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.
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.