Is There Such a Thing as a Cheap Divorce?
One of the first things clients ask is, "How much is this going to cost?" My answer is always the same, "It depends." I don't say that to be vague or to avoid the question. It is the truth. There is no one-size-fits-all divorce. Because of that, I like to offer a menu of options.
The cheapest way to get a divorce is to do it amicably. That does not mean you have to be in love with the other person; it just means you have to be able to talk to him or her.
If you do cannot do it amicably, then you have to be prepared to go to court. Again, depending on the issues that need to be resolved, it can take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Most family law attorneys have seen parties argue over the stupidest things: a table cloth, a dining room hutch that ends up being given to Goodwill, old record albums, Disney vacation points, timeshares, a hamster, fish, etc. That is not counting the serious issues like custody of the children, the marital home, or retirement accounts.
To complete a divorce, the attorney must draft and file a complaint in divorce, containing all the appropriate counts addressing all of the issues that need to be resolved. A filing fee is paid to the county in which the complaint is being filed. That fee can be anywhere from $250 to over $500. The filed complaint, then needs to be “served” on the opposing party. That can be as simple as the person “accepting service,” or taking weeks to track the person down, or even having to ask the court to allow you to serve the other party in an alternative fashion. The costs for that can range from $0 to $1,000 if you had to file for alternative service after trying to have a process server unsuccessfully track down and serve the person.
Once the complaint is filed and served, the parties have the opportunity to exchange information. If it is done voluntarily, it is simple, but if not, it can take months of court filings as legal fees mount. The parties need to sort out who gets what, whether one spouse needs support, and who gets the kids. Each of those issues can involve multiple court appearances for conferences, hearings and trials, along with attorney conferences, phone calls, and written communication. This is where fees can start to get expensive.
On the other hand, some clients choose to be amicable and work through the issues without court intervention. Attorneys trained in special techniques can help clients have productive conversations in a process called Collaborative Practice. The goal is to do it in a private confidential setting with both parties and their attorneys. Special neutral professionals can be brought in to help, if needed, to help the parties with communication issues, custody issues, and financial issues. Nothing is filed until all of the details are worked out. The process can be paced according to the parties needs. The goal is to help the parties both end up in the best position that they can with no winners and no losers. When there are children, the parties almost always put the needs of the children first. This process ends up being faster and less expensive than litigation.
Parties also have the option to see a mediator to help them figure out their issues. The mediator helps them identify the issues and work through them until they have a resolution or one or both of the parties chooses to stop. The mediator will draft a memorandum of understanding which can be turned into a settlement agreement by an attorney, who can then file the required documents.
Once an agreement is reached on all of the issues, a settlement agreement is drafted for filing with some additional documents that the attorney drafts. Those documents are signed by the parties and they are submitted to the court for the judge’s signature. In a case that is litigated, each piece of the dispute is determined by a judge who issues an order. When all of the issues have been litigated, the divorce can be finalized.
In the Philadelphia area, attorney’s fees can range anywhere from $200 an hour for new inexperienced attorneys to $500 an hour or more for partners in some of the large city firms. Generally, you can expect to pay approximately $300 an hour for good, experienced, family law attorneys in the suburbs.
So, as you can see, determining how much a divorce will cost still depends. The more contentious, the more you will spend. For a very simple uncontested divorce without children or any marital assets could be as low as $1,500. A high net worth, contentious, litigated divorce can take forever and cost upwards of $100,000. So, again, it depends.