The short answer is How much do you want to spend?
We all know the field of divorce abounds with horror stories of runaway legal fees. The average fee is said to be about $20,000 per person but there are many divorces that generate fees of hundreds of thousands and occasionally, millions of dollars. Think about that a moment. An average of forty thousand dollars per couple.
And before you read further, you may want to take a look at my last blog post because divorce is not just about law. It’s about change. Without a doubt, there are legal issues to manage — but I contend that we have let divorce attorneys dictate to us their version of what divorce should look like. But that is not, in fact, what they are.
A couple married a year with no children and no shared property can obtain a divorce for a few hundred dollars with a Do-It-Yourself Divorce. That is because there are no issues to resolve and the divorce involves nothing more than filing a few forms with the court. From this simple baseline legal fees begin to rise as we add children, support and division of marital property to the mix.
But the average couple can complete a mediated agreement in four to eight hours work with a competent mediator. Generally the cost of the mediator is from $1,000 to $2,000.
The primary expense of a divorce is legal fees. Almost all lawyers charge by the hour. A small town general practice lawyer might charge as little as $150 per hour where a well know litigator in a big city can charge $500 and more per hour. So generally, what the lawyer charges and how many hours s/he spends on your case will deter mineyour fees. How many hours the lawyer spends on the case will be determined by three things: the professional style of the lawyer, the complexity of the issues to be settled and the desire of you and your spouse to fight or provoke one another. Let’s look at each of these.
ON DIVORCE LAWYER PERSONALITY AND COOPERATION
Few people realize that the personality of the lawyer has a big impact on total fees. Some lawyers are calm easy going people who are dedicated to keeping the divorce as simple as possible. They get along well with other lawyers, are trusted b y their peers and go to trial in only a small portion of their cases preferring to negotiate settlements as soon as possible. These lawyers don’t believe in dirty tricks and only seek as much financial information as is necessary to negotiate a fair resolution. If a middle class couple is lucky enough to find two such lawyers, if the issues are garden variety issues of kids, support and property division and if neither lawyer strokes the anger and fear of the client, the divorce should be resolved at a cost of five to ten thousand dollars total cast.
But if the same couple has the misfortune to hire lawyers with a different style the same divorce could generate fees of over a hundred thousand dollars or more. Some lawyers are more aggressive and more egotistical than others. They are not liked or trusted by peers so are less likely to achieve easy settlements. Moreover, because some lawyers actually like to fight, they fight over everything and issues that would be easily settled by a five minute phone call by other lawyers can end up decided by a judge after a two day hearing that cost fifteen thousand dollars. Because their adversaries don’t trust them everything has to be documented requiring more correspondence and more paper. Most lawyers charge 1/6 of an hour as a minimum charge for every phone call. So if two lawyers each charging $300 per hour have a three minute phone conversation it costs their clients $100. If each lawyer then follows up with a letter billed at a minimum charge of ¼ hour that costs the clients another $150. Nothing may have been accomplished. Or, the two have simply agreed to delay a hearing for a week. But it cost $250. Or suppose the conversation was the wife’s lawyer asking the husband’s lawyer to produce certain financial records and the husband’s lawyer refuses, the other lawyer has to file a motion in the court to compel the husband’s lawyer to produce the document. The court orders the document produced. That just cost the couple six thousand dollars. A cooperative e lawyer would have immediately have complied with the adversary’s request and saved that five thousand dollars.
If the two lawyers happen to have a hostile history and don’t like each other many simple requests will lead to such a court motion being filed. Usually the clients are oblivious of what is going on because each lawyer tells his/her client that the problem lies with the other lawyer and “I have no choice if I am going to protect t you.” So two angry lawyers who dislike each other, can easily generate six figure unnecessary legal fees. And ironically, many of the lawyers who have the “biggest” reputations are precisely these lawyers This is so many people are seduced by the myth of the aggressive lawyer who will fight hard and win what other lawyers cannot. It is myth because there is no data that suggests that lawyers with this style do any better for their clients than the calm and humane lawyer.
COMPLEXITY OF THE DIVORCE SETTLEMENT ISSUES
Some issues require more time by lawyers and so add to the expense of the divorce. Typically, family owned businesses have to be appraised. Depending on the style of the lawyers this can cost a lot of money. The appraisal of a business of any substance can easily cost in excess of twenty thousand dollars for accounting fees. Some lawyers will easily agree on a neutral appraiser and agree to be bound by that figure. Other lawyers insist on using their own appraiser. The other lawyer has little choice but to hire his own appraiser. Now we have two fees. In many cases each lawyer will hire an appraiser who will tilt the appraisal in the direction of his own client leading to a big disparity between the husband’s figures and the wife’s. In some cases that go before the court, the judge will get fed up with the posturing and order yet a third appraisal be a neutral. Now we have the fees for three appraisals. I have often seen these appraisal fees exceed one hundred thousand dollars. Reviewing and arguing about the divergent appraisal reports can require many hours from the lawyers leading to higher legal billing. And this fighting through appraisers can be applied to other assets such as pensions and real estate. The pension game is well known and played by many cynical lawyers and accountants who serve the divorce industry.
An additional later of complexity is added when there are allegations of hidden assets. The accounting fees to find these allegedly hidden assets can run to six figures. In many cases there are no hidden assets. In others the hidden assets are less that the cost of finding them. I recall a case in which the wife’s attorney spent $50,000 on accounting fees to find that the husband actually had less money than he had reported.
Even when there are complex assets that tend to add to the legal costs the personalities and styles of the lawyers have a big impact. Complexity jus provides more opportunities to disagree and disagreeable lawyers take advantage to fight with each other thus driving up legal fees. Note that yet again nothing of value is achieved for either client but as long as the clients are sucked into the myth that their lawyers are fighting for them they go passively along with the racket.
THE INCLINATION OF THE COUPLE TO FIGHT LENGTHENS THE DIVORCE
The third and, perhaps, most important factor is the desire of the clients to struggle with each other. Some clients genuinely wish for a peaceful divorce but just get seduced by the myths and their lawyer’s personas. They believe that they are in a fight to protect their rights and by trusting their lawyer’s judgments they will come out best. Seldom does it work out this way. Generally, the more contact you have with lawyers and courts the worse will be your divorce and the worse will be your life.
So if you want to fight, if you want to pursue the chimera of emotional vindication in the courts, your lawyers will be only too happy to lead you on and encourage you with the false promise that you can win. If you are so inclined, you can fight about everything. If you struggled over money in the marriage you can use the divorce to try to prove that you were right and that your spouse was wrong. If you struggled over parenting during the marriage now you can try to prove that your spouse was a lousy parent and that therefore, you should win the children as the prize they are. You will break yourselves economically and emotionally and you will royally screw up your kids but at least you will have carried on the good fight. How pathetic. So it is easy to see that if you want to fight with your spouse over who was right and who was wrong your lawyers will love you, at least until you run out of cash.
In the end, your divorce will be settled by negotiation. The result will be similar to what you could have had two years earlier with the help of a mediator — except that you will be broke and unable to cooperate for your own, or your children’s sake.
The truth is that divorce does not have to cost and should not cost more than a few thousand dollars. Divorce reverses the cliché that “you get what you pay for.” For in divorce, the more that you pay the less that you get. If you are still not convinced call me and I will try to help you understand a little better.
Before he was a divorce mediator, he was a divorce attorney. Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D., is one of the most experienced mediators in the United States. Since 1980, he has mediated hundreds of civil disputes and approximately four thousand divorces including many complex multi-million dollar matters.
Author of several books on divorce, Sam Margulies is an empathetic and knowledgeable guide through the difficult journey of divorce. Contact Sam with your questions and to talk about your divorce.