What is Average Cost of Divorce in Arizona? The Truth About Attorney Fees and How to Avoid Them

image depicting the high cost of the traditional divorce process
Often the first question asked of family law attorney or divorce mediator is “how much does a divorce cost?” The costs of divorce can be staggering. Spouses represented by attorneys, often do not fully understand the scope of the legal fees they will incur until it is too late.  They decide to divorce, they each hire their own lawyer, divorce papers are served by a process server, and the court battle begins.

A primary factor impacting the cost of divorce is the process you choose to complete your divorce. This choice will either promote a cooperative, lower-conflict experience, or cause an adversarial, conflict-driven, divorce war.

Even cordial spouses experience intense and difficult emotions, such as anger and fear, as they go through a divorce.   Mediation provides you with the opportunity to reduce conflict and avoid devastating financial and psychological consequences for your family.

Unavoidable Fees

Court filing fees are required to complete the divorce or the legal separation process. The court fee to be paid at the beginning of the process is the Petitioner’s fee.  In Maricopa County, this fee is currently $349. The Respondent’s fee, which is due when the decree of dissolution of marriage is filed, it is currently $274.  These fees fluctuate over time, and by county, so it is strongly recommended that you ask your mediator or lawyer for current pricing.

Attorney’s Fees: The Large-Retainer and Hourly-Billing Problem

If a couple chooses to use divorce lawyers to complete their divorce, they are choosing to go to court. Having chosen the “court process”,  they will be advised to cease direct communication. The divorce attorneys will then communicate on behalf of their clients. Proponents of mediation believe this, in and of itself, accounts for substantial misunderstanding that leads to increased conflict, and thus, increased fees.

In Phoenix, Arizona, and surrounding Maricopa County, like other major metropolitan areas, attorneys generally require an initial “retainer” to be paid. A retainer is a large-upfront payment to guarantee that they will have at least this minimum payment from their clients.  They are usually $5,000 to $15,000 per spouse, as each spouse requires representation. Attorneys then bill by the hour against the retainer. As they work, billing hourly, the amount dwindles down. They are in control of how much time to spend on your case and how quickly they use your retainer.

The average hourly attorney fee is between $300 – $400 per hour. Once the retainer has been exhausted, the client will be required to replenish the retainer back to its original amount and the attorney will again bill against the retainer for time spent on the case until the money runs out.

Attorneys, and mediators, who bill hourly are likely to bill for any-and-all time spent on your case. This includes any time spent with you, but the vast majority of your fees will be incurred behind the scenes: When your attorney writes you an email, the fee clock is running. When they are reading an email from you, they are billing you for that time too.  As long as it is related to your case, the fee clock is running for every moment that your attorney or their assistants are drafting documents, making phone calls, researching issues, driving from point A to point B, or waiting during long courthouses delay.  As long as is it relates to your case in any way, even if it is just making copies, you are being billed for it.

Litigation Costs: $15,000 – $20,000 Per Spouse for an Average Case

The more conflict between the two of you, the more time your attorneys will spend on your case. More time equals more fees. As a result, most divorce attorneys will estimate that for a relatively straightforward case, with moderate conflict, modest assets and with children, the average cost of divorce is $15,000 – $20,000 per spouse.

When conflict escalates — which is often true in litigation — the case can last a year or more and can result in costs that easily soar over $50,000 per spouse. When these cases go all the way to a trial, where a Judge determines the outcome of all issues, final costs can exceed — and in many cases, far exceed — $100,000.

Wealthy couples are not the only ones paying this level of divorce debt.  When this king of debt is incurred by a couple with modest assets and average incomes, they may face the harsh reality of the proceeds from the sale of their home,  — their one major asset and perhaps the issue that spouses fought over most — going toward attorney fees rather than being shared between spouses.

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Mediation: 80% – 90% less expensive than litigation

In divorce mediation, your mediator will either charge by the hour like an attorney, or charge a flat fee for the entire process. Either approach is overwhelmingly likely to result in spouses paying less for their divorce as compared to the cost of litigation in court.

Many mediators, who come from backgrounds as career attorneys or judges, continue to use the hourly-billing approach. However, there is a growing trend to break from traditional attorney billing practices, since mediation is rooted in different goals and values than those that exist in the adversarial court process. While in mediation, spouses can get legal advice from a lawyer.

Mediation Costs: The Flat Fee Solution

We are strong proponents of the flat fee approach. It is a fundamental problem when professionals earn fees based upon the time spent working on a case. In litigation, lawyers financially benefit when conflict escalates and a lengthy divorce case ensues. The longer a case drags on, the higher the fees climb.

The mere existence of a system that demands large retainers and hourly billing, where the attorney’s fees grow as long as conflict forces the divorce proceedings to drag on is not beneficial to families. Scores of research show that children of all ages are emotionally harmed when parents fight during their divorce process. Thus, any fee structure that may incentivize aggression is not ideal in a family law context.

Divorce professionals should be free from subconscious or unconscious motivations to promote conflict between divorcing spouses. Fee structures should be “motivation-neutral”, from the mediator’s perspective, and must support a process where efficient and amicable resolution is encouraged.

Legal fees should also be as predictable as possible to avoid undue financial hardship. Predictions or guesstimates, often wind up being inaccurate. Divorcing couples are placed at a disadvantage when halfway through their process they have exceeded the fee they were originally quoted.

At The Aurit Center for Divorce Mediation, in Scottsdale, Arizona, we inform potential clients, at their free initial consultation, of their total flat fee for their mediation process, from beginning to end. This includes all mediation meetings, document drafting, emails, phone calls, memos, editing of documents, signings, travel to and from court for the clients — everything related to their case. Spouses know the cost before they even begin the process.

The Aurit Center, is committed to providing a healthier option for your divorce process. Our experienced mediators explain the law and then guide you both through thoughtful and productive conversations. You will make agreements related to all of the important issues of divorce, such as: division of debts and assets, division of property, and spousal maintenance. If children are involved, we help you create a thorough Parenting Plan which addresses, child support, legal-decision making, and child custody.

When You Ask Questions about Fees….. Expect Straight-forward, Honest Answers

Be sure to ask potential mediators or attorneys about their fee structure when you interview them. If a flat fee is offered, ensure it covers the entire process, from the filing of the petition for dissolution of marriage all the way through to the filing of the final consent decree. Flat fees that do not include emails, phone calls and research, or flat fees that only include parts of the process are a red flag. Be sure to ask about how hourly rates apply in addition to other lees.

Divorce professionals should prove simple, straightforward, and honest answers to your billing questions. In the end, the most important factor — regardless of whether a mediator uses an “hourly-billing” or “flat-fee” model — is the level of trust you have in their ability to guide you through the process and treat you fairly regarding fees.

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