Ask any lawyer, “How much does a divorce cost?” and the answer you’ll get is: “It depends!”
That’s because most divorce professionals (lawyers, therapists, accountants etc.) charge by the hour. The more work your divorce involves, the more hours the professionals will need to spend. The more hours they spend, the more money you’re going to pay.
Yet, the cost of a divorce involves much more than a simple “time = money” equation. In order to be able to estimate how much your divorce will cost, and to control those costs, you need to dig deeper. You need to figure out which behaviors, activities, and circumstances will cause your divorce professionals to have to spend more time working on your case (and therefore will cost you more money).
Factors That Influence How Much Your Divorce Will Cost
- Who you married. Divorcing a narcissist tends to be more complicated and contentious, and therefore more expensive, than divorcing a more normal human being. Having a spouse who drags his/her feet and doesn’t do what s/he is supposed to do will also make your divorce more costly and time-consuming.
- Which divorce professionals you use. Hiring a more expensive divorce lawyer if your case is simple OR hiring a cheap, inexperienced lawyer if your divorce is more complex, will both make your divorce cost more;
- Which divorce process you use. Litigating your divorce all the way through trial will cost you an inordinate amount of money. Negotiating your divorce directly with your spouse will be your least expensive alternative. Mediation, Collaborative Divorce and negotiating your issues through lawyers fall somewhere in the middle.
- Whether or not you're fighting over the kids. If you and your spouse can't agree on how you want to raise your children, the schedule for when each of you will see your kids after divorce or any other parenting issues, the cost of your divorce can increase dramatically.
- How complicated your financial situation is. Valuing assets like pensions, businesses, stock options, and real estate takes time and costs money. Having complex assets and debts also increases the cost of your divorce. That's because it takes longer for the divorce professionals to understand, analyze, and find a way to divide, complex assets and debts than it does to divide simple ones (like a house, cars and a 401(k). It also takes more knowledge and skill to divide complicated assets without causing unintended tax consequences.
While all of those factors MAY increase the cost of your divorce, the one factor that WILL increase the cost of your divorce unless you control it is: Your emotions.
The Effect of Emotions on the Cost of Divorce
Emotions are the #1 driver of divorce costs.
The more you can control your own emotions by NOT reacting when your spouse pushes your buttons and NOT doing stupid things out of anger or spite, the more you will be able to avoid spending money unnecessarily in your divorce.
The more you let your emotions run wild, the more you and your spouse will fight. The more you and your spouse fight, the more expensive your divorce will be.
While that may sound simplistic, it’s also brutally honest.
Divorce lawyers typically charge between $250 – $650 per hour, or more. The more time they spend on your case, the more money you spend on them.
And lawyers aren’t the only divorce professionals you’re going to have to pay if you and your spouse fight.
If you and your spouse are fighting over money you may have to hire forensic accountants, real estate appraisers, mortgage brokers, business evaluators, and financial planners to get through your divorce. If you and your spouse are fighting over the kids you may have to hire private investigators, custody evaluators, and extra lawyers to represent your children or be guardians ad litem for your kids.
Every extra professional you have to pay increases the amount of money you have to spend.
But the cost of your divorce professionals aren’t the only expenses you’re going to have in your divorce. If you truly want to answer the question, “How much will a divorce cost?” you’ve also got to consider the hidden costs of divorce.
The Hidden Costs of Divorce
While the cost of hiring lawyers, accountants and other divorce professionals is fairly obvious, divorce also creates costs that tend to fly under the radar.
For example, married couples get to take advantage of the economies of scale. It costs far less to pay for one household with two people than it does to pay for two households with one person each.
What’s more, dividing one household into two costs money. The second home needs furniture, furnishings, and all kinds of miscellaneous “stuff” just to make it livable. While it may not seem like setting up a new place will be that expensive, you may be surprised by how much money you will spend buying a second vacuum cleaner, lawn mower, dining room set, etc.
Moving also costs money. Putting a security deposit on an apartment, or a down payment on a house, costs money.
In short, everything about your divorce - and all of the life changes it causes - will likely cost you money.
Here are some other hidden divorce costs you might not have considered.
If you file your income taxes as married filing jointly, you will usually pay the least amount of income taxes. Once you divorce, you have to file your income tax return as a single person. That typically means that you will pay income taxes at a higher rate than you did when you were married.
What’s more, with all of the recent tax law changes, the income tax consequences of divorce will likely be even greater now than they were before.
Getting divorced and dividing your assets can also trigger extra income taxes or even capital gains taxes. (That’s especially true if the asset division is done without considering the tax consequences of the split.)
For example, if you and your spouse own any stocks, bonds, or other investments, and you sell all or part of them in your divorce, you may be facing capital gains taxes. If you or your spouse withdraws funds from a retirement account to pay your divorce expenses, or to pay off one spouse, the amount you withdrew will then be subject to income tax (and potentially a penalty as well.)
While you can transfer money between your retirement account and your spouse’s retirement account in a divorce without creating a tax consequence, to reap that benefit you have to make sure that you transfer the money in the right way. If you screw it up, you may find yourself with a hefty tax burden you didn’t see coming.
2. Real Estate Expenses
If you have to sell your house because of your divorce, you will have to pay the realtor’s fees and closing costs of the sale. If your house needs repairs before it can be sold, you will have to pay for those too. Plus, if you’re forced to sell your house in a bad market, you may get less for your house than you think it is worth.
All of those expenses are hidden costs of divorce.
Of course, NOT selling your house can be expensive too.
If you have to buy out your spouse’s interest in your house, you first have to agree on what your house is worth. That may involve getting multiple appraisals. Plus, if both you and your spouse are on the loan for the house, someone is going to have to pay to refinance that loan.
And, with interest rates going up, the amount of interest you have to pay on your newly refinanced loan may be significantly more than it is right now.
3. Employment Costs
It’s not uncommon for divorce to force a spouse who hasn’t been working for a while back into the workforce. While that will generate income in the long run, it will still cost money right now.
For example, if you’ve been out of the workplace for a while you may have to pay to get additional training or education to improve your resume or your skills. You may need to get a new certification or degree.
What’s more, even if your education and skills don’t need an upgrade, your wardrobe might! If you want to get a good job, you’ve got to look good at your interview. Then, when you’ve gotten the job, you have to look presentable every day when you show up.
Finally, once you have a job you’ll need to travel to and from that job. (… unless you’ll be working from home.) So you’ll have to pay for a car, gas, a train, etc.
The bottom line is that even getting a job will cost money you’re not currently spending.
Divorce takes a huge emotional toll on everyone involved in the process.
It’s hard on you, your spouse, and your kids. While, hopefully, everyone will eventually adjust, you, your spouse and/or your kids may need help along the way. That means therapy – and therapy, too, costs money.
Thankfully, your medical insurance may cover at least a portion of the cost of therapy. But if you exceed the allowable number of visits that your insurance allows, or your insurance doesn’t cover the cost of therapy, then you may find yourself having to budget for this expense, too.
At the same time, investing in therapy may actually save you money in your divorce. (Remember, the #1 driver of divorce costs is your emotions!) So, what you lose paying for therapy you may gain back in lower legal fees.
5. Health Insurance
When you’re married, you, your spouse, and your kids typically share one health insurance policy. Once you are divorced, that ends.
Most health insurers will not continue to cover you on your spouse’s insurance policy after you are divorced. Since it’s typically cheaper for both spouses to be covered on one insurance policy than it is for each spouse to have his/her own policy, getting divorced usually means that collectively your family will pay more for health insurance.
While you may think that health insurance shouldn’t be a problem because you can just go through COBRA, that’s not necessarily true. While COBRA ensures that you can continue to get insurance through your spouse’s employer after your divorce, COBRA doesn’t apply to all employers.
That means it may be available to you … or not. It depends on who your spouse works for.
What’s more, even if COBRA does apply, it’s usually expensive.
When you get insurance through COBRA you have to pay both your portion of the insurance premium (i.e. what your spouse pays) AND the employer’s portion of the insurance premium (ie what your spouse’s employer pays). Generally, that means that COBRA ends up costing you much more.
So How Much Does a Divorce Cost?
According to Forbes Magazine, the average cost of a divorce in the U.S. is between $15,000 - $20,000. More complicated divorces cost much more, while simpler divorces can cost less. The median price for a divorce is $7,000.00.
Lawyers.com lists the average cost of divorce at $15,500. And the online legal document production company, Legal Zoom, claims that you can get an uncontested divorce for under $500 if you don’t use lawyers and do all of the paperwork yourself. (Good luck with that!)
When you factor in the hidden costs of divorce, it’s easy to see that the real cost of divorce probably starts at thousands of dollars (or tens of thousands of dollars!) and goes up from there.
The good news is that, with a little work and the right attitude, you keep your divorce costs within a much more reasonable range. Here’s how.
12 Tips for Keeping Your Divorce Costs Under Control
1. Get a Therapist.
If your emotions are the #1 driver of divorce costs, then getting a therapist is the #1 way to keep those costs under control.
A good therapist can help you manage your emotions, which in turn helps dial down the drama in your divorce. S/he can help you understand why you and your spouse are in conflict, and how you can handle that conflict productively.
A therapist can also help you learn to communicate with your spouse in a way that allows each of you to actually hear what the other is saying. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been able to speak to each other in a civilized way for ages. With the right tools, and the right motivation (i.e. not incurring divorce costs that are the size of the national debt) you can learn how to successfully communicate with your spouse.
2. Talk to your spouse.
Yes, it really is that simple. (Okay, so talking to your spouse may not be so simple. It’s still worth a try.) The more things that you and your spouse can agree on yourselves, the less there is for the lawyers to argue about.
Talking directly to your spouse also cuts the most expensive middlemen (your lawyers) out of your conversation.
While doing that is not a good idea if your spouse is abusive, violent, or can easily manipulate you, for most people, having even a semi-reasonable conversation with your spouse can save you tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
3. Talk to your lawyer.
Really. You should know your lawyer’s strategy and have at least some estimate of what implementing that strategy will cost you BEFORE your lawyer starts doing a ton of legal work you might not need and don’t want to pay for.
For example, if your lawyer plans on sending multiple subpoenas, taking depositions and burying your spouse in a mountain of discovery requests, you should ask your lawyer how much doing all of that will cost you.
You should also be able to talk to your lawyer about your options. While taking a more amicable approach in your case may not get you quite as much money as fighting in court would, if fighting will cost you more than what you stand to gain from the fight, then why do it?
4. Get organized.
If your lawyer asks you for financial documents, and you deliver them in a disorganized mess, your lawyer is going to have to sort through all of your documents and organize them for you. S/he will also charge you $250 - $650 an hour to do it.
If you don’t deliver financial documents to your lawyer at all, you will have to pay for multiple unnecessary phone calls, emails, and probably court appearances while your lawyer dogs you to get information you should have simply produced.
If you get your lawyer what s/he needs in a timely manner, you can save yourself thousands of dollars in unnecessary legal fees. If you organize your documents before you give them to your attorney too, your savings will grow even more.
5. Do your own legwork.
Doing your own divorce legwork may be a hassle, but it’s usually not all that complicated.
For example, if you have access to your financial information, it will be far cheaper to get the information yourself than it will be to have your lawyer send subpoenas to multiple banks and credit card companies once your divorce in in process. (NOTE: That often means preparing for your divorce in advance. Once you start your divorce financial information has a funny way of suddenly going missing!)
If you suspect that your spouse is hiding assets or information, dig around for that information yourself first. If you need to hire a private investigator to find more, you can do that too. But if you wait until you’ve gotten all the information you can get on your own FIRST you may find that you don’t even need to hire a private investigator or a forensic accountant at all.
6. Stay out of court!
Every time your lawyer drafts a document or goes to court, it costs you money. Every time you call your lawyer, or send an email, it costs you money.
Sure, sometimes you have to go to court. And you can’t expect your lawyer to be on top of everything in your case if you don’t talk to him/her. But, the more things you can work out on your own, without your lawyer, the less your divorce will cost.
One alternative worth exploring is mediation. While mediation itself costs money, you will generally spend substantially less money on mediation than you would by going to court. Or, you could go back to tip #2 and just talk to your spouse! It may not be comfortable, and it may not be fun. But, with the amount of money you can save in legal fees by working things out with your spouse yourself, it also may be worth it!
7. Don’t sweat the small stuff!
Every dispute you have with your spouse does not have to turn into a major battle.
Spending $500 in attorney’s fees to fight about a $100 vacuum cleaner is stupid (… especially when you didn’t ever like that vacuum cleaner in the first place!)
Not everything in your divorce is worth fighting about. If you think it is, then chances are, your emotions are clouding your judgment. A good therapist can help you deal with that. (See Tip #1)
8. Educate Yourself.
I know it sounds cliché, but knowledge really is power. Being educated can also save a lot of money.
The more you know about divorce in advance, the less time and money you will have to spend asking your lawyer basic questions. Of course, you'll still need legal advice to get through your divorce. But if you already understand the basic divorce concepts, the time you spend with your attorney can be much more focused.
For example, instead of asking how child support works, you can talk about how much child support you are likely to pay in your divorce. Instead of discussing the pros and cons of mediation in general, you can talk about whether mediation is right for you. In short, by educating yourself in advance of your divorce you can shortcut the time and money your divorce costs.
9. Use the right professional for the right problem.
If the only divorce professional on your divorce team is your divorce lawyer, you're probably going to pay him/her a lot more than you need to. That's because lawyers are typically the most expensive divorce professionals you will have. Divorce coaches, therapists and divorce financial advisers generally charge less than lawyers. So, using your lawyer to do things that cheaper professionals could do better makes no financial sense.
It's also wildly inefficient.
For example, lawyers typically charge two to three times as much as therapists. Most lawyers also have zero mental health training. So, when you call your lawyer screaming because your spouse is making you crazy, your lawyer will probably listen. Then, when you're done, your lawyer will tell you to call your therapist. That conversation will cost you hundreds of dollars ... and it will accomplish nothing.
10. Run a Cost/Benefit Analysis Before Every Fight.
This may sound cold, but the financial parts of your divorce are really nothing more than business decisions. Yes, they FEEL like more. But that's because your emotions are all wound up around them. If you take the emotions out of the equation, money is money.
If you spend $1000 in legal fees fighting over a $50 coffee maker, you have just wasted $950. No one cares that your mother gave you that coffee maker as a wedding gift. It’s a coffee maker!
Of course, some things do have a lot of sentimental value. Sometimes your spouse will be a jerk and refuse to give you those things precisely because s/he knows you care about them. When that happens, you need to take a step back. Really evaluate how much the thing that you are fighting for is really worth to you. Then, if you really want to fight, go ahead and fight. Just know what the fight is costing you.
11. Don’t drag things out unnecessarily.
The longer your case is open, the more your divorce costs grow.
Every 30 - 60 days your lawyer has to go to court to tell the judge what's happening. Your lawyer has to do that even if nothing is happening. Meanwhile, you have to pay your lawyer for every single court appearance.
What’s more, just having your divorce case open increases the amount of conflict between you and your spouse. Being in the middle of litigation - any litigation - is stressful. The more stressed you are, the more likely you and your spouse are to fight. The more you fight, the uglier your divorce gets. The uglier it gets, the longer it takes to resolve anything. Meanwhile, your lawyers keep going to court.
12. Be reasonable.
You are not going to get everything you want. That’s just not the way divorce (or life, for that matter) works. If your spouse has made a settlement proposal that is at least in the ballpark of where you are likely going to end up, consider it!
I’m not saying that you should cave in to every crazy demand your spouse may have. You certainly don’t want to walk away with nothing while your spouse gets everything. But, settling a divorce requires compromise. And that compromise probably isn’t going to feel good. It will, however, stop your financial bleeding.
The worst thing you can do if you want to keep your divorce costs down is to dig your heels in "on principle." True, sometimes principles matter. But, if you find yourself resisting every possible compromise "on principle," you might want to take a deeper look at what is going on. Chances are, it is not the "principle," but your emotions, that are getting in the way of resolving your divorce.
So How Much Does a Divorce Cost? … It Depends!
Like it or not, every divorce is different. How much your divorce will cost depends on a whole host of factors – not all of which are under your control.
At the same time, if you work to control those costs that ARE under your control, you can significantly reduce the amount that your divorce ultimately costs you.
This post was originally published in October, 2018 and updated on August 2, 2023.