Divorce is expensive – emotionally and financially. One of the single biggest variables in the equation is the amount spent on legal fees – your lawyer. How much you spend on your legal champion can make a huge difference in the final cost of your divorce. Choosing a lawyer can be the most important financial decision you ever make.
It’s a given that “price isn’t everything” and sometimes you get what you pay for. So – what’s this going to cost? Bear in mind that while you may see advertisements for lawyers offering “flat fee” divorces, most lawyers have both a fixed retainer and a fixed hourly rate. The retainer fee is typically $3,000 to $10,000 and is an upfront check you write to your lawyer to book them (retain their services). Think of it as a pile of non-refundable money you hand over as payment in advance for the lawyer’s services. Then, there’s the hourly fee – typically $200 to $1000 an hour – billed in increments of as little as 5-10 minutes. That’s the meter running – the rate the pile of money will burn down at, starting with the balance of your retainer fee and billed monthly after that. So whether it’s a flat fee or a retainer fee – you’re still paying by the hour. That low “flat fee” quote may just be a teaser baseline figure that assumes you won’t need anything more than completion and filing of court documents. Anything above and beyond that though? That takes time. And of course time is money!
So how much time are you likely to need? Before you begin your search, you need to assess your situation honestly and decide what level of legal help you’re likely to need for your divorce. There’s a direct correlation between the amount of conflict between the two parties, and the time (and therefore expense) necessary to resolve it. The average cost of divorce legal fees in the US is widely quoted at $15,000. But no two divorces are the same. The spectrum ranges widely, and the costs escalate accordingly depending on how complicated you make it:
- Uncontested Divorce – if you’re fortunate enough to be in complete agreement with your spouse on all the core terms of a divorce (property division, children, spousal maintenance, etc.) then you might be able to keep your legal costs at a bare minimum. Here’s where a flat fee attorney might be all you need – someone who can ask the right questions, guide you through the forms (even have you partially complete them yourself to save costs), and get things done with no debate. It’s even possible in situations like this to get away with sharing one attorney. You could also look at online services like WeVorce that promise to handle the process without even requiring you to visit in person. If your divorce is a simple case of “we agree on everything, we just need it in writing and signed by a judge” – you can save a fortune on legal fees. You can get away with a less expensive attorney (because the required skills and experience levels are lower) and the meter doesn’t run as long. You could theoretically be done in 1-3 months, and get away with a sub-$1000 legal bill!!! In theory…
- Collaborative Divorce – if your situation has more unknowns or is more complex (more assets to divide, children to consider, spousal maintenance / alimony) you might not feel comfortable with a quickie divorce with rubber stamping of the basic forms. You probably want a more experienced lawyer at this stage – and those folks charge more money. But if (and it’s a big if) you and your spouse are good at resolving conflict and working together to find solutions to problems? You might be able to reduce the time needed (and therefore keep costs down) by retaining collaborative divorce lawyers. These are divorce lawyers who practice a form of negotiation that basically involves more time sitting all together in a room to discuss options, and less time spent in more traditional “battle mode” – lobbing requests and arguments back and forth between separate offices. Read more here. The hourly rate and retainer fees for a collaborative lawyer are typically about the same for a traditional litigation lawyer so you’re not saving money there. BUT – (and this is a big “but”) you can save on overall costs because if you can get both sides to the table working together quickly and efficiently, the meter isn’t running as long because instead of your lawyer spending time making phonecalls, drafting emails and written proposals, she’s getting to the point more quickly with the other side because you’re all right there in the room together at once. If you and your spouse are still able to work together somewhat? You can emerge from divorce 3-6 months later, with legal fees in the $10,000 – $20,000 range. Sounds bad, but this can be a much less expensive route than…
- Litigated Divorce – this is the traditional / time tested / as awful and expensive as it sounds way to go. You pay your retainer fee and agree to the hourly rate (again, same as above). But the difference here is that the meter starts running, and never seems to stop. Every little point of conflict, every little question, every petty disagreement over details? That adds up, slowly but surely. Your retainer fee gets chewed up first, and then the monthly bills start coming. Worse – you’re probably paying a higher hourly rate for a more skilled / experienced lawyer – which clobbers you for every hour burned. Or, you’ve chosen a less expensive lawyer – who maybe isn’t as efficient or skilled, and therefore takes longer to get things moving forward. By the time the dust settles – you’ve spent 6-18 months at a minimum, and $20,000 – $30,000 at a minimum. The meter is merciless, and tireless. It keeps on running, consuming all available resources.
So now you have a better understanding of how divorce legal fees are billed, and how they add up depending on how much time your divorce takes. Hopefully you have a good idea of how much conflict you and your spouse are likely to have as you divorce. Now you’re ready to go shopping for your divorce attorney. Stay tuned for a future post about the kinds of questions you should keep in mind when interviewing potential divorce attorneys.