How much does divorce cost?

Posted on Jul 27, 2015 by Katie Carter

When people start shopping around for divorce attorneys, they are definitely concerned about the price.  The thing is, though, it’s not like shopping at a regular store.  You can’t see that there are different, specific prices associated with different options.  Take car shopping for example.  You can’t see, at a glance, that there’s a definite price difference between a Kia and a Porsche.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a Kia, of course.  In fact, a Kia may be exactly what you’re looking for—they’re stylish, come with a lot of upgrades, and cost far, far less than the Porsche.  Maybe there’s no way on earth you’re in the market for a Porsche, anyway.  You don’t need it, it costs a LOT more than it should, and, really, at the end of the day, a car is a depreciating asset.

But maybe you want something somewhere in between a Kia and a Porsche.  Maybe you want a Toyota, a Honda, or a Volkswagen.  Still, it’s easy to see the price.  Compare the available features.  Figure out exactly which upgrades are important to you, and which feature you wouldn’t use or would just be one more thing to break later on down the road.

When it comes to lawyers, it’s not so easy to tell the Kias of the world from the Toyotas, Hondas, Volkswagens, or Porsches.  It’s confusing for most people when they begin to start to try to compare attorneys.  How much DOES it cost?  Who has the best reputation?  Who just looks good—but they’re really just all fluff?  It can be hard to tell on the surface.
I feel you!  It’s hard to make a decision about who should represent you in something so important (after all, there can be serious financial consequences!).  There are so many options out there, too, that just reviewing the available attorneys in your area can make you feel paralyzed and indecisive.  The last thing you want is the attorney that you paid good money for (in some cases, lots of money for!) to turn out to be the thing that works AGAINST you—or, maybe not quite as dramatically, for your attorney just to be not quite as good as someone else you could hire.  What if hiring a particular attorney ends up being the mistake that makes a several thousand dollar difference to your bottom line?  Worrying about the possibilities is enough to make anyone’s head spin.
So, how do you tell?  You don’t only want to be able to tell the good from the bad, but you also want to be able to make an educated financial decision.  The last thing you want is to hire an attorney whose bills you can’t afford to pay!

How do you tell the good attorneys from the bad?

It’s hard!  There’s so much information out there!  And, as you’re probably already aware, not all attorneys are created equally.
If you’re searching for information online (because, let’s face it, that’s how most of us make decisions these days), you’ll find lots of lawyers.  You’ll fine lots of online directories, too, that list lawyers in your area—like FindLaw, Martindale-Hubble, and Avvo.  In fact, you’ve probably seen a ton of commercials for lawyer directory sites like Avvo, encouraging you to find a lawyer using their site, conveniently rated using their special algorithm which is designed, also conveniently, to tell you exactly who the best lawyers are.
Is it that easy?  If you find a lawyer with a perfect 10.0 on Avvo or an AV on Martindale-Hubble, is that your guy (or gal)?  These days, it seems like people put a lot of stock in these types of ratings systems.  I can understand the appeal; if you don’t know and have no other criteria on which to make a decision, at least these provide some guidance.
Well, that’s true.  And, at least Avvo and Martindale-Hubble are based on important criteria—how long the attorney has been licensed, where the attorney has been published, what types of cases the attorney has handled successfully, what professional organizations they belong to, what other lawyers are saying about them, what their clients have to say about them, and what areas of law they practice.
A lot of people set a lot of store on these sites—they want to make sure that they hire a lawyer with a perfect 10.0 or who is AV rated.  While I think it’s pretty safe to say that you can assume that the lawyers who DO have those scores are solid choices, I think it’s also safe to say that many truly excellent attorneys are not appropriately represented on those sites.  Certainly lots of them are (particularly those of us who are young and hip and know a little more about marketing ourselves online), but just because someone isn’t represented there, or hasn’t claimed his or her profile (or invested the kind of time into it to secure a 10.0) doesn’t mean that they aren’t powerhouse attorneys.
Keep in mind, too, that a lot of attorneys will be presented to you on those sites, not because they’re awesome attorneys, but because they paid to have their ads to show up to users with search queries like yours.  It costs money to show up often, or high on the list, and many attorneys are willing to pay top dollar, knowing that consumers (like you) are being directed to those sites and are unaware that what they’re seeing are paid advertising spots.
So, how do you know?  You do the research you can, you talk to people who know or have been through it before, you meet with the attorney, and, ultimately, you make the best decision you can with the information that you have—with or without Avvo, FindLaw, or Martindale-Hubble.

How much does it cost to hire an attorney?

Once you decide on an attorney, or a couple of attorneys, it’s time to schedule an initial consultation—just to make sure that you like the attorney, feel comfortable with him or her representing you, and, of course, that you can afford it.  You may want to meet with just one attorney or a couple; there’s no hard and fast rule.
Most attorneys won’t post prices online, so you’ll have to go in to decide whether or not a particular attorney will work for you.  Most of the time, our “prices” aren’t set in stone anyway; each attorney sets a retainer amount roughly based on how complicated they believe your case will be, based on the details you’ve provided in your consultation.  We don’t WANT to publish a list of prices, anyway; situations vary so much from one client to another that there really are no hard and fast standards we can use and apply across the board regardless of circumstances.  At my law firm, we treat every case uniquely, and set a retainer based on, in our professional judgment, how complicated we expect the case to be.  As you can probably imagine, there are very wide ranges.
Don’t get too worried, though.  Though many people believe that their case presents an unusual amount of difficulty and, most of the time, that just isn’t the case.  Things tend to start out contentiously, but people then simmer down over time.  In fact, many cases start out contested (which requires a higher retainer fee than an uncontested divorce), and then they transition to uncontested divorce as things mellow.
So, what’s a retainer?  How does it work?  I’ve worked with them for so long that sometimes I forget that they’re confusing and new to other people.  They’re great questions, and it’s important for you to understand.  A retainer isn’t really an estimate, though it is based loosely on the relative complexity of your case, and it’s definitely not a flat fee.  A retainer is an amount that is paid in order to open up your case.  When you open your case, the money goes into a trust fund account with your name on it.  The money is yours, and it stays yours until your attorney does work on your case.
Probably a better barometer of how much your divorce is going to cost, at least as compared to the if you hired another attorney, is the attorney’s hourly rate.  Each attorney has an hourly rate, based on how experienced they are and how long they’ve practiced.  In our area, family law attorneys typically have hourly rates that range from $150-500 an hour.
Though the retainers will likely be fairly similar from one law firm to the next, the retainer has very little to do with how much your divorce will actually cost.  If your divorce costs less than your retainer, the extra money is refunded to you.  If your divorce costs more than your retainer, you’ll be asked to replenish your account.
The attorney’s hourly rate, though, has more to do with the actual cost of your divorce than the retainer.  It’s easy to get caught up worrying about the retainer, obviously, because it’s a pretty large sum of money due up front—but your retainer actually has very little to do with the overall cost of your divorce, and it’s not the retainer amount that you should be primarily concerned with, at least if your main objective is to compare attorneys on price.

…But how much will it actually cost, when all is said and done?

It’s impossible to tell.  I can speak in generalities, though, as long as you understand that you may or may not fall within the standard curve.  Depending on the complexity of your case, and the issues presented, along with other factors like how difficult your husband (and, of course, the attorney he hires!) is, and more, the costs of your case can vary dramatically—either upwards or downwards.
Generally speaking, just to give you a ballpark idea, uncontested divorces are less expensive than contested ones.  Uncontested divorces typically require a retainer of $2,500-5,000, and cost, by the end of the case, somewhere between $2,000-7,000.
Contested divorces provide an even wider range.  It’s really incredibly difficult to specify, exactly, what a reasonable range even is.  Usually, contested divorces require retainers of $7,500-15,000, and cost, by the end of the case, somewhere between $10,000-30,000.  Some cost far, far more.
If you ask an attorney about your specific case, you probably won’t get a straight answer.  Not because the attorney doesn’t want to give you one, but because it’s nearly impossible to estimate ahead of time.  At the beginning of a case, especially, anything can happen.  Your attorney doesn’t know you very well or your husband at all, and only knows what you’ve told him or her in your initial consultation.  It’s difficult (if not impossible) to provide a rough estimate based on so little information.
Still worried about costs?  It’s understandable, for sure.  Stay tuned, because on Wednesday we’ll talk a little more about the costs of your case, including what you can do to help save money on your case.  For more information, give us a call at (757) 425-5200.