Estimating the Costs of your Virginia Divorce

Posted on Jul 25, 2016 by Katie Carter

If you had a crystal ball and knew how much your divorce was going to cost ahead of time, would you make the same decisions?
Though it’s difficult to estimate legal costs ahead of time, it may be possible to estimate the total costs of your divorce. The total overall cost of your divorce can be incredibly wide ranging, of course, depending on all the issues. If you’ve got a house, an inheritance, a pension, a profit sharing plan, and a big fight over custody, your divorce will be more complicated (and, therefore, cost more money) than one where there are really no assets available to be divided.
There are very few (if any) attorneys offering flat fees in divorce cases, so almost all attorneys take their cases on a retainer, and then draw on it hourly as they do work.
There are advantages and disadvantages to this way of handling cases. Flat fees are risky in a lot of ways. What if you paid a premium to an attorney and your case settled within a couple of hours of negotiation? You might have been better served by an attorney who took your case on an hourly basis. If your case, on the other hand, draws out for ages, you might find yourself wishing that you had paid one lump sum to handle it all. Some people argue that an hourly system rewards attorneys for inefficiency; that there’s really no incentive to settle a case at all when you get paid more for drawing out the fighting.
Of course, though I can understand feeling that way, I don’t honestly think many attorneys (and certainly none at my firm) are ever deliberately inefficient. In most cases, it is more advantageous to us to have happy clients settle their cases sooner than have unhappy clients whose cases drag on for ages (in many cases, challenging their ability to even pay their bills, as legal expenses mount). Attorneys are, in almost every case, extremely sensitive to the financial situation of their clients, and do their best to be respectful and conscientious. If you’re worried, though, initiating an open and honest conversation with your attorney can go a long way towards making sure the two of you are on the same page. If you don’t tell your attorney where you are financially, how can you expect them to know?
Though very few (if any) local attorneys handle cases on a flat fee basis these days, there are as many disadvantages to this way of handling cases as there are to taking cases on a retainer. Still, for the purposes of our discussion today, we’re dealing with estimating total costs in a divorce case taken on a retainer—and whether, if you knew how much your total costs would run, you’d make the same decisions over again.
In a flat fee case, you can estimate costs easily. If the attorney takes your case for a certain amount of money, you know ahead of time what the costs will be. In a case taken on retainer, you pay a little bit at a time, as the work is done, until your case is concluded. When a retainer is estimated at $5,000 or $7,500, in a contested case, that’s not an estimate of total costs; it’s merely an amount of money needed to take on the case. So, what will it cost? And, if you knew what it would cost, would you make a different choice?
None of us have a crystal ball. None of us knows, ahead of time, exactly how much our divorce cases will cost. A lot of times, I don’t even know, exactly, because, when I take on a case, I estimate a retainer based on what a potential client has told me during an initial appointment. Things can turn out to be worse or better than they seemed in that appointment, depending on how the case takes shape. Remember, at the time that I take the case, I’ve only heard one side of the story. And, having never been through a divorce before (or, at least, not very many times), you probably don’t have a solid idea of total costs, either.
On top of all of that, there are a lot of emotions involved. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be; it’s completely normal if you’re feeling a LOT of different competing things. You’re feeling overwhelmed, scared, upset, hurt, angry, bitter, intimidated, alarmed—or even some combination of all of these things. You’re sad for the future that you lost, worried for the future of your children, and you’re unsure of what to do next. You’re in unfamiliar territory, so you’re uncomfortable. It’s normal to feel all these things, and maybe even others. Everyone is different (and, of course, kind of the same, all at the same time). There’s really no rule book.
It’s hard to make good decisions when you’re feeling all sorts of different, competing emotions. You’re feeling so many things, and yet you’re in a position to make some of the most important decisions of your entire life. Divorce, as you probably already know, is one of the biggest financial transactions of most women’s lives. It requires you to make a lot of decisions about how your assets and liabilities will be divided. It requires you to negotiate with your husband or, if you can’t do that, go to court, argue, and, ultimately, let a judge decide.
It’s tempting to fight, especially if you’re feeling hurt, confused, and betrayed by the divorce. Often, it’s early on in the process when big decisions have to be made. It’s hard to make those decisions when you’re in such a vulnerable place. But, I have to wonder—if my clients DID have a crystal ball and could figure out exactly how much their divorces would cost them—would they make the same decisions?
A lot of times, I think the answer would be yes. I’m often surprised when, even when I caution clients against taking a particular course of action because of the potential financial costs, they tell me that they don’t care. “It’s the principle,” they often tell me when these types of disputes come up.
The principle, in my experience, is almost always expensive. During a divorce, clients aren’t always in the best position to make major financial decisions. It’s hard to say that, though. How do you say, “I know you hired me to represent you, and you told me you want to do this, but I think that maybe you don’t?” I do try, but I’m not always successful. I can’t keep my client’s financial bottom line in mind if they don’t want to; still, I worry that, later on, they’ll regret their decisions.

So, how much does a divorce cost? If I had a crystal ball to show you, what would it say?

Contested divorces are always most expensive than uncontested divorces.

Uncontested divorces, most of the time, run between $1,500 and $7,500. That’s a total cost estimate, not a retainer fee. Of course, things range pretty broadly, depending on how often the negotiations go back and forth between each side. It’s possible that a separation agreement could cost less or even more, but the vast majority of uncontested divorce cases (cases where the divorce is resolved by negotiating a signed separation agreement) fall within this range.
Does that seem high to you? It’s possible that it does. Keep in mind that uncontested divorces are the LEAST expensive divorce cases. Why? Because, in a separation agreement, the parties decide between themselves how everything will be divided, and it’s always, always, always cheaper to agree than it is to fight.
There are a number of different ways an uncontested divorce can be resolved, and hiring an attorney to represent you is only one way. You can hire a mediator, or move forward with a collaborative divorce (although I don’t suggest collaborative divorce as a cheaper option, only as an option).
At the end of the day, there are really only two ways people in Virginia get divorced: they either negotiate an agreement (though, like we’ve said, that can be accomplished in a number of ways) or they go to court and let a judge decide.

How much does it cost to go to court and let a judge decide?

If you thought separation agreement cases had a wide range of costs, prepare to be surprised. Contested divorce cases ( ones where an agreement can’t be reached and a judge has to settle the dispute) range dramatically, though I think it’s safe to say that, at the low end, contested divorces can easily cost $20,000 to $30,000—for each of you. On the high end? It can go up much, much further—I’ve seen divorces that top six figures, and many more that fall between these ranges.

In cases where we fight over things like the principle, the costs are often higher. If we’re also litigating on fault based grounds, you can add more dollars to the bottom line. The costs can be, simply put, very, very high.
It’s easy to lose track of the costs, because you’re not paying them all in one lump fee. It’s a couple hundred here, a couple more there, and, before you know it, you’ve spent more than you thought you would.

Why does it cost more to go to court?

There is a lot of work involved in a litigated divorce. Take just the trial for example. It’s not just a question of going to court and asking for what you want. Your husband will be asking for the same things, too, so you’ll have to prepare evidence, exhibits, and witnesses to argue for why you deserve to receive those things (and he doesn’t). These things require a ton of attorney time to prepare.
Besides that, most courts have procedural road blocks in place to encourage settlement, rather than trial. Why? For a couple of reasons, but (1) because the court’s docket is backed up, and the judge would rather you settled your disputes yourselves, and (2) because people tend to be happier with results they’ve participated in negotiating, rather than the ones judges “arbitrarily” hand down to them.
Even though it’s not possible to have a crystal ball, I think it’s important to ask yourself what you’re willing to spend, at the beginning. Determine what an appropriate number would be, and find out, through this article, whether your choices put you in the ballpark where you’d like to be—or not.
At the beginning of your divorce, it’s important to think about what decisions you could be making to make your life easier on yourself in the long run. How much money do you have, and how much are you willing to spend? How much do you need to have left over to ensure that you get the best new fresh start that you want?
We’re here to help. We know you have questions, and it’s a difficult time. We’re open to having a real conversation with you about your goals and your finances, and what’s ultimately going to be best. Divorce is never easy, but with some careful pre planning, it’s possible to end up with the best result. For more information, or to schedule and appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.