Ballpark Estimate: $15,000 to $30,000+
When you exchanged marriage vows with your spouse and promised to love, honor and care for him or her till death do you part, the last thing that was probably on your mind was the fact that over time, your relationship could fall apart. Yet close to half of all marriages in the United States today end in divorce.
When a Relationship Fails
When a couple goes through a divorce, the results can be financially, physically and emotionally overwhelming. This is because you are not only giving up your dreams of growing old together, but you are also dividing your assets, taking on the expenses of two households instead of one and probably hiring a lawyer (or two) to help you hash out the details of your legal parting. In addition to draining your wallet, the stress that comes along with these changes can take its toll on your health and your mind-set. Therefore, it can help to educate yourself about your options and take control of the process.
Dividing Your Assets
Divorce is more than just a dissolving of your partnership. If you’ve been married for a while, you and your spouse also will likely have a variety of joint assets that will have to be fairly divided up when you part ways. This can include a house, cars, furniture, electronics, investments and savings accounts. If you have children together, the stakes get higher as you iron out who gets child custody. You will also need to work out visitation rights and child support payments. Further, if one person is the primary breadwinner, he or she may also be required to make alimony payments to help cover some of the spouse’s living expenses.
What You Should Know
Do you need to hire a lawyer? If you have no children, few assets and anticipate that an amicable divorce is likely, you might be able to work with your partner to decide the fine details of the arrangements and avoid legal representation entirely, or at least keep it to a minimum. This will save you considerable time, expense and stress. But in the real world, often couples getting a divorce simply cannot work together to end their partnership. They need the help of an expert to protect their best interests and help them come to some important decisions. If this is true in your case, you will want to find a lawyer who specializes in divorce proceedings. You can ask family, friends and colleagues for recommendations, or you can do a search online to find one in your area. You can also check with The American Bar Association or The American Association of Matrimonial Attorneys’ online directory to find someone to represent your case.
Before you meet with a lawyer, it is usually wise to have some clear ideas of your goals, objectives and plans. This information can help guide your discussions and make the best use of limited time. It also helps to have your financial information organized so you can present all of the facts up front.
Always remember that lawyers are in business to make money, not just to help you. Therefore, every minute of conversation you spend with your lawyer (in person and over the phone) may be added into your total bill. With this in mind, it is essential to use these billable hours wisely. Most experts recommend that if you need to talk to someone about your failed marriage and rehash some of the details, reach out to family and friends or a therapist for this and save your lawyer’s time for representing your best interests.
It is also usually advisable to ask your lawyer up front for an estimate of what you can expect to spend on your divorce. This will help you to budget accordingly. But keep in mind that if your divorce process gets more complicated as you go along, the price can change accordingly, since most lawyers charge by the hour rather than by a set fee. You may also want to ask the lawyer what other costs, in addition to his or her rate, might be involved and also what the anticipated timeframe is for completion of your case. All of these things need to be factored in as you move along in the process of legally ending your marriage.
Ways to Avoid Court
From do-it-yourself settlements to drawn out court cases, every divorce situation is different. If you and your spouse need some legal representation to help you finalize an agreement but want to avoid your case going to court, you might want to consider divorce mediation. This process occurs with the guidance of a trained mediator (who might be a lawyer but doesn’t have to be) who helps the couple come up with a settlement they can both live with. The mediator must remain neutral and can’t advocate for either party’s personal interests but must find some common ground. This can be a great option but requires flexibility from both people and the ability to put emotions aside to work toward a practical resolution. While this can be challenging for couples who are warring, it also can be well worth it in the end, since it eliminates the need to hire two separate professionals to represent the couple, thereby reducing the total number of billable hours involved.
Another cost-effective alternative is collaborative divorce, which is a relatively new concept that takes a similar approach to bring a husband and wife together with their lawyers to work jointly on an agreement. Both parties must be willing to commit to keep their case out of court. The lawyers who lead the process are usually trained in helping the spouses to reduce animosity. In some instances, this has been so effective that the husband and wife have ended up reconciling.
What It Will Cost
If you plan to hire legal representation and have some details to iron out, you should know that you may have to invest quite a lot to make your divorce final. Most lawyers charge between $100 and $400 an hour for their work. And in the world of divorce, these hours can quickly add up. In fact, experts say that the total average cost of ending a marriage in the United States can fall in the range of $15,000 and $30,000. But this is just a middle of the road estimate. You can also spend a lot less, or a lot more, depending on what you have and need to work out, how angry you and/or your spouse both are, and the lawyer’s rate, approach and style.
For instance, if you and your spouse will have an uncomplicated divorce and think you can work together, you may want to go for the less expensive, and probably quicker, do-it-yourself divorce. You can do a search online to get the paperwork you will need, or you can purchase a divorce kit from various websites for between $25 and $150. This is an easy and cost-effective strategy. The kits generally include all of the legal forms you will need for the process. Just keep in mind that the laws vary by state, so you will want to be sure that you select a kit that is applicable where you live.
If do-it-yourself isn’t for you and you need someone to help you both agree on the fine points, then you might consider hiring a mediator to bridge your differences. This can cost about $5,000 or even less, depending on what’s involved in your settlement. A collaborative divorce involves hiring two lawyers (one for each of you), so it can be a little more expensive than using one mediator but is still significantly cheaper than a traditional divorce. Figure about $6,000 to $10,000 for this process from start to finish.
But if you and your spouse can’t even be in the same room to talk things out, you may find you cannot avoid having to go to court to hash things out with the help of your lawyers. This is usually the most expensive route, so it requires more of your lawyer’s time and also incurs court fees as well. A long, drawn out court case can cost as much as $100,000 or more from start to finish.
The Bottom Line: The average cost of a divorce is between $15,000 and $30,000 but you can also spend as little as $25 (plus filing fees) for a do-it-yourself divorce or as much as $100,000 for a long, complicated court battle.
In addition to paying for your lawyer, there are other costs you will need to consider. This includes: filing in court, serving papers and sending subpoenas, paying for expert testimony, investigators and a mediator. If your case makes it to court, you will also need to pay for preparing witnesses and other court-related costs. Keep in mind that all of these expenses can vary depending on where you live.
You should also know that most lawyers will ask you to pay a retainer for their services. This means that they ask for a specified sum of money up front and they will deduct the cost of the time you use from this amount. So if you give a $10,000 retainer and your lawyer charges $100 an hour, your deposit will cover 100 hours of his or her time and when that runs out, you will need to put more in to cover your tab. But always ask if you will get the balance back if you don’t use the full amount, since there are different ways of handling this situation.