How much? How long?
Two of the most common questions asked by prospective divorce clients are:
How much will my divorce cost? How long will it take?
There is no way to give a definitive answer to those questions at the outset of the case. It would be akin to walking into a diner and asking the waiter: “I am hungry – how much is dinner?” Well, if you want grilled cheese and a glass of water, dinner might cost you $3. If you want an appetizer, a salad, the surf and turf entrée, dessert and some drinks, that dinner might set you back $50. It all depends on what you need.
With the dinner order, the waiter can tell you exactly what your meal will cost before you have one bite of dinner. That is because you dictate exactly what food you will order. With divorce matters, the time spent by a lawyer is not controlled solely by the client. Rather, the divorcing parties - and their ability to reach consensus – will dictate the amount of time to be spent by attorneys.
Just as cost is difficult to predict, so, too, is time. Some divorce cases are concluded in 2-3 months. Others take 18-24 months. Here is one definite answer: Your divorce case should conclude within weeks of the signing of a settlement agreement. That sounds like an answer given by a lawyer since no one can predict in advance how quickly the parties will arrive at a settlement.
How about estimates or ranges?
In my experience, most divorces cost between $3,000 and $10,000 in legal fees. Let me try to break it down into categories.
$3,000 OR LESS
There are cases involving very short marriages without children and with limited marital assets where the parties pretty much know the outcome of the case, but need a lawyer to prepare the settlement agreement and divorce papers. These cases involve limited or no negotiations and permit the attorney to prepare the settlement agreement shortly after retention. Parties can expect to spend between $2,000 to $3,000 in legal fees and court costs. The length of the case can vary, but with cooperation, these cases can be completed within 2-3 months.
$3,000 to $5,000
Other cases involve marriages of varying lengths, but with parties who are in general agreement about the division of assets and parenting time. They just need guidance as to alimony and child support. These cases involve an exchange of financial information and some negotiation. Assuming the case can be resolved without the need for multiple court appearances, the legal fees can range from $3,000 to $5,000. Duration of case can vary from a few to several months.
$5,000 to $10,000
More complex cases require attorneys to spend more time and result in higher fees. Those cases generally involve one or more disputes over the following issues: (a) custody and/or parenting time; (b) the earning capacity of one or both parties; (c) the amount and/or duration of alimony; and (d) the value of a business owned by a party. These cases involve a comprehensive exchange of financial records and usually one or more settlement conferences. In order to keep legal fees in this range, the parties will generally resolve disputes without the need to ask the court to make decisions – whether through motions or trial. Legal fees vary, but can range from $5,000 to
$10,000. The length of the case can vary from several months to a year or more.
$10,000 or more
Legal fees exceed $10,000 where there is prolonged conflict between the parties. These cases often involve disputes over unreported income, who will raise children or how to value or divide assets. These cases often involve events which cause attorneys to devote a lot of attention to cases such as the filing of motions or pre-trial hearings. If an attorney charges $250 per hour, then the attorney will need to spend a minimum of 35-40 hours in order for the cost to exceed $10,000. That level of cost would be necessitated only by the attorney having to deal with a high level of conflict. These cases almost always involve multiple court appearances and can take one year or more to resolve.
If you could tell your attorney at the initial meeting exactly how much time the attorney would need to spend with phone conferences, office conferences, correspondence, research, court filings and court appearances, the attorney could give you a pretty accurate estimate as to the cost and duration of your divorce. Not unexpectedly, most parties have no idea as to how their divorce will play out. They have no idea how their soon-to-be ex-spouse will react. And they aren’t even sure how they will react.
There are law firms who thrive on instigating conflict over modest issues, thereby increasing the amount of time they will spend and the ultimate cost to the parties. The best way for you to avoid such firms is to interview attorneys and get your own sense as to how they will handle your matter.