Is collaborative divorce really expensive?

Posted on Dec 6, 2021 by Katie Carter


One of the first questions that most women ask about divorce is related to how much it could cost. While there are rarely any details I can provide with absolute specificity (ultimately, the cost of your divorce is related to how difficult it is and how long it takes to reach a resolution), there are some general conclusions I can draw.

While I think that a concern regarding costs is pretty universal, regardless of whether you choose to negotiate, mediate, litigate, or collaborate, fewer people know about collaborative divorce so I don’t often get as many questions about it.

But, when I do, people start to get a little nervous when I talk about it. It’s not so much the commitment not to go to court (people like that) or the way that you can create a custom separation agreement, as opposed to one guided by the ‘what would the judge do?’ principle that surrounds most negotiation of separation agreements (people like that, too), but instead the fact that collaborative divorce involves a team of professionals.

A TEAM? Yes – a team. The collaborative model involves a team, which always includes a collaboratively trained attorney for each party (his and hers – same as in a normal adversarial divorce), and often includes divorce coaches (one for each party), as well as a child and a financial specialist.

Obviously, all of these professionals aren’t involved in each case; I’ve even seen cases where there are JUST collaboratively trained lawyers, and that’s it. And, of course, there’s no child specialist in a case where there are no children involved – that wouldn’t make sense.

I’ve even seen cases where there are no divorce coaches. In general, that’s not recommended – working with a divorce coach is a big part of what makes the process so successful. But, still, different rules apply in different cases.

I don’t say that to encourage you to winnow your team down to the bare essentials, but just to illustrate the point that the types and qualities of each collaborative divorce can vary based on the specific needs and concerns of the parties involved. In a lot of respects, collaborative divorce is about the process and the specific goals of the parties more than any other type of divorce, so it’s a bit of a different mindset even going in.

Still, you worry about cost. Of course you do. Even if you know you’re going to walk away with a far superior product (a separation agreement tailored to your unique circumstances and concerns), there may be an amount of money past which you aren’t comfortable spending. You want to know – before you get in over your head – that collaborative will be a good fit for you.

You’re so smart, and so reasonable, to be asking these questions! I wish I could give you a specific answer, but in collaborative divorce – as in almost every other kind of divorce – it is impossible to know up front exactly how much it’ll cost.

It’s true that the members of your team are paid, and that these people are paid in addition to the attorneys you hire. It’s easy to think that this means that your costs will be significantly higher than negotiated or even litigated cases, but that’s probably not the case.

While there are exceptions to every generalization, we find that collaborative divorces are more expensive than most negotiated divorces but less expensive than most litigated divorces. Compared with negotiated and litigated divorces, too, collaborative divorces yield the best overall results consistently, and parties who have participated in a collaborative divorce report the most satisfaction with the process overall.

There are a couple of ways at looking at costs, but, regardless of the type of divorce you ultimately choose, the fees aren’t flat. The fees are usually hourly, depending on how long the case takes. Whether we’re going to court, writing an email, taking a phone appointment, meeting in person, drafting a letter, or attending a collaborative meeting, our hourly cost is the same.

That’s true across the board, regardless of whether a case is negotiated, litigated, or collaborated. So, in a sense, it all costs the same; at least, it costs the same from the lawyer’s perspective. Not every divorce has a team of professionals involved, but many do – even non-collaborative cases.

I think a good thing to remember is that collaborative is a type of divorce that is fairly up front about who will be involved and what will be happening. In other types of divorce, that’s not the case; it can come as more of a surprise to the parties involved.

In a negotiated case, other professionals that can be involved are included, but not necessarily limited to, business valuators, CPAs or accountants, mediators, and even judges.

Business valuators may be involved in cases where there’s a business involved, and where we have to determine its value (and apportion the value between the parties). This kind of work can be really time intensive and costly – not to mention contentious. (You may see a business valuator in a litigated divorce, too.)
CPAs and accountants can get involved for all sorts of reasons, too. The accounts involved in a marriage can be complicated or unique, and sometimes it’s important to get a professional to look things over. Though we see these types of accounts all the time, we’re not accountants ourselves, and we like to make certain that all our I’s are dotted and our t’s are crossed.

Mediators and judges can also help us negotiate settlements. In some cases, there are mediations, 4 way settlement conferences, or judicial settlement conferences. Mediators and judges often charge for their time (though not always, depending on whether you have a case filed). These days, with all of the COVID-19 related delays, it can be increasingly difficult to get a court date at all – or to get a timely court date. In some jurisdictions, we’re now scheduling into the fall and early winter of 2023 – yes, seriously! So, involving a mediator or bringing in a judge to help us negotiate a result can be (though expensive) a good way to resolve things sooner rather than later – and, ultimately, save money as opposed to litigation!

In a litigated case, other professionals that can be involved include (but are definitely not limited to) the professionals listed above, plus Guardians ad litem, doctors, therapists, lactation consultants, teachers, and more.

All the same things can happen in a litigated divorce as a negotiated divorce, but you face the extreme likelihood that the other side will hire someone different. As opposed to just using a CPA or a business valuator, you’ll have dueling experts – which increases costs for each side.

Guardians ad litem are attorneys appointed to represent the child’s best interests to the court, and they also carry an hourly rate – which you will, generally, have to share with your soon-to-be ex spouse.

You’ll also need experts to prove your case. If it’s a breastfeeding case, a lactation consultant makes sense. Doctors and therapists can get involved in cases, too – especially if someone (a parent or a child) is disabled, special needs, mentally ill, or addicted to drugs or alcohol. There can be a million different reasons; this isn’t an exhaustive list, just one that addresses some of the more common issues we see come up. All of the experts will be paid for their time, which can be substantial.

So, anyway, all of that to say that, while there is a TEAM involved in a collaborative case, and that carries with it its own set of costs, there are often professionals involved in negotiated and litigated cases as well.

Ultimately, it comes down to cost, which is often best gauged by looking at the retainer fee and the hourly rate of the attorney you want to hire, as well as considering what experts might be involved in YOUR case. A good way to determine this is to schedule a consultation with a lawyer, so you can talk one-on-one about your case and your options moving forward.

It’s also important to consider your ideal outcome. Which type of divorce will allow you to achieve the type of results you’re looking for? Cost matters, of course, but so does the quality of your divorce.

Your best bet is to talk to an attorney about your case. For more information, to schedule a consultation, or to get more information about an upcoming divorce seminar, call us at 757-425-5200.