On average, a completely agreed divorce, with no children and no property (no debts or assets), costs about $2,000. Therefore, the cost to get a divorce if both parties agree varies significantly among states.
Very few divorces fall into this category. By their nature, a marriage dissolution is rarely 100 percent agreed. If the spouses completely agreed on important questions, like the terms of a marriage dissolution, they probably wouldn’t be divorcing.
Furthermore, the average marriage that ends in divorce lasts about seven years. Therefore, by the time of marriage dissolution, the spouses almost always have debts, assets, and/or children.
Divorce also has an emotional cost. Marriage dissolution is very stressful, especially for children.
All this being said, if both parties mostly agree on major issues, some options significantly reduce the cost of divorce. More on that below.
Mandatory Basic Financial Costs
The cost of an agreed divorce begins with mandatory court fees. The court may waive or reduce some of these fees in some cases.
- Filing Fees: This expense, which averages about $200, covers the court’s basic services, such as opening a file and managing a case. As for the filing itself, some courts still accept paper documents. Most have gone completely electronic.
- Service of Process: Most sheriffs or constables charge about $50 for this service. Public service is cheaper, easier, and slower than a private process server. Additional fees usually apply in alternate service cases, like notification by posting.
- Ancillary Costs: Basically, if the clerk does something, the clerk charges a fee. THat “something” could include making a certified copy or filing an amended divorce petition. Fee waivers are usually available in these situations.
We mentioned the indirect emotional costs of divorce above. Divorce also has indirect financial costs, mostly lost wages.
Attorneys’ fees vary so significantly that an “average” amount is meaningless. Additionally, buying a divorce is not like buying a car. There’s no sticker price or suggested retail price. Instead, attorneys may set their own fees, based on factors like:
- Lawyer’s amount of experience,
- Complexity of the case,
- Novelty of the case,
- Opportunity cost (e.g. I can’t accept new and possibly higher-paying work while I handle your case),
- Lawyer’s overhead, and
- Client’s ability to pay.
We normally recommend that people shop around, get three or four quotes, and focus on the mid-priced lawyers. You don’t want a cut-rate attorney or an overpriced lawyer.
Cost is not the only factor. Other considerations include the lawyer’s bedside manner, level of skill, and availability.
Types of Divorce
The type of divorce, and the agreement or lack of agreement, is probably the biggest factor in determining the cost of a divorce.
To most lawyers, “agreed” means the nonfiling spouse signs anything s/he sees without asking questions, requesting revisions, or even reading it closely.
Very few divorces fall into this category. Most agreed marriage dissolutions involve recent marriages and absentee spouses.
Some people rush into marriage and regret it later. Nevada, which has no waiting period and doesn’t require a blood test, has the highest marriage rate of any state in the Union. If a couple lives together, even overnight, annulment is usually unavailable. So, divorce is necessary, and since these couples have no debts, assets, or children, divorce is relatively straightforward.
Other people who marry in a rush try to work it out for a few months. Then, one spouse quits and abandons the marriage. Once again, when a spouse files divorce, both spouses are anxious to move on.
These divorces usually only have three documents, a petition, a waiver of citation, and a final order. Customizable forms are available on the internet for little or no cost. However, strict rules of procedure apply in these cases.
Therefore, to get started, these petitioners might need brief consultations with public interest lawyers (more on that below). But these petitioners rarely need full legal representation.
Most divorces are uncontested marriage dissolutions. Generally, the spouses agree on broad principles, like child custody provision must be in the best interests of the children. But they disagree on the specifics, like what exactly constitutes the child’s best interests in a certain situation.
Uncontested marriage dissolutions generally settle out of court once the spouses, and their lawyers, hammer out a settlement agreement. Common areas of disagreement include:
- Child Support/Child Custody: Most states use guidelines to determine child support obligations. These guidelines don’t apply in all cases. As for child custody, some of the aforementioned best interest factors include the child’s preference, the parent’s preference, the child’s needs, and the parent’s abilities.
- Property Division: Most states are equitable division states. Some factors to consider include the length of the marriage, separate property awards, fault in the breakup of the marriage, and each spouse’s future earning power. Bear in mind that “property” includes debts and assets.
- Spousal Support: A few states use child support-like guidelines to determine the amount and duration of alimony payments. Most states allow the judge to decide. Alimony factors usually resemble property division factors. Most states also only order alimony if the obligee (person receiving alimony) has a financial need and the obligor (paying party) has the ability to pay.
Some of these issues often require outside professionals. For example, a real estate agent usually appraises a family home.
In the law, “uncontested” usually means the plaintiff or defendant questions or challenges the other party’s assertions, but doesn’t fight tooth and nail. Contested divorces usually involve fights over the issues mentioned above.
Incidentally, if the petitioner files a no-fault “irreconcilable differences” divorce, marriage dissolution is inevitable, unless the filing spouse withdraws the petition. Only the terms of divorce are agreed, uncontested, or contested.
Contested divorces are more common nowadays. Many spouses hire aggressive “bulldog” lawyers who bitterly contest every inch of legal ground.
Despite their confrontational nature, contested divorces rarely go to trial. Instead, the judge normally appoints a mediator. This person ensures that, during settlement negotiations, both sides negotiate in good faith. If both sides want to resolve the matter out of court and work toward this goal, that’s usually what happens.
Ways to Reduce Divorce Costs
Contested divorce fees often spiral upward. Spouses need aggressive representation from an experienced lawyer to get anything resembling a fair settlement. But if your divorce falls somewhere around the “uncontested” category, cost-saving ideas are an option.
A premarital agreement usually dials divorce costs down a notch. Contested divorces become uncontested and uncontested divorces become agreed. Prenups determine contentious money issues, like asset and debt division, in advance.
Most states have adopted the Uniform Premarital and Marital Agreements Act. Therefore, prenups are generally easy to make and easy to enforce, even across state lines in some cases.
A prenuptial agreement also decreases the chances of divorce. When financial disagreements arise, the spouses refer to the prenup instead of squabbling over the matter.
Low-Cost Legal Services
Most state and local bar associations periodically sponsor legal clinics and free-advice events. Private legal aid services, which are essentially law firms that charge little or nothing, provide similar services on a full-time basis.
Generally, these services are like generic equivalents of name-brand groceries. The grocery store brand of green beans is just fine for most purposes. But if you’re planning a big, important dinner, spend a little more and buy Del Monte. Public interest lawyers can handle most agreed and uncontested divorces. But contested divorces are a bit out of their league.
Some public interest legal services are available to everyone. Others require proof of income or economic hardship.
We mentioned mediation above, in the context of contested divorces. Mediation is available in other divorce matters as well. Frequently, mediation, especially early mediation, is a good cost-saving device.
Many divorcing spouses haggle over minutiae. Lawyers sometimes call these matters “pots and pans divorces.” If a mediator intervenes early, s/he points out that the legal fees involved in such a dissolution far outweigh any financial benefit the party might gain.
Early mediation is also a good idea in modification procedures. Assume Mother wants to relocate with the kids and Father contests the move. A mediator can forge a compromise agreement. For example, Father might agree to the move if Mother pays most child visitation costs. At that point, the parties submit an agreed order to a judge. Most judges sign these orders without holding hearings.
General civil mediation costs practically nothing. However, since family law matters are so complex, we recommend that parties spend a few extra dollars and use a family law mediator.