Ballpark Divorce Case Costs

On Wednesday, we talked about ballpark costs in a custody case. Today, we’re going to talk about ballpark costs in a divorce.

Luckily for you, estimating costs in a divorce is slightly easier than in a custody case. After all, with divorce, there’s a finish line – when you get divorced. (Custody cases aren’t like that; custody, visitation, and child support can be modified over and over again, provided that there has been a material change in circumstances, until the child turns 18.)

There are also fewer possibilities, at least as far as the shape the case can take. Generally speaking, your case is either uncontested (meaning that you’ve been able to reach an agreement about how everything is going to be divided), or contested (meaning that you can’t reach an agreement about how everything is going to be divided). Either you agree in a signed agreement, or you go to court and let the judge decide.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a wide range of potential costs; certainly, there is a very wide range. And one case is not exactly the same as another, of course. There are a lot of issues that can come up, and the costs vary accordingly.

Contested divorce cases

Contested divorces are the most expensive. A contested divorce is even more expensive if fault grounds also accompany it.

Fault grounds in contested divorces

A divorce can be either fault based or no fault based; if it’s no fault based, it’s just based on a period of separation (either one year, or six months if two criteria are met – one, that you don’t have minor children, and, two, that you’ve signed a separation agreement). No fault divorces are less expensive, even if you have to litigate how everything will be divided, because you don’t have to offer very much proof to the judge.

In a fault based divorce, on the other hand, you have to prove your grounds exist. Whether you’re using adultery (which is a crime in Virginia, by the way), cruelty, apprehension of bodily hurt, desertion, abandonment, or felony conviction, you’ll have to offer evidence – which takes time, and costs money. There’s no such thing as him “agreeing” that he has committed a fault based ground for divorce, either; you’ll have to offer evidence and satisfy the judge. That can be expensive.

Costs in an uncontested divorce

Uncontested divorces cost less. Uncontested divorces are always no fault. Why? Because you have agreed with your soon to be ex – both in relation to the grounds you’ll use, and also regarding how the assets will be divided. The judge doesn’t need to decide. You need to offer evidence (as it relates to your grounds for divorce, especially), but you can just testify to it. It’s pretty easy, and certainly less expensive.

Though there’s often a range in these cases, too, the range is significantly less than in cases where everything is contested.

Family law attorneys work on retainers, and bill hourly.

The most important thing to know is that attorneys in family law – and divorce is family law — work on retainers. That means that we charge a fee up front to take on a case. The money goes into an escrow account, and, as work is done, we bill from that account.

Contested divorce retainers can range from $5000 on up, depending on the issues involved. There’s a really wide range. It’s not uncommon to see retainers for $5000, $7500, or even $10,000—and certainly it’s possible that a retainer could be more. Separation agreement cases, on the other hand, usually start at $2500. (A separation agreement is what you’ll need to pursue your uncontested divorce.)

But is a retainer a good barometer of how much a divorce case will actually cost? Probably not. Though a retainer could have a lot to do with whether you’re able to actually lay out the cash up front and hire an attorney (obviously, because a million dollar retainer, even if an attorney charged only $1 an hour, would be impossible to front for most of us), a retainer isn’t a flat fee. It isn’t an estimate of how much the attorney things your case will cost in the end. It’s just an amount of money needed to take on your case. The actual cost can be (and likely will be, if you go to trial) more.

Really, though, a retainer fee is sort of arbitrary. Since we bill hourly, and retainer agreements generally require a client to maintain a certain amount of money to be available in the escrow account, it doesn’t much matter what a retainer is. Once your retainer runs out, you’ll have to replenish your trust account for the attorney to keep working.

The best way to tell how much an attorney costs –and to compare across firms– is to look at his or her hourly rate. Your retainer will go much further with an attorney with a lower hourly rate; it’s probably fairly likely that attorneys in the same area will charge similar retainers anyway. But hourly rates can differ dramatically, depending on the experience of the attorney, the size of the firm, and other factors as well. If I were you, I’d ask more questions about the attorney’s hourly rate (and the qualifications of the attorney involved) than the retainer fee itself.

I’ve seen divorces that cost $1500ish, and I’ve seen divorces that cost well into the six figures. The latter is unusual, and unlikely, but it can certainly happen. The best thing you can do to get an idea of how much you might expect to spend in your case is to sit down one on one with an attorney. Ask questions. Discuss your case. The attorney will help point out the potential issues, and what might cause your costs to soar.

Of course, like you, there are many things involved that we just can’t control – like who he is as a person, and who he hires to represent him. Those kinds of things can cause a cases costs to vary dramatically, and, sometimes, that’s not something we know at the initial consultation. Sometimes we do, but it all depends. Still, there’s a lot we can tell you that will have to do with what your total costs might look like.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.

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