Divorce is almost always an unpleasant process. But it doesn't always have to be a drawn-out legal battle that results in added emotional and financial pain. Many couples have found that divorce mediation can help them decide how they'll handle the practical issues in their divorce— including dividing their property and debts, child custody and visitation, child support, and alimony—in a way that lessens conflict and fosters cooperation. It can also help them save on the cost of divorce.
When couples go through successful mediation—meaning that it leads to a settlement agreement on all of the issues in a divorce—they can avoid the considerable expense of a traditional, adversarial divorce proceeding. Also, as studies have shown, people who mediate a divorce settlement are less likely to go back to court after the divorce to request changes like a custody modification—which adds even more expense.
But how much does the mediation itself cost? There isn't one simple answer to that question. As with the overall expense of divorce, the price of divorce mediation will depend on several factors, which we'll get into below. However, the biggest difference in price depends on which of the three basic types of mediation you use:
In private divorce mediation, you and your spouse will choose and pay a neutral, trained mediator. Or you might choose a divorce mediation service that will provide you with a mediator (more on that below). Rather than making decisions for you (as a judge would), or advocating for one side or the other (as your lawyers would), the mediator will help the two of you come up with solutions to the issues that need resolving in your divorce—solutions you can both agree on. (Learn more about what happens in divorce mediation.)
The total cost of private divorce mediation is typically between $3,000 and $8,000, but it can be outside of that range in some cases. If you and your spouse split the fee 50-50, as most couples do, that would translate to a typical cost of $1,500 to $4,000 for each of you.
How much you end up paying will depend on two basic ingredients in the cost: the mediator's rate (usually hourly or by the session) and how many hours of mediation it will take to reach an agreement on the issues in your case. Several factors go into each of these basic ingredients, as we'll explain below.
Private mediators quote their fees in different ways, such as:
For comparison purposes, we'll look at hourly rates. But before we get to the numbers, it's important to point out that private divorce mediators come in two general types:
Of these two categories, attorney-mediators usually charge higher rates—typically $250 to $500 an hour. In comparison, typical hourly rates for nonattorney-mediators range from about $100 to $350. For both types, the fees you'll encounter will vary depending on the mediator's specialized training and credentials, experience, and location (with higher rates generally seen in large, expensive metropolitan areas).
Also, a few private mediators charge on a sliding scale (or semi-sliding scale), taking into account your income level. It's not common, but it's always worth asking.
There are advantages and disadvantages to using a lawyer or another type of professional to mediate your divorce (which we'll touch on later in this article). With either choice, you should ask about the mediator's other credentials, specialized training, and experience, including experience with divorce mediation in your state. You should also ask whether you'll need to pay a retainer fee (like a deposit) and, if so, how much.
When you're comparison shopping, it should be easy to find out what a private mediator will charge per hour or per session. Unless you're quoted a flat fee, the hard part is figuring out what the total bill will be. (And even with flat fees, mediators or mediation services often tack on additional hourly charges if the couple can't reach a settlement during the allotted time.)
Private mediators' websites often include rosy predictions like "Most clients resolve their issues in two or three sessions." But how do you know whether you'll be in that "most clients" group? Any reasonable estimate of how long mediation is likely to take in your case—and therefore the total cost—requires a consideration of your specific circumstances, including:
Some of these factors can also affect whether it makes sense to use an attorney-mediator or one who has expertise in the financial aspects of divorce or in interpersonal conflict resolution and/or couples therapy.
In addition to these case-considerations, other factors could affect the cost of private mediation, such as:
Some private mediators or mediation services will quote a flat rate after an initial evaluation of your case. There are also companies that offer flat-rate packages for divorce mediation services in some states, without having to evaluate your situation. The price for either type of flat-rate package is typically between $4,000 and $5,500, though it can go higher in complex cases.
Mediation packages might include different levels of service or features, so it's important to look at the details when you're comparing costs. For instance:
In most states, if you've filed for divorce and have children but can't agree with your spouse on a parenting plan, the court will order you to child custody mediation. Court-ordered mediation is usually provided through the state or county court system and is either free, at a reduced rate, or on a sliding scale tied to your income. When there's a charge, you can usually request a waiver if you can't afford it.
Even if it's not required, you might be able to request free or low-cost court-sponsored mediation in some states or counties. Usually, this service is available only after you've filed for divorce. For example:
Court-sponsored mediation is almost always limited to custody and visitation issues, though a few courts offer mediation on other issues as well. For instance, when couples are ordered to mediation in Tennessee, the court will usually allow them to try to resolve other issues in mediation (like what happens to the house or retirement plans) after they've agreed to a parenting plan.
You should be able to find out about local court-sponsored mediation programs (and the fees) by calling or searching the website of your county court or the state court system.
If you can't afford private mediation and can't (or don't want to) use court-sponsored mediation, you might look into whether there's a community organization in your area that offers divorce mediation services. Usually, community mediation is either free or on a sliding scale, if you meet the qualifications. Some agencies that use volunteer mediators (who may be attorneys) will ask you to pay only a small fee for administrative expenses.
Because community mediation services don't require that you have an active divorce case in the court system, this might also be a low-cost option after your divorce is final if, for instance, you and your ex have a coparenting dispute and want to avoid returning to court.
You can search for a local community mediation center on the website for the National Association for Community Mediation. (Outside of that association, there might be other nonprofit organizations that offer mediation services.) Because some of these organizations won't mediate some or all divorce issues, be sure to ask about that. You should also ask about the mediators' qualifications and training in divorce issues, because that can vary considerably from program to program.
When you're figuring out the cost of mediation, it's important to consider other associated costs in a mediated divorce. Along with required court fees to file the divorce petition, these other costs may include:
As with most financial decisions, sometimes you'll end up paying more in the end if you choose a mediation service based solely on the direct cost. Here are a few things to consider when you're looking to save money on mediation: