That’s typically one of the first questions I get from newly divorcing individuals.
In California, in order to get divorced, you must go through the state prescribed divorce process. Depending upon a variety of factors, which we will discuss at length below, the cost of your divorce can vary dramatically.
You must first understand that it will cost you money to get divorced. It may cost you a lot of money if you let things get out of control.
How much does a divorce cost
The amount of money that you will pay can be managed by doing your best to keep costs under control. But there are many factors that are out of your control that may work to drive up your costs, no matter how cost efficiently you handle your divorce case.
Don’t be frightened. We have developed a few strategies for you to gain control over the cost of your case. The best way to gain control is with our fixed fees approach, a fees payment method for your case, where you be given a guaranteed dollar amount for your attorney’s fees. That way you will gain certainty over your attorney’s fees and will not have to constantly guess and worry about your fees.
Court filing fees
Here in Orange County, the first payment you will need to make is the fee for filing your initial pleadings with the court.
Although it changes every few years, the current fee for filing your divorce Petition is $435. You can find the current fee schedule at the website for the Superior Court of Orange County. The fee for filing your Response is also $435.
The filing fee for any Motion or Request for Order (RFO) you bring will cost you $60, except there is no cost to obtain a Domestic Violence Restraining Order.
When you have a final stipulated judgment or marital settlement agreement ending your case, you will not have to pay a fee either.
In certain limited situations, such as when you are getting public benefits, are a low-income person, or do not have enough income to pay for your household’s basic needs and your court fees, you can ask the court to waive all or part of your court fees. More information about having the court waive your fees can be found at the Superior Court’s website on fee waivers.
Charges for Legal Services
In your Orange County, California divorce, perhaps the biggest single expense will be for your legal services. In fact, according to some studies, the average cost for a divorce is $17,500, including $13,800 in attorney’s fees. And when a child is involved in your divorce, the average total cost goes up to $26,300, including $22,200 in attorney’s fees.
One way to control your costs is to represent yourself in your case. When you represent yourself, of course, you will have no legal fees. In many many cases in Orange County, it may not be a bad idea to represent yourself.
For example, couples who do not have children or who do not have enough assets to argue over can probably represent themselves, if they feel confident to do so. On the other hand, if you have money or kids, it’s usually a good idea to hire an experienced Orange County divorce attorney.
So, if you need to hire a lawyer, there are two ways lawyers charge for their services. One way that lawyers charge for their services is by the traditional hourly billing method. The other way is the rarely used, but highly advantageous, fixed or flat fee method.
This is the traditional model of attorney billing. In this option, the attorney will request a deposit from the client, normally $5000 to $25,000, and will keep track of the time each and every day that the attorney spends on their case. At the end of every month, the attorney adds up the number of hours that they have worked on the client’s case and multiplies that by their hourly rate.
A few years ago, a study showed that the average hourly rate for divorce lawyers was $330 per hour. Here in Orange County, that average rate is closer to $400 per hour, but you can expect to pay over $500 per hour for certain lawyers.
Every month, the lawyer will send you a detailed bill with the charges and will deduct the monthly bill from the deposit you have given them. When the deposit gets low, the lawyer will ask you for more money to refill your deposit.
The hourly billing method can be the most expensive and can be the most difficult for you to get costs under control. As long as your case is still open, your attorney will bill you for anything they do in your case.
Some people claim that there is an inherent conflict of interest between the attorney and the client. The client may want their divorce wrapped up as quickly as possible, while the attorney will only get paid as long as the case is still open. Does the lawyer actually want to finish the case quickly for the client?
Even if your lawyer wants to wrap up your divorce as quickly as possible, in the next section we will explain some of the factors out of your control that may end up dragging your case out and costing you even more money.
Fixed fee billing
The fixed or flat fee billing method will give you absolute certainty that you will pay no more than an agreed upon amount with your lawyer. The total bill will be laid out up front, before you hire the attorney, and the agreed upon amount will be all you will ever be charged for your divorce.
A few years ago, we needed to have a sink repaired in our bathroom. When I asked the plumber to tell me how much it would cost he explained that he billed by the hour and so he couldn’t give me a precise number. Later that afternoon, I found myself taking with the plumber about why certain faucets were better than others when I realized I was paying over $100 to have this discussion.
Later that same year, however, I needed some repairs to my garage door and the repairman quoted me specific fee for all of the work. That experience led me to try to provide our clients with the option of certainty in their divorce costs.
Factors affecting the cost of your divorce
In any divorce in Orange County, when asking how much does a divorce cost, there are several factors outside of your control that will have a profound effect on your divorce expense. Not only are most of these factors outside of your control, but they are also outside of your attorney’s control.
In general, the two greatest factors that can drive up your costs are how much conflict you have in your case and whether you have children. Outside of those two major obvious issues, there are several other factors that will contribute to your expenses.
The single greatest outside factor for driving up the cost of your divorce is your spouse. Parties to a divorce who want to drag out the process can cause you to spend a lot more on your case than you would like.
Are they emotionally ready for a divorce and moving on with their life? Or do they want to drag the case on and on because they actually refuse to admit to themselves that the relationship is over?
If your spouse believes that they are the victim in your divorce or if they are just plain angry, they can do many things to drag out the divorce process. These include refusing to respond to discovery requests, failing to submit required financial disclosures and filing unnecessary and harassing Motions or RFOs in your case.
All of these actions will cause your lawyer to have to file motions to compel discovery or even responses to your spouse’s frivolous motions. Of course, under the hourly billing method, any time that your attorney must work on your case will cost you money.
The more reasonable your spouse is in trying to come to an amicable resolution of your case, the less your divorce will cost you and your family. That’s money that can be used for college, weddings or just simply passed down to your children so they can have a better life.
The more your spouse wants to fight and drag out the process, the more your divorce will cost you. It’s fairly simple.
Your spouse’s lawyer
In many cases we have seen, your spouse’s lawyer can be a huge impediment to a swift and amicable resolution of your case. Sometimes they see a client who can afford to pay them and the lawyer becomes as difficult as possible, driving up fees for both sides. The advice they give your spouse can cause a prolonged and hard fought battle.
Competent and smart divorce attorneys will try to resolve issues amicably before rushing off to court to file unnecessary motions. For example, a simple phone call could have prevented a six month ordeal of court involvement to decide the correct amount of child support that my client was willing to accept.
Another factor that will impact the cost of your divorce will be the judge who handles your case. In Orange County and most of California, our judges can handle as many as 5,000 cases at any one time. With such an impossible caseload, many times the court will not have long to hear your case. In fact, they may need to continue it for months.
Sometimes, lawyers have to sit and wait for the judge to hear another matter only to finally be told that there is no time today to get before the judge—come back again in 3 weeks. All of these unfortunate delays can cause you to have to spend more on attorney’s fees than is necessary.
You may be the single greatest cause of higher attorney’s fees in your case. In that regard, there are many clients who seem to spend a lot of time with their lawyer because they like to chat about their spouse or even about their life in general. It’s going to be much cheaper to get family counseling from your mental health professional than pay your lawyer $400 per hour for a skill they probably don’t possess.
Also, don’t be unreasonable and ask your lawyer to provide you with results that just are not possible. If you want to file an RFO for spousal support and you are the one in the family who provides the income for your family, you should be prepared to pay unnecessary legal fees because that Motion is not going to be granted. But some clients want to do everything they can to make life difficult for their soon-to-be-ex-spouse. As such, they will run up their own fees even if it’s a Motion they cannot win.
Other Expenses That Contribute to the Cost of Divorce
After paying your attorney’s fees and court filing fees, there are other expenses that may contribute to the overall cost of your divorce. Depending upon your situation, they can include compensation for such items as:
◆ Appraisers for both real and personal property,
◆ Forensic accountants,
◆ Child custody evaluators,
◆ Vocational evaluators,
◆ Mental health counseling for both you and/or your children,
◆ Copying services,
◆ Court reporting services, and
◆ Broker fees for selling your marital residence.
Getting Your Costs Under Control
Up front you should discuss your financial situation with your lawyer and get them to understand that you do not have an unlimited budget. Then, you should do everything you can to minimize the expenses associated with your divorce and determine how much does a divorce cost.
The best way to get your legal fees under control is to work with an attorney who will use the fixed or flat fee method of billing. As we discussed, you will be able to completely understand exactly what your legal fees will be and not have to wonder how much will be billed every month.
If you don’t hire an Orange County divorce attorney who uses the fixed fee method, then you must remember that every time you contact your lawyer with a question you will be incurring a charge. Don’t just pick up the phone to talk to your lawyer. Rather, save up your questions and contact your lawyer when you have a several questions to ask them.
Finally, you can file an RFO to ask the judge to order your spouse to pay some or all of your legal bills. Typically, that works best when your spouse is in a better financial situation than you are.