I'm asked this question at least once every single day. My answer is always the same: (1) There's no such thing as "the average divorce"; and (2) It depends. The only lawyer who can predict for you what your divorce will cost is someone who possesses the gift of clairvoyance. The good news is that the cost of any divorce depends almost entirely on the level of conflict or cooperation between the divorcing parties; i.e. the cost of your divorce is within yours and your spouse's control.
Let's start with what we do know. The filing fee for a Petition for Dissolution, as of January 1, 2015 is $435. Likewise, the responding party's first appearance, i.e. first document filed with the court, usually his or her Response to the Petition, will also cost $435. If any motions are filed during the pendency of the case, each motion has a filing fee of $60, plus a mandatory fee as an advance for the court reporter's services of $30. Thus, any time a motion is filed, $90 is paid with it. Other costs may include (depending entirely on the specific facts and circumstances of your case) a Custody Evaluation, the appointment of Minor's Counsel, the hiring of forensic accountants, property appraisers, etc. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The real cost of any divorce is time. Your lawyer charges for his or her time. How much time is spent getting your matter to judgment is where the gift of clairvoyance comes into play. The more conflict between the parties, the more time is spent on your case and therefore the more fees that are generated.
Best case scenario: There's no conflict. You and your spouse agree on everything. After the Petition for Dissolution is filed and responded to, the parties exchange their required financial disclosures, a settlement agreement is easily reached, the attorney prepares the stipulated judgment and judgment forms, everyone signs, the judgment package is submitted to the court. Poof! My best guesstimate of the cost of this perfect divorce is about $3000 - including filing fees and attorney time. This, of course, depends in part on what your attorney's hourly rate is.
Worst case scenario: Not only is there conflict regarding division of assets and debts, but also with custody issues related to minor children. A custody evaluation might be ordered by the court or agreed to by the parties. The parties and their counsel spend months (maybe even years) attempting to settle. There may be multiple motions filed in the interim for temporary orders regarding spousal or child support and regarding custody. The case may end up going to trial, if the parties, in the end, cannot reach an agreement. A case like this can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100s of thousands of dollars.
Then there's the somewhere-in-between-case. The parties agree on some issues, but not on others. After much back and forth, they finally reach an agreement regarding division of assets, debts, custody, and/or support. Let's call this one a $15,000 - $25,000 case. Again, as always, this depends in part on what your attorney's hourly rate is and how much time was spent on the "back and forth".
So now you're thinking, what if we handle the divorce on our own, without an attorney? Personally, I have been retained by many divorcing parties, after they went to a paralegal, or We The People, or Legal Grind, or similar non lawyer document preparation companies. While this may work for some people, I've found over the years, that often the person providing the legal assistance does not know California Family Law and mistakes are made. After mistakes are made and money has been spent on these services, the client then seeks out the assistance of an attorney to fix the mistakes and move the case towards judgment.
Here's my favorite example - client hires me 5 years after he believed he was divorced. He used a document preparation service and was assisted by someone who identified herself as a paralegal. This person had no idea what documents were needed to get the matter to judgment. My client had no idea that the paralegal was doing anything wrong. She eventually prepared a stipulated judgment and then FORGED IT, and told my client he was divorced. The "ex" wife then moved back to her home country and eventually remarried thinking she was divorced. It was not until she tried to come back to the United States and obtain a green card that she found out she and my client were never divorced. Client reported to me having spent at least $1500 on the paralegal. He then had to hire a lawyer (me) to fix it, 5 years later. This was and could have been a simple dissolution. The original divorce case could have been completed by an attorney, properly, the first time, and cost the client thousands less than it ultimately cost him.
Property settlements, support and child custody disputes can be very complicated. A lawyer can tell you how a judge may divide your property and help you put your property settlement agreement into writing. A lawyer can help you understand your rights and duties concerning your children. A lawyer can assist you if an unexpected problem comes up. And a lawyer can advise you on how much money, if any, you should pay or receive for spousal or child support.
Bottom line. How much does it cost to get a divorce? It depends.
Tips for How to Keep Your Costs Low
1. Know What You're Agreeing To The real cost of divorce can come from not understanding the financial consequences of a settlement. Tax consequences, underperforming investments, depreciating assets and a budget that cannot withstand the pressures of inflation will cause people to literally go bankrupt as a result of divorce.
2. Act Fast The number one factor for cost in a divorce is how long the case lasts. The more time a lawyer works on the divorce, the more costly it becomes. Coming to agreements and keeping down the fighting helps.
3. Play Nice Coming to an agreement with your ex will help you move your divorce along faster, but that will also mean lower costs associated with attorney's fees. While nobody wants to go through a divorce, if you are going to have your marriage break up, it's best that it be amicable if possible. The more you and your spouse can work out on your own, the cheaper the divorce will be.
4. Sign a Prenuptial Agreement While you may not be able to go back in time and get a prenuptial agreement, it is still the best way to keep costs down when it comes to divorce. It's not very romantic, but it's sensible. You wouldn't enter a business partnership without a written agreement, so why do people enter a marriage without one?