Everyone has the same basic questions at the beginning of the divorce process. Everyone wants to know how much their case will cost (an exact figure, if possible), and exactly how long it will take to get them from start to finish.
I get it. I’ve been through things like this before. I’ve had times where thinking about waiting any time at all to reach my end goal seems unbearable, and I’ve certainly have some sleepless nights where I wondered about all kinds of unforeseen costs that could arise.
Divorce, like any major life transition, is full of anxieties and uncertainties. And, in the midst of all of that, you want to know the things that are knowable, the things you can control—to the extent that you can control them. I can totally understand the way that you’re feeling, and that’s why I’m writing to you today.
I don’t have a crystal ball. You know that. If I did, I’d give you exact, down to the penny and time of day, information about what to expect over the coming days, weeks, and months. But I can’t. And, as you are probably also aware, there are a lot of unforeseen things that can come up in a divorce case. Usually, when I first meet a potential client, I just hear her side of the story. Most of the time, there’s not been anything filed. I haven’t heard a thing from husband or his attorney, and I don’t know, really, exactly how contentious things will be. All I know is what the woman in front of me is telling me.
Of course, it’s not that she would tell me something that isn’t true. But, in a state of agitation and excitement and worry, she may paint an inaccurate picture. It’s not deliberate. It’s not even usually a big deal. Usually, things change and evolve over time anyway, so whatever we discuss in the first appointment may not bear any real resemblance to the way the case progresses anyway. I don’t tell you to make you concerned; I only tell you to let you know that these things can sometimes impact cost and the overall amount of time that your case may take.
Still, I can estimate. I can give you some ball park figures. I know, when it’s me, I like ball park figures. Even if I know there’s a lot of wiggle room, for me, it’s soothing to have more data rather than less. At least, if I have a starting point, I can start to analyze all the ways my case might be (or will certainly be) different. Even if I don’t know all that much about what I’m up against, I can start to think about it and figure whether my case will be easier or more complicated than others. I like that. Are you like me, too?
How much will my divorce case cost?
Divorces range widely in terms of how much they cost, and a lot depends on exactly what type of divorce you ultimately end up pursuing.
You, like everybody else in America, have probably heard a number of horror stories about divorces that wind up costing tens of thousands of dollars over years and years. While it’s true that, in certain, limited situations, it can happen, it’s also not like it happens very often. For us, super contested cases that go all the way through to trial are more or less unusual.
That’s not to say that we never go to court; on the contrary, we go to court pretty frequently in this area of law. But we rarely litigate a case all the way through from beginning to end. It’s more likely that we’ll litigate one part, or start out fighting and then end up settling. So, before you get all hot and bothered about the horror stories you’ve heard from cases that are at the way outside of the spectrum, let’s talk about the different types of divorce, and the expense you might expect to incur.
Divorces can be litigated (fought out in court in front of the judge) or negotiated. In lawyer speak, we call those divorces either contested or uncontested. Contested and uncontested refer to whether we were able to resolve the issues between the parties. In a contested divorce, we had to let the judge decide. In an uncontested divorce, on the other hand, the parties can reach an agreement, and ultimately sign a separation agreement.
Keep in mind, though, that just because the parties CAN reach an agreement doesn’t mean that it was easy, or that it happened overnight. Sometimes, agreements happen quickly; other times, there are a number of back and forth negotiations before a resolution is reached.
As you can probably imagine, litigated divorces are the most expensive (and the most time consuming, but we’ll talk more about how long it takes in a few minutes). Litigated divorces are also the most wide-ranging in terms of costs, because there are so many variables and things that can happen.
Before we talk about how much a litigated divorce costs (a subject which, in my experience, doesn’t make many people feel better), keep in mind that very few divorces go through the entire litigated process. Though many divorces start out litigated (or looking like they’re going to be litigated), that doesn’t mean that’s where the divorce ends up. In fact, most of the time (I would even venture to say nine times out of ten), even when cases start out contested, they wind up settling.
So, if you walk into an attorney’s office and they tell you that they’re quoting you a retainer for a contested divorce or if you’re just doing research on your own and you think that you’re headed towards a contested divorce, don’t freak out. Chances are, it won’t work out that way anyway—even if it starts that way.
I know, I know. I haven’t answered the question. How much does a contested divorce cost?
The best thing I can do is give you a sort of round about answer.
When we’re talking about costs, there’s a big difference between what we ask for a retainer, and what the total costs of the case are. A retainer is an amount of money needed up front to take on the case; it’s really a deposit of sorts. Your retainer fee goes into a trust account with your name on it, and then, as work is done, it is billed from your trust account. It’s not a flat fee, though. When your trust account falls below a certain level, you’ll be asked to replenish your account. Most law firms have minimum balances that need to be maintained in your trust account at all times; sometimes, they’ll ask that you put even more in there (like, for example, if you have a big hearing coming up, more might be needed). Attorneys bill based on how much time it takes them to do something, usually in increments of a tenth of an hour. Attorneys have different hourly rates, but they usually reflect the going rate for attorneys in the area (an attorney in New York City, for example, will charge a higher hourly rate than a rural attorney in southwestern Virginia) and their level of experience.
Usually, in a contested divorce case in our area (because who cares what happens in New York City, right?), you’re looking at a retainer that ranges between $5,000 and $10,000. It’s not completely unheard of for a retainer to be more than $10,000, but most I see are either for $5,000 or $7,500. Attorneys estimate retainer fees based on how complicated they expect the case to be.
The total costs of a contested case, though, will almost always be more than the retainer amount. I think it’s probably safe to say that, most of the time, contested divorce costs range from $15,000 to $30,000 per person (remember that your husband will retain an attorney, too, who will also charge similar rates). Can it cost less? Sure. Can it cost more? Absolutely.
How much does an uncontested divorce cost, then?
An uncontested divorce is a different animal entirely. Remember how I said that contested divorces almost always require more than just the retainer paid up front? In an uncontested divorce, on the other hand, it’s much more likely that what you pay to cover the retainer will cover the entire costs of your case. It doesn’t always work that way, of course, but you can still bet that your total overall costs will be far, far less than a litigated divorce.
Most of the time, when it comes to uncontested divorces, I see retainer that range between $2,500 and $5,000. Again, the retainer works the same way (it’s placed into an escrow account with your name on it, and then money is billed from your account as work is done), and more money can be required to be added into your account later. But, generally, total overall costs in a separation agreement case normally range from $1,500-$5,000 which, for most people, is a much more affordable range.
Are there other options I can try if I want to save money?
Absolutely. If you’re interested in money saving alternatives, you’re not alone. Many people getting ready to go through a divorce do research into mediation or collaborative divorce, and some even try to handle their divorce on their own. If you’re interested in handling your divorce without using an attorney, you can certainly save some money, if that’s your goal.
How long does it take to get divorced?
In Virginia, you have to be separated for a certain amount of time to get divorced so, in most cases, there’s really not a ton we can do to speed things along. Though in a certain narrow set of circumstances you could qualify for an immediate divorce, that’s the exception and not the rule (and, of course, there are definitely some strings attached that may make it less possible than you’d expect).
In Virginia, you have to be separated for a full year (that’s 12 months, or 365 days!) before you can get divorced unless (1) you don’t have minor children, and (2) you have a signed separation agreement—then you can get divorced in six months.
Most of the time, it takes at least the period of separation (so, six to twelve months) to get a separation agreement in place anyway, so it’s not like the wait is a huge imposition. It may be possible to get that agreement in place more quickly, but at that point it becomes a simple matter of waiting until you’ve been separated for long enough to move forward with your divorce. Compared to most other things relating to divorce, that small waiting period is pretty painless.
Can it take longer? Yes, that can happen. Most of the time, though, divorces take a year to two to complete, with two being at the much, much longer end of the spectrum. It’s unusual for a divorce to take more—unless, of course, that’s what the client wants! (Trust me, there can be really valid reasons for letting it take a little bit longer, like if you want to qualify for 20/20/20 status as a military spouse.)
That’s the long and the short of it. Divorce costs and the amount of time required to complete the divorce can range pretty broadly, but there are definite similarities we can draw from different situations that can help you as you begin to plan and try to determine what you can expect.
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.