I have been blessed to be assisting members of our community for nearly a decade and half and am asked one question in nearly every consult I have ever had. Potential clients almost unanimously ask, “How much is this going to cost?” My answer is nearly always the same. It depends.
I do not respond this way to be vague or to avoid the question. Far from it. Instead, it is literally the most honest answer I can give potential clients. There is no one-size-fits-all divorce cost because there is no one-size-fits-all divorce. Because of that, I like to explain the potential range of ways a case can proceed.
The cheapest way to get a divorce is to do it amicably. Amicably does not mean that your spouse agrees to get a divorce. Amicably just means that the two of you are able to reach an agreement.
Similarly, it is equally true that just because your spouse does not want to get divorced, that doesn’t mean that your divorce cannot resolve amicably, or even just proceed. Apparently, there is a misconception out there that people must “agree” to get divorced and this is simply untrue. A divorce proceeding will proceed with or without everyone participating, but it is certainly in each parties’ best favor to participate to avoid inequitable distribution of assets.
Reaching an agreement can sometimes be very straight forward. Two spouses have sat down and reached an agreement as to how they want to share their assets, or they have attended mediation and have reached agreement on many issues. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who cannot have any conversation directly with their spouse, but are able to agree to most terms through counsel after going through some of the Court mandated “divorce process.” Most people who come to our office fall somewhere on this spectrum where they want to avoid trial and fighting but want what is fair and need help ensuring that they are able to get it.
However, if the parties are unable to reach an agreement through the process, in other words, cannot amicably reach an agreement, then you must be prepared to go to court for trial. Again, depending on the issues that need to be resolved, it can take year(s) and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Most family law attorneys have seen parties argue over very serious and sometimes complicated issues like custody of any children, the marital home, credit card debts, or retirement accounts. Some couples however get more involved and focused on things that may seem very important in the moment, but often have little value or impact on the actual divorce. For example, we have seen people wish to fight over table cloths, an empty and damaged dining room hutch, old record albums without a record player, model planes, Disney vacation points, timeshares, fish and aquarium supplies, and unfortunately the list goes on and on. While all of them items have a value, often the value is less than the costs the parties incur fighting over these items.
Some parties opt to attend mediation, with or without their own attorney before anyone files a complaint for divorce. Some engage in settlement negotiations and conferences with their spouse and their counsel before proceeding formally. Others opt to begin the formal divorce process by filing a complaint for divorce and opt to attempt settlement thereafter. What is “right” for you and your case really depends on your independent circumstances.
To begin the formal divorce process, the attorney must draft and file a complaint in divorce, containing all the appropriate counts addressing all the issues that need to be resolved. A filing fee is paid to the county in which the complaint is being filed, and the fee charged depends on whether the parties have children. The filed complaint, then needs to be “served” on the opposing party. That can be as simple as the person “accepting service,” or taking weeks to track the person down, or even having to ask the court to allow you to serve the other party in an alternative fashion. The costs for that can range from $0 if they accept service to upwards of $2,500 if you must file a motion to serve the other party via publication.
If the other party opts to participate in the divorce process, that party will file an answer and likely a counterclaim for divorce. Conversely, if the other party opts not to participate in the divorce, the first party will need to request that the court allow them to proceed by default. Said another way, if one party wants a divorce, the other party will not be able to stop the process, though they can certainly delay and over complicate it.
Whether before the complaint is filed or after, the parties need to sort out who gets what, whether one spouse needs support, and who gets the kids. Each of those issues can involve multiple court appearances for conferences, hearings and trials, along with attorney conferences, phone calls, and written communication. This is where fees can start to get expensive.
On the other hand, some clients choose to be amicable and work through the issues without court intervention. Experienced divorce lawyers can help clients have productive conversations in order to attempt to resolve communication issues, custody issues, and financial issues both while the divorce is pending and thereafter.
Once an agreement is reached on all the issues, a settlement agreement is drafted for filing with some additional documents that the attorney drafts. Those documents are signed by the parties and they are submitted to the court. Most judges request that the parties appear for a hearing to ensure that they understand the contents of the agreement, what the agreement means, the affect it has, that they intend to be bound by its terms, and that no one was forcing them to enter the agreement.
If the parties are unable to reach an agreement on all the issues, any unresolved issues will need to be litigated. This means that a Judge will conduct a trial on the issues that are in dispute where the parties will need to testify, call witnesses and present relevant and credible evidence to support each decision they want the Judge to make. Thereafter the Judge would apply the law to that fact and issue a decision. When all the issues have been litigated, and the Judge issues his/her final decision, the divorce would be finalized.
In the Central New Jersey area, attorney’s fees can range anywhere from $250 an hour for new inexperienced attorneys to $600 an hour or more for partners in some of the larger law firms.
So, as you can see, determining how long the divorce will take and how much a divorce will cost still depends on the facts of your life. Typically, the more contentious, the more you will spend. However, more than a few times I have had clients tell me that they anticipated a highly contentious divorce because they could not agree on nearly anything. Yet, when the parties began the process and saw how the law applied to their lives, the parties were able to come to an agreement on most issues fairly quickly. Not surprisingly, we have seen other matters where parties are convinced that they will resolve quickly and that they “have an agreement” but ended up litigating one or more issues for years.
So, unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to give an exact answer to what seems like a straightforward question. Our goal here at Arndt & Sutak, LLC is to help our clients end up in the best position that they can while expending as little on attorney’s fees and saving as much for their own families as possible.