What Is the Financial Cost of Divorce—Can I Afford It?

When a separated couple decides to divorce, one of the most common concerns they face is: How much does divorce cost? After all, you are taking one household and dividing it into two. In many cases, this means that finances will be tighter for everyone. Divorcing couples often come into consultations wanting to know what the total cost of the divorce will be. Unfortunately, that’s an impossible question to answer right off the bat. The cost of a divorce proceeding is completely dependent on the parties and their ability to negotiate a settlement quickly. The longer the divorce process goes on, the more costly it’s going to be.

In New Jersey, it’s not uncommon for the hourly rates of family-law attorneys to be in the range of $200 to $600 per hour. Retainers for a divorce are generally upward of $5,000, and it is often unrealistic to believe that your divorce will be resolved before that initial retainer is exhausted. If you and your spouse have been able to reach an agreement prior to retaining counsel, it may aid in keeping your costs down if all that is needed is putting through an uncontested divorce. However, in many cases, issues arise that need to be addressed by counsel. To help you get a handle on exactly what the cost of divorce will be, here are the different fees that you may need to pay:

  • Consultation fee. The first counsel fee you are likely to pay is the consultation fee. The cost of these consultations will vary widely based on the area in which you live, the experience of the attorney you are meeting with, and a variety of other factors. The length of time that the attorney spends with you may vary as well. For example, some attorneys offer free consultations, but the consultations are only for a very short, defined period of time. Most family-law attorneys offer a one-hour consultation for a set rate.

  • Retainer fee. Next, once you decide that you want to move forward with your attorney, you will be asked to pay a retainer. Again, the amount of the retainer will vary based on the facts of your case. For example, if you come to a consultation with the outline of a settlement agreement, or maybe even a signed agreement that you and your spouse negotiated by yourselves, it’s likely that your retainer will cost less than that of someone who has an acrimonious relationship with their spouse and will be unable to speak directly to their spouse on any issue.

  • Additional expenses. There are a number of common issues that will drive up the cost of divorce, and they include extensive motion practice; parties who do not cooperate with court orders resulting in the need for enforcement hearings; and requiring that all communication go through attorneys, rather than communicating directly with your spouse.

  • Experts. Another expense that might increase the cost of divorce is the need to hire experts. There are several types of experts that might be necessary in a particular case: real estate appraisers, pension valuations, forensic accountants, and vocational and custody experts. These experts will vary in price, although some such as real estate appraisers are capable of completing their reports for a relatively small fee of approximately $500. Other experts, however—specifically custody experts – are much more costly. It is not uncommon for a custody expert to require a retainer of $7,500 to $10,000, and this retainer may only cover the cost of the report. There will be additional fees in the event that the case heads to trial and the custody expert will need to testify.

But my divorce is “simple”
People often come to the firm and say they have a simple divorce, only to discover down the line that the rough agreement they reached with their spouse is seriously deficient and requires substantial work in order to ensure that they are adequately protected in the divorce. In situations where the parties may not have substantial assets, it is possible for a divorce to be done quickly and with minimal cost. However, if there are children involved it is unlikely that this will happen unless the parents are on the same page.

In some instances, there have been clients who have discussed divorce with their spouse at length and come to the initial consultation with a rough outline of the desired settlement agreement. These cases are likely be more inexpensive since the parties have already discussed many of the major issues. However, it is likely that some of the nuances of the law were overlooked and the attorney will need to address them in order to ensure protection. Even these “simple” divorces, however, can cost a few thousand dollars depending on how much time the attorney must spend in drafting the agreement and going back to the parties with issues that remain. However, cases where the parties are able to work out an agreement quickly by working together and compromising are by far the cheapest of the divorce cases.

In a situation where the parties simply do not get along and will not agree on anything at all, you can expect that the counsel fees will be much higher. If one party is unwilling to negotiate and is taking unreasonable positions, it is very likely that the other party will incur very high counsel fees because they will need to file motions to compel movement in the case. A judge cannot make a final determination in a matter until the time of trial, but they can make what is known as pendente lite decisions while the divorce is pending, which generally forms the basis for a settlement agreement.

If the parties do not have significant bank accounts or access to credit, a judge may order the liquidation of a marital asset in order to provide the parties with funds to pay their attorneys. Ultimately, in many settlement agreements, the parties each are responsible for their own counsel fees associated with the divorce process.

Ways to keep your costs down
Fortunately, there are some things all parties involved can do to keep the cost of divorce down while still resolving their matters fully and efficiently. Keeping your emotions out of the equation will go a long way to achieve this, although this may be easier said than done. Here are some great ways to keep the cost of your divorce at a minimum:

  • Try to talk to your spouse before involving counsel. While some couples going through a divorce are extremely angry and unable to speak effectively with one another, a good number of divorces are simply people who acknowledge that they have outgrown the relationship. It will benefit you, your spouse, and even your children if you and your spouse can talk to one another about the issues you are facing. If, for example, you can resolve the issues of custody and parenting time just by talking to your spouse, this will save you counsel fees since these very important issues will be resolved from the outset. It’s always a good idea to see what you might be able to work out simply by communicating prior to reaching out to your attorney.

  • Try to avoid litigation. In many instances, costs are driven up because divorcing spouses go straight for litigation via the filing of motions or retaining experts. In many instances, if the parties and their respective attorneys had attempted to reach a resolution of the issue prior to seeking a decision from the court, they could have avoided the expense of a motion and made an agreement that they can each live with. While motions are certainly necessary in a number of cases, they are not always the answer. Many divorces are resolved without having to file any motions. If you are concerned about the cost of your divorce, it’s important to keep an open mind over trying to resolve the matter without the aid of the court. In fact, you should always take the time to consider if an expert is truly necessary in your case. For example, if your spouse is self-employed, you may want to hire a professional to value the business. However, you will need to also take a step back and look at the documents produced in discovery in relation to the marital lifestyle. If the numbers look similar to what you were living on during the marriage, it may be more worthwhile to preserve the funds that would have otherwise been allocated to the expert.

  • Be aware of the frequency of your communications with your attorney. Some people do not realize when they sign the retainer agreement that they are going to be billed for all work that is completed on their file, including the times that they reach out to their attorney or the attorney’s support staff. This is important to keep in mind because it is often an area where people run up costs. One of the biggest drains on a retainer is the client who emails or calls constantly over minor issues. If you have to get documents to your attorney or have questions or concerns, make a list and include them all in one or two emails rather than email in a stream of consciousness manner. While it may take your attorney longer to review a lengthy email, it may ultimately be more cost-conscious than sending many smaller emails. You do not want to be so conservative that your attorney is not getting the information necessary in your case, but it’s an area that’s often the cause for more expensive litigation.

  • Complete all paperwork as fully as you can and in a timely manner. Throughout the divorce process, there are many times that you are asked to complete paperwork. Discovery, which is the exchange of documents and proof about your respective financial lives, is the most comprehensive exchange of information, and you are often asked to answer more than 100 questions. It will be beneficial to your case—and your bill—if you do as complete of a job as possible when you are asked to fill out the initial response. If your attorney or the staff has to repeatedly request additional information from you, it will lead to an increase in your bill. You are the only person who has this information and can answer these questions, so it will ultimately fall to you to answer. Be proactive in your case by providing as much information as possible.

  • Be realistic in your goals. To some extent, your divorce needs to be a cost/benefit analysis. If you and your spouse have limited means, you will need to keep that in mind as you move forward through your divorce. For example, if you want your spouse to have alternating weekends with the children and they want a 50/50 schedule, it may benefit you to come up with a middle ground rather than pay for a custody evaluation. These evaluations, which are becoming more popular with the courts, generally cost in excess of $10,000. If you do not have significant assets from which to pay this expense, you may want to reconsider your position on this issue.

  • Keep your future in mind. Ultimately, you will be finished with this divorce and will need to move forward with your life. If you have elected to take a scorched-earth approach to the divorce process—meaning spending every dollar you have to fight over assets and children—you will be left in a difficult financial position once the divorce is finalized. You do not want to cut off your nose to spite your face, so to speak. Keep in mind that someday you will be past this divorce and you will want to be able to support yourself and your children to the best of your ability. There is a light at the end of the tunnel that you need to focus on when picking your battles in a divorce proceeding.

Getting your spouse to pay your attorney’s fees
The financial settlement or judgment in your divorce may include spousal support, child support, and equitable distribution of your marital assets. There is another avenue to obtain financial assistance from your spouse. It is possible to agree or to have the court order that your spouse will pay part or all of your attorney’s fees. In a situation where you earn much less than your spouse or if you are an at-home parent, you may not have the resources to retain the same level of legal counsel as your spouse. New Jersey law allows the judge to order your spouse to pay some or all of your legal fees so that you can have adequate representation.

There are no formulas used to set payment of attorney’s fees, however there are factors the court considers. These include:

  • The need of the spouse requesting payment
  • The ability of the other spouse to pay attorney’s fees
  • The equitable distribution of the marital assets among the spouses (how much each is getting)
  • The behavior of the spouses to each other (for example, a spouse who cheated or who was abusive might be expected to pay more than one who did not) and during the court proceedings

The court does not blindly order a spouse to pay all of the other spouse’s legal fees. The court evaluates the legal fees that have been billed for fairness and considers if they are within the customary or normal range for a case of the same type of complexity.

How to regain control of your finances after the divorce
A divorce brings big financial changes. Your marital assets and debts will be divided by the divorce and you are likely left with fewer financial assets than you had during marriage. Taking the time to regroup can help you take charge of your new financial situation.

  • Get organized. It is essential that you have a good understanding of exactly what you have and what you owe moving forward. Make a list or a spreadsheet, listing balances of all your bank accounts, investments, and retirement accounts. Then do the same for all of your debts. Make sure you have current balances and that you include all of your separate accounts as well as those that were marital accounts that you are now responsible for.

  • Create a budget. To be able to live comfortably and without stress, you need to create a new budget, one that takes into account your total monthly income and your current total monthly expenses, with some padding for emergencies and unexpected expenses.

  • Talk to a financial advisor. Gaining control of your finances today is important, but it is also necessary to think about the future and create a retirement plan. Sit down with a financial advisor who can help you save for the future. Your retirement goals may have changed, so it is important to rethink what you really want.

  • Examine your insurance. You will likely be making changes to many of your insurance policies to remove your spouse or convert to a single account. While you are doing this, you should review things such as your auto-insurance deductibles, homeowner’s or renter’s coverage, as well as your life-insurance beneficiary.

Divorce does not always have to be expensive. If you are able to reach a resolution of your case with the assistance of your counsel through an alternative method, such as settlement negotiations between attorneys or perhaps mediation, your divorce will cost significantly less than a contested case that goes to trial. If you have questions about divorce and the financial costs associated with same, contact the attorneys of DeTorres & DeGeorge at 908-304-9683 to schedule a consultation.

Financial Divorce Guide
About DeTorres and DeGeorge Family Law

DeTorres and DeGeorge Family Law is a New Jersey based family law firm that has been helping New Jersey residents achieve the best possible results in their divorce for nearly 30 years. The DeTorres and DeGeorge Family Law team is always ready to fight for their clients’ rights – determined to help New Jersey families overcome legal challenges from start to finish. Our legal team, with over 65 years of combined experience, provides expert guidance on all family law and divorce-related matters, including custody and parenting time, alimony and child support, equitable distribution of assets, premarital agreements, post-divorce issues, executive compensation distribution, divorces for business owners, and divorce mediation. The firm has been recognized for its dedication and expertise in the industry by multiple local and national organizations, including Super Lawyers, Law Firm 500, and the American Institute of Family Law Attorneys. Rosanne DeTorres, Managing Partner, is one of 150 lawyers certified as a matrimonial law attorney.

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