If you're like most people facing the end of a marriage, you're probably anxious about all of the unknowns ahead. One of those unknowns is the expense of getting divorced.
The final cost of your divorce will depend largely on your family's unique circumstances—as well as some important choices you make. So it's almost impossible to predict how much you'll pay without knowing the details.
Still, it is possible to provide a clear picture of typical costs under some common scenarios, as well as the factors that can raise or lower those costs.
Before we get into the numbers, it's important to emphasize that many different factors affect how much your divorce will cost. But the biggest cost differences hinge on the answers to three questions:
When you look into hiring a divorce lawyer, the first price tag you'll probably encounter is the attorney's hourly rate. In a national survey we conducted of readers who told us about the cost of their own divorce, the average rate they paid their attorneys was $270 an hour. We also conducted a separate study of hourly rates charged by family lawyers around the country, which showed that typical rates vary from about $200 to over $300 per hour—and even more for experienced family law attorneys in large metropolitan areas.
But the final bill is what really matters. The number of hours your lawyer will need to spend on your divorce rests on a variety of factors—especially the complexity of your case and your ability to reach a settlement with your spouse on the issues.
In our survey, the vast majority of readers who hired divorce lawyers had the attorneys handle their entire case—what's known as “full-scope” representation. Those readers paid an average of $11,300 in total attorneys' fees (not counting what their spouses paid for their own lawyers). The median amount was $7,000 (half of the readers paid less than that and half paid more).
But overall averages are only part of the picture. Two factors make a huge difference in attorneys' fees: the number of contested issues in the divorce, and whether couples reach a settlement or go to trial on those issues. Consider this:
The issues in your divorce won't just affect how much you'll pay a lawyer—they'll also affect whether you need a lawyer in the first place. Here are a couple of takeaways on that:
Also, regardless of disagreements, people who owned houses or businesses with their spouses were more likely to hire full-scope lawyers than people who didn't have these types of assets to divide in the divorce. (See more detailed survey results on when people hire divorce lawyers.)
Finally, it's worth noting that when it comes to hiring a divorce attorney, full-scope representation isn't the only option, even if it's the most common approach. Depending on your situation, you might be able to save on your legal costs by hiring a consulting attorney to handle limited tasks in your divorce (more on this option below).
With or without a lawyer, you will have to pay some basic court fees, and you might have added costs for mediation (both of which are discussed below). But because people who hire lawyers are more likely to have complex cases, they're also more likely to have other expenses, such as:
Case complexity is probably why our survey showed that readers with full-scope attorneys paid more for these sorts of costs (an overall average of $1,880) than those who handled their own divorce ($1,170, on average).
If a DIY divorce is the right choice for your situation, there's no doubt that it will cost much less than hiring a full-scope divorce lawyer. On average, the readers in our survey who handled their own divorce paid a total of $1,170 in costs. The more typical cost—the median amount—was only $300. That's probably because about half of those who didn't hire a lawyer had no contested issues in their divorce (and just for that group, the average cost was $340).
When you handle an uncontested divorce on your own, your main expense will probably be the court's filing fee for the divorce petition or response. These fees vary from state to state—and even from county to county in some states—ranging from about $100 to over $400. (You can usually apply for a waiver of the filing fee if you can't afford to pay it.) You might also have to pay other, smaller fees to:
In some states, you may file a joint petition with your spouse for an uncontested divorce—which means you could split the filing fee. Certain states also offer special, simplified procedures for an uncontested divorce, but they often have strict requirements. (Learn about state laws on uncontested divorce. And for help working out an agreement with your spouse on child support, learn about state child-support guidelines.)
Even uncontested divorces can present obstacles for some people. You need to know:
Depending on the laws in your state, you will probably also have to complete and exchange financial disclosure forms with your spouse. Some states have self-help centers (through the court system or legal aid organizations) that provide information or even online instructions for the process.
But you might find that the easiest solution is to use an online divorce service, as long as you and your spouse have agreed about custody, support, and the division of your property and debts. Typically, these services will have you answer questions about your situation and then will generate the proper, completed forms needed for an uncontested divorce in your state. Some of the more expensive services will file the forms for you. Others provide you with filing instructions and guarantee that your state court will accept the completed forms.
The cost of these services typically ranges from about $150 to $500 (though some charge a monthly subscription fee). For instance, 3StepDivorce charges a $299 flat fee but gives an option of installment payments.
As should be clear by now, there's a wide range of divorce costs. And your own expenses will land near the bottom of that range only if you and your spouse can agree—without a lawyer's help—on the legal issues related to the end of your marriage, from splitting up your possessions to the arrangements for parenting and financial support.
But what if your differences are just too great, or if your soon-to-be ex refuses to compromise? Not surprisingly, the same communication problems and emotional conflicts that spelled the end of a marriage often make the divorce process itself difficult. You might have little choice in that situation but to hire a lawyer. That's also the case if your spouse already has a divorce attorney—which would put you at an unfair disadvantage if you don't have legal representation. (If you don't think you can afford to hire a lawyer, it might help to know that most states allow judges to order one spouse to contribute to the other's attorneys' fees, especially if there's a big difference in their incomes.)
With or without a lawyer, however, there are other ways that can help bring down the cost of your divorce, including mediation, collaborative divorce, and using a consulting attorney.
If you and your spouse are able to work out your disagreements on the issues in your divorce through mediation or collaborative divorce, you will save the considerable expense of going to trial. The cost of divorce mediation itself can vary considerably, depending on whether it's with a private mediator or through the court or a nonprofit agency, as well as the number of issues you need to work out. Regardless, mediation will almost certainly be less expensive than collaborative divorce (which involves paying two lawyers rather than splitting the cost of one mediator). That's true even if you hire a private mediator, and even if you consult with a lawyer during the mediation process.
If you're confident that you can handle the divorce without a full-scope lawyer (or you simply can't afford that option), you could save on attorneys' fees by using what's often referred to as “unbundled” legal services or “limited-scope representation”—paying a lawyer to handle only certain tasks or to give advice on specific questions.
Historically, divorce lawyers weren't very keen on this type arrangement, but it's becoming a bit more common. For instance, you might hire a lawyer to help you prepare for mediation, coach you during negotiations, or prepare a formal settlement document. At the very least, it's usually wise to have a lawyer review a settlement agreement you've drafted to make sure it's fair and covers everything that needs to be addressed.
Of course, the cost will vary widely, depending on how many hours of the lawyer's services you need. In our survey, the small proportion of readers (10%) who consulted a lawyer or used unbundled legal services in their divorce paid an average of $4,600 in attorneys' fees; the more-typical, median amount was $3,000.
If you're not sure which route to take with your divorce, you can take our free divorce quiz. It'll give you feedback on whether DIY divorce, mediation, and/or hiring an attorney is appropriate in your situation.