One of the first questions we normally get in a divorce case is, “how much will it cost?” While it’s generally impossible to provide a ballpark estimate that satisfies a potential client, there are some generalizations we can make. On a phone call the other day, we were asked whether a divorce would cost more or less than $1,000, because that’s all she had.
The answer to that part, at least, is fairly easy. It’s probably unlikely that an entire divorce would cost less than $1,000. Let me explain.
So, there’s two essential parts to any divorce: (1) actually dividing the assets and liabilities in the case between the parties, and (2) finalizing the divorce.
To divide the assets, liabilities, and responsibilities of the marriage between the parties, they’ll either have to do it themselves, by agreement, or litigate their case in front of a judge and let him (or her) decide.
If the parties can’t reach an agreement – any agreement – the litigation will cost significantly more in both time and money. It’s often difficult to tell up front, even if the parties don’t have any real assets or children or anything in common, whether an agreement will be quickly and easily reached or not.
There’s no question that, in a best case scenario situation, we can often resolve things very quickly and inexpensively. Typically, to get a very, very rudimentary separation agreement in place, you’re looking at a minimum charge of about $750 and upwards. Then, we share it with him, or his attorney, if he’s represented by counsel. Will he sign? Therein lies the real question. If he signs, great – done, we just need to finalize. If he doesn’t, if negotiations are required, or if he flat out won’t sign and if litigation is ultimately required, costs will spike dramatically.
If he lives out of state and we can’t find him or reach him, or can’t get him to respond at all, that’s the same thing as refusing to sign at all. Our hands are tied. We’ll have to litigate, or sweeten the deal somehow, to entice him to cooperate.
Family law attorneys bill in increments of a tenth of an hour at a particular hourly rate (in our area, usually somewhere between $250 and $500 an hour). So, the longer it takes to get something done, the more it will ultimately cost. All told, if I were to estimate a ballpark cost, I would say that separation agreement cases cost somewhere between $1,000-7,000, and contested divorces (where they’re litigated) usually start somewhere around $25,000 per party.
And that’s just the separation agreement portion! Once your agreement is signed, we’ll still have to finalize the uncontested divorce. Depending on how complex that process is, it can easily cost another $1000-1500.
If it’s just a few documents – a complaint, a final decree, a VS4, and affidavits – it’s one thing. But if there’s a name change order, a QDRO (or several), a TSP order, or other documents needed, it can cost significantly more.
It’s one thing to have a $1,000 budget for a certain piece of the process, but when we’re talking about both the process to get the agreement in place (if that can even be done), PLUS finalizing the necessary documents needed to obtain the uncontested divorce – especially if there’s anything complicated involved – it becomes increasingly unlikely that the entire thing would be wrapped up for as little as $1,000.
But I’m in a really tough spot, and I just don’t have the money.
A lot of our clients don’t have the money! Some of them get gifts or loans from friends or family members, some take distributions on retirement accounts, and still others put their fees on their credit card till they can manage to pay it off.
It’s not a perfect solution, of course, but I don’t have a magic wand, either. I wish I could make money appear for all our deserving clients!
It is possible that you could get assistance from Legal Aid. Legal Aid, in general, doesn’t take any contested cases, so you’d need to be the type of case that could be resolved with a separation agreement – and be well below the poverty line – to qualify for Legal Aid assistance, but it’s still worth asking.
You can also represent yourself in your divorce. Whether you draft your own agreement, participate in mediation (though, again, probably unlikely to come in with a sub-$1,000 price tag), or just meet with an attorney as-needed as you go through the process, you can certainly try to DIY your own divorce as well.
For more information, or to schedule an initial consultation to discuss your options with an attorney, give us a call at 757-425-5200.