This article in part of our series about "Divorce in California". You can find the links to the other articles at the bottom of the article.
Your marriage is ending, and you’re worried about the cost. The national average is about $15,000, but a California divorce costs about $17,500.
You might pay only a $435 filing fee, or you might end up in court battle costing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. This article will help you know what to expect before you initiate divorce proceedings.
Quick note before we begin: the divorce process in California closely mirrors the dissolution of a domestic partnership, so if you are calling it quits with your domestic partner rather than your spouse, the same information applies.
In either case, we recommend you read up on how to file for divorce in California. If you’re especially nervous serving the California divorce papers, check out our advice on how to ask for a divorce while you’re at it.
Factors That Impact Divorce Cost
Now you’re aware that the price tag varies from divorce case to divorce case, but where will you and your divorce land? There’s no way to tell the exact amount you’ll spend on your particular California divorce process, but understanding the factors that go into calculating cost can greatly enhance your estimation abilities.
Factor 1: Contested or Uncontested?
Probably the single biggest factor determining the cost of your divorce case is whether it’s contested or uncontested.
In short, contested versus uncontested divorces come down to whether you and your spouse require intervention from a California court in order to settle each family law matter like child custody, child support, spousal support, and the division of marital property (assets accrued between when you got married and your legal separation date).
Contested divorce is probably what you think of when you think of divorce. In this model, you and your spouse each have your own family law attorney, and the sky’s the limit with regard to your legal fees.
A good lawyer can be an enormous expense, but sometimes, unfortunately, it’s a necessary one. Hell hath no fury like a divorcing spouse, and if your ex gets aggressive, you’ll need an aggressive expert in divorce law.
On the other hand, if you and your spouse are able to reach an agreement without intervention from the court, you are said to have undergone an uncontested divorce.
Unsurprisingly, uncontested divorce is much faster and less expensive than contested divorce. One reason for this is that if your divorce is uncontested, you may be eligible for what’s called a summary dissolution.
As the name implies, this is a sort of abbreviated divorce process. Besides reaching a settlement agreement yourselves, you must also be married for less than five years, have no children (and therefore child custody issues), have limited debts and assets, and both agree to waive spousal support in order to be eligible.
If you go for this option, you and your spouse will file a joint petition together, rather than a traditional divorce petition followed by a response.
Usually neither party hires a divorce lawyer for an uncontested divorce. Sometimes divorcing couples will pay for just an hour or two with a divorce attorney in order to obtain some basic legal advice, but then do the bulk of the work themselves or through an online platform.
Factor 2: Kids or No Kids?
Whether or not you’re preparing to engage in a contentious child custody battle, the existence of can have a huge impact on how much you can expect to spend on your California divorce.
First of all, as discussed above, merely having children, regardless of whether you and your spouse agree on a child support and custody arrangement, can prohibit summary dissolution.
This probably means that there will be a longer period of time between your initial divorce filing and when you are granted a divorce decree. You will definitely have to fill out more divorce paperwork, but also unexpected issues can arise in the extra time spent waiting for a divorce judgment.
However, what makes an even bigger difference than your eligibility for summary dissolution are the issues of child custody and child support themselves.
Having children makes it a lot more likely that you will end up in court. After all, people tend to feel a lot more emotional (and therefore aggressive) about child support and custody than they do about, say, spousal support.
Money comes and goes. Your kids are irreplaceable.
Even if you’re not looking at a litigated divorce, the extra time spent hammering out a custody arrangement with someone like a mediator can still increase costs over time.
Factor 3: What Divorce Method You Choose
Most people are familiar with the concepts of divorce mediation and litigation, but did you know that your options don’t end there? Each model of the divorce process has pros and cons, and expense may fall into either category.
You’ll want to do your own research, but first let’s get familiar with the different types of divorce and the range of their associated costs.
Litigation is usually your priciest option. In this divorce model, you’ll each hire a divorce attorney.
When engaging in litigation, the duration of your divorce proceedings is highly determinative of the overall expense.
For litigation, monetary cost is definitely a con, but that can pale in comparison to the emotional costs. Basically, the only reason you should ever litigate is if your spouse is already being uncooperative.
Your next most expensive option is generally collaborative divorce. This method is similar to mediation in that you and your spouse will be negotiating in a room together with professional help.
However, collaborative divorce is pricier than divorce mediation because that help will come from more than one professional. First of all, you and your spouse will each hire an attorney, and you’ll each be responsible for your own attorney’s fees.
You’ll also usually have two divorce coaches, who are typically mental health professionals. Beyond that, you might hire accountants, child specialists, or real estate agents to help you sort out a deal, including custody and parenting time.
Speaking of which, despite the significant expense of the collaborative method, it is a valuable option for parents with significant custody disagreements who want to avoid an epic custody battle.
We’ll tell you what perhaps your attorney won’t: staying out of court is one of the most important things you can do for the emotional well-being of your children. There are much better ways to demonstrate your devotion to them than starting a war.
Returning to the issue of cost, the collaborative process typically costs somewhere between $25,000 and $50,000, which may or may not cost less than if you and your spouse were to each hire an attorney and head to court. You’ll spend lot less time negotiating, but you’ll be paying several more professionals for every hour of negotiation.
The next most expensive option is mediation. Mediators are usually either mental health professionals or attorneys, and they will typically charge their usual hourly rates for their services.
If your mediator is a mental health professional, this will usually run you between $100 and $250 per hour. If your mediator is an attorney, you can expect their hourly fees to fall between $250 and $950.
The local cost of living is highly determinative of what you can expect to pay within these ranges (a Los Angeles mediator will run you more than one in Bakersfield, for instance). When all is said and done, you will likely owe fees somewhere between $1500 and $10,000.
Your least expensive divorce option is DIY divorce. This divorce method has two flavors. First, there’s true DIY divorce in which you pay only the court filing fees and fill out the forms yourself.
This might be a good option for you if you and your spouse have had a short-term marriage and one or both of you is comfortable with basic math and legal language.
We really stress that last detail. While saving money can be very appealing, this is a stressful time, and you might not want to find yourself personally at the mercy of the court clerk. Forms get kicked for all kinds of reasons, from mathematical errors to misspellings
Don’t hire an attorney yet, though, because there is another low-cost option for your uncontested divorce.
If you and your spouse are in basic agreement but would rather leave the forms up to family law experts, then an online divorce with It’s Over Easy might be the best option for you. Here, you’ll pay a flat fee, so you’ll know exactly what your legal fees will amount to from the very beginning.
No attorney needed!
Frequently Asked Questions
How much is a divorce lawyer in California?
Litigation isn’t always as scary as it is in the movies, but divorce attorney fees can definitely get pretty high. In reality attorneys’ fees will usually be somewhere between $250 and $950 per hour, depending on what part of California you live in and how complex your case is, with the initial retainer fee falling anywhere between $2500 and $25,000.
How much does a divorce cost in California without a lawyer?
The basic cost of filing divorce forms in California is $435, but you may have to pay additional court filing fees for a more complicated case, or if your county charges additional fees.
Getting divorced with It’s Over Easy is either $699 for a Basic package or $2,500 for a Premium package. No matter your decision, you can expect excellent customer service and a user-friendly process.
What other expenses contribute to the cost of divorce in California?
The cost of living where you reside is the first significant factor to consider when you’re trying to figure out what you can expect to pay. Not only do things like your attorney’s hourly rate correspond to the local cost of living; even basic court fees can differ from county to county.
Special circumstances which might also impact how much you pay. For instance, do you need a forensic accountant to figure out what kind of money you and your spouse actually have? Perhaps you need to list your house for sale in order to split your assets.
These expenses can definitely add up over time.
How to Save Money on a Divorce
If you and your spouse are willing to work together, the best thing you can do to save money is to go DIY.
However, couples sometimes find out that divorce is a bigger project than they expected, often leading them to give up and hire attorneys.
That’s why an online divorce with It’s Over Easy is your best bet. This service strikes the balance between easy and inexpensive, allowing you to move on with your life sooner than you expected.
To continue learning about divorce in California, see the following articles in the series: