is up to you to prepare the forms correctly and to make sure that you don’t agree to an unfair custody agreement or asset division that you’ll later regret. You also have to pay court filing fees.
Flat-fee divorces are simple divorces offered by attorneys for a flat rate. Typically, when you choose a flat-fee divorce, you and your spouse work with one attorney who takes care of assembling the forms and preparing the court paperwork. Your attorney isn’t going to help you negotiate issues of custody, support, or asset division, and isn’t going to give you legal advice beyond simply helping you with the procedural steps.
Flat-fee divorces are typically offered by attorneys at a relatively low rate. Depending on where you live, attorneys may advertise flat fee divorces for as low as $300 or less (this covers legal fees; court filing fees are normally extra). However, remember that this buys you bare-bones legal representation, and no one is looking out for your rights. This can be a better choice than a completely DIY divorce since at least you know the paperwork is being filled out correctly and that you are following the procedural rules for divorce in your state, but it still leaves it up to you to figure out the terms of your divorce.
Another option is to work with an independent third-party mediator to help you and your spouse come to a divorce settlement agreement. Mediation can be pursued with the help of a lawyer or, in some cases, without the parties having legal representation, although this is not advisable.
Mediation is not a method of filing for divorce, but is a method of avoiding a litigated divorce. If you and your spouse cannot agree on custody, support, how assets and property should be divided, or any other aspect of your divorce settlement, then mediation can be a far preferable alternative to going to court and having a judge make decisions for you.
Mediation helps you and your spouse work out your issues and come to an agreement on your own. You don’t have to present witnesses or make arguments in court, and you don’t need to hire a bunch of experts either. Instead, you come together with your mediator, and your mediator facilitates an open and honest discussion that helps you to agree when you otherwise couldn’t. A mediator does not order either of you to do anything, and doesn’t make decisions for you. If you are both committed to being reasonable and avoiding litigation, having a mediator can be the tool that allows you to do that.
Once you have worked out your settlement agreement with your mediator, you and your spouse or your attorneys can simply go forward with a simple uncontested divorce in court. You have to pay for the cost of the mediator, as well as for court costs, filing fees, and whatever legal fees you incurred during the mediation or when preparing the papers.
In some cases, mediation is ordered by a court (such as in custody disputes), but if you opt for mediation on your own as an alternative to litigation, you can expect to pay around $3,000 to $7,000 for the mediated divorce, including the hourly fees charged by the mediator. Although this seems like a lot, it is far less than the $15,000 to $30,000 average cost of a litigated divorce.
A collaborative divorce is similar to mediation except that you work with an attorney or other professional who specializes in collaborative divorce, rather than working with a mediator. Like mediation, the goal of collaborative divorce is to avoid litigation by getting you and your spouse to agree on the essential issues in the divorce. When you pursue a collaborative divorce, you still have to file for divorce in court and pay filing fees, and you and your spouse still have your own divorce lawyers. However, you should be able to work out your differences much more quickly than in litigation and avoid the costs and legal fees associated with a protracted courtroom battle.
With a collaborative divorce, your collaborative divorce expert helps you and your spouse to communicate openly and honestly and work together to come to an agreement on custody, assets, and support. The more committed you and your spouse are to working together, the less time you have to spend with your attorneys and the collaborative divorce expert. This also makes your divorce less costly. Most estimates suggest that a collaborative divorce costs between 20% and 40% less than a litigated divorce, depending on how cooperative both spouses are.
Mediation and collaborative divorce differ because mediation involves sitting down with a third-party mediator in a room and going over your issues, while collaborative divorce involves each party having his or her own collaborative divorce attorney. The attorneys negotiate in an ongoing process to determine the best possible outcome. Each attorney represents the interests of his or her client, but also works toward a collaborative agreement, rather than working from an adversarial position.
Arbitration is another alternative to a litigated divorce, although it is very different from mediation and collaborative divorce. Unlike either mediation or collaborative divorce, arbitration involves asking a third party (the arbitrator) to make a binding decision about the issues in your divorce. You and your spouse must essentially present much of the same information that would be presented in a litigated divorce, and the arbitrator makes a binding decision that you both have to stick to.
The benefits of arbitration are that the process is often less formal than litigation, and it can take less time for an arbitrator to hear and decide a case than it does for a judge to do so. Again, you still need to hire your own lawyers, and you must pay divorce filing fees – the purpose of arbitration is just to get the issues of property, custody, assets, and support worked out. You are, however, able to keep your personal information from becoming public record, which is not an option when you go to court.
You have to pay a fee for a professional arbitrator in addition to the fees for your lawyers and the court filing. The fee for the arbitrator may be as much as $3,000 to $4,000 per day. Still, since arbitration can be quicker than litigation, you can save greatly when compared to the cost of a litigated divorce.
Ultimately, the more help you seek from professionals, the more you can expect to pay for a divorce. Because of this, it is in your and your spouse’s best interests to try to put aside your differences and come up with a fair divorce agreement. It doesn’t help to fight for a settlement that you wouldn’t get in court anyway, and if you are too stubborn to compromise, you may spend a fortune for a judge to come up with a “fair” agreement that you could have created on your own.
Have you ever gone through a divorce? What method did you use?