It depends. Annoying answer but true!
In California, family law attorneys and mediators bill clients hourly rates ranging from $300 – $800 per hour, depending on the professional’s years of experience, location and reputation in the community. In my opinion, the cost of a divorce will vary depending on the following variables:
- The process option chosen;
- The professionals involved;
- The level of conflict between the spouses; and
- The complexity of the legal issues.
In this article, I will discuss the process options available to a couple contemplating a legal separation or divorce. The process options include mediation, collaborative divorce, and litigation.
Of the options reviewed in this article, mediation is the least expensive in my opinion. During mediation, spouses meet several times with a neutral divorce mediator who facilitates discussions and helps them to reach agreements. Each spouse typically retains a consulting attorney to give them legal advice, help them with strategy, and review any written agreements drafted by the mediator. Generally, the consulting attorneys do not attend the mediation sessions. However, in some cases, the mediator may request that the consulting attorneys attend mediation to help their clients come to an agreement.
Mediation is more likely to be successful when both spouses are knowledgeable about the marital finances and cooperative in the disclosure of income, assets and debts. Not all cases are suitable for mediation. If there are restraining orders in effect, issues of intimate partner violence, active substance abuse by either participant, or other power imbalance issues that cannot be remedied by the mediator, mediation is likely not a suitable option.
I estimate the cost to mediate a divorce from start to finish with a trained mediator and consulting attorneys to be $15,000 – $100,000 depending on the number of sessions required, the dynamic between the spouses, and the complexity of the legal issues.
Collaborative divorce is a form of alternate dispute resolution process that emphasizes long lasting resolutions that are in the best interests of all family members and keeps the well-being of the children at the forefront. The goal is a win-win situation. It is a private, non-adversarial method of resolving a divorce without going to court. Spouses negotiate a divorce settlement agreement with the support of their respective collaboratively trained attorneys, mental health coaches, and financial neutral. Some cases will also involve a child specialist.
In my experience, clients in a collaborative divorce typically spend less money on their attorneys than they would in a litigated divorce. This is because the attorneys are less involved in the preparation of the financial disclosures and negotiation of parenting plans. For instance, in a contested, litigated divorce, each spouse works with their attorney’s office to gather the necessary financial documents and prepare the Preliminary Declarations of Disclosure, extensive and sometimes burdensome forms that are required to be exchanged in a California divorce. There can be a lot of overlap and duplication of efforts. Similarly, in a litigated case, two parents could each spend $50,000 or more to obtain a parenting plan or custody orders from the court. Their fees could be even higher if the court appoints a custody evaluator to conduct a custody evaluation. In a collaborative case, the parents typically negotiate the parenting plan with the assistance of their mental health professionals, who bill at a much lower hourly rate than attorneys do.
While every case is different, I estimate the total cost of a collaborative divorce to be about $50,000 – $150,000 each.
Litigation is the default for two people who do not agree to use an alternative dispute resolution method, such as mediation or collaborative divorce. The overall cost of a litigated case depends on the attorneys involved, level of conflict between the spouses, and complexity of the legal issues. Litigation tends to be the most expensive option, especially in acrimonious or high-conflict cases.
In my opinion, a litigated divorce can range from $50,000 (each) to $500,000 or more, excepting accounting and other professional fees.
Importance of Process Selection
Clients should carefully educate themselves about the various options in consultation with their family law attorney or other divorce professional. In my view, the selection of a process option is one of the most important decisions a client will make in the divorce process. I also remind prospective clients that just because an option worked well for a friend or family member does not mean that it is the right option for their case. Again, I recommend that clients research the various process options or attend a local Divorce Options™ workshop for more information about the options available. For more information about Divorce Options™, visit: https://collaborativedivorcecalifornia.com/find-a-divorce-options-class/