How Much Does a Divorce Cost?
We don't get married thinking we'll get divorced. But it happens – a lot – and that's OK. Not every relationship lasts 50 years. But who would ever expect their divorce to cost more than their lavish wedding? More than the caterer, venue, table centerpieces, and dress? Unfortunately, it often does cost that much.
Bottom line: Divorce is expensive. A recent article from USA Today reported that the average cost of divorce in California with children involved is $26,300 – per person. Most other states don't fall far behind. A typical New York divorce totals $25,600. A typical Delaware divorce costs $24,300. Attorney fees are so high that there are several financial institutions that focus solely on funding divorce litigation. Divorcees all over the country (and in the United Kingdom and Australia) report spending more on their divorce than they actually received in their settlement.
But why? Do people who once loved each other enough to buy a home, have kids and commit their lives to one another really hate each other so much that they are now willing to commit every last penny (and then some) to screw over their spouse? Sometimes. But the truth is – and this may surprise you, given how the larger media loves to hone in on the most contentious celebrity divorces – not usually.
Most people don't want a miserable, high-conflict, ugly, expensive divorce.
Whether they wanted the divorce or not, people prefer to focus on their next chapter rather than relive the horrible or heartbreaking things that went wrong in the past.
Why do so many divorces get ugly?
What happens between "I do" and "I don't" that makes divorce one of the most expensive endeavors any of us will ever experience in a lifetime?
Well, did you see the 2019 movie drama Marriage Story? It's about a couple who was headed toward a lovely amicable divorce, gracefully navigating from "we" to "me," when BAM – lawyers jumped in and hijacked the narrative. They turned an otherwise graceful relationship exit into an all-out war.
But while Marriage Story was accurate in many ways, it doesn't tell the whole story. The high price of divorce isn't caused solely by the fact that some lawyers are greedier than others. If it was, that would be something we could fix. Maybe not overnight, but we could definitely move in that direction by exposing the villains and educating consumers. The truth is that the entire divorce system contributes to the problem. And it's not something that can be easily fixed.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the average marriage lasts eight years. So, a relationship of nearly a decade is not going to unwind in a few days. Divorce is a process. It's a marathon, not a sprint. And in the U.S., marriage is a serious financial contract with profound implications. As we dissolve this contract, it can be tricky and fraught with emotional triggers.
Although cost and conflict are inevitable in divorce, the process needn't rise to the level of an all-out war. War is expensive, and in divorce, no one wins.
Why is divorce so expensive?
Why is divorce so damn expensive? The system is stacked against us. It's complicated, outdated, and inefficient, which is both time-consuming and potentially very costly. No, this is not some conspiracy theory. It's just how it is.
1. The divorce system encourages fighting.
At its core, divorce is a lawsuit: X versus Y. And lawsuits are fights. Even the pleadings (the formal documents that frame the issues) say "X versus Y." The notion of you against your spouse is present every step of the way.
The divorce system offers little guidance or resources geared toward conflict resolution or alternative ways of resolving issues. If you've consulted a lawyer, explained your case, and tried to resolve things out of court, you may feel like litigation is your only option.
Furthermore, law is confusing. It's often contrary to the way people handled their finances and other affairs during marriage. The divorce education process requires time and energy. It puts people who don't have that time or energy at a disadvantage, invoking fear. And fear leads people to do irrational things, like hiring the most aggressive lawyer in town. (You know, the one with a home page photo of a kid being yanked by two parents in opposite directions.)
2. The divorce system is procedurally confusing.
No matter how organized or on top of things you may be in regular life, there is no easy way to get through a divorce. First of all, self-help resources are woefully inadequate and not set up to help the thousands of people who need it. Before the COVID-19 health crisis, most counties required people to get help in person, which meant they had to take time off work and sometimes travel long distances (especially if at the far end of a large county) to ask questions about the divorce procedure.
Moreover, the assistance offered is often minimal. It might entail help identifying forms and filling them out, but no legal advice or strategy is given.
Even more vexing is the fact that the procedure is insanely complicated. Many states don't have uniform forms for divorce. This is often made worse by counties with rules that contradict state rules. For example, a form or pleading that is "optional" in one county might be mandatory in another.
Another example: Some states have a waiting period before you can get divorced. The waiting period isn't triggered until you properly "serve" (deliver legal documents to) your spouse. But how do you properly serve? That's another procedure to figure out.
Or what about the fact that a judgment that says a 401(k) is divided equally doesn't actually divide retirement? You'd need to know that a separate (complicated) document called a qualified domestic relations order must be filed, served, and brought to the financial institution holding the retirement account before it can be effectuated.
3. Legal regulations stifle independence and discourage innovation.
Most states only allow lawyers (or paralegals and assistants working under the supervision of lawyers) to provide help with legal documents and forms. The trouble is, not everyone needs a lawyer or can afford to pay one. In fact, 85% of all divorces include at least one party who self-represents. Often, people who can't afford a lawyer turn to do-it-yourself (DIY) services.
The problem with many DIY services is that they do no more than provide you with forms, leaving you to figure out the rest. But the forms are complex, confusing, and written in legalese (complicated and unfamiliar legal language that can leave your head spinning). Courts frequently reject documents for failure to prepare the correct forms (or fill them out completely) or for not being able to enforce a term in the document (e.g., child support or custody) because the contract was not specific enough or didn't say what the filer thought it said. (Say, for example, the spouse unknowingly waived financial support.)
Moreover, forms are worthless if a person doesn't know where to file them or how to coordinate service. Plus, consumer-facing areas of law like divorce require the participation of the court, and navigating the clerks and courts is an art form. While it might not necessarily be rocket science, it is an acquired skill.
Juggling the 20+ forms often required for a divorce, understanding how and when to file and serve (deliver) each document, and negotiating with your spouse is a heavy burden to bear. As a result, many people just give up, which leaves them vulnerable to the consequences of not filing for divorce properly. In the end, somebody who thought they were going to save time and money by taking care of the divorce legwork themselves ends up having to hire a lawyer anyway to help sort out the mess.
As we mentioned, legal regulations also do not encourage innovation. With innovation, the legal process could be easier and the costs lower. For instance, non-lawyers are restricted from owning any part of law firms or investing in them. This limits opportunities for new ideas or outside insights, as lawyers are forced to not only practice law full-time but also run companies. Many attorneys are less likely to think outside the box if they have to invest their own money and time (something they are already short of). Lack of innovation keeps old, inefficient practices in place.
4. Lawyers can complicate the divorce process.
Lawyers often have a bad rap. There are plenty of jerk lawyers out there who ramp up cases just to get as many dollars as possible. Because of that stigma, consumers often fear them and what they might do to create conflict where there wasn't any before.
Even lawyers with good intentions can be quite paternalistic, pushing their clients into what they think is best for them instead of really hearing their clients' needs and goals. Some clients, for example, want to make concessions they would otherwise not make for the sake of keeping their relationship somewhat amicable. After all, co-parenting is a lifelong endeavor, and it would be easier on everybody to keep things with their ex as peaceful as possible.
Some lawyers let their egos get in the way of doing what's best for the client. They may have a personality conflict with the other lawyer or feel triggered by a client's relationship with their ex (e.g., if they are being controlled or manipulated). They may connect to it personally because they've been through something similar, so they let their emotions take over instead of following their client's lead.
This isn't to say lawyers shouldn't advocate for their clients, but they must do so after carefully considering strategy and their clients' "need-to-haves" versus their "must-haves."
Lastly, sometimes attorneys do not appropriately manage their clients' expectations. They lead their clients to believe that they are entitled to something "under the law" when there is no basis for that expectation. This isn't to say that people should avoid lawyers, but working with an attorney can have its challenges – and with challenges come increased costs and inefficiencies.
5. The legal system is unreasonably inefficient.
For the most part, lawyers get paid by the hour. If they get to bill clients for every phone call or court appearance, where is the incentive to resolve conflict or prepare forms efficiently?
The problem stems from our legal education, in which we get (for the most part) zero help on how to run a business and how to run an efficient case. For instance, having to show up at court just to obtain a child custody mediation date or a date for a settlement conference is highly inefficient. These activities not only cost time (with the client taking time off work or finding childcare) but also hundreds of dollars in legal fees just to have a lawyer show up and do nothing substantive.
Courts do not have enough resources to help the millions of people who need legal help. They are decades behind in terms of technology. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, it was very rare (if ever) to hear about a virtual court hearing. Most counties in California don't have e-filing, and if they do, it is often managed by a third party that charges a premium for its services.
How to have a cheaper, easier divorce
All of the above factors make for an expensive divorce. But it doesn't have to be that way. At Hello Divorce, we cut the average cost of divorce from $26,300 per person to $1,000 (on average), with 92% of our paid customers successfully navigating the divorce process using our system.
Our membership options include help completing everything for your divorce. The only other fees or expenses you will pay beyond the fees below include your filing fee and extra services (such as hourly mediation should you decide to add that on).
|Hello Divorce Plan||Price||Description|
|DIY||$99||Use our divorce software to complete your divorce forms and instructions to file.|
|Pro||$1,500||Divorce software plus expert help proofing, filing, and serving everything for you.|
|Plus||$2,500||Our software plus an expert helps you and your spouse review, file, and serve all forms.|
|Cooperative||$3,800||Everything in Plus and 5 hours of mediation to help you find your divorce agreement.|
Our Divorce Navigator is a first-of-its-kind divorce platform that guides you step-by-step through the divorce process. If you need a little extra help along the way, we have account coordinators who process, review, and file your forms for you. We also offer on-demand flat-fee help from mediators, lawyers, and Certified Divorce Financial Analysts – all here to help resolve conflict (rather than ramp it up) and provide solutions that give you peace of mind.
Our goal is to give you transparent guidance for filing and/or serving legal documents as well as the option to have us do this for you. And for extra support, we have tools and resources such as flow charts, checklists, wellness articles, and worksheets.
Divorce doesn't have to take over your life. With the right tools, it's possible to keep your divorce moving forward efficiently and affordably – so that you can focus on beginning your next chapter.