Professional services are hard to price. Whether you’re looking for a doctor, a contractor or, yes, a lawyer, it’s difficult for customers to get a clear sense of their budget. In part, this is because professional rates range widely. One office might charge $50 per hour while another charges $500 to do the same job because of their past success or reputation. Let’s analyze what lawyers charge so that you can get a good idea of what you’ll spend. You can also work with a financial advisor to get your finances in order and prepare for the potential divorce.
The Cost of Lawyers Can Vary Widely
It’s difficult to predict the scope of most professional jobs in advance. Lawyers can’t tell how much work a case will require, nor how many costs they’ll incur, until well into the matter. They can give their clients the best guess, but those estimates can change at any time. They are going to charge, at least some portion of their work, hourly on the time they spend on the case.
The cost of your lawyer depends on who you hire, where you live and how complicated your divorce gets. But that doesn’t make this question any less important. Even the most amicable divorces are still significant legal proceedings. It’s very important to address the details and to understand your rights and your responsibilities. A lawyer can help you do so. It’s worth the money to hire someone for this unpleasant process.
What Lawyers Charge for
Divorce lawyers typically use the same fee structure as most other lawyers. This means that they charge based on two models: hourly rate or fee for service. Most services are going to require at least some portion of their work charged off as an hourly rate unless you’re just paying them to do a single specific thing, such as registering your business.
Fee for Service
The fee for service is otherwise known as a flat rate. This is when a lawyer charges you a fixed rate to handle a matter from start to finish. For example, a lawyer might charge you $1,000 to handle your entire divorce. In that case, they’re promising to handle everything from the initial filing to the final decree for that flat rate.
The problem with the fee for service is, as we noted above, the unpredictability of legal matters. A lawyer can’t predict in advance how much time any given case will require. Fee-for-service lawyers try to account for this, charging fees that balance the unexpectedly light cases against the unexpectedly difficult ones.
But most, if not all, of them, also offer a limited scope of representation. Your money pays for a specific range of legal services based on how much the lawyer charges, such as standard document filings and negotiations. If the case gets unexpectedly complicated, many fee-for-service lawyers will either ask for an hourly rate or will withdraw from the matter.
The result is that fee-for-service lawyers tend to sound cheap, and in very simple cases like a landlord-tenant dispute, this can be a good thing. With something potentially complicated, however, like a divorce, it’s not uncommon for clients to get what they pay for.
Most lawyers charge by the hour. This means that they bill you for the time that they spend working on your case, whether it’s conducting research, actively negotiating or going to court. An honest lawyer will track their time in six-minute increments, billing you on a pro-rated basis for the time they spend on your case rounded up to the nearest tenth of an hour.
Except in rare, extremely easy cases, hourly rate lawyers almost always cost more than paying a flat fee. However, this is partly because hourly-rate lawyers tend to do a more thorough job than a flat-rate council. You pay more but you’ll get more in return.
When you hire an hourly-rate lawyer, your costs will vary dramatically based on the complexity of your divorce. A simple, amicable divorce might require only a little bit of work as your lawyer makes sure that everyone understands their rights and responsibilities. If you have significant assets, children or other complicating factors, your lawyer will have to put in more hours.
A contested divorce will take more time still, and more money, while a divorce that goes to trial is generally the most expensive of all. The laws in your state, especially regarding equitable distribution, will come into play when the total cost is revealed as well. Basically, the more work this divorce takes the more expensive it will get.
A lawyer’s fees don’t account for expenses and other costs incurred while handling your case. They will also bill you for any specific costs that they pay.
These costs can range based on the needs of your case. Some lawyers charge for costs as small as photocopying and transportation. More often you should expect to pay costs such as filing fees, court costs, process servers, accountants, property appraisals and childcare evaluations. Your lawyer will typically pay these costs upfront and then include them in the bill.
Average Cost of Divorce Lawyers
The final bill for a divorce lawyer will depend on several factors. This includes:
- How much does your lawyer charge;
- The amount of work involved in handling your case;
- How much your spouse contests the divorce;
- The specific filing fees in your court;
- The costs associated with handling your divorce.
These costs tend to vary by state. Court costs are highly jurisdiction-specific, and lawyers tend to charge based on the region in which they practice.
According to a 50-state study conducted by FindLaw, you should expect court costs and filing fees to range from around $100 to $400 depending on your specific needs and jurisdiction. The more documents you need to file, the more this will cost. This same study found that on average, it costs between $8,000 and $12,000 in attorney’s fees to handle a divorce from start to finish.
FindLaw’s numbers line up with a broader study conducted by the legal research site Nolo. Their survey found that most divorce lawyers charge between $100 and $400 per hour for their services, with the national average coming in at $270. If you consider that it can take a few hours just to have your initial meetings and discuss the facts of your case, it’s easy to see how a $270 hourly rate adds up quickly.
They, too, found that most clients pay between $7,000 and $11,300 in attorney’s fees to finalize a divorce. This is, again, on top of any separate expenses that you may incur during the process.
These numbers are general guidelines only, but the bottom line is this: Hiring a divorce lawyer is expensive. Many couples will pay as much for their breakup as they did for their wedding. The more you can agree upon ahead of time, the more money you and your spouse will save in the long run. This isn’t an area to cut corners though. Even with the best will in the world, you and your spouse can make mistakes. That risk is infinitely greater if a child is involved.
The Bottom Line
The costs of hiring a divorce lawyer range widely based on the complexity of your case and your specific jurisdiction. However, on average, most people should expect to pay between $8,000 and $12,000 from start to finish. You should get your finances in order before filing for divorce if that is possible from a timing perspective. The more people involved, such as children, the more expensive the divorce can get. The more you agree with your soon-to-be former spouse beforehand, the faster and cheaper the divorce can become.
Tips for Getting a Divorce
- If you’re going through a divorce, or have already made it to the other side, getting your finances in order is a necessity. It’s important to plan a roadmap for where you want to go financially and how you’re going to get there. A financial advisor can help you do just that, and finding one doesn’t have to be difficult. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
- Now that we’ve talked about how much the lawyers will cost, how much does the divorce proceeding itself cost? Because unfortunately, even just the process of getting divorced can get expensive.
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