“How much does a divorce cost?” is one of the first questions we often hear when a woman makes contact with us, while “how long will a divorce take?” is a close second. We wish there were a menu to refer you to, so you could evaluate your choices and pick and choose items à la carte. However, the correct, though immensely unsatisfying answer to both questions is, “It depends.”
That doesn’t mean you should stop investigating your options. It’s important for you to be educated on your choices so you learn what’s possible for your life. The following insights, shared by NYC divorce attorney Orrit Hershkovitz will help you get started on whether your divorce will cost a few thousand dollars or several hundreds of thousands, and whether it will take several months or several years.
So how much DOES a Divorce Cost? That depends upon…
1. The process you select
There are various methods to dissolve a marriage. Mediation, in which a neutral professional (usually a lawyer or mental health professional) facilitates a resolution between the parties, is generally the most economical means of ending a marriage. Participants can be represented by counsel (their own lawyers) throughout the process. Another option is collaborative divorce, a process that requires both parties to agree in advance not to go to court, and to retain new counsel if they do. However, not all couples are suited to mediation or collaborative divorce, particularly if one spouse has not been, or will not be, given access to the financial information and documentation necessary to make an informed decision, or fears for his or her safety or the safety of his or her children. One or both individuals may also prefer not to negotiate directly with the other spouse.
Another option is the more traditional approach: hiring a lawyer to negotiate on your behalf.
Hiring a lawyer does not necessarily mean that you and your spouse are headed to divorce court.
An agreement may be negotiated (as in an uncontested divorce), either directly or through counsel, without ever stepping foot in a courtroom. Litigation (or a contested divorce) though unavoidable in some instances, will often increase a couple’s costs.
In all cases, court fees will be incurred. Such fees will include the cost of filing a divorce action and other paperwork required to obtain a divorce decree, and may include fees for making applications (or “motions”) to the court. In New York, for instance, the current filing fees to obtain a divorce amount to almost $400; the fee to make a motion is $45. Obviously, the longer the litigation continues, the more you can expect to pay for your (and possibly your spouse’s) attorney’s fees. Additional funds may be expended on the service of legal documents (e.g., summonses and subpoenas), transcripts, and the preparation of court orders (e.g., Qualified Domestic Relations Orders necessary to distribute certain retirement assets).
2. The number and complexity of the issues that are contested
Some divorces appear simple from the start. The parties, for instance, may have no children or no substantial assets or debts. Or a divorcing couple may have already discussed and agreed upon a resolution of all issues. Other cases are more complex. Not only may the parties not agree on the issues of parental decision-making and access, but they may also have assets that are not easily divisible (e.g., a work of art, a business), need to be valued (e.g., a house, stock options) or sold. But the nature of the issues themselves is only part of the equation.
Any acrimony between the parties can also delay the resolution of even the simplest issue.
By contrast, the parties’ willingness to compromise and cooperate can facilitate the resolution of even the most complex issue. Thus, as with your choice of process, you and your spouse can control the cost and length of your divorce by choosing whether, when, and how to conciliate in a dispute.
3. The lawyer you hire
The lawyer you select to represent you, and the lawyer your spouse may select to represent him or her, is another significant factor that will affect the length and cost of your divorce. The range of hourly fees charged by lawyers varies widely across the country. Even in large legal markets, hourly rates can range from approximately $250 to $750. Where a lawyer falls on that spectrum usually depends on his or her experience, reputation, and the size of his or her firm. The complexity of the case is more likely to affect a lawyer’s retainer fee, which is an advance payment intended to cover at least the lawyer’s initial work on the case.
Read this for more on how to pay for a divorce attorney.
Equally important as a lawyer’s fees is the fit between you and your lawyer. Your chemistry. You should not only be confident in your lawyer’s abilities, but also comfortable with how he or she is advancing your case. Do you feel protected? Understood? Is your lawyer prompt in responding to your calls and e-mails? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” not only may your choice of lawyer affect the cost and time it takes for you to get divorced, but you may also be dissatisfied with the end result.
If this chemistry issue is starting to sound like a “relationship,” it is. As in any relationship – indeed, as in marriage itself – the compatibility between lawyer and client is critical. Choose wisely.
4. Where you live
How much a divorce will cost tends to correlate with the cost of living in a particular locale. Not only will legal (and especially attorneys’) fees be higher in areas in which it is more expensive to live, but you may also have to pay more child and spousal support. If you live in Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, or other major city, you can expect to pay more than someone living in Hope, Kentucky, for instance.
5. Whether you need experts
If there are substantial assets, you may need an expert to value a business or a pension, or appraise real property or personal property such as art, jewelry, or other collectibles. You may also want to consult with an accountant, financial advisor, or other experts for advice about the potential tax or financial implications of a proposed settlement. If custody is contested, the court may appoint a child custody evaluator to assist the court in making its determination. An attorney for the child or children may also be appointed.
In summary, the decisions that you and your spouse make, and how you conduct yourselves, in the divorce process can, at least to some extent, affect how long your divorce will take and how much it will cost.
Focus on the factors you can control.
Understanding and choosing a process and lawyer wisely as early as possible will help to control your financial and emotional costs. Consider making a free appointment with SAS for Women to learn your next steps, what process might be especially good for you, and for referrals to vetted legal professionals. Or make a list of your questions, your assets and debts, and make an appointment with a divorce attorney who can give you concrete feedback on your unique story.
Orrit Hershkovitz, a partner at Barton LLP, represents individuals in all aspects of family and matrimonial law, including divorce, parental custody and access, child and spousal support, property distribution, relocation, enforcement, and the negotiation of pre-nuptial, post-nuptial, and separation agreements. In addition to her work representing private clients, Orrit is also an active supporter of Sanctuary for Families, a non-profit organization that provides comprehensive services to victims of domestic violence. For more information, call Orrit at (212) 885-8832.