How Much Does Divorce Really Cost?
Updated: May 6
There is a bumper sticker I've seen which claims to answer this question in a clever but sad way: “Marriage is Grand, Divorce is 100 Grand.” Though this might provoke a laugh from the driver behind you, it's almost nearly as likely to raise the question, "Wait, is that really what it costs?" It’s hard to know what your divorce should or could cost, considering most people don't make divorce a part of their regular shopping habits. Even experienced attorneys often can’t give a clear range of what you should expect to spend on your divorce. The best they can say when asked is “it depends," and although this can be frustratingly vague, it's often times the truth. So does the "100 Grand" figure from the slogan have any truth?
Unfortunately, sometimes it does. Here in Carlsbad I facilitate a support group for women at all stages of divorce. In the privacy of this group, women who are in the contemplation stages of their divorce often ask those who are in the throes of the process how much it has cost them so far. The highest amount that popped out of one member’s mouth left us all stunned: “$375,000!” “Yup!” she said with a blush and then quickly added, as though it was a redeeming feature, “but my husband spent $450,000.” Do you want to hear the more distressing part? The children were grown, so there was no battle over custody; this marriage had been their only one, lasting over 30 years, and all their assets had been acquired during the marriage. There was no legal basis for a dispute over ownership of assets since California is a community property state. They paid almost a million dollars to divide what was left of their estate in half. Okay, so admittedly that’s not the norm!
According to legalzoom.com, the average cost of a contested divorce (one in which both parties hire attorneys) is approximately $15,000-$30,000. Though these numbers are significantly lower than the those I mentioned in the anecdote above, they are still somewhat misleading. As the author of the article notes, "a two day divorce trial can cost as much as $25,000 in legal fees alone." A contested divorce which goes to court, therefore, is far more likely to put you at the top end of that number or well above. Larry W. Rich, a seasoned veteran called upon to help resolve the financial conflicts that arise in divorce, broke down the numbers when asked the same question by Divorce Magazine. His estimates seem more aligned with the experience my clients share with me and my own, though its worth noting that his calculations do not assume expenses for psychological evaluations from parenting experts, court fees, and a number of other expenses that I caution you to consider. His final range was broad: $8,187 -$132,600, but broken down in ways that would help you calculate or estimate the potential cost of your divorce. A 2017 cost comparison between litigants who used the courts vesus private judges found that litigant spend an average of $96,600 versus $69,000 for those who paid private judges.
With all of these numbers floating around, many of them heavily dependent on your individual circumstances, I’m going to help you do your best estimate. Before looking at the list I have provided, you should note that thankfully not all of these expenses will apply to you and your case. This list is meant to be fairly exhaustive to help you and your spouse estimate what your divorce will cost you:
Lawyer's fees: Lawyers’ fees vary by where you live and the expertise of your lawyer. In California an attorney can certify as a family law specialist. You should expect to pay more for this expertise. Family law lawyers in the San Diego region typically charge between $300 - $500 an hour. If the attorney uses a paralegal you will be billed separately for their time, between $125 - $200/hr. Additionally, your lawyer will charge you for expenses that may include postage, FedEx, faxes, photocopying, computer charges for electronic legal research, and binders for presentation of court documents. These expenses may not be itemized. It will depend on your fee agreement. Some firms charge a fixed fee of between 6 -7.5% of your fees to cover these expenses. If your lawyer has to travel more than a short distance to the court you may also be paying for travel time.
Court filing fees: Filing a Petition for divorce in California and responding to a Petition for divorce is currently $435 each. You can see the complete fee schedule here.
Court Reporter Fees: If you have a hearing in Family Court you will have to pay not only your lawyer’s fees but the court reporter. A half-day is $375 and a full day is $730 in San Diego County. If you need the transcript in order to resolve a dispute about what the judge actually ordered or to clarify any terms, you will face yet another fee.
Experts Fees: If one of you is self-employed there is often a dispute about what that person’s earnings actually are for the purposes of determining support. You may need the use of a forensic accountant or a certified divorce financial analyst, like Laurie Itkin, to establish income and deductible expenses. The court may even order that a “special master” be appointed to do the calculations and report back to the court.
If one of you or the family owns a business you may need a business valuator, like Justin McIntosh.
If one of you has been out of the work force for an extended period of time, the other may require that you have a vocational assessment done by a professional firm.
If you have art, collectibles, antiques, recreational vehicles like a boat or an RV you may need an appraiser with a specific expertise.
If you own a home, investment properties, or a timeshare, that you do not wish to sell on the open market, you may need a certified appraiser.
If you have 401(K)'s or government or private pension funds, you may need both a pension adviser and a QDRO specialist, like QDRONow, to affect a legally enforceable transfer of a portion of the pension.
If you had a family trust (and even if you don’t) you will want to update your estate plan with an attorney, like Anna Howard, once your divorce has been finalized.
If you cannot agree on your co-parenting because there are allegations of addiction, abuse or other impediments to healthy parenting you may be ordered by the court or voluntarily agree to undergo a psychological assessment of what is best for the children. If a Special Master is appointed you can expect to spend as much as $5,000 to $7,000 for a complete assessment and a report back to the court.
You may be ordered to or agree to take co-parenting classes like those offered by “Kids Turn.”
If supervised visitation is necessary, and a private service is needed to provide the supervision, this can get costly.
Family therapy and or individual therapy may be advisable and your costs will vary with your family’s insurance coverage and the therapist you choose. Adrienne Blumberg (Carlsbad/Del Mar), Elisabeth Caetano (Carmel Mountain/Poway), and Lynn Waldman (UTC/Hillcrest) are all great options depending on your location and needs.
In high conflict parenting cases, couples may need to use a co-parenting coach like Debra Dupree to continue to moderate disputes and help parents deal with the evolving needs of their children these coaching expenses can be ongoing.
One of you may need retraining to re-enter the workforce. This will require time out of the workforce and expenses related to the retraining.
Assuming you have school aged children, there are the costs of actually raising a family in two homes.
Is one of you planning to move away? There will there be new transportation costs and perhaps increased childcare expenses.
Though hopefully the information I provided above will help you begin to answer the question, “What will my divorce cost me?” I want to encourage you to ask yourself a more important question: “What will a conflict-managed, mediated divorce save me?" Though my clients often save thousands of dollars by mediating their divorce, to just speak of the financial burden when considering the cost of divorce is too narrow a scope. The real costs of divorce are ultimately the less tangible ones. There is no accounting for the toll it can take on your health, career, children, friendships, and parents. What most people say to be true, at least in hindsight, is “If I had known what I know now, I would have found a way to divorce without litigation." You can always escalate to a litigated divorce if mediation does not work. It's very hard to de-escalate conflict and mediate once the battle lines are drawn.
Laura McGee, JD is a Divorce Mediator and founder of Leave Strong Divorce Services. She is a non-practicing attorney. Nothing shared by her in this article should be construed as legal advice. Laura is sharing insights which are based on her education and training, career path from trial lawyer to mediator and divorce coach, and personal life experience as a mother who spent far too much time and money litigating her divorce. If you are seeking legal advice please contact a licensed attorney.