Getting divorced is expensive. In fact, there is almost no such thing as a cheap divorce. Whether you’re going to pay alimony or receive it, it’s probably safe to say that most partners ending a marriage will soon feel as if they’ve taken a financial beating. Even if the breakup is amicable, splitting assets isn’t pretty.
It’s impossible to predict how much a divorce will cost you. It’s kind of like a wedding, where you can spend tens of thousands of dollars — or go to the courthouse and have a few friends over in the backyard for burgers and hot dogs for a reception.
With a divorce, you can easily spend $15,000, but you may get by with spending a couple thousand or less. Everybody’s marriage and financial situation is different.
What’s important is that you and your spouse try to get along — and that before you hire a divorce lawyer or a mediator, you get estimates on what the costs will likely be.
“Generally, couples make their divorce more costly by fighting. If couples can agree on issues, then the cost of a divorce is minimal,” says Gabriel Cheong, an attorney and the owner of Infinity Law Group in Quincy, Massachusetts.
So if you’re looking to avoid inflating the cost of your divorce, think good thoughts about your ex and try to do the following.
Try to Work Things Out Before Hiring Professionals
Now, with some marriages, where one partner is domineering and clearly out for only his or her interests, sure, you may need to hire an attorney, or at least a mediator, and prepare for war.
But before you go there, try to discuss how you want your post-marriage life to look, and see if you and your partner are in agreement. If you two genuinely like each other — you just don’t love each other in the way that two partners should — you might be able to work everything out, mostly on your own. You’ll still want to each have an attorney look over your divorce paperwork and make sure you haven’t accidentally done something you weren’t intending.
Cheong has a few topics in mind that you and your soon-to-be-ex spouse will want to discuss.
— Health insurance. “Is everyone getting their own health insurance or is one spouse staying on another spouse’s plan? If there are children, who’s covering the children and how to divide up the cost?”
— Property. How do you split it? That is, bank accounts, retirement and your home.
— Alimony and child support. This is where things can get bad, fast. “If there are children, when will the children be with Mom, and when will the children be with Dad. The term ‘custody’ is very loaded and often elicits defensive responses,” Cheong says. “Try to talk about it in terms of a schedule so everyone knows who’s with who and when.”
— Taxes. “Will everyone be filing taxes jointly this year?” Cheong asks. “Who will take the tax deduction for children?”
“Those are the main issues, although most couples have issues with dividing assets and parenting times,” he says. “The more they disagree and the harder they fight, the more expensive the process gets.”
And if you can’t work things out? You could hire a mediator to help you and your spouse work out a divorce agreement. You can still expect to spend a couple hundred dollars, and maybe more, for a session. As noted, there is no such thing as a cheap divorce. But every mediator will insist that they are less costly than an attorney.
If You Hire Attorneys, Use Them as Little as Possible
Even some divorce attorneys will tell you not to overdo it.
“I am always happy to talk to my clients about their case, but like most attorneys, I charge by the hour. The more frequently you talk to your attorney, the more expensive your bill will get,” says Brent Morgan, an attorney in Midland, Texas, who owns the Morgan Law Office with his wife, Piper, who is also a lawyer. About 40% of his caseload, he says, is family law and divorces.
“Clients get the impression I am there to listen to every single thing their spouse has ever done wrong in a marriage. They will find a sympathetic ear but a hefty bill,” Morgan says.
That doesn’t mean don’t call a lawyer. But think of talking to one as you would if you were riding in a taxi. The lawyer’s time isn’t your own. The meter is always running.
Try to Avoid the Courtroom
Especially in this age of COVID, says Cheong.
How has the pandemic complicated things? The courts around the country are backlogged to the extreme, “sometimes by a year or more,” Cheong says. “It’s now more important than ever to try to work with your spouse to resolve issues outside of court because courts are even slower than they were before. Many courts encourage alternative dispute resolutions such as mediation, collaborative law, or simply having good attorneys that are resolution focused rather than litigation focused.”
Don’t Drag Your Feet on the Paperwork
That can cost you, says Erik Danielson, an attorney and founder of Danielson Law Firm headquartered in Fayetteville, Arkansas, who is also licensed in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. “The biggest way we see clients making their divorce more expensive than it should be is simply by not listening to their attorney. In this case, the attorney is the expert,” Danielson says.
So if your lawyer requests documents, Danielson suggests getting the papers to your attorney quickly and in an organized manner. “We have rules to follow and the more cooperative you are, the less time — and money — we will spend on unnecessary tasks. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but don’t bombard us with questions about why you have to follow the rules,” Danielson advises.
If You Can, Talk to the Lawyer’s Staff — and Not the Lawyer
“While any attorney is happy to answer questions for their clients, and some questions require the legal expertise only an attorney can provide, too often people going through a divorce will ask their attorneys basic questions a trained paralegal or assistant can answer,” Morgan says. “The attorney’s staff can answer a lot of your questions — or listen to you complain about your spouse — at either a much lower rate or for free.”
Understand That Divorce May Not Change Your Ex for the Better
“If your husband’s meals are terrible, he’s not suddenly going to become a gourmet chef whenever your children are at his house. If your wife is on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat every other minute, that’s probably going to continue,” Morgan says. “Too often, clients think the judge is there to order their spouse to stop doing all of the things they don’t like, and the attorney is to help ensure it happens.”
If you and your spouse come to terms with that, Morgan says, you’re both less likely to turn to your attorneys and add to your legal bills by getting them involved in what are ultimately petty squabbles.
Ask if the Lawyer Offers Payment Plans
Many law firms allow clients to pay their fees in installment payment plans, and so if you’re shopping around for a divorce attorney and trying to decide who to go with, that’s a question you should ask. Unless, of course, money is no object.
Emily Rubenstein, a divorce attorney in Beverly Hills, California, says that while some divorce attorneys work out payment plans, “most quality divorce attorneys require a retainer upfront.”
She argues that a retainer protects both the client and attorney: “You want your attorney to have the freedom and funds to be able to act on your behalf when needed.”
Factors That Determine a Divorce’s Overall Cost
There are more factors than you might think, according to Rubenstein. She says that some of the costs that you may end up paying, beyond just the lawyers, include:
Other divorce-related professionals. You may need to pay money to accountants and therapists. “For therapy, the cost may be higher considering children’s need for therapy as well,” Rubenstein says.
Moving costs. Somebody’s probably moving out of the home. You or your soon-to-be ex will probably need to buy some basic furniture and home goods.
Refinancing things like home and auto loans. “When a person divorces, assets and debts held jointly often must be transferred to the spouse’s individual names. For debts like mortgages and auto loans, and assets like real property, there are expenses associating with refinancing and transferring titles to get things in your own individual names,” Rubenstein says.
Insurance. As noted earlier, you’re going to be paying for car insurance and health insurance on your own. You want to plan for that as early as possible.
Cell phone. You or your ex will probably switch from the family plan to an individual plan.
Court fees. “The initial filing fee in California is $435, and there are additional filing fees for motions, administrative fees, process serving fees and messenger service fees. In a case that is heavily litigated, these costs can add up very quickly,” Rubenstein says.
Ways to Reduce the Costs of Divorce
Just to review, if you’re going to reduce the costs of a divorce, remember the following:
Use your lawyers as little as possible. But do use them for the important stuff.
Be organized. Don’t miss dates. Provide paperwork in a timely manner.
Work with your spouse as much possible. Especially if you have kids, you are going to be in each other’s lives for a long, long time. The nicer you are to each other, the more likely it is you’re going to both save money. For instance, if you don’t hate each other, maybe you can share streaming service passwords rather than each paying for your own.
Listen to your attorney. That’s very important, Rubenstein says. Don’t be your worst enemy and sabotage your divorce. “When your attorney is telling you directly to do something or not, remember that you are paying good money for this advice for good reason,” Rubenstein says.
Avoid court if you can. If you really want to save money, don’t go to trial. Divorce is enough of a trial as it is.
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Update 04/19/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.