One question a family law attorney hears on a regular basis is, “What does a divorce in California cost?” There is no one answer to this question, as the costs of divorce include emotional, financial, and property related issues.
1. Emotional Costs of Divorce
The emotional costs of divorce are many, and for plenty of couples this is the hardest part. Dissolving a marriage will affect how much time each parent will spend with the children or pets, and it also affects your relationships with extended family. Perhaps you always had a Christmas tradition with your in-laws and now you are persona non grata. You may be grieving the life you thought you would have with your spouse and struggle to divide your worldly possessions. If you are struggling with the emotional cost of divorce, you might consider working with a divorce coach. A divorce coach, a key player in collaborative divorce, but also available to folks outside of collaborative, can help you with the emotional cost of divorce.
2. Financial Costs of Divorce
Divorce in California is not what most would call inexpensive. At the bare minimum you should expect to incur court filing fees over $400, and the sky is the limit beyond that. There are places where you might be able to save money initially, but that may come with the risk of making grave mistakes on a judgment that lasts forever.
- Do it Yourself
The least expensive upfront option for a divorce in California is to do it yourselves. Self-represented spouses can each pay the filing fee of $435 and fill out the required forms all on their own. The drawback to this method is that you will be held to the same standard under the law as an attorney. It may be wise to consider paying a small fee to have a family law attorney review your documents prior to filing them in court if you go with this method.
Mediation uses a third party neutral to assist you and your spouse in coming to an agreement outside of court. This method will help you save money over some other options such as collaborative divorce or litigation, but you will need to work together much more cooperatively.
- Collaborative Divorce
In Collaborative Divorce you will each have your own attorney, your own divorce coach, plus a financial neutral and any other resource or child specialists your case requires. Before you panic over adding the retainers for each of these professionals, keep in mind that by spreading the work over a larger group of professionals you will likely save money compared to using litigation. The attorneys tend to bill at a higher hourly rate than the other professionals, so when work is outsourced to the financial expert, for example, you are saving money. Second, because there are no court appearances, you will almost certainly save in attorney’s fees by not sitting around in court.
Litigation is almost always the most expensive way to get a divorce. Litigation is what most people think of when they picture a divorce: a couple decides to divorce and they each hire an attorney to represent them in court. On its face litigation may not seem like such an expensive endeavor because you pay a retainer, often $3000-$7000 that the attorney will bill from at their hourly rate. The unfortunate truth is that the retainer will need to be renewed at least once prior to the completion of the case. A divorce involving children and property can easily go into the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands in a litigation setting.
Why so expensive? Well, if you want to file a motion for child custody, for example, you need to pay your attorney to draft the motion and file it (plus an additional fee for filing). Then the opposing attorney must draft and file a response. The attorneys have to meet and confer prior to the hearing to attempt to resolve the issue outside of court. By the time you have even set foot inside the courtroom you have paid several hours of attorney time. On the day of court, you may wait two or more hours for your case to be called, all of which is billable time.
How can you keep costs down? One way is to be willing to work with your spouse in coming to agreements. Consider how much money you are willing to spend on a disagreement. It may not make financial sense to spend more in litigation costs than the value of an asset.
3. Community Property Costs
In California, community property means that all assets and debts acquired during the marriage, except by inheritance, belong to the community. This means that when you divorce half of your assets and debts belong to each spouse. Your cost in divorce will include half the equity of the house, half of your retirement (yes, even though you were the one working), half the bank accounts, and half of the debts accrued. Except in very limited circumstances, it will not matter who earned the item, and that can be a difficult reality for many people.
When considering a divorce, it is important to think about how much you want to spend in time and money on each issue presented. The more cooperatively you and your spouse can work through the divorce the lower the emotional and financial cost will be.