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How Much a Divorce Costs and How to Pay for It
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Divorce can be more than just emotionally draining; it can also affect your financial situation.
A variety of factors come into play when it comes to estimating the cost of a divorce, from your location to court fees and the cost of your divorce lawyer.
Here’s what to consider when facing divorce:
- How much does a divorce cost?
- 5 factors that can affect the cost of your divorce
- 3 ways to lower the cost of a divorce
- 3 ways to pay for a divorce
How much does a divorce cost?
A recent Nolo nationwide divorce survey found the average total cost of a divorce is approximately $15,500, including $12,800 in attorney’s fees. The study also found that couples who were unable to resolve legal issues like child custody, child support, alimony and property division and went to trial saw their average jump to $19,600 in total costs, including $15,800 in attorney’s fees.
Keep in mind that these costs do not take into account any future costs associated with litigated divorces. Partners who don’t feel they received a favorable result the first time around often find themselves back in the courtroom.
“Spouses tend to feel that they did not achieve the results they were seeking in a court divorce, which means they often return to court to either appeal or amend the agreement or decision that was reached,” said Melissa Fecak, an attorney at South Jersey Divorce Solutions in Merchantville, N.J., who has practiced family law for almost two decades. “Each time they return to court, it may cost them another $2,500-$10,000.”
5 factors that can affect the cost of your divorce
Divorce laws vary from state to state. Some requirements vary widely regarding who pays for what and how the court divides assets.
“Location does matter, particularly when it comes to property division,” Erin Levine, a certified family law specialist for the Levine Family Law Group in Emeryville, Calif., said. “In California, where the average cost of a home is 2.5 times the national average, there’s often a lot of money at stake.” (California wasn’t even among the 13 most expensive states in a July 2019 study by LendingTree.)
2. Divorce lawyer costs
The typical fee people pay their divorce attorney is $250 per hour, though the costs can rise as high as $650, according to Nolo, a publisher based in Berkeley, Calif., that produces DIY legal books and software.
“Law firms charge clients for every minute of time spent on their case, including in-person or phone meetings, filing paperwork, keeping tabs on court deadlines and sending updates to the clients on next steps involved with their cases,” Levine said.
Typically, couples who can resolve major issues early on tend to incur fewer costs during a divorce. You may be able to file an uncontested divorce which can cost as little as $200 to $1,500, even when using a lawyer. However, nasty splits can lead to more expenses.
“In my experience, the more contentious a divorce is, the more expensive the overall divorce will be,” said Levine.
4. Court costs
One of the most basic divorce expenses are court fees. These vary from state to state and can range from less than $100 to over $400. Some may also charge you to file documents with the court throughout the divorce process.
Currently, California has the highest average divorce filing fee ($435). South Dakota has one of the lowest average divorce filing fees ($95) along with one of the lowest minimum processing times (60 days).
5. Cost of experts
“Many couples wisely seek outside help from divorce financial experts to help navigate property division and to help ensure they are set up on solid financial footing,” said Levine.
You may also need to hire a child psychologist to perform a custody evaluation when children are involved — even if the divorce is amicable. Custody evaluations usually include tests, interviews and observations and range from $1,500 to $6,000.
When all is said and done, the grand total can swiftly reach five figures.
6. Cost of a divorce lawyer
Regardless of location and how you get along with your soon-to-be ex-spouse, one of the biggest expenses involved with a divorce is paying for an attorney. What some couples don’t realize, however, is that not all divorces require a lawyer.
Spouses who are in sync about what they want for their family may be able to negotiate a divorce settlement on their own. Those who are able to have civil discussions about asset division, alimony and child custody can make the process much smoother.
Tara Eisenhard, a divorce coach and author of “The D-Word: Divorce Through a Child’s Eyes,” preaches communication to make life easier for everyone involved: “The more a couple can talk to each other, the less they will pay,” she said. “Couples who work out their own terms in a ‘kitchen table’ style will save tens of thousands of dollars over those who litigate.”
However, not everyone gets to enjoy an easy settlement process. Hiring an attorney can help both parties overcome any impasses during negotiations.
Grace Roessler, a family law attorney for the Boston-based firm, Mirick, O’Connell, DeMallie & Lougee, noted some of the costs associated with divorce, such as run-of-the-mill charges like for client meetings and court time. Less-obvious costs include requesting and reviewing documentation, taking an opposing party’s deposition and preparing for the hearings and trials.
Unexpected events and roadblocks during negotiations requiring your lawyer’s attention can also rack up the bill. Instances where a spouse files a restraining order during litigation or calls the Department of Children and Families to investigate can prolong the divorce process.
3 ways to lower the cost of a divorce
1. Negotiate terms before filing
Along with handling the process on their own, there are a few ways couples can lower the overall costs of their divorce. Negotiating ahead of time is one of them.
Spouses who can sit down and discuss the terms of their divorce before filing can slash the amount of time and money the process takes. “The less they have to resolve after the paperwork is filed, the shorter the process will be,” said Steven Fernandez, a certified family law specialist and managing partner of Fernandez & Karney, APLC, in Santa Monica, Calif.
2. Get a prenup or postnup
Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements are private agreements between two partners. “When executed properly, they can allow spouses to sidestep state divorce laws and dictate how their divorce will unfold,” said Fernandez. “Since the terms of a divorce, at least in regard to property division, are already set in stone, there’s no need to spend time on those issues later.”
Mediation is where a couple meets with a third party who can help each spouse find middle ground during the discussions and help him or her make decisions.
“If it can help spouses find common ground and resolve issues, it could save time,” said Fernandez. “Again, the less time it takes to finalize a divorce, the less expensive it will be.”
3 ways to pay for a divorce
1. Take out a loan
“Most law firms require a retainer of $3,000 to $10,000 to get started on a case,” said Levine. While that may sound daunting, your have a few options for pay for a divorce. A loan is one of them.
A personal loan can allow you to hire a lawyer without saddling yourself with added debt from a high-interest credit card. You’ll need a solid credit score to qualify for your best interest rates. (You can read up on the qualifications for a loan here.) Take the time to research and compare interest rates, origination fees and repayment terms before committing to a lender.
2. Negotiate with your lawyer
Your lawyer may allow you to set up a payment plan or negotiate a lower retainer fee if you have a preexisting relationship with him or her.
“I usually request lower retainers from repeat clients who have paid their bills in full in the past and with whom I have a good working relationship,” said Roessler.
Be sure to discuss payment amounts and due dates and find out if you’ll owe interest, and how much, before agreeing to a payment plan.
3. Borrow from family or friends
Having someone you love provide financial help may be a fast and simple solution. Always communicate with them the potential costs and how much they’re comfortable letting you borrow. Write down and sign the agreement to ensure there are no arguments going forward.
Divorce is never fun, but it doesn’t have to be agonizing. Longer cases with greater animosity usually lead to more unhappiness and less money. Keeping open lines of communication and finding ways to streamline the divorce process can help all parties adjust and move forward without financial hardship.