I get this question all of the time. The short, and unfortunately only, answer is that it depends. The monetary costs of a divorce are a combination of attorney fees, court costs, and expert costs. So, while I can’t provide an exact amount for the cost of a divorce, I can provide you with some information.
Attorney fees are probably the largest cost in a divorce case. That being said, how are attorneys paid and how much do they cost? There are a few different common models that attorneys use in family law cases.
Advanced Fee Deposit/Billable Hour
This is probably one of the most common models for paying an attorney. An “advanced fee deposit”—formally known as a “retainer”—is exactly what it sounds like: it is a fee paid in advance for work to be performed by an attorney. The amount of an advanced fee is usually determined by the attorney, taking into considering things like what kind of case is it, are the claims complex, will the case require a lot of time?
So, how does it work? The client pays the “advanced fee” to the attorney and the attorney deposits the advanced fee into a trust account. This money is not the attorney’s; it is still the client’s. The attorney must earn the money by working on the case and billing toward the advanced fee. After the attorney bills the client for worked performed, the attorney can move the amount billed out of the advanced fee deposit and into the attorney’s regular account. If there is any money left over at the end of the representation, it goes back to the client. If the attorney spends more than the advanced fee, the client must pay the difference (and probably replenish the advanced fee deposit).
This raises another question: how does an attorney bill for time? Attorneys typically bill by the hour. But, because not every task takes a full hour, attorneys break their time up into tenths of an hour, or six minute increments. Of course, attorneys usually round up to the nearest tenth of an hour for work that falls between six minute increments (i.e., a 7 minute project is 2/10 of an hour, not 1/10).
Let’s use the following hypothetical situation to help explain: On January 1, 2017, Cleo Client hires Anthony Attorney for her divorce. Anthony bills at $100 per hour and requires a $1,000 advanced fee deposit to start a case. Cleo pays Anthony the advanced fee and Anthony starts work. In the month of January, Anthony settles the case and bills the following:
|Task||Time Spent||Billable Time||Amount|
|Draft Petition||1 hr. 28 mins.||1.5 hrs.||$150.00|
|Correspond with Cleo||7 mins.||0.2 hrs.||$20.00|
|Court hearing||1 hr. 3 mins.||1.1 hrs.||$110.00|
|Draft settlement||2 hrs. 40 mins.||2.7 hrs.||$270.00|
|JANUARY TOTAL||5 hrs. 18 mins.||5.5 hrs.||$550.00|
Because Anthony settled the case, he would send a bill to Cleo showing his charges and it would note that Cleo has $450.00 of her advanced fee remaining in Anthony’s trust account. Anthony would then send Cleo a check for $450.00 when the case is totally finalized. If, on the other hand, Anthony billed $1,500 in January, Cleo would need to pay Anthony the $500 he went over the advanced fee and she would likely have to replenish her advanced fee, meaning she’d have to pay a total of $2,500 ($500 for the amount due in January and $1,000 to replenish her advanced fee).
Another common billing method is what is known as a “flat fee”. A “flat fee” is a fixed cost for representation. Unlike an advanced fee deposit, a flat fee is a one-time fee that is “earned upon receipt,” meaning it is automatically the attorney’s money. For example, an attorney charges $1,000 for a divorce. That is automatically that attorney’s money because it is deemed earned by the attorney once the client pays it to the attorney. The attorney will then work on the matter until it is finalized. The pro for the client are is if the matter becomes complicated or goes on for a long time, the attorney must continue to work on the matter despite the possibility that it is costing the attorney more than what the client paid. The con is if the attorney completes the task quickly and the client may have over paid for the representation. Attorneys using the flat fee billing method are usually pretty good at knowing how much a certain matter is going to cost, so these pros and cons are not usually a big issue.
Contingency fees are fees that are contingent on a certain outcome. For example, some attorneys in personal injury cases take 33% of any verdict or award, and no money if the client loses the case. Contingency fees are uncommon in family law and are actually prohibited in divorce actions. There are certain types of family court cases that a contingency fee may be appropriate, but they are not common enough to discuss at length.
The most common court cost is the filing fee. The filing fee is the fee charged by the court to file legal documents. The Clerk of the Court has a list of fees it charges for various documents on its website (here is Maricopa County’s). The current fee for filing a Petition for Divorce in Maricopa County is $338.00.
In some family law cases it may be necessary to hire experts to assist in proving certain claims. Experts can be accountants, mental health professionals, valuators, or vocational experts. These experts typically do some kind of evaluation or investigation, create a report, and testify regarding their report at trial. Costs for experts can be anywhere from a few hundred dollars to dozens of thousands of dollars. Here is the court’s roster of some experts (there are more that just this list) including metal health providers and real estate commissioners.
The client has the most influence over the cost of a divorce or family law case. If a client wants to fight about everything or is not helping the attorney with the case, the costs of the family law case will be high. If, on the other hand, the client is rational and does a good job of obtaining and organizing relevant documents for the attorney, they can save a lot of money on attorney fees.