The True Cost of Divorce in America
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Getting a divorce is not only a lifestyle change — it’s a financial change. In a recent Debt.com survey, 40% of divorced respondents said they took on more than $5,000 in debt post-divorce. Furthermore, 38% saw their credit score plummet by more than 50 points. The troublesome task of dividing property and monetary assets — and maybe even being ordered to pay spousal or child support — only adds salt to the wounds.
That said, your financial burden will vary greatly depending on your situation. So, it’s impossible to put a hard number on the price tag for the end of your marriage. But if you’re standing on the edge of divorce, it’s important to know the costs you’ll most likely face.
Click through to see how much it costs to get a divorce.
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Divorce Attorney Fees Can Get Expensive
The court doesn’t require you to hire an attorney to handle your divorce case, but most people need one. In fact, many divorcing couples need two — one to represent the interests of each spouse.
But attorneys and divorce lawyers don’t come cheap. In fact, your lawyer fees are likely to be the single most expensive item on your divorce cost checklist.
Many divorce attorneys charge by the hour. This means that the attorney adds up every hour or fraction of an hour they spend talking to you on the phone, conducting research, writing documents, filling out forms or appearing in court on your case. They then apply their hourly rate to that total. The result appears in your bill, often calculated on a monthly basis.
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This and the following slides were last updated Feb. 14, 2018.
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The Average Divorce Attorney Fee is $250
How much can you expect to pay per hour? Legal information website Nolo conducted a nationwide survey on the legal fees divorcing couples pay in America. The most common hourly fee is $250, but most people pay between $150 and $350 an hour. The lowest hourly fee reported in this survey is $50 while the highest is $650 per hour.
It’s apparent that hourly fees differ, but the more important factor in estimating your total attorney fee is how many hours your attorney spends on your case. The difference between $50 and $650 an hour is impressive, but it’s much more significant when you are billed for 20 hours of work at either $1,000 or $13,000.
Nolo also surveyed its readers about the total amount of attorney fees they paid for their divorce. The average amount spent on attorneys totaled $12,800. At the average rate of $250 an hour, that’s about 50 hours of attorney time.
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What About Divorce Mediation?
Courts encourage — and sometimes require — that divorcing parties use a variety of alternative dispute resolution methods. Of these, mediation is one of the most prevalent.
In mediation, each spouse talks with a neutral party called a mediator. Sometimes these mediators are attorneys. Other mediators have been trained in divorce law. The job of a mediator is to help a couple find common ground and arrive at a solution to their divorce issues without going to trial.
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Divorce Mediation Can Be a Cheaper Alternative
Some courts mandate mediation when child custody or support issues are involved. These services, as well as some community-based mediation services, might be free.
You’ll also find attorneys who offer private mediation services. Most private mediators charge by the hour, with hourly fees ranging from $100 to several hundred dollars, according to Nolo. A typical fee for a couple choosing to mediate their divorce might be $3,350, according to New York Parenting. And like attorney fees, a total mediator fee will depend on the time the mediator spends on your case.
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Divorce Court Fees
Nobody enjoys the antagonism associated with divorce court. And divorce battles are even more stressful when you take into account the increased attorney fees they generate.
But don’t forget you’ll have to pay the court when you file a petition for divorce. And if your spouse responds, he has to pay a court fee as well.
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Court Costs Can Add Up
Fees differ among states. In California, for example, the filing fee is more than $400. But, people who cannot afford the filing fee can ask for a fee waiver.
You might have to pay other court costs, too. For example, if you file other motions or if you go to trial, you will likely incur additional court costs.
Including the court costs and attorney fees — and other expenses such as a tax advisor, child custody evaluator, home appraiser, etc. — the total cost of a divorce could be upwards of several thousand dollars. According to the Nolo survey, most people spend a total of $15,500. But those who went to trial spent even more — nearly $20,000. Meanwhile, those who were able to settle their cases spent less than $15,000 total.
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Splitting Assets and Managing Financial Loss
When someone talks about losing his shirt in a divorce, he might not be referring to actual, out-of-pocket costs of the process. Divorcing couples tend to think of property division and family support payments as divorce expenses, but really, splitting assets is more like a financial loss.
How do courts divide up your assets in a divorce? The rules differ among states. States having community property rules consider everything earned by either spouse during the marriage as belonging to both spouses equally. If you live in one of these states, such as California or Arizona, you can expect to split not just home equity, but also bank accounts, investment accounts and even retirement accounts.
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Financial Losses in a Divorce
Other states have “equitable distribution” rules. In these states, the courts have to divide everything fairly — not necessarily equally. That means you might have to give your spouse money you earned before marriage if that’s necessary to achieve equity.
There’s also child support and “splitting” the children. If you have minor children, you have a legal duty to provide them financial support. The parent the kids live with contributes financially by providing the home, food and clothing for the children, while the other parent will be ordered to pay child support. Each state has its own guidelines for figuring out child support amounts.
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How to Keep Divorce Costs Down
The best tips for keeping divorce costs down often come from experienced divorce attorneys who know the kinds of situations that increase attorney involvement.
Chris Hildebrand is a Scottsdale, Ariz., divorce attorney at Hildebrand Law, PC, a law firm handling about a hundred divorce cases per year. According to him, fees will be lowest if both spouses are reasonable and hire reasonable attorneys. “If either attorney or spouse assumes unreasonable positions, the cost of the divorce will increase significantly,” he said.
Hildebrand also suggested that you create a list of questions to ask your attorney before you call them. He tells clients that they can call him day or night, but encourages them to make lists before they do. The more focused your questions are, the less attorney time will be required.
Another idea is to write up a contract before marriage about how you will divide your assets in case of a divorce. These prenuptial agreements can reduce attorney time significantly.
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The Cost of Divorce in America
Divorce is never easy — or cheap. But it’s a little less confusing if you know in advance the types of costs that might be associated with the process. The cost of a divorce is largely the cost of hiring a divorce lawyer — so do everything you can to keep attorney fees down.