So here you are. You’ve decided to get a divorce, but now you’ve got questions—a lot of them. Like, “Where do I even start?” and, “Should I hire an attorney?” and, perhaps the most worrisome of all, “How much does divorce cost, anyway?”
Unfortunately, while a lot of these queries have straight forward responses, the answer as to how much your divorce will cost is a little less than satisfactory. In a nutshell?
We don’t know.
The varying details between divorces make it virtually impossible to predict someone’s eventual bottom line. On the bright side, our team has seen enough breakups to know which divorce types are most likely to break the bank, and how you can be financially savvy.
Here’s what you need to know about how much divorce costs in California, and what Maples Family Law can do to work within whatever budget you have.
You can’t keep down the cost of your divorce without first knowing what the costs are. This is especially important, considering how widely the arc of our divorce cost pendulum can swing.
For example, in California, you can technically get a bare bones divorce for nothing more than a filing fee of $435 (assuming no one fights back, and there’s nothing to argue about, that is). Realistically, however, it’ll probably be a lot more, with some divorces easily racking up more than $50,000 for the same breakup.
The first step to curbing these numbers is knowing where the costs are coming from.
In general, there are four main areas that will keep you up sweating dollar signs at night:
- Your attorney’s initial retainer.
- Your attorney’s billable rate.
- Paperwork filing fees.
- Expert witness rates.
Here’s a quick peek at how each of these break down.
1. Attorney Retainer
A retainer is a large payment that you submit to your attorney, at the onset of your case. This money both reserves your attorney’s services, and acts as a kind of savings account, from which your attorney will draw from to pay expenses, as your case proceeds.
In California, an initial divorce retainer can range anywhere from $3,000-5,000. Your attorney will use this money to pay for things like:
- Their own billable hours;
- The billable hours of any staff who work on your case;
- Filing fees for documents submitted to the court;
- Compensation for any outside experts you call upon; and in some cases,
- Office expenses relating to your case.
Different firms all have their own system of billing, which is why you should always take the time to thoroughly review your retainer contract, before signing anything. That way there won’t be any surprises.
2. Attorney Hourly Rate
In California, most divorce attorneys charge an hourly billable rate. This amount typically ranges between $250-$400 an hour, and will vary based on where you live, and who you hire.
“But wait!” you might be thinking. “Didn’t I already pay for my attorney? Wasn’t that what the retainer was for?”
Sorry, but no.
Remember, a retainer is just a reservation fee—an initial deposit, so to speak. While this money will go towards paying for your divorce, the biggest mistake you can make is in assuming that it will cover your whole divorce.
In reality, you’ll almost certainly have to replenish this account several more times, before your case is over. (Especially when you consider that the average price tag on a California divorce is a cool $17,500.)
3. Filing Fees
California might have some of the highest filing fees in the nation, but $435 to submit an initial divorce complaint suddenly doesn’t seem like very much, when you consider how much you’re going to spend, overall.
If you and your spouse file for an uncontested divorce, then this initial filing fee might be the only payment you’ll make. However, since this type of divorce doesn’t work for most couples, it’s much more likely you’ll have other filing fees crop up, as your divorce progresses.
The good news is if you’ve retained representation, then your attorney will take care of this cost for you (using funds from your retainer account). If not, you’ll be responsible for this cost—as well as the other logistics of filing for divorce—on your own.
4. Expert Witnesses
Depending on your situation, you may need to hire an expert witness.
The cost of these professionals will swing dramatically, depending on what you need them for, and how much time they put into your case. Most work on an hourly rate, and—similar to attorneys—will require an initial retainer.
The most commonly used expert witnesses in divorce are forensic accountants. These professionals can be used to:
- Track down undisclosed assets;
- Determine marital lifestyle for alimony;
- Conduct a business valuation;
- Prove ownership of separate property;
- Trace bitcoin blockchains; and,
- Uncover inconsistencies in bookkeeping.
These retainer fees typically start between $3,000-5,000, but can potentially be more, depending on the breadth and scope of the project.
By now, you’ve probably realized that the easiest way to cut down the cost of divorce, is to just skip the attorney altogether. After all, we lawyers easily have the highest price tag, so… it only makes sense, right?
Before you let these numbers scare you into a hasty, D.I.Y. divorce, remember that divorce laws are incredibly complex, and self-representation comes with a high likelihood of error. These mistakes can be incredibly costly—sometimes impossible—to reverse. Meaning that it’s almost always better to simply hire the attorney, and get it right your first time around.
If finances are a concern, there are much less riskier ways to cut costs during divorce. Here are just a few:
- Educate yourself about California divorce laws (the library is a great resource).
- Do your own legwork (such as gathering documents and making copies for your attorney).
- Email your attorney, don’t call—calls take up more time, and time equals more billable minutes.
- Utilize legal assistants and paralegals as much as possible; they have a significantly lower billable rate and are almost always just as smart as your attorney.
- Negotiate calmly, and compromise liberally.
- AVOID LITIGATION AT ALL COSTS.
That last point is really important.
Hands down, the single biggest thing you can do to avoid high divorce costs, is to avoid court, altogether. Instead, opt for an alternative method of dispute resolution, such as mediation, or collaborative divorce.
Not only will these types of divorce save you a lot of time and money, but they’re also more flexible. This gives you the ability to set your own terms, rather than having them decided for you by the whims of an outside judge.
Do You Have More Questions About the Cost of Divorce in California?
While divorce might not come cheap, it also doesn’t have to be as bad as you might be thinking. With a little bit of planning, the right divorce type, and a willingness to compromise, it’s more than possible for couples to keep costs reasonable.
If you have more questions about how much divorce costs in California, and what this process might look like for your situation, we want to hear from you. Call the Maples Family Law team at (209) 989-4425, or get in touch online, and let us help you get divorced within whatever budget you have.