Divorce can be difficult and expensive. That’s especially true when you have children who aren’t yet grown, and you and your spouse disagree about child custody and/or child support. We conducted a survey of readers who had recently ended their marriages to find out how those contested issues affected the cost, duration, and difficulty of the divorce process. Here’s what we found out.
The Cost of Divorce With Disputes Over Children
Of the readers in our survey who said they had disagreements with their spouses over child support and/or custody, the vast majority (79%) hired a divorce lawyer. Those readers paid an average of $15,500 in total costs—including $13,500 for their divorce attorneys' fees and $2,000 in other costs (but not including what their spouses paid).
It’s important to point out that relatively small numbers of people with very high expenses can push up those averages. To get an idea of more typical costs, we broke down the results a bit further. The median (meaning the midpoint at which half paid less and half paid more) was $9,300 in total costs. Nearly a third of readers paid $5,000 or less, and only 7% paid more than $40,000. Note that these figures are for all readers with child-related disputes, regardless of any other disputes in their divorce cases. Average costs were lower for those without other major contested issues and higher for those with multiple disputes (as discussed below). And of course, unrepresented readers didn’t have to pay attorneys’ fees, though they did have other costs, such as fees for mediation and evaluations (also discussed below).
In your divorce case, actual costs will depend on a number of factors, including:
- whether you hire a full-scope attorney (who will handle your entire divorce case from start to finish) or a consulting attorney to handle a portion of your case, review or prepare a settlement agreement, or give advice about particular issues (which can result in lower overall attorneys’ fees)
- your lawyer’s hourly fees (see our report on hourly rates charged by family law attorneys, including differences by region and experience level)
- the nature and number of other disputes you have with your spouse
- how quickly you and your spouse are able to reach an agreement about those disputes, and
- whether you ultimately have to go to trial to resolve your divorce disputes.
How Do Custody and Child-Support Disputes Affect the Cost and Length of Divorce?
Custody. Child custody and visitation rights, including who gets the kids for holidays, are some of the most difficult issues for divorcing couples to resolve. This is especially true when one spouse refuses to negotiate or wants to move away with the child(ren). In addition to taking more of an attorney’s time, a custody battle may require other costs, including:
- a child custody evaluation, which could cost about $1,000-$2,500 for a county evaluator (if the judge ordered the evaluation) or as much as $10,000 and up for a private evaluator
- a psychological evaluation (if one parent claims the other is unfit, neglectful, or mentally ill), or
- hiring a separate attorney for an older child who has expressed a preference for living with one parent.
Support. Even though states have formulas for calculating the amount of child support, couples can still fight over the factors that go into those formulas, like how much income a spouse has. They may also disagree about who will pay for “add-ons” like day care, private school tuition, and summer camps. Hammering out these issues could require formal "discovery" (including requests to produce documents, written questions, and depositions)—and with it, higher attorneys’ fees.
Duration. When you and your spouse disagree about child support and/or custody of your kids, your divorce is likely to take longer as well as cost more than it would without those disputes. Our survey showed that divorces with at least one child-related dispute took an average of 15 months, from filing the petition to the final agreement or court order.
In comparison, divorces without minor children (or child-related disputes) took 11 months and cost $10,100, on average. Finally, readers with no contested divorce issues had the lowest average costs ($4,100) and finished the process in the least amount of time (eight months average).
How Does Going to Trial Affect the Cost and Duration of Divorce With Children?
Most of the readers in our survey managed to reach a settlement on child support and custody issues. Still, a significant number ended up in court. Just over four in ten (43%) went to trial on at least one of those issues, while fewer than three in ten (28%) had a trial on both issues. Those trials had a significant impact on the cost of divorce. Readers spent an average of $17,000 in total costs (including attorneys’ fees) when they had a trial on either custody or child support, while the same costs jumped to $25,400 if they went to trial on both issues. In contrast, readers spent significantly less when they settled their child-related issues out of court—an average of $10,500.Going to trial on child-related issues also meant that it took longer to complete the divorce. Readers who were able to settle their child-related issues without a trial were usually done in a little over a year (13 months on average). It took an average of 16 months if they went to trial on child support or custody, or 19 months if they had a trial on both issues.
How Do Other Disputes Affect the Cost and Duration of Divorce With Children?
Of course, disputes over child support and custody don’t occur in a vacuum. Couples who are dealing with child-related issues also frequently disagree about whether one spouse should pay alimony (and if so, how much) and how they should divide their property and/or debts. Once those other disputes are piled on, the divorces can cost even more and take even longer.
When Alimony Disputes Are Added to Child-Related Disputes
More than half (56%) of readers with child-related divorce issues also had disputes about alimony (also known as spousal support). As with child-support and custody issues, alimony disagreements almost always take more of a lawyer’s time and may require hiring financial experts and vocational analysts. When these disputes were combined with child-related issues, average total costs were $17,850 overall, or nearly $25,000 if they went to trial on at least one issue. Overall, these cases took an average of 17 months to complete—or 21 months if there was a trial on one or more of the disputes.
When Couples With Child-Related Disputes Disagree About Property and Debts
More than two-thirds (69%) of readers with child-related disputes also disagreed with their spouses about how to divide their property and/or debts. Whether couples are arguing about dividing retirement accounts or what happens to the family home after the divorce (an especially sticky issue when there are still children living at home), these disputes can be expensive, requiring many hours of the attorneys’ time as well as costs for experts like real estate appraisers and accountants.
In our survey, readers with property and/or debt disputes as well as child-related issues spent an average of $17,900, including attorneys’ fees. Those average costs were only $12,500 if they settled all of their disputes, but jumped to $24,900 when they went to trial on at least one issue. Similarly, the average time it took to complete their divorce climbed from 13 months for readers who settled all of their disputes to 20 months for readers who went to trial on at least one issue.
Child-Related Disputes Plus Alimony and Property/Debt Issues
Not surprisingly, our survey showed that divorces cost even more and take even longer when they involve disputes over all three of these areas: child support and/or custody, alimony, and the division of property and/or debts. On average, these readers spent $18,700 (including attorneys’ fees) and took 18 months to complete their divorces. Here again, those overall averages were lower for readers who settled all of their disputes and higher for those who went to trial.
How Do Child-Related Disputes Affect the Divorce Experience?
We also asked readers about their divorce experience. Their answers showed that disputes over child support and/or custody can make the process more difficult and unsatisfying than is true for divorce without children. The vast majority (85%) of readers with child-related issues described the process of resolving those issues as difficult or contentious, and only 29% said they were satisfied with the outcome of their divorce cases.
As these results should make clear, if you’re facing a divorce that involves minor kids, it’s especially important to find a good family law attorney who can inform you of your rights and responsibilities, advocate on your behalf, and help you resolve custody and child-support issues in your children’s best interests.