Everybody knows divorce is costly—but if you ask, it seems few people are willing to tell you exactly HOW costly. One figure that's been floated about as “average” for a California divorce is $15,000-$20,000. Of course, every divorce is different. There are different types of expenses associated with a divorce: filing fees and attorney fees are the primary categories, along with fees for the services of other professionals, such as accountants and appraisers.
As of this writing in 2016, the filing fee for a petition for dissolution of marriage (whether individual or joint) is $435; the fee is the same for a dissolution of domestic partnership. A response to either of these petitions also carries a filing fee of $435. There may also be additional court fees, such as for the filing of motions during the case. If you have children, you may also need to pay for a child custody evaluation or other evaluations such as alcohol assessments on either or both parents when allegations of alcohol abuse surface.
These costs are not trivial. In fact, California has the highest divorce filing fees in the nation. But they are reasonably predictable, and can pale in comparison to attorney fees.
The reason it is hard to predict what a California divorce will cost is that there are so many variables that go into determining the final bill. One is the attorney's hourly rate. CBS News has reported that the average hourly rate for a divorce attorney is $402. Of course, the rate of an attorney you choose might be higher or lower. Although you need not retain the most expensive attorney, you probably also don't want to go with the cheapest one you can find.
Why not? Well, to a certain extent, you get what you pay for. An attorney who charges a higher-than-average fee does so because he or she has a level of skill or experience that makes people willing to pay more than they would have to pay another attorney. An attorney who charges rock-bottom prices, on the other hand, may know that he or she can't compete on skill or experience, so the only way to attract clients is to slash fees. Of course, an attorney who charges very low fees must then take on more clients in order to make money, which means individual clients get less time and less personalized attention.
Furthermore, because that bargain-basement attorney probably can't compete with higher-priced attorneys in terms of skill, your outcome with a low-price attorney will likely be less favorable. You could end up paying more in alimony, or having less time with your kids.
Of course, an attorney's hourly rate is not the only consideration. Your total attorney fee is the rate multiplied by the number of hours the attorney works on your behalf. An experienced California family law attorney may be able to resolve your case more quickly and favorably than an unskilled attorney. What that means is that even though one attorney's rate is lower, your total fee paid could end up being higher than with a more experienced attorney.
Aside from choosing an attorney with a reasonable rate, there's not much you can do to affect an attorney's hourly fee. There are, however, a number of things you can do to reduce the number of hours your attorney needs to put into your divorce.
Simplest (but not always easiest) is to minimize squabbling with your soon-to-be ex. The more you fight, the longer settlement negotiations take and the greater the likelihood of needing to bring your disputes before a judge. Appearing in court is sometimes necessary, but if it's not, it is a very expensive way of resolving disputes. We've seen a couple spend $5,000 in legal fees to figure out who would get a particular item worth about a hundred dollars in their divorce. Don't be that couple.
Another way to keep your costs down is to make it easier for your attorney to get the information he or she needs. If you have access to financial records, for instance, you can give your attorney copies and save the expense of your attorney having to track them down. Prepare for meetings with your attorney as you would any business meeting. Preparation saves time; saving time saves money.
Similarly, when you need to communicate with your attorney, think about when it's important to speak directly versus writing an e-mail. A good attorney is happy to talk to you on the phone when that's what you need, but if all you need to do is convey information or ask a brief question, you may be able to accomplish that in an e-mail rather than paying for your attorney's time on the phone.
It might have occurred to you that the best way to keep your divorce costs down is just not to hire an attorney. Before you choose this path, learn why you should have an attorney for your divorce. In short, sometimes you spend money, and it's an expense. Sometimes, it's an investment. We invite you to contact Shaffer & Associates online or call (619) 595-3167 today to schedule a free consultation. Our goal is to help you build the best possible future after divorce—and that means helping you conserve your resources beforehand.