The Million Dollar Question(s)
This is inevitably something that every single person who wants to get divorced has grapple with. How much does it cost? How much can it cost? Is it really cheaper to go with someone with a lower hourly rate? Can I get my divorce done on a flat fee? Why doesn’t anyone have a clear picture?
To be abundantly clear – everyone can get divorced. Everyone. The filing fee for divorce is $220 in Massachusetts and the filing fee for divorce in Rhode Island starts at $120. There may be some surcharges in each state that alter that cost, but this is the minimum amount of money you need to pay to initiate a divorce. As Massachusetts and Rhode Island divorces follow the rules of “no fault” (you don’t need a specific reason to proceed), once the filing fee is submitted along with any supporting paperwork, there is one absolute certainty: You will get divorced.
It is possible to work with your spouse, come to a reasonable and constructive agreement, and settle the marital estate in its entirety without the involvement of an attorney and the court system until the time at which you have to submit a final agreement. At which point, the cost is some of your time (did you know mediation can be resolved in about 6 hours?) What drives the cost of litigation is the amount of conflict and the amount of ground that needs to be covered.
How Much Will My Case Cost?
This is the biggest question, and also the hardest one to pin down because of how loaded a question it is. Even if we disregard, for a moment, the number of things that you and your partner need to specifically discuss regarding your divorce (this would mean your house, custody arrangements, retirements accounts), there are a lot of other factors that will have a part to play. The most important of which is the level of conflict.
Conflict is a difficult issue in of itself. Sometimes, the conflict is out of your control and your soon-to-be-ex is just a monster that is out to make your life miserable. Often, it shows up unexpectedly and is driven by emotional responses as opposed to rational ones. If you want to keep your costs down, doing your best to control your responses to conflict will be your best bet. Which leads to another critical factor: You.
The Power of Your Influence
Before anything happens in your case, you are the one who needs to sign off. You are the one who will have questions. You are the one who will need to make sure that you are making effective use of time. Most firms aren’t just trying to milk their clients for billable hours (though they certainly do exist) and will default to keeping things efficient and sending communications only when needed. We recognize this is an expensive prospect and want to keep costs down, but ultimately, you need to take an active role in managing expenses. The more you break up your communications, the more you have to backtrack on information you’ve already gone over, and the more you use your attorney as a therapist, the larger your bill will be.
A good example of cost control is through the use of communications. Too often, there is an urge to reach out to your legal team whenever the thought arises or a new need pops up. This leads to texts, emails, phone calls and a bunch of back and forth. Every time you create a new point of contact with your legal team, they have to shift course and open a new time entry. Most Firm’s and attorneys will have a minimum billable amount somewhere in the ball park of 12 minutes. That means every time you shoot off a one liner text that could take a moment to answer, it’s 12 minutes of billable time.
Instead of breaking up your questions into single points of contact, pick the best way to relay a bunch of questions at once and get everything answered in one go. As an aside, texting is probable one of the worst ways to conduct long form communications – stick to phone calls or emails for that.
The Bigger Picture
Overall, there’s still a question on how much your case might cost. For a divorce where there are some contested issues, where lawyers must get involved and the issue is filed in and resolved in court, and a typical asset array (own marital home, retirement accounts, insurance considerations), parties should expect to spend around $15,000 per person.
We do not encourage people to fall into the assumption that their divorce is going to fall on the average. Your case is just as unique as you are, and so too will the outcome be.
Hourly Rate or Flat Rate?
Another impact on your divorce is going to be the actual rates that are charged, and there are a few things that you need to be mindful of. Hourly rates don’t mean anything to the final outcome of the case. It would be more effective and a better use of your money to pay $350 an hour for an attorney and firm with more resources at their disposal and a more experienced team than it may be to pay $200 an hour for someone who does not generally practice in Family Law.
It is an ineffective or poor strategy development by legal counsel that is not familiar with the ins and outs of divorce and custody issues.
An inexperienced attorney with a lower hourly rate can cause you to have to backtrack and try and clean issues up (if they can be cleaned up), which may not only cost you more in fees up front, but also in the aftermath when settlement is potentially reached. We’ve all heard stories about the person who got screwed in their divorce and their attorney did nothing – that’s why.
Ensure that you select the attorney that meets your need, not just the one who is cheapest.
Beware the Flat Rate
There are attorneys out there that will try and offer a flat rate for a contested divorce, and it’s simply not feasible. As we’ve discussed, contested divorces are unpredictable in their conflict and the cost. Attorneys are in this for their career, and unless the flat rate is in excess of $10,000 or more, it’s highly unlikely that the attorney offering a flat rate will be able to effectively manage your case. Instead of being able to give you the attention your case deserves, they will have to rely on volume and faster case turnover to stay viable as a business. This can negatively impact the care provided.
Flat rates are more tenable for a truly uncontested divorce issue where the parties are able to come to agreement in a constructive manner. Still, any rise in new or unforeseen conflict can derail that process and require a change in the expectation of cost.
Peaks and Valleys of Legal Fees
On a final note, something you need to prepare for is when costs are going to occur in a case. Unfortunately, costs aren’t always predictable. Legal expenses aren’t going to be a steady expense like a phone bill that comes at the same time every month for the same amount (relatively speaking).
At the various points of your case, fee accrual is going to spike because it requires more work than the in between periods. We have had clients that have gone months without incurring more than $50 in legal fees because it just slowed down between key events, and then work ramps back up and a $1,500 bill can be generated in a week because of a court appearance and all the prep work that goes into that day. Compounding the expenses will be the level of conflict involved. The more conflict, the more each event needs to be worked on and the larger the final total.
If you truly are in need of getting a handle on costs, do everything you can to reduce any potential contribution to needless conflict (this doesn’t mean “don’t stand up for yourself”) and consider which goals are most important to you so that efforts are targeted there instead of on things you don’t care about.