What Is the Cost of Divorce?
Celebrity magazines are filled with stories of the rich and famous spending gobs of money to fight their way through an acrimonious divorce. The most expensive and most contentious divorces (we’re looking at your Kayne and Kim) can take years and millions of dollars to settle. Those definitely qualify as the worst divorces. But for the rest of us, how much does a divorce cost?
There really is no typical divorce cost. The cost of divorce varies and will depend on a number of factors. However, the median cost of divorce in the United States (or the middle of the scale) is $7,000. The average cost of divorce is $12,900.
If these numbers seem eye-watering, there are things you can do to save money on your divorce. Let’s look at the biggest factors that affect the cost of divorce and drill down into the price of different types of divorce. We’ll then review how divorce lawyers charge for their services and consider less expensive divorce options.
The Factors That Affect the Cost of Divorce
No two couples and no two divorces are the same. The price of your divorce will be different than the cost of your neighbor’s divorce or your friend’s divorce. That’s because many different factors play a role in how much you’ll pay when you cut the knot with your spouse.
Here are some of the most important factors to consider.
Contested vs. Uncontested
Most likely the biggest impact of how much you’ll pay for your divorce will depend on whether you and your spouse can play nice or whether you choose instead to fight it out.
The best way to keep the cost of your divorce low is through an uncontested divorce, meaning you and your spouse agree on a divorce settlement. You may be filled with feelings of anger, resentment, betrayal, or even hatred toward your spouse, but if you can manage a working relationship, it could save you thousands of dollars or more in the end.
If you and your spouse can’t agree on the major issues of your divorce, you’ll face a contested divorce, which can quickly rocket your divorce costs. In almost every circumstance, a contested divorce cost is significantly higher than an uncontested divorce cost. You may need to hire an attorney, invest in multiple mediation sessions, or even fight your spouse in court.
State of Residence
Your state of residence can also impact the cost of your divorce. Every state has different divorce laws and charges its own filing fees for your divorce paperwork. Some states also require mandatory mediation or counseling sessions before the divorce is finalized, which can add to your overall cost.
The Complexity of Your Marital Estate
If you’ve only been married a few years to your spouse or have relatively few assets, it tends to be easier and quicker to divide your marital estate (all the assets, income, and debt that you share with your spouse).
The longer you’ve been married and the more marital property you possess, the more difficult the property division process can be. Even when couples are willing to work together on the division of property, they may find it challenging to divide assets they’ve collected together for years and decades without running into property division disputes. You may even have trouble determining what is marital property and what is personal property. In some cases, you may need to hire experts to appraise the value of your property, artwork, retirement accounts, stock options, pension plans, and more. Such experts are not cheap.
Typical experts that assist with property division disputes include:
- Forensic accountants
- Certified Divorce Financial Analysts
- Real Estate appraisers
- And More
The bottom line is a more complex marital estate usually equates to a more costly divorce.
Whether You Have Minor Children
If you and your spouse have minor children, the cost of your divorce will likely be higher. That’s because, in addition to dividing your marital estate, you’ll also have to negotiate tricky topics like child support and custody arrangements. In most cases, both parents are required to make financial contributions to their children’s care, which can add up quickly.
Child custody and child support for minor children can be highly emotional topics, and if you can’t agree with your spouse on these topics, you may have to hire a child custody evaluator or even go to court. Court-ordered mediation or counseling for couples with children may be needed in order to determine a fair parenting time schedule and parenting plan. The costs associated with these services depend on where you live and the complexity of the arrangement you decide upon.
Whether Your Spouse Plays Hardball
No divorce is ever entirely smooth, but if your spouse wants to make your life a nightmare, they have plenty of options. If one spouse resists the divorce or simply acts in a vindictive manner, they can turn even a relatively average divorce into a costly mess.
For example, a spouse may be difficult to track down, wasting time and resources. They may try to hide assets or lie about the amount of money in their retirement accounts or what they own. The other spouse may be forced to hire experts, like private detectives and forensic accountants, to even get a clear idea of what their spouse owns.
The spouse may also refuse mediation, forcing the other spouse to go to court to win a favorable ruling from a judge. Oftentimes in these circumstances, a spouse will need to work with a lawyer, which can dramatically increase the cost of a divorce.
Whether You Work With a Divorce Lawyer
Divorce attorneys (also known as family law attorneys) provide many benefits during the divorce process. They can give legal guidance, review paperwork, prepare filings, file motions, or even represent you in court.
However, divorce attorney fees are not cheap. Even the least expensive lawyers tend to charge at least $100 an hour, and a survey from Nolo found that the average hourly rate for a divorce attorney was $270 an hour. Hiring a lawyer can dramatically increase the cost of your divorce, and the more you use them, the higher that cost will be. Later in this article, we’ll dive more deeply into the cost of a divorce attorney.
Your Method of Divorce
You have several different options when it comes to managing your divorce. The choice you make will play a big role in the ultimate price tag of your divorce. The twist is that success often requires that your spouse agrees to the divorce method. The most popular divorce methods are:
- Do-it-yourself divorce
- Online divorce services
- An attorney reviewed divorce
- Collaborative divorce
- Litigation (going to court)
Next up, we’ll look at each of these divorce options in more detail and discuss how much each type of divorce costs.
How You Get Divorced
There can be a HUGE price difference between performing a divorce yourself vs. trying mediation vs. pursuing a collaborative divorce vs. litigation. Let’s take a closer look at each of these options and how much they may cost you.
Average Cost: $925
Yes, you can perform your divorce on your own, which is known as a Pro Se divorce, or divorce without a lawyer. This method is typically the lowest-cost divorce option, as you won’t have to pay any lawyer fees or go to court. You will still have to pay for several things, like
- Divorce filing fees
- Fees for serving papers to your spouse
- Possible printing and postage fees
In most cases, you can download the forms you need for free on your state’s legal website. The average filing fee for states is usually between $100 and $400. Some states offer a fee waiver to couples who can show financial need (requirements vary from state to state).
In general, the cost of a DIY divorce can be $500 or less.
That low cost can make it very tempting to pursue your own divorce but think carefully before trying to go it alone. This option isn’t right for everyone. First, you will most likely need to have a working relationship with your spouse and the two of you will need to be able to agree to a fair division of assets without any legal guidance. A DIY divorce is often easier for couples who haven’t been married long, who don’t have a lot of shared assets, and who don’t have children.
A DIY divorce, if not well-considered, may end up costing you far more in the end. For example, if your spouse convinces you to agree to an unfair separation of assets, you may lose far more money over time than if you had hired an attorney to provide legal guidance and review your paperwork before submitting it to the court.
The Cost of Online Divorce Services
Average Cost: $325 (May include monthly charges)
Looking for a little divorce guidance but can’t afford to hire a family lawyer? You might want to look into online divorce services. These online services offer to help you file your divorce at rates far lower than what a typical lawyer would charge. Some online services merely help you fill out your divorce papers, including your divorce petition and settlement agreement, while others include a review of your divorce forms by an attorney.
Costs for these online services vary, but you can expect to pay $150 to $500 in total on top of the normal filing and paperwork fees from your state. Some of these websites also include memberships and monthly charges, so keep an eye on the fine print.
Be careful when using these websites. Understand exactly what they offer and what they don’t. Check review websites and see if anyone you know has used these services. If you have the funds, it might be better to work directly with a lawyer to get personalized service from someone whose background and credentials you can check.
The Cost of an Attorney-Reviewed Divorce
Average Cost: $4,600
If you aren’t quite prepared to handle a complex legal process like a divorce all on your own, the next step is to bring in professional help. Some family law attorneys will offer a flat fee for simple, uncontested divorces, while others will serve as consulting attorneys for specific tasks. (This is known as limited scope representation.) These services may include filling out your divorce papers, filing motions, or providing guidance on your settlement strategy. Though working with an attorney will increase your costs compared with doing your own divorce or using an online divorce service, the upsides can be profound. You’ll get valuable legal advice and guidance from an expert who can help you draft a divorce settlement that truly benefits you. Your attorney can also help you with important legal services, like drafting and filing your paperwork.
Different attorneys will charge different amounts to perform an uncontested divorce, and their cost will increase for more complicated divorces. You can expect to pay at least a few thousand dollars for this service, though that could be money very well spent.
The Cost of Divorce Mediation
Average cost: $5,500 (You’ll split the cost with your spouse)
Divorce mediation is a popular alternative to traditional divorce and can be much more cost-efficient and time-saving than litigation (i.e. going to court). In divorce mediation, both parties agree to hire a neutral third-party mediator who will guide the conversation and help them reach a mutually beneficial settlement. Mediation is significantly less expensive than a court battle, as it allows couples to avoid costly lawyer fees and court costs.
The cost of divorce mediation varies based on the complexity of the case and the mediator’s experience level. However, in general, private mediation fees range from around $3,000 to $8,000. Keep in mind that you split divorce mediation costs with your spouse, so your final out-of-pocket cost for the process will actually be $1,500 – $4,000.
More recently, many state courts have begun requiring couples to attempt mediation as part of their divorce proceedings before pursuing litigation. In some cases, couples are able to address a number of divorce issues through mediation and then move on to litigation for the areas where they can’t reach a settlement agreement. Even this hybrid mediation-litigation model is often much less expensive than simply starting at the courts.
The cost of mediation can increase if you hire an attorney to assist you. A lawyer may provide legal advice on your strategy before the mediation or attend your mediation sessions. The more time your lawyer spends assisting your mediation process, the more expensive the final price tag of your divorce will be.
The Cost of a Collaborative Divorce
Average Cost: $37,500 (You’ll split the cost with your spouse)
A collaborative divorce is a unique form of alternative dispute resolution that is growing in popularity. Collaborative divorce is for couples looking to pursue an amicable divorce. In this process, each spouse hires a collaborative divorce attorney to represent them and work on their behalf to reach a divorce settlement. Negotiations are conducted outside of court, with the goal of achieving an arrangement that works for both parties without going to trial.
In many cases, couples hire additional experts to assist with the divorce process. These experts can include
- Real estate specialists
- Financial planners
- Family therapists.
The cost of a collaborative divorce can vary widely and will be based on the complexity of your case and the number of experts you hire as part of your collaborative team. Many attorneys who specialize in collaborative divorce will offer a flat fee that covers a specific number of meetings. This fee will usually include drafting and filing your divorce settlement. If you and your spouse need additional meetings above what your fee covers, your costs will go up.
According to Divorce.com, the average cost of a collaborative divorce is between $25,000 and $50,000. This is a hefty price tag, but keep in mind that you and your spouse will split all the divorce expenses. While collaborative divorce is among the more expensive divorce options, it can also lower the stress and animosity of the process, increasing the chances of a successful divorce outcome and allowing you to begin your new chapter in a healthier emotional state. A collaborative divorce can also help keep family relationships intact, which is priceless in its own way.
The Cost of Divorce Litigation
Average Cost: $20,400 (Trial with one contested issue. Note: You don’t split this cost with your spouse!)
A contested divorce is almost always the most expensive path you can take in pursuing a divorce. Contested divorces often land in court. Litigation is a long and expensive process. You will most likely need to hire an experienced divorce lawyer who will charge you a retainer and hourly rate. Litigation is also incredibly time-consuming. It can take weeks or months to get a court date, and you may have to go to court multiple times to iron out specific details of your divorce, like the division of specific assets, child custody, alimony, and child custody payments.
If at all possible, consider litigation to be an option of last resort. Even if you win your case, you may lose out in the end due to the cost and stress of the process.
Couples who choose to go through a traditional court divorce can spend anywhere from $15,000 up to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in litigation costs. This includes lawyer’s fees, court costs, process server fees, and any other expenses related to the process.
Why is divorce litigation so expensive? A huge part of the litigation cost is related to your attorney’s fees. Let’s look more closely at how lawyers charge for handling your divorce.
How Much Do Divorce Lawyers Cost?
Average hourly cost for a family law attorney: $270
One of the biggest expenses related to a divorce will be the fees from your lawyer. As we mentioned earlier in this article, some lawyers are willing to charge a set fee for an uncontested divorce. If your divorce is contested, however, your divorce costs could go through the roof, especially if you use an attorney for many divorce actions.
Hourly Rates for Divorce Lawyers
In the event of a contested divorce, you’ll likely want to seek out a full-scope divorce attorney, which is an attorney who can handle all aspects of your divorce process. Most attorneys charge you an hourly rate for their time. A divorce lawyer’s hourly rate will depend on a variety of factors, including
- Their years of experience and expertise
- The prevailing legal rates in your area
- Your lawyer’s position at their firm (for example, a partner will charge more than an associate)
Hourly rates for full-scope divorce lawyers can range significantly but are typically between $100 to $500 an hour. You are likely to pay less if you work with a more junior-level lawyer and if you live in a rural area. If you choose to work with a more experienced attorney and live in an urban or coastal area, get ready to take out your checkbook. While you may be tempted to hire the cheapest attorney you can find, take a moment to reconsider. An experienced attorney may charge more for their time, but they could also end up saving you money in the long run. An experienced divorce attorney will likely be able to work more efficiently than a newer attorney and may help you ultimately achieve a better divorce decree.
It’s important to understand that your lawyer will charge you for all their work related to your case. This includes things like
- Talking to you on the phone
- Reading and writing emails
- Reviewing paperwork
- Document preparation
- Performing discovery
- Doing legal research
- Spending time at court
Your lawyer will even charge you for time waiting for your case to be called in court. As you can see, your attorney fees can grow quickly. The more you use your lawyer, the more you’ll pay. Pursuing litigation often adds significantly to your legal costs and increases the time it takes to reach a divorce agreement.
Take care in how you use your divorce attorney. They are not your therapist. It can also be easy to hand the reins of your divorce over to your attorney. However, a lawyer-driven divorce often leads to an extremely high divorce bill.
Additional Legal Fees
Your lawyer won’t just charge you for their time. They will also pass on any additional costs they incur while working on your case. The largest fees are often used for hiring experts and specialists, such as
- Process server
- Private investigator
- Forensic accountant
- Accountant for property and asset division
- Appraiser (who can perform property or asset appraisal)
- Psychologist (who may perform psychiatric evaluations)
- Child custody expert (to perform child custody evaluations)
- Business accountant (if you own a family business)
Here’s another example. If your spouse is hiding assets, your lawyer may suggest hiring a private detective or forensic accountant. Your divorce attorney may also recommend hiring expert witnesses to support your case in court.
Smaller fees can include
- Printing costs
- Making copies of documents
- Delivery fees
Many experienced divorce attorneys will request that you pay a retainer as part of your contract to work with them. A retainer is an upfront payment that covers attorney fees for a certain amount of their time. If the attorney works through their retainer, they will begin billing you for their additional time.
The cost of a retainer will depend on your lawyer’s hourly rate as well as their estimate of the amount of time needed to work on your case.
Many (but not all) lawyers offer a free consultation. If you think you might need legal help for your divorce, it’s a good idea to take advantage of a free consultation. This will allow you to meet with an attorney, explain your situation, receive legal feedback, and learn about the attorney’s experience in divorce. This is also a good chance to get a feel for an attorney’s personality, style, and their recommendations on your divorce.
Come as prepared as possible to your consultation as possible. The more details you can provide an attorney, the better advice they can give.
Legal Payment Plans
Hiring an attorney to assist you with your divorce can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees. Many people don’t have this kind of money lying around, especially when separating from a spouse.
Divorce attorneys know this, which is why many law firms offer payment plans. Keep in mind that a payment plan merely means you’ll pay your lawyer’s fees over a longer period of time. You’ll still need to pay the full amount, so use your lawyer’s time wisely.
Pro Bono Legal Representation in a Divorce
Divorce can be incredibly expensive even without hiring a lawyer. If you worry about affording legal help, you may have other options. Certain law firms and legal aid organizations provide pro bono or free legal assistance to those in need of financial assistance. Some organizations also specialize in helping individuals who are escaping abusive marriages.
You’ll need to search your local area to see if any of these organizations operate near you. You can start by reaching out to your local bar association. They may know if any law firms have pro bono programs that you can apply for. Another option is to reach out to local law schools in your area. Many law schools run legal clinics where you can get help from law students.
It’ll take a little digging, but you may be able to save a significant amount of money on your divorce with pro bono legal help.
Don’t Forget About All the Soft Costs of a Divorce
When you begin considering a divorce, it’s easy to focus on the cost of the divorce itself as well as the cost of splitting your marital assets with your spouse. Dividing your estate will certainly be a large financial hit, but don’t overlook the other financial impacts of divorce. These are known as the soft costs of a divorce. These are the costs you’ll need to pay during the divorce process and as you begin establishing the next chapter of your life after divorce.
Soft costs can include
- A down payment for a new home
- First month’s and last month’s rent for an apartment
- Moving costs
- Insurance costs if you were on your spouse’s policy
- The cost to replace the things your spouse got in the divorce
- Utilities (which you may have previously split)
You may also find you need to pay alimony (also called spousal maintenance) and child support to your ex-spouse. Keeping these costs in mind can help you make smarter decisions as you begin your divorce process. Even if you want to punish your spouse or feel tempted to go to court, knowing all the soft costs in your future may help convince you to attempt mediation or even a collaborative divorce first.
The Final Cost of Your Divorce
The average divorce cost in the United States may be $12,900, but the cost of your divorce will ultimately depend on you, your spouse, and your individual circumstances. Hopefully, this article helped you understand the different factors that affect the cost of divorce and showed you how different divorce strategies play into the final price tag of your divorce. You should now also have an understanding of how much divorce attorneys charge and how hiring an attorney can affect the cost of your divorce.
Want more information on the cost of your divorce? To get more personalized information based on your circumstances, consider requesting a free consultation with a divorce attorney near you. Another option is to attend a Second Saturday Divorce Workshop in your area.
Each Second Saturday Workshop brings in local divorce professionals, such as divorce attorneys, financial experts, and therapists. These specialists can give you more information, including state-specific information, and answer any questions you may have about the impact of divorce. Many of them also offer free consultations or other special bonuses for workshop attendees. The goal of Second Saturday is to help you make a better-informed decision on whether marital dissolution is the right choice for you. Search for a Second Saturday Divorce Workshop near you.