How Much Will My Divorce Cost?
A new client had just come in to see a famous lawyer.
“Can you tell me how much you charge?” asked the client.
“Of course”, the lawyer replied, “I charge $500 to answer three questions!”
“Well that’s a bit steep, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is”, said the lawyer, “And what’s your third question?”
How Much Will This Cost Me?
As expected, I get this question on a daily basis. First of all, I can only quote what I charge. Frequently, in divorce cases, you will need to hire other professionals – such as forensic accountants, appraisers, child custody evaluators, counselors, etc.
But for my legal services, here is my steadfast answer: it depends.
Two Very Simple (but Very Important) Points!
One. Lawyers, like most professionals, are hourly workers.
The product I sell is my time. You are paying for my time by the hour, which is charged in increments of 15 minutes. Thus, if you call me for 10 minutes, you are charged .25 of my hourly rate. If your phone call is 20 minutes, that is .5 of my hourly rate.
Two. Unless it is a flat-fee case (possible if there are NO contested issues), the more time I spend on your case, the more expensive it will be.
The amount of time I spend on your case depends on you, your spouse, your spouse’s attorney, and the issues involved in your case.
Keeping these two points in mind, I will now refer to my article (found on my website), The Purpose-Driven Divorce, to prepare some price estimates.
Step One: Filing of Petition/Response
Purpose: To get the process started.
California is a “no-fault” state. This means that either spouse may file a divorce without proving someone is at fault (i.e. cheating, physical violence, etc.). Thus, in order to start a divorce, one party simply files a Petition for Dissolution. Currently, this petition costs $435 to file. Typically, you file it at the courthouse window. Because attorneys rarely have time to sit around and wait, we usually hire attorney services (runners) to go down and file them. The runners charge between $75 – 200 per filing, depending on whether you are on retainer, wait time and number of pages.
After the petition is filed, the party who filed it must serve the other side with the papers in order to notify them that a divorce proceeding has been filed. I highly recommend that prior to serving the divorce papers, you notify the other side. We’ve all seen the video footage of the crestfallen face of Kevin Federline, who allegedly discovered via text message that Britney filed for divorce.
Don’t do this! Divorce is difficult enough. If there is any room for courtesy, apply it.
After the other side is served, they have thirty (30) days to respond to the Petition by filing a Response. The Response currently also costs $435 to file.
If they do not file a response within thirty days, the person who filed the Petition (called the
Petitioner), may request a default judgment. In this case, they will generally receive everything they ask for in their papers. (with some exceptions which you must discuss with an attorney).
In California, Judgment is entered no earlier than six months after the date the responding party (called the Respondent) is served with papers.
Why six months?
This is the waiting period created by the Legislature to encourage reconciliation. It is also a period where you can obtain all the financial information you need before entering into an agreement. Obviously, if you can get divorced as quickly as you can get married, our society would have greater problems than it already does.
After the initial Petition is filed, automatic temporary restraining orders (ATRO’s) kick in.
They apply to both the PETITIONER and the RESPONDENT. Some examples of ATRO’s are the following:
1) cannot remove minor children out of state;
2) cannot take benefited party off of insurance;
3) cannot transfer, convey, encumber, or conceal property;
4) cannot create probate transfer without notice.
The purpose of ATRO’s, amongst other things, is to prevent angry parties from absconding with the
children out of malice, and to waste away all community assets in order to spite the other side.
Filing and serving divorce papers is the first step. It is by far not the last step. To get a Judgment, you must keep going.
Attorney time: 5 -20 hours
Process Server: $150 – $1,000
Court Costs: $435 per person.
Time Factors: Is the case new, or has it gone through several attorneys and collected 1000 boxes of documents? Is your spouse cooperative, or difficult to the bone, requiring private investigators to stake-out and serve him? Are there children? Are there properties? Have you reached any agreements about anything in your case?
STEP TWO: GETTING TEMPORARY ORDERS VIA REQUEST FOR ORDERS (RFO)
Purpose: To have a sense of peace and order by having temporary orders in writing
pending the Judgment.
Because it takes six months (or longer) to obtain a Judgment, in the interim, some logistics need to be sorted out.
For example: Who stays in the house? Who pays for the mortgage? If you are the supported spouse, will you get your living expenses paid for? What about spousal support? If you have children, who has custodial rights? What about child support? Because your questions need immediate answers, it is wise to get an immediate court date in order to resolve these issues.
Filing Request for Orders (RFO)
You get a court date by filing an RFO. This stands for “Requests for Orders”, and is meant to resolve issues of Child Custody/Visitation, Child Support, Spousal Support, Attorneys’ Fees, etc., pending the
issuance of a Judgment. The Request for Orders hearing is set 3-4 months out (courts are very busy).
Currently, an RFO filing fee is $90. Filing an RFO does not mean you are trigger-happy, and immediately racing to court to win.
Remember: At all stages of divorce, you always have the option to reach an agreement with the other side. You are always in control of whether you want to go to court or not. Usually, if you reach an
agreement, you can file it the Court. It is not unusual for parties to reach an agreement after an RFO has been filed, before the heraing date.
For the most part, the Judge will rubberstamp your agreement, even commend you for settling.
There are certain exceptions, of course. In California, you can never totally take away the Court’s power to rule on child support.
It is always a good idea to immediately file an RFO when issues of custody/visitation and support arise.
Again, it takes six months or longer to obtain a Judgment. In the meantime, temporary orders must be in place for peace of mind.
Of course, if both parties have been separated for a long period of time, and are self-supporting, and have no children, there may not be any issues to be resolved pending the Judgment. In this case, I would opt to forgo the RFO.
Although the orders obtained through RFO are called “pendente lite” (Latin for “while the case is pending”) temporary orders, in some cases, they may end up being the permanent orders incorporated into the Judgment. This is especially true in custody cases, because “status quo” is favored, and the longer a “temporary order” stays in place, the firmer a “status quo” arrangement becomes. It is essential to understand the important role of an RFO.
Attorney time: 10 – 30 hours
Court Costs: $90 per motion pre-Judgment; $125 post-Judgment
Time factors: Are you cooperative and return my phone calls? Do you cooperate with my requests for documents? Are you immediately available to meet with me to go over the specifics of your case? Are you able to revise your declarations and promptly return to me? If you have witnesses, what is their availability, and do they cooperate? Is the other side represented? Is their representation well-versed with family law procedure and protocol? Does the court hearing conclude in one day? Does it get continued?
STEP THREE: DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RESTRAINING ORDERS
Purpose: In a high-conflict divorce and custody case, to protect the parties and
Unfortunately, sometimes, after a divorce or custody case is filed, someone gets angry and becomes physically or emotionally violent. This is particularly troublesome if there are minor children involved.
In order to protect yourself, it may be vital to obtain a temporary domestic violence restraining order against the other side. Temporary restraining orders (usually lasting no more than 20 days) may be granted without a full evidentiary hearing (based on declaration alone). Since they are granted based on one party’s Declaration, they are set for hearing, where the Judge will take evidence from both sides before entering in Order for a longer restraining order. (lasting up to five years).In California, there is a rebuttable presumption that an award of custody to a perpetrator of domestic violence is detrimental to the best interests of the child. Because of the weight this carries, restraining orders are often abused in custody cases. It is essential to immediately consult with a competent family attorney if you are experiencing domestic violence in your case.
Attorney time: 15 – 40 hours
Court Costs: $90 per motion
Time Factors: Domestic violence restraining orders are extremely important and take a
lot of preparation. Preparation time includes setting up the case, interviewing witnesses, taking statements, preparing declarations, speaking with police officers. Are the court appearances on calendar ,and do they take place without delay? Does the Judge have time on his calendar to hear all witnesses? Do the witnesses appear? Does the other side have witnesses? Have you anticipated all issues that could be raised at the hearing?
STEP FOUR: DISCLOSURES OF FINANCES
Purpose: To Reach a Fair Settlement, and Ensure the Settlement Is Not Later Overturned Due to Lack of Disclosure.
Frequently in relationships, one person knows more about their finances than the
other. They are known as the in-spouse.
California is a community property state. This means, all property acquired after the date of marriage, before the date of separation, except for gift and inheritance, is community property.
Community property assumes the notion that even in relationships where only one spouse works, the other spouse is contributing to the marriage by staying at home and providing domestic duties.
Sometimes, the spouse that doesn’t work stays at home and does nothing. In a community property state, that doesn’t matter. The law assumes they are contributing something. Thus, in a divorce, both parties are entitled to half of what was earned during the marriage.
Because of the community property laws, the law mandates that both parties must make extensive financial disclosures. Generally, they will come in two parts – the Preliminary Declarations of Disclosures (served at the outset); and the Final Declarations of Disclosures (prior to settlement or trial). Because one party may know more than the other, these mandatory disclosures are the court’s way of preventing foul play.
You must exchange disclosures. You cannot waive them.
If you are the supporting spouse, you may wonder: What happens if I don’t disclose my assets? He or she does not know of my offshore bank account in the British Virgin Islands.
There are several consequences to not disclosing. The Judge may overturn your agreement. The Judge may punish you by awarding the non-disclosed asset to the other side.
In a famous 1996 case against non-disclosure, Marriage of Rossi, Denise Rossi won $1.3 million in the California State Lottery. 11 days later, she filed for divorce, from her 25-year marriage, never telling her husband. Judgment was entered. 2 years later, her ex-husband discovered that his ex-wife had won the lottery. (They always find out.) He filed a Motion and the judge gave the ENTIRE $1.3 million dollar lottery winnings to the husband, since the wife had intentionally not disclosed her winnings in the divorce proceedings.
Attorney Time: 20 – 100 hours
Costs of subpoenas, documents: $2,500 – $25,000
Deposition costs: $7,500 – $30,000
Court Costs: $90 per motion
Time Factors: Discovery is the most tedious process in a divorce case. If you have little or no assets, there should be very little to work on. However, the more assets or debts you or spouse have, the more time we will need to obtain documents necessary to determine the value for settlement, and the more time we will need to review the received documents.
If your spouse is uncooperative, we may need to file court motions in order to obtain necessary documents. The time it takes to complete discovery depends mostly on the cooperation of the parties and the availability of the documents.
STEP FIVE: REACHING AN AGREEMENT OR PREPARING FOR TRIAL
Purpose: To Get the Judgment Finalizing your Divorce Case
After disclosures have been completed, it is time to start negotiating settlement of the entire case, including property division (global settlement).
For example, who will keep the house? How much support will you pay? And for how long? Who will have the children for Christmas or Hannukah this year? Because both of you have completed full and thorough disclosures, you are both now in a good position to discuss settlement.
It may be a good idea at this time to simultaneously request the court for a trial date. I do this for my clients because with a looming trial date and deadlines, both parties are more eager to resolve the case.
In addition, if settlement discussions fall apart, there is already a trial date set in the future, so as not to delay the dissolution. Other attorneys prefer not to do this, so they will have more time to prepare for the trial.
If you reach an agreement, you can file a Stipulated Judgment, or a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA).
The difference between both is that in addition to being attached to the Judgment, the MSA is also a contract, and if either party breaches it, you have an additional remedy – to sue for breach of contract.
Once the Judgment is stamped by the Judge, you should receive a Notice of Entry of Judgment, which gives you a date of divorce. Only when this piece of paper has been filed is your divorce final.
Of course, in divorce cases, nothing is final. You may always file for Modification, but there are legal standards you must meet before the Judge will grant you one.
Please consult with a competent family attorney.
If case settles:
Attorney Time: 10 – 25 hours
Time Factors: How cooperative are the parties?
If case goes to trial:
Attorney Time: 100 – 10,000 + hours
Time Factors: Trial is no joke. You will be paying for the attorney’s time day in, day
out. (This includes prep time, trial time, review time, prep time…round the clock. It is not
unusual for an attorney to bill 10-15 hours a day for trial. My mentor once had a trial
lasting 22 days. I think it helps to think of trial as an hourglass with your money as the
In conclusion, a divorce case can run anywhere from $3,500 (uncontested divorce)
to millions of dollars. Britney Spears paid over a million to her attorneys, along with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Yes, lawyers are expensive. But if you find the right one, they’re worth it.
Marriage is Grand! Divorce, One Hundred Grand.℠