Filing for divorce is rarely accomplished without some emotional or financial stress, if not both. A knowledgeable, caring attorney who will make an effort to fully understand the situation, can help smooth the way. The cost of a divorce varies by state and depends on every couple’s unique situation. In general, attorney’s charge a minimum of $1,000 for an uncontested divorce, in which both parties agree that the divorce is necessary and about how to divide the assets from the marriage, assign custody of children and so on. It’s possible to file for an uncontested divorce without help from an attorney, but if there are significant assets to divide and child custody, child support or alimony to work out, both parties usually benefit from hiring an attorney. Note that each party typically hires his or her own lawyer, especially in contested divorces. For help understanding what’s involved, see How to File for Divorce in 8 Easy Steps.
A contested divorce, in which both parties don’t agree on all the terms upfront, costs more—anywhere from about $2,500 to several thousand dollars or more in some cases. The costs are high because it takes the attorney or law firm more time to help clients make legal decisions, take care of document filings and represent them in court, if it comes to that. In most states, family law judges assigned to contested divorce cases require that couples do everything possible to reach a settlement agreement to avoid a trial, which is costly for the divorcing couple as well as the city and state in which the divorce takes place.
Contested or uncontested
In an uncontested divorce, after the state’s mandatory waiting period (if there is one) is over, the divorce decree is final. This process is much more straightforward than a contested divorce because no time is needed from lawyers or mediators to help couples agree on the terms. Brenna Loyd, a partner with Johnson, Loyd & Schmitz in Fort Worth, Texas, typically charges $1,500–$2,000 for uncontested divorces. This fee, payable in installments, usually covers everything needed to complete the divorce, but Loyd lets clients know if unexpected issues arise that require more of her or an associate’s time beyond what is covered by the retainer. Nicholas Gottwald, an attorney at the family law firm Nelson, Taylor and Associates in Salt Lake City, Utah, charges $800 for an uncontested divorce, provided that it’s truly uncontested and there are no issues that need to be worked through. In states with a higher cost of living, such as California or New York, the cost of hiring an attorney to help complete an uncontested divorce will likely be much higher, starting at $3,500–$5,000.
A contested divorce is one in which the parties cannot mutually agree on the division of assets, child custody and so on. In some cases, one party does not want the divorce to take place at all, and legal intervention is needed to carry out the divorce. Because of these added complications, Loyd of Johnson, Loyd & Schmitz typically charges $2,500–$3,500 for a contested divorce.
Hourly rate versus retainer
Family law attorneys typically bill around $150–$250 per hour, or more, depending on where they are located. Most lawyers charge a flat fee or require a retainer for helping with a divorce, but it’s helpful to know the attorney’s hourly rate to better understand what charges will be if the bill ultimately exceeds the initial retainer. A retainer should (but may not always) cover most of the filing fees and the attorney’s time to meet in person, correspond by phone or email, and appear at any necessary court hearings or other in-person proceedings.
Divorces typically require filing fees as well, which vary by state, ranging from $70 in Wyoming to $350 in Connecticut. Filing fees are usually included in the lawyer’s initial retainer, which covers his or her time to file the paperwork and set up the temporary order hearing. The order hearing in straightforward cases creates a "template" for the final divorce agreement by laying out the framework for how assets will be divided, a child custody schedule, alimony and child support, if applicable.
Ideally, couples should determine their own child custody schedule; however, that’s not always possible. Attorney’s charge more to help work out custody details than if there are no children (or if the kids are grown) because of the time required to help couples reach an agreement. Typically, the more time the children are living with one parent, the less that parent pays in child support.
Child custody evaluation
In a contested divorce, when a couple cannot agree on the custody schedule even after mediation, the court may require a child custody evaluation, which is done by a trained psychologist who will spend a lot of time interviewing each parent, talking to the the kids and observing the kids at home with each parent. If the custody evaluator works for the county, the evaluation will cost $1,000–$2,500. A private evaluator might charge $10,000 or more.
Alimony (spousal support) is another item that needs to be agreed on in a divorce. Couples may agree on a set payment for a determined amount of time to ensure an uncontested divorce. If a couple can’t agree and the court becomes involved, need and ability are determined by calculating expenses (health insurance, rent, etc.) less net income. This process can be contentious, involving litigation, and financial verification is crucial. Tax returns, bank statements, debts and expenses are all required if alimony is requested and the other party is not too excited to pay.
Mediation is a dispute resolution approach with the goal to help the parties come to an agreement without going to trial. A professional mediator, attorney-mediator, or former commissioner or judge acts as a third party whose focus is helping both parties settle on an agreement. Some courts offer mediation services at sliding-scale fees or for free to couples who can’t afford mediation or when mediation is ordered by the court. For other couples, mediation typically costs $100–$300 per hour. Loyd with Johnson, Loyd & Schmitz is a qualified mediator in addition to being an attorney. She helps clients work through any divorce terms that they may not agree on at the outset. In her geographic area, mediation usually costs $350–$700 for a half day, which is about half of what an attorney would charge.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended as legal advice. These are all basic principles, each case is unique, and the legal options and strategies depend on the various unique circumstances. Seek legal advice before acting on information in this document.