Everyone knows weddings can be expensive. But not everyone realizes that ending a marriage can cost nearly as much as starting one — without the happy memories to go with it.
A 2019 Nolo survey found that Americans who paid lawyers to handle all the details of their divorces had spent nearly $13,000 per person on the entire process. That average skews high because of a few really expensive divorces, but even the median (midpoint) cost was $7,500 per person. It’s not the best way to start a new life on your own.
Fortunately, a divorce doesn’t have to be this costly. The couples who spend the most in a divorce are the ones who hire pricey lawyers and spend months duking it out in court over every last detail of the settlement. If you and your ex can reach an agreement quickly, the divorce process is much cheaper, leaving you both with more money to start over again.
Why Divorce Is Expensive
There are many different factors involved in the cost of a divorce. For most couples, by far the most significant expense is attorneys fees. But other fees, such as court fees and expert consulting fees, can also contribute hundreds or even thousands to the cost.
According to Nolo, the average amount paid to a full-scope divorce lawyer was $11,300 in 2019, and the median was $7,000. But attorneys fees varied widely from one divorce to another. How much you pay your divorce lawyer depends on a variety of factors.
The average hourly rate for a divorce attorney in 2019 was $270 nationwide. But many of Nolo’s survey respondents paid much less or much more. About 11% of them said they had paid only $100 per hour to their lawyers, while 20% had paid $400 per hour or more.
Nolo found that hourly rates for lawyers vary considerably by region, with lawyers in cities on the East Coast or West Coast charging the highest rates. More experienced lawyers also cost more. On the plus side, roughly half of family law attorneys offer free initial consultations for new clients.
Divorce lawyers charge their clients for a wide range of activities. These include:
- Legal research
- Preparing and reviewing papers
- Preparing for a court appearance
- Preparing for depositions and discovery (the pretrial phase of a court case in which parties exchange legal information)
- Appearing in court
- Making phone calls, emails, or texts on your behalf.
Hiring an attorney to do only some of these tasks can cut thousands from the total cost of your divorce. For instance, you could ask your lawyer to prepare and review papers but not to make phone calls or send emails.
Probably the most significant factor in the overall cost is whether the case ends up in court. People who settled their divorces out of court paid an average of $10,600. However, this cost jumped to $20,379 for those who went to court on at least one issue, and $23,300 for those who had court disputes over two issues or more.
Disputed divorces also took longer overall. The average total length of a divorce was eight months for couples who settled and 18 months for those who went to court. And the more issues they had to hash out in the courtroom, the longer it took.
As a rule, couples with children spend more time and money on their divorces. Because of issues like custody and child support, these couples are more likely to go to court. In 2019, the average divorce for a couple with children took 15 months and cost a total of $15,500 per person.
A divorce also costs more when it involves alimony, or spousal support payments. The average cost of a divorce without alimony was only $7,800 per partner in 2019, well below the average for all divorces. For divorces with alimony, the average cost per partner was $15,900 — more than twice as much.
Although attorneys fees are the most substantial expense involved in a divorce, they’re certainly not the only ones. On average, divorcing individuals in 2019 spent $1,600 on court costs and fees paid to various experts who either advised them or testified in their divorce trials. Experts who can be involved in a divorce include:
- Real Estate Appraisers: Calculate the value of the couple’s home and other jointly owned properties
- Business Appraisers: Calculate the market value of a business shared by the couple
- Actuaries: Figure out the value of each partner’s other assets
- Vocational Assessors: Calculate what each partner’s earnings are likely to be after the split for purposes of calculating alimony and child support
- Child Custody Evaluators: Determine which parent should have custody of the children if there’s a dispute over custody
- Tax Advisors: Help the couple divide their assets and sort out how their tax situations will look after the split
Lastly, there’s the cost of filing fees — the money charged by the state for filing divorce paperwork. According to Thumbtack, this amount varies by state, from $85 in Wyoming to $435 in California.
If you’ve paid your divorce lawyer a retainer, or flat fee, to represent you, they likely included the divorce filing fees in this cost. But if you pay your lawyer or law firm by the hour, filing fees are a separate cost.
Less Expensive Ways to End a Marriage
The key to keeping your divorce costs low is to stay out of court if you can. In a litigated divorce, a judge has to decide on all the major issues: property division, child custody, spousal support, and child support. Both you and your spouse have to pay lawyers to the tune of thousands of dollars to defend your interests in front of the judge.
By contrast, if the two of you can agree on all the major issues without bringing in a judge, your divorce will require fewer hours of your lawyers’ time and less of your money. And the whole process will be over faster, so you can both move on with your lives.
Couples who agree on all the material issues in their divorce typically spend less money and time on the process. In the Nolo survey, people who said they had no major contested issues spent an average of $4,100 on their divorces — less than half the average for all couples. They also took only eight months to complete the process as opposed to a year for all couples.
In some states, couples with no contested issues can take advantage of a simplified process called an uncontested divorce. Typically, this process is only available to couples with short marriages, no children, and a limited amount of property to split up. In some states, they call this type of divorce a summary dissolution or short-form dissolution.
States that allow uncontested divorces have very specific rules about which couples qualify for them. For instance, couples seeking a summary dissolution in California must meet all of these requirements, according to Lawyers.com:
- The ground for divorce is “irreconcilable differences,” rather than something like adultery or desertion
- They have no minor children, and neither spouse is pregnant
- They have been married less than five years
- They do not own a home or any other real estate
- They have no more than $6,000 in debt, not counting auto loans
- The total value of their shared property (not counting cars) is less than $41,000
- Their separate property (not counting cars) is no more than $41,000
- They have already signed a divorce settlement agreement splitting up all their debts and assets
- Neither spouse is asking for alimony
Few couples can meet all these standards. However, for those who can, an uncontested divorce is a considerable money-saver. The exact process varies from state to state, but in general, couples can complete and file paperwork on their own without the help of a lawyer. In California, this costs just $435 for filing fees — less than one-tenth the cost of a typical divorce.
If you and your spouse have no contested issues, getting a divorce is simply a matter of filling out and filing the right paperwork. In many cases, you can do this yourself without needing to involve an attorney. DIY divorces are a good option for couples who haven’t been married long, don’t have much shared property, and don’t have any history of domestic violence.
If you complete all your paperwork yourself, a divorce can cost as little as $500, according to LegalZoom. However, it’s not a quick or simple process. In a separate article, LegalZoom outlines the steps involved in getting a DIY divorce:
- Learn Where to File. If you’re not sure which court to file for divorce in, ask your county clerk. Also, ensure you meet state residency requirements. Many states offer divorces only to those who have lived there for six months or a year. In a few states, couples can only get a divorce if they’ve lived apart for at least a year.
- Get the Initial Forms. Divorce papers vary from state to state. They may include a summons, petition, or complaint. Many states provide free online DIY divorce papers with instructions. If yours doesn’t, go to your county clerk or divorce court clerk and ask for an “uncontested divorce packet.” Ensure you get the correct forms, as some states have different ones for couples with and without children.
- Fill Out the Forms. Fill out your forms either online or by hand. One piece of information you will probably need to include is the grounds for divorce. States vary on what grounds they will accept for a divorce. For instance, some states allow irreconcilable differences as grounds for divorce only if you have lived apart for six months or a year.
- File the Forms. In some states, you can file divorce forms online. In others, you must sign the documents in the presence of a notary public, make copies for yourself and your spouse, bring all the copies to the county clerk, and pay a filing fee. The clerk can tell you what the legal procedure is for serving divorce papers in your state.
- Serve the Papers. If you file your papers with the county clerk, they will stamp the copies and keep the original. Keep one copy for yourself and arrange to have the other officially served to your spouse. In some states, you can’t deliver the papers yourself. You must use a licensed process server, sheriff, or constable.
- Prepare Your Divorce Settlement. Draw up an official settlement agreement dividing your assets and debt with your spouse. You can do this with or without the help of a lawyer. Both you and your spouse must sign this agreement in the presence of a notary. It will be part of your final divorce papers.
- Fill Out the Remaining Papers. You may have to fill out additional documents, such as a divorce decree or judgment, financial statement, child support worksheet, and notice of hearing or request to put your case on the court calendar. Your DIY divorce packet usually includes all these forms. Most of them need to be notarized.
- Appear in Court. Once your divorce case is on the calendar, the court lets you know when your court date is. Make sure to be at the courthouse on time on the appointed date. In some cases, the judge grants the divorce at the time of this first hearing. In other cases, there are a few hearings.
- Get the Divorce Decree. After the judge grants a divorce, the last step is to get a certified copy of the divorce decree or judgment. You can do this at the county clerk’s office.
Getting a DIY divorce doesn’t mean you have to do everything on your own. You can still hire a lawyer to review the papers for you and to represent you in court. You can also use a service such as LegalZoom to walk you through the process of acquiring and filling out the paperwork. That typically costs a few hundred dollars.
However, companies that assist with DIY divorces aren’t all equally good. Some only provide you with the paperwork and instructions, while others have an attorney or paralegal review papers before you file. The best companies allow you to connect with an attorney from the site and ask legal questions throughout the process.
LegalZoom warns explicitly against companies that offer free divorce papers. They may look like a bargain, but you can’t be sure the documents they’re providing are the right ones. If you file the wrong papers, you have to start again and pay a second filing fee.
In some cases, divorcing couples can’t agree on all the issues right away. They may disagree over child custody and visitation rights, spousal and child support, or how to divide assets and debt. However, that doesn’t mean their only option is to battle it out in court. A cheaper option is to work out these issues outside a courtroom through mediation.
The first step in mediation is to find a qualified family law mediator. This person arranges a series of meetings with both of you to help you work out your issues and come to a mutual agreement. The mediator’s functions include:
- Helping both parties communicate clearly without blame, insults, or misunderstandings
- Laying out the issues that couples need to address
- Helping couples brainstorm solutions to their problems
- Providing access to legal information when needed
- Drafting a divorce agreement, usually with the help of a lawyer
Once you’ve reached an agreement through the mediator, both partners review it, either on their own or with the help of their attorneys. After signing this agreement, all you have to do is take the documents to court to get your divorce judgment. According to Nolo, this final part of the process often takes only a month or two.
Handling your divorce through mediation can be much cheaper than leaving it to your lawyers. In the 2019 Nolo survey, couples who hired mediators spent an average of $970 on mediation costs — less than a tenth as much as a typical couple spent on attorneys fees. Half of all couples who used a mediator said it cost them $500 or less.
A collaborative divorce is a middle ground between traditional divorce and mediation. Instead of hiring a mediator to work with both of you, each of you hires an attorney trained in collaborative law. You and your attorneys hold a series of four-way meetings to negotiate and work out your issues. The goal is to reach an out-of-court settlement all parties are satisfied with.
Like a contested divorce, a collaborative divorce can involve consulting experts, such as accountants, appraisers, and child or family therapists. However, these experts don’t have to appear in court, so their fees aren’t likely to be as high.
One risk of choosing collaborative divorce is that if you and your spouse can’t agree, the attorneys you worked with aren’t allowed to represent you in divorce court proceedings. You have to start over with new lawyers and pay an additional round of legal fees on top of the collaborative divorce fees you’ve already paid.
However, for most couples, collaborative divorce is significantly cheaper than going to court. According to the law firm Zoller Biacsi, the fees for a litigated divorce are typically around 33% higher than those for a collaborative divorce with similar issues.
Hiring a lawyer to handle your divorce doesn’t mean you have to put the entire process in that lawyer’s hands. It can be much cheaper to hire an attorney just for the specific tasks that actually require legal expertise. These include:
- Helping you complete your divorce forms or reviewing forms you’ve already completed
- Preparing for mediation
- Drafting or reviewing a settlement agreement
- Representing you in a court appearance
You can do this by hiring a lawyer on a “consulting” basis — also known as unbundled legal services or limited-scope representation. You handle the routine tasks such as phone and email communication and filling out forms on your own, while your attorney sticks to the job of protecting your rights in the divorce settlement.
In the Nolo survey, only 1 in 10 respondents said they had used this strategy during their divorces. However, those who did saved a considerable sum. On average, they paid only $4,600 in legal fees — around 40% of the average for all respondents. The median payment was even lower: only $3,000, less than half the median amount for all respondents.
Unfortunately, the costs of getting divorced don’t end once you’ve finalized it. When your marriage officially ends, you have a whole new financial challenge to face: living on your own.
In a way, it’s like the experience of moving out of your parents’ house for the first time as a young person. You have to relearn how to do all your own cooking, cleaning, and shopping. You have to close joint financial accounts and adjust your taxes. And of course, you have to create a new budget that covers all the necessities of life on one income.
So once your divorce is over, expect to spend a few months settling back into single life. Be cautious with your money during this time, and avoid making post-divorce money mistakes such as dipping into your retirement savings or indulging heavily in retail therapy. In time, you’ll adjust to your new situation and be able to enjoy the benefits of being single once again.