If you’re considering hiring a lawyer for your upcoming divorce, one of your biggest questions is likely to be what that would cost. In order to get some answers, we surveyed readers across the country who had recently gone through the divorce process. Here’s what we found out about how much they paid for legal help.
First, some background on the different ways of using a divorce lawyer. Of the readers who hired an attorney in some capacity, the vast majority (85%) had their lawyers handle the entire divorce case from start to finish (known as “full-scope” representation). The rest said they hired consulting attorneys, which may have involved having a lawyer handle only a portion of the case (such as mediation or trial), review or prepare a settlement agreement, or give advice on how to deal with other issues that came up. The survey pointed to several factors affecting when people hire divorce lawyers—especially full-scope attorneys.
How Divorce Attorneys Charge Fees
Divorce attorneys almost always charge by the hour, rather than a flat fee, because every divorce case is unique. Even if your situation looks similar on the surface to another couple’s (a two-income household with two kids and a home owned together), it doesn’t mean your case will turn out the same way. You and your spouse may find it easy to compromise and settle your entire case after one or two short meetings. Meanwhile, another couple’s bitter divorce could drag on for years.
Because of this, attorneys can’t predict how much work your case will take. However, our survey results on total costs (discussed below) can give you a general idea of what other people paid their lawyers overall, and how certain factors affected those fees.
Average Hourly Rates Charged by Divorce Attorneys
On average, the readers in our survey paid their divorce attorneys $270 per hour. But that’s the overall average across the country. Hourly rates can vary significantly, depending on the attorney’s location, years of experience, and any specialized training or certifications. See the results of our separate study on hourly rates for family lawyers across the country for details about rates reported by attorneys in different states and metropolitan areas, as well as their policies on offering free consultations for new clients.
Total Cost of a Full-Scope Divorce Attorney
Overall, the readers in our survey paid an average of $11,300 in attorneys' fees when they hired full-scope divorce lawyers. If that sounds like a lot, it’s worth pointing out that the average was pushed up by relatively small numbers of people who paid very high fees. The median amount (meaning the midpoint at which half paid less and half paid more) was $7,000. More than four in ten readers (42%) paid $5,000 or less, and nearly three in ten (28%) paid between $6,000 and $10,000. (These figures don't include what their spouses paid in attorneys' fees.)
Looking more closely at the results, it’s clear that two intertwined factors (besides the hourly rate) are most responsible for the differences in the total cost of hiring a divorce attorney: whether couples were able to resolve their disputes without going to trial, and how long the divorce dragged on.
How Contested Issues Affect the Cost of a Divorce Lawyer
If you and your ex don’t have disagreements about significant issues in your divorce—such as alimony, child support, custody, or dividing your property and debts—you can expect to spend much less on attorneys’ fees than those who are fighting over these matters. And even if you do have conflicts, you can still save a lot by working them out in settlement negotiations rather than going to trial. Readers who hired a full-scope attorney but had no contested issues paid an average of $4,000 in fees. Those who had at least one dispute but managed to resolve their disagreements without going to trial paid an average of $10,400. That total jumped to $17,700 for those who went to trial on at least one issue—a 70% increase from those who negotiated settlements for all of their disputes.
Divorces That Take Longer Cost More
It should be obvious that you’ll end up paying your lawyer more in fees when your divorce case drags on. But our survey reveals just how much of a financial difference it makes when you and your spouse take a long time to resolve your disputes. Average total fees ranged from $6,500 for divorces that were completed in less than six months to $23,000 for cases that took more than 30 months.
There are several reasons divorces can take a long time, including the number and type of contested issues, combative spouses (or attorneys), the amount of time needed to gather evidence about things like complex finances or custody issues, and whether you go to trial.
What Do Attorneys Bill For?
Attorneys generally bill you (usually increments of six to 15 minutes) for everything they do in connection with your case, including:
- every communication you have with them (whether by phone, text, or email), from quick status phone calls to dealing with your email about who gets the Instapot
- communicating with your spouse’s attorney (or directly with your self-represented spouse) and anyone else involved in the case
- reviewing documents and performing research
- discovery (such as requesting documents or other information and conducting depositions)
- drafting settlement agreements
- preparing for and appearing at hearings and trial, and
- all post-trial follow-up work.
Retainers for Divorce Lawyers
Almost all divorce lawyers will ask for an advance on their fees (called a retainer) when you hire them. A typical retainer may run from $2,000 to $5,000. Of the readers in our survey who hired an attorney in any capacity, nine out of ten said they paid a retainer.
Sharing Legal Fees in Divorces
In most states, family law judges may order one spouse to pay for part of the other spouse’s attorneys’ fees, especially when there’s a big difference in their incomes and one spouse needs the help in order to have an equal playing field. However, these orders weren’t that common among the people who took our survey; only 19% of readers said that either their ex paid some of their attorneys’ fees or they paid some of their ex’s fees.
How Much Are Other Costs in a Divorce?
There are other expenses involved in a divorce in addition to attorneys’ fees, including copying and administrative costs, court fees, mediation costs, and fees for experts. In our survey, the average for all of these costs was $1,580 for each spouse's share. However, that average was pushed up by the relatively small proportion of readers (10%) who had very high costs ($5,000 or more, in addition to their attorneys’ fees). The median amount of non-attorney costs was $500.
Why do some divorcing couples have higher costs than others? When there are difficult disputes to resolve in a case, the fees can get very expensive for experts like custody evaluators and forensic accountants (to trace, value, or divide assets). In our survey, readers paid an average of $1,600 in non-attorney costs when they had at least one contested issue but managed to settle their disagreements; that average jumped to $2,750 for those who went to trial on at least one issue.
Your lawyer will typically bill you for these other costs (although you may be asked to pay experts or mediators directly). Look closely at the fee agreement with your attorney; it should contain specific information on how costs will be handled. And when you’re looking for a good divorce lawyer, costs and fees should be part of what you discuss in your first meeting with any attorney.