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Most of the cost in filing for a divorce is in legal fees; that is what the lawyer charges.
How much does a divorce cost? The cost varies depending on the type of divorce, how contentious the divorce action becomes, and whether the parties avail themselves of less expensive routines such as filing their own uncontested divorce. Filing your own uncontested divorce helps eliminate most, if not all, of the legal fees associated with lawyers.
The cost of a divorce ranges from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars, with the average cost of a contested divorce ranging from $15,000 to $30,000, according to Forbes.com. A contested divorce is one in which the divorcing parties cannot agree on issues relating to the property and debt distribution and well as custody, visitation and support if they have minor children. In a contested divorce these issues get dragged out and heavily negotiated by the divorcing spouses and lawyers until and agreement is reached or in the worst-case scenario resolved by a judge in the courtroom. Only about five percent of the divorces in the United States go to trial (meaning the judge makes the decisions), but a contested divorce that ends in court can often be a preliminary to bankruptcy for the battling spouses.
Overview of Divorce Legal Fees
In a divorce, and particularly in a contested action, both spouses normally hire lawyers. Lawyers fees vary widely depending on the area, the individual lawyer, and the number of contested issues. A two-day divorce trial in a contested action can cost as much as $25,000 in legal fees alone. Divorce lawyers generally charge from $75 an hour and up, with partners in large firms charging as much as $450 an hour. Some divorce lawyers charge a flat rate of a few thousand dollars or a rate per hour. The flat rate typically does not include the cost of a potential trial.
According to one national survey, the average cost of hiring a lawyer for a divorce is $250 per hour. The $250 hourly number is consistent for lawyers who provided full representation, where the lawyer handles every issue in the case. Limited scope or partial representation, where the lawyer managed only some aspects of the case, for example, handle alimony and child custody issues but not division of property often lawyers charge less per hour. Consultations only or where the lawyer provided advice or prepared documents on an as-needed basis, but did not represent the client may be even less per hour.
According to the survey, a few people reported that they paid their lawyer as little as $50 per hour, and a few reported paying as much as $400 to $650 per hour. But the vast majority paid between $150 and $350 per hour, with $250 being the most commonly reported fee.
Deciding to Hire a Divorce Lawyer for an Uncontested Divorce
The cost of hiring a lawyer for an uncontested divorce depends on where the party lives, whom he or she hires and what fee routine the lawyer and the client work with. Some lawyers offer flat fees for uncontested divorces; others charge retainer fees, which act as deposits lawyers bill against monthly for the hours invested in a case.
The average flat fee ranges from $1500 to $3,000, depending on the complexity of marital estate and whether the parties have children. A lawyer may draw down on a retainer, at the rate of $250 to $450 for each hour of his or her time. You will find that lawyers practicing in large metropolitan areas may charge more than $450; those in rural areas may charge less than $250.
Deciding to Do Your Own Uncontested Divorce
In general, a contested divorce should always be handled with legal representation by hiring a lawyer.
To the contrary, an uncontested divorce is much less complicated and can be a great deal less expensive without all the divorce legal fees, than a contested divorce. In an uncontested divorce, the spouses agree on all terms and conditions of the divorce, such as support payments, property distribution and child custody issues.
If a person feels comfortable completing the necessary divorce papers and submitting them to the Clerk, then he or she might spend less than $500 by filing pro se (without a lawyer). About half the divorces in the United States do not involve lawyers, according to experts.
Our 3StepDivorceTM software and service makes filing your own uncontested divorce easy, fast and affordable. If you decide to hire a lawyer for your uncontested divorce, then you could expect to pay an average of $1,500 or more. Often hiring a lawyer will prompt your spouse to hire a lawyer as well, easily escalating costs to over $3000.
Typical Fee Arrangements for Divorce Lawyers
In most civil cases, including some divorces, a lawyer is paid under one (or a combination) of the following fee schedules:
Hourly Rates: Hourly rates are the most common fee schedule. The lawyer gets paid an hourly rate for time spent working on a case until it ends. The hourly rate depends on each lawyer's experience, operating expenses, and the location of his or her practice. Lawyers tend to charge less in rural areas and small towns, and fees in range of $100 to $200 an hour for an experienced lawyer are the norm; lawyers charge more In major metropolitan areas, where the norm is probably closer to $200 to $400 an hour. Lawyers with expertise in specialized areas may charge much more.
Flat Fee: Where a legal matter is simple and well defined -- such as simple wills, uncontested divorces and simple bankruptcy filings -- lawyers often charge a flat fee. If a lawyer suggests or advertises a flat fee, the client should understand exactly what that fee includes and what it does not. For example, the flat fee might not include expenses such as filing fees and may vary if the client has minor children.
Retainer: A lawyer may ask for a retainer as advance payment on the lawyer's hourly rate. The lawyer puts the retainer in a special trust account and deducts the cost of services as they accrue. During the course of legal representation, clients should receive periodic billing statements reflecting amounts deducted from the retainer. A deposit into the retainer account must be made should the account reach a certain agreed upon balance.
Contingency Fee: In certain types of cases, lawyers work on a contingency fee basis. That means the lawyer takes no fee from the client up-front, but gets a percentage (typically one-third) of any settlement or money judgment awarded to the client. Contingency fee arrangements are typical in automobile accident lawsuits, medical malpractice claims and other personal injury cases, and debt collection cases, but are often prohibited in divorce actions.
When hiring a lawyer, a prospective client should inquire about a consultation fee. Some lawyers do brief initial consultations at no charge; however, most experienced divorce lawyers will charge between $100 and $200 as a consultation fee, or charge their normal hourly rate.
It is a good idea to know the lawyer's hourly rate, what the up-front retainer will be, whether any portion of the retainer is refundable if it is not used, and how often the client receives invoices that detail hourly charges and expenses.
A contract signed by the client and the lawyer clearly outlining the fee agreement is a standard procedure.