Naturally, if you're facing divorce, you want to know how much it's going to cost. There's no easy answer to that question, because final bills can vary widely, depending on the circumstances. The most important factors affecting costs are whether you hire a lawyer, how much you agree with your spouse about the important issues in your divorce, and how quickly you can work out disagreements.
But that's by no means the end of the story.
Here, we'll uncover what others have typically paid for their divorces under the most common scenarios. We also will help you understand what that might mean for your own case.
Although many couples are able to go through a divorce without hiring an attorney, there are some circumstances where a divorce lawyer is necessary or strongly recommended. Even in other situations, you may simply prefer to have a lawyer take care of all the paperwork, negotiating, and other legal matters involved in a divorce—if you can afford it. But how do you know if you'll be able to pay the attorney's fees? Our survey results might help.
The first part of the total bill for a divorce lawyer is the hourly rate. Our survey showed an average rate of $270 an hour for divorce lawyers across the United States, but individual rates varied a lot. Although nearly seven in ten people (69%) paid between $200 and $300 an hour, about one in ten (11%) paid $100 per hour, and two in ten (20%) paid $400 or more. Our separate study on hourly rates reported by family lawyers across the U.S. showed significant regional differences, with the highest rates reported by attorneys in large cities on the coasts. The same study also showed that rates were higher for more experienced attorneys—no big surprise there.
Of course, a lawyer's hourly rate won't tell you how many hours will go into the final bill. In our survey, people who hired a full-scope divorce lawyer—meaning the attorney handled everything in the case, from start to finish—paid an average of $11,300 in attorneys' fees.
If those results give you sticker shock, it may help to remember that a few people with very high costs can skew the average. To learn what costs were more typical for those who hired divorce lawyers, we also looked at the median—the middle of the range, where half paid less and half paid more. In our survey, the median total for attorneys' fees was $7,000. It may also help to know that more than four in 10 people in our survey (42%) paid $5,000 or less in attorneys' fees.
When you hire a full-scope attorney to handle your divorce, the lawyer's fees will be your biggest expense. But there are other expenses as well. You'll have to pay filing fees and other court costs (more on that below). Also, depending on the circumstances in your divorce, you might have to pay fees for child custody evaluators, real estate appraisers, tax advisors, and other experts. The people in our survey who had had divorce lawyers reported paying an average of $1,480 for these other costs. The more typical median for these expenses was $500.
In order to dig deeper into what can make the total bill for attorneys' fees and other costs higher in some divorces, our survey asked people about the contested issues in their divorces—such as disagreements over child custody, child support, alimony, and dividing their property and debts. The type of dispute made very little difference in average costs. Instead, the real driver of increased divorce costs was the number of contested issues and whether couples had to go to trial to resolve those issues—as opposed to resolving them through an out-of-court settlement. For instance:
If you can't afford to hire a full-scope divorce attorney, it could still be wise to seek out legal advice or help at some point along the way—especially to make sure that your rights are protected in any settlement. You might be able to hire a consulting attorney for specific tasks, such as helping you understand and complete divorce forms, preparing for mediation, drafting or reviewing a proposed settlement agreement, or representing you in court appearances. In our survey, only one in 10 people said they had hired a consulting lawyer in their divorce. But they typically saved a lot of money on attorneys' fees; the average total fees for consulting attorneys were $4,600, and the median total was $3,000.
If you and your spouse can go through the divorce process either completely on your own or with help from a mediator and/or an online divorce service, it will almost always be far less expensive than hiring a full-scope attorney. In our survey, people who handled their divorce without hiring a lawyer had an average of $925 in costs, not including the cost of mediation. More typical, however, was the median cost of $300. Let's look at what went into those expenses, as well as mediation fees.
When you file for divorce, the court will charge a filing fee. And if your spouse is the one who started the process by filing the initial divorce petition, you will typically have to pay a fee to file your answer to the petition.
Filing fees for divorce petitions vary from state to state—and from county to county in certain states—ranging from about $100 to over $400. In some places, fees are lower when you don't have minor children, or when you meet other qualifications for simplified divorce procedures. And in some states, you and your spouse can save on these fees by filing the divorce petition together if you've already reached an agreement about all of the issues in your divorce.
You might also have to pay smaller court fees to hire a process server, file other documents in your case, and get a certified copy of the final divorce decree. (Learn more about the divorce process, including filing and serving the petition.)
In case you can't afford the filing fees where you live, you can usually apply for a waiver from the court.
For people who pursue a contested divorce without hiring a lawyer, there may also be additional expenses for evaluations and appraisals. (For instance, judges might require custody evaluations when couples haven't been able to agree on a parenting plan.)
More and more divorcing couples are turning to mediation as a way to save money—as well reduce the conflict and stress of divorce. You can use divorce mediation in a wide range of circumstances. For example:
Like the overall cost of divorce itself, the cost of divorce mediation can vary widely, depending on the circumstances of your case and whether you use private mediation or court-sponsored mediation. Typically, private divorce mediation costs between $3,000 and $8,000—but you'll usually split that total bill with your spouse.
Most court-sponsored mediation services are free, low cost, or on a sliding scale based on your income. However, these programs typically only cover mediation of disputes related to child custody.
What if you've agreed with your spouse about the issues in your divorce—either on your own or with the help of a mediator—but you don't have the time or other resources to figure out which divorce forms you'll need, to fill them out properly, and to know where and how to file them? You could use an online divorce service to help with those tasks. These services cost from about $150 to $500 (though some have monthly charges).