Divorce Cost

Going through a divorce is bad enough.  It’s worse that you have to pay for it.  So what does a California divorce cost?  There’s not a simple answer so I’ll walk you through the factors and your options.

Filing Fee

The only unavoidable divorce cost (unless you are poor enough to be granted a fee waiver) is the filing fee.  This must be paid to the court clerk at the time the divorce petition is filed.  In most counties, this fee is currently $435.  In a few counties, it is a little more.

divorce costIf the other spouse chooses to file a response to the petition, another filing fee ($435) is required.  However, it is possible to get an uncontested divorce without paying this second filing fee.

Uncontested Divorce Cost

By “uncontested” I mean that a judge doesn’t need to decide anything.  You and your spouse somehow agree on everything necessary and simply file the required court paperwork for a judge to approve.

There are two main ways you might want or need to pay for professional assistance in an uncontested divorce:

  1. to get the paperwork prepared, filed and served; and
  2. to get help in reaching the agreements necessary for the divorce.

Professional Assistance – Paperwork

If you are fortunate enough not to need help in reaching the agreements, they still need to be documented for the court in a fairly exacting way.  And the court’s paperwork process needs to be followed.

If you do this yourself, your paperwork cost can be zero.  It’s not easy but there are resources to help you get it done.

If you are able and want to pay for help, there are basically two types:

  1. Generating all the required court forms and
  2. Getting these forms filed with the court and served on your spouse as necessary.

There are on-line “do-it-yourself” divorce services that generate your court paperwork along with filing and service instructions after you answer a bunch of questions on-line.  These services are intended for relatively simple divorces.  They all guarantee that your paperwork will be accepted by the court.  None guarantee that it will be accepted the first time.  They cost between $150 and $300.   You do the court filings and service yourself.

If you’d prefer not to have anything to do with court paperwork (other than approve it and sign it), you can pay a paralegal, Legal Document Assistant (LDA) or an attorney to take care of everything for you.  You tell them your agreements, and they do the rest.  If you go with a paralegal or LDA, this will cost you about $800 – $1,200.  If you go with an attorney, it will likely be more.

Professional Assistance – Coming to Agreement

To keep a judge out of the decision-making picture, you need to come to agreement on dividing your property and debts, spousal support, and if you have minor children, child support and a parenting plan.  The two main ways many divorcing spouses pay for assistance in this regard are:

  1. attorney-assisted negotiation and
  2. mediation.

Hiring an attorney to assist with the negotiation will typically involve paying the attorney’s retainer up front (typically $5,000 or so) and the attorney’s hourly rate (typically $350 or so) for time spent on your behalf.  If both spouses hire an attorney, the cost of course doubles.

Divorce mediators generally don’t have retainers.  Their hourly rate can vary greatly depending on whether the mediator is a non-lawyer, lawyer or former judge.   Expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $500 per hour.  The total cost of mediation will depend on the level of conflict, the complexity of the case and the billing rate of the mediator.  Total costs are usually between $1,000 and $10,000 with most near the lower end of this range.

A few couples opt for a newer process called collaborative divorce, which involves a number of professionals including an attorney for each spouse.  It rarely costs less than $30,000.

In a divorce it is sometimes wise to seek input from other professionals, such as property or business appraisers, tax accountants or child development specialists.   All such professionals of course have to be paid.

Contested Divorce Cost

Surprisingly, a contested divorce in which you battle it out in front of a judge need not be more expensive than an uncontested divorce on one condition: each spouse appears in court to present their case without being represented by an attorney.  Amazingly, about 80% of the spouses who appear before judges in contested cases do so without an attorney.  This doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good idea.

Of course, when both sides have attorneys in contested cases, the divorce cost can skyrocket with discovery actions, hearings, pretrial maneuverings and trial preparations.  $50,000 is a conservative estimate.  The average cost in 2015 was slightly less than $100,000.  A lot depends on how hard the attorneys work (or not) to settle the case.  You will of course be paying the attorneys to prepare all the court paperwork.