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This Is How Much the Average Divorce Costs — And Where All The Money Goes

This is how the cost of breaking up all breaks down.

So you and your partner have made the difficult decision to get a divorce. The good news is that once it’s over, the rest of your life will begin. The bad news is that divorce probably won’t be cheap getting there, and unfortunately some of the costliest parts of the process are simply unavoidable.

While the cost of divorce varies by state, experts estimate that the average starts with “E” and ends with “xpensive.” According to Elise Pettus, founder of Untied, a support group for women going through divorce, the average couple can expect to spend five figures on their separation. In fact, the average cost of divorce is around $15,000-20,000. Of course, that number can vary wildly. “In NYC, that cost was significantly higher,” says Pettus. “If you hire a prestigious Manhattan firm, the initial retainer alone is often $25,000 and upwards.”

As with most legal processes, the brunt of the expense is divorce lawyer fees — and it’s safe to say these will probably rise significantly if kids and (lots of) money are in the picture.

“The heightened expense is usually tied to the complicated nature of the assets and/or difficult custodial concerns,” said Kelly A. Frawley and Emily S. Pollock, partners in the matrimonial and family law department at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, in joint comments to Fatherly. Battling over custody, defining income from cash-heavy businesses or gifts, appraising homes, jewelry or artwork: all of these require an attorney’s time and expertise — drafting motions, filing motions, negotiating with opposing counsel — if not the hiring of other experts entirely, such as appraisers, psychologists, or court-appointed attorneys for your children.

To make matters more frustrating, litigation is as unpredictable as it is expensive. Suppose one party files for discovery: right away you’re dealing with the costs of depositions (including a court reporter and transcript fees, not to mention your attorneys’ time), but you may also find that what you discover quickly spirals into other costs. As Tami Kamin Meyer, an attorney practicing in Ohio since 1992, explained to Fatherly, people often don’t see these coming.

“Let’s say one party discovers information about the other party’s assets or something that that the one party didn’t reveal,” Kamin Meyer said. “You don’t necessarily anticipate going back to court for contempt, meaning you have some temporary orders while the case is slowly moving towards its finalization.” You may also find yourself going back to court to appeal these rulings (or any other decisions you’re unhappy with), she said, a process that can last functionally as long as the parties draw it out.

Even in cases where complicated financial and custodial concerns aren’t in play, Frawley and Pollock estimate that the bill will still be hefty. (And indeed, their experiences reflect one of the prestigious Manhattan firms mentioned by Pettus.)

“If none of those issues are present, the parties are able with counsel to agree to terms and proceed to executing an agreement, and no additional professionals or experts… then the average cost is probably somewhere between $25,000 and $60,000 in total counsel fees,” they said. “Depending on how many of the above-listed issues are present in a case, the duration of the divorce process can be substantially extended and the legal fees can become as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars per party.”

There is one easy way to substantially slash the cost of your divorce: don’t litigate! If you and your partner are mostly on the same page, you can shorten the process to a few pages of paperwork.

“An uncontested divorce is significantly cheaper,” said BriAnn Copp, a matrimonial attorney with Greenspoon Marder. “You will need to pay court fees to file the paperwork, regardless, but an uncontested divorce can be kept to a few hundred dollars if you do everything yourself and a few thousand if you have attorneys draw up the documents.” That said, she cautioned that you should probably take the latter route: “As an attorney who has seen some terrible DIY forms, I do strongly advise against DIY forms if you can avoid it.”

For those who can’t avoid litigation, there are a few key ways to save money during a divorce. One, counter-intuitively, is not to be cheap. “The right way to save money is not by hiring the cheapest lawyer you can find,” said Pettus. “The good lawyers I have gotten to know are not cheap. I hear from women who tried to save money by hiring the least expensive attorney, but then ended up with the most pricey divorces. That really happens! Picking a good lawyer shouldn’t be entirely driven by money. But you can make sure you use your legal hours wisely.”

The other, as Pettus suggested, is judicious use of your attorneys’ time — especially if they’re charging by the hour. Kamin Meyer recommends doing your homework before every meeting or call: read documents, highlight what you don’t understand, prepare questions in advance; then, take notes during the meeting so you don’t have to call back later about matters that have already been discussed. She also stresses that clients should go to meetings on time and avoid bringing distraction-prone young children, who may take up valuable time.

“This is a business transaction,” she said. “Even though it deals with very intimate details of your life, in the end, it’s a business transaction.”

In a similar vein, Pettus suggests you don’t let your attorney-client relationship become a therapist-patient relationship. “A lot of money is wasted when you end up using your lawyer as your therapist,” she said. “Sometimes it helps to pull someone onto your team who is a therapist or coach who can help with some of the emotional turbulence.

Difficult as it may seem, one of the best things you can do is think of your divorce as a job. The more professionally you conduct yourself, the better the outcome — at least in terms of your checkbook. As Copp summed it up: “I’ve always compared a divorce action to a wagon with four wheels: two parties and two lawyers. If any one of the wheels is off, the whole thing grinds to a halt.”