Many times one of the first questions a potential client will ask our firm is “How much will my divorce cost?” Unfortunately, there is no straight answer for this question. There are many variable factors that can affect how much a divorce will cost, and there is no “standard” legal fees for a divorce.
One of the biggest factors to determine how much a divorce will cost is whether the divorce is contested or uncontested. With uncontested divorces in Massachusetts (also known as IA divorces), spouses not only agree to get divorce, but agree to the terms of settlement of the divorce. They then jointly file with the court a Joint Petition for Divorce along with a Separation Agreement that outlines the terms of settlement. There is then only one court hearing to approve the documents that have been jointly filed by both spouses. Whereas, in a contested divorce, either one spouse opposes the divorce altogether, or the spouses cannot agree on some of the terms of settlement. Here, there are oftentimes at least two court appearances, if not many more, before the divorce is resolved.
One advantage to an uncontested divorce is that it is a faster, more amicable process. Because the process is faster, typically there are less legal fees involved. In fact, for uncontested divorces, some spouses choose to forego hiring attorneys, and rather choose to hire a neutral and independent mediator to facilitate resolving the divorce instead. Many mediators charge a flat or reduced fee, which saves in legal costs to finalize the divorce.
However, with a contested divorce, it can be much more difficult to predict how much the entire divorce will cost. There are many factors that could impact the cost. One factor is whether the other spouse hires an attorney. If the other spouse does not hire an attorney, it may cost you more in attorneys fees, because your spouse is not complying with the Rules of Court, and court orders, and now you have to pay your attorney to have your spouse comply with certain requirements he/she may or may not be aware of since he/she does not have an attorney. In this instance, some of your attorney’s fees may be recouped by and award from the court, but there is never a guarantee that the court will allow you to recoup these fees.
Conversely, if your spouse hires an attorney, but this attorney wants to unnecessarily play “hardball” or conduct extensive and unnecessary work by means of discovery or filing unnecessary motions. If there is such an attorney serving as opposing counsel, this will cause you to incur additional attorney’s fees responding to the discovery and/or motions opposing counsel has unnecessarily filed. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to stop this situation.
Another factor that can cause you to incur more legal fees is whether your spouse complies with the court orders and court rules and cooperates with you and your attorney. In a divorce there are certain things that almost all spouses will have to do, such as produce certain financial records in the Supplemental Rule 410 financial disclosure, and respond to discovery. There are also typically court orders that both spouses are required to abide by. However, if your spouse fails to do any of this, it can cause you to incur more legal fees to obtain compliance by your spouse. Oftentimes, it can be difficult to resolve the divorce without resolving these issues, so unfortunately, it is necessary to proceed forward on obtaining compliance from your spouse.
The complexity of your divorce can also impact the legal costs. When issues such as complex employee compensation or business interests of a spouse are involved, legal costs can rise through the course of discovery, including hiring financial experts to appraise a business or determine a spouse’s true income through the complex compensation. Additionally, if there are any other complicated or novel issues that need to be addressed in your divorce, this can increase legal fees.
Another important factor is how many court appearances you have in your case. In a contested divorce, it is not uncommon for there to be at least two hearings. The first is typically a motion hearing, and the second is typically the Pre-Trial Conference. Depending on the specific issues in a case, there could be more hearings as well. Therefore, the more you go to court, the more you will pay in attorney’s fees for your attorney to prepare for the hearing and then also attend the hearing with you.
How well you and your spouse get along is also a factor that impact how much you pay in legal fees. If you and your spouse do not get along at all, and are doing things to intentionally hurt or spite one another, this can typically cause legal fees to increase due to the fighting back and forth, and even multiple court hearings. However, spouses who are respectful and civil to one another during a divorce, can typically progress through the divorce by minimizing the court hearings and fighting, and thereby saving a lot of money in attorney’s fees. Typically, the more bitter the divorce is, the more each spouse will pay in attorney’s fees.
Finally, another factor that can determine how much you pay in attorney’s fees is the judge assigned to your case. In Massachusetts, a Probate and Family Court judge is randomly assigned to your case; you do not get to change the judge. Only if a judge is transferred to another county or retires will you be assigned a new judge. Each judge has his/her own quirks in handling his/her cases. Although oftentimes these quirks do not interfere with moving a divorce along, there are some judges who can slow down the process due to their quirks. This is not common, but it does sometimes happen. Having an attorney familiar with each judge’s quirks can save you time and money in resolving your divorce. Also, how backlogged the judge is on his/her docket can affect how quickly or slowly you get into court.
Thus, there is no “typical” fee for a divorce. There are many factors that have to be considered. However, because every family is unique, the cost of a divorce can vary for each family.