Often times the first thing a potential divorce client wants to know is how much his or her divorce is going to cost. Most of the time, the answer is “it depends.”
A divorce is not like a one size fits all process, as it depends on the facts and situation of the particular couple. Each client is unique and so is his or her marital situation. Some people have been married for over 20 years; others have been together less than 2 years. Some people have many assets and valuables, while others have barely enough to pay rent. Some couples have children, when others have pets they treat like their children.
If the divorce is uncontested, meaning both spouses have worked out the terms of their separation, or there is nothing to fight over (no property and no children), naturally such a divorce can be quite inexpensive and often can be handled on a flat fee arrangement. That means that the attorney will ask for a set fee regardless of how much time, he or she will spend working on the case. Frequently the fee will be quite low as the attorney is not expecting to spend a lot of time on a case.
Also, there are quite a few “divorce-shops” offering cheap divorces for as little as $30.00. Many couples are attracted by the promise of a cheap and painless divorce, but only a few can take advantage of such a service, usually only those who have been married for a short time and don’t have any children. It should be noted that divorce shops are generally only document-preparation services. They are not qualified and should not offer legal advice or counsel. So, if you have unresolved issues or need legal advice, divorce shop is not for you.
Thus, the key to a quick and cheap divorce is communication. If you cannot sit down with your spouse and calmly talk about your issues, your divorce will be neither quick nor cheap. If the couple starts fighting over property or children, the divorce becomes contested and an attorney will most likely handle it on an hourly fee. The number of hours spend on a particular case, you guessed it, depends on the complexity of the case.
It is nearly impossible to even estimate the cost of contested divorce. Here’s a general rule of thumb though: the more complicated and emotional the divorce, the more expensive it will be. In the end, it is up to the couple just how much their divorce will cost.
Here are some issues that will determine the cost of a divorce:
- Whether the divorce is adversarial or collaborative. If the couple can come to terms and resolve issues regarding child support, child custody, and division of marital property – the divorce will not only be cheaper but it will also conclude much faster.
- Whether there is still some trust and communication. If the spouses simply no longer trust each other or they can no longer communicate effectively, they may have trouble negotiating with each other. That means that they will depend on the lawyers and the judge to resolve everything between them, and that means that their divorce will take longer and cost more.
- If you and your spouse battle over custody of the children. In a custody battle you may incur fees related to expert evaluations (like psychiatric evaluations). If the court appoints a Guardian Ad Litem, you will have that expense too. Not to mention that a custody battle simply means much more work for the attorney.
- How many marital assets and debts there are to divide. If there has been an accumulation of large amounts of marital property and debts, not only there may be a need for a lawyer, but there may be a need for accountants, financial planners, bankers, business valuators, real estate appraisers, financial analysts, pension funds experts, insurance brokers, and perhaps a therapist or two. That is all added expense.
It should be noted that some less forthright divorce shops and even attorneys lure potential clients by advertising low fee divorces, only to increase their fees once the client signs up for the services. For example, even a $30.00 divorce is in reality a $280.00 divorce, since the court filing fee alone is $250.00 (in New Jersey). Before you retain an attorney verify whether you are paying a flat fee or hourly fee, and whether any filing fees are included.
Also, no lawyer will take on a divorce case or custody case on a contingent fee* basis. Such financial arrangement is prohibited by the law.
*Contingent fee usually means you will not be charged legal fees if you lose the case, although you may be responsible for out-of-pocket costs. If you win, you pay the lawyer a percentage of the money the court awards you. Contingent fees are common in certain personal injury cases.