The cost of a divorce attorney can vary — and neither “cheap” nor “expensive” are necessarily better for you. You should never avoid hiring a divorce attorney because of the cost, but you will still want to be prepared for the cost.
No Contest Vs Contested Divorces
You may have seen signs for $200 or $300 divorces. These signs are intended for people who are going through an uncontested divorce without children. When you aren’t contesting the divorce, have already determined the terms of the divorce, and don’t have child custody to work out, your divorce can be very affordable. This is because you basically just need someone to fill out your paperwork for you.
But when you have major assets, have children, or have a contested divorce proceeding, the costs rise. It’s always going to cost more to go to court — but it’s essential to protect yourself because massive decisions are being made regarding children and/or assets.
Your Initial Consultation
Before you pay for a divorce lawyer, you will go through an initial consultation process. This can cost anywhere from nothing (no-cost consultation) to a few hundred dollars. Your initial consultation is very important because your situation is unique.
There’s no one answer to “how much a divorce costs.” In America, the average cost is around $12,000. Go through an easy divorce, you might pay $500. Go through a more complex divorce, and you could pay tens of thousands. Everything from where you live to how many assets you have (and how hard your former spouse will fight) factors in.
But when you get a consultation with an attorney, you can usually drill down to about how long your divorce is going to take, and consequently how much they will charge you. Your attorney will understand more about your unique situation and will be able to advise you accordingly.
Your Retainer Fee
Before you engage a lawyer, you need to pay a retainer. A retainer fee is like a down payment. It’s usually a few thousand dollars. Your attorney’s fees will come out of that retainer during the divorce proceedings. If the retainer is exceeded, they’ll start billing you directly. A retainer fee ensures that you are going to pay your attorney; it essentially secures their services. Otherwise, they could get deep into your divorce without getting paid.
Your Continued Costs
At this point, it really depends on how long your ex-spouse wants to stretch out the proceedings, or how long it takes you to accept the terms given. Your attorney will generally advise you on whether it’s worth it to keep on fighting; you don’t want to spend $10,000 fighting about a $5,000 issue.
But because continued costs are variable, it’s hard to say how much they’ll be. It all depends on how long it takes. You may need to go to court only once or you may need to go to court multiple times. The more aggressive your ex-spouse is about fighting the process, the more expensive it will usually be.
What If You Don’t Have Access To Your Money?
This is something that attorneys see pretty frequently.
It could be that your spouse cleaned out your accounts. It could be that you never had access to money anyway; financial abuse is a form of abuse and it’s something that many people experience. You might be owed money from your spouse, but you may have never been in control of it. So how do you get an attorney?
There are ways to pay for an attorney, such as through taking out a credit card or line of credit. But more commonly, an attorney will be able to work to get you access to your accounts. Because they see this situation frequently, they are skilled at getting emergency court orders, such that you will be able to access the money your spouse has absconded with or hidden.
What If You Don’t Have The Money To Pay?
Now, if you don’t have the money to pay for an attorney, there are still ways to get one. You can consult with attorneys that have no consulting fee. You can also connect with charities and organizations dedicated to helping those who need to get out of a relationship but don’t have access to funds. There are non-profit organizations dedicated to sliding scale legal services — services through which the cost is tailored to your income.
Can You Go without An Attorney?
If you have no assets and you have no children, you can often just have an attorney file some documents for you. You don’t really need to worry about procuring a best-in-class attorney because there’s very little at stake.
But if you do have significant assets, or you have child custody issues, you should never go without an attorney. An attorney will be able to advise you on the course of action that is best for you. You also don’t want to use your ex-partner’s attorney. While this may seem to be the more affordable option it’s a conflict of interest.
You owe it to yourself, during the process of a divorce, to at least meet with an attorney and discuss your options. An attorney is required to act ethically and will tell you if you don’t really need an attorney or if you can complete the process of divorce on your own.
So, ultimately: An attorney costs what an attorney costs. Some cost more per hour than others but deliver higher levels of service. Sometimes, you just need someone to fill out paperwork (uncontested divorce). Other times, you need to go to court. The easiest way to find out is to get advice from a professional about your unique situation.