If there’s one easily agreed upon point in the emotional turmoil of divorce, it’s that endless legal battles can break the bank.
Hourly attorney fees can reach three figures, according to Nicole Feuer, vice president of development and operations for the National Association of Divorce Professionals, a group of 600 divorce attorneys. The association estimates that the average cost of a divorce is between $15,000 and $20,000, but contested divorces can be much more expensive. Disagreements over issues such as child custody can take years to resolve and can increase costs more than $100,000.
This has been the case of Maggie Kim, who has been immersed in negotiations with her ex-husband for six years. Every five weeks, she flies from her home in Santa Monica, California, to see her two teenage children in Paris, where her ex-husband gained custody. Ms. Kim, a 50-year-old musician and writer of Divorce or die, a Substack newsletter, has spent around $400,000 on her divorce, not including travel expenses. This is money, she said ruefully, that would have been much better spent paying for her children’s college education.
“I have hired 16 law firms in three countries and it is very difficult to find a lawyer who will defend your interests,” he said.
He has paid the legal fees with his earnings and “11 maxed out credit cards, a personal loan, a loan from one of my best friends.”
Many learn that the biggest challenge of getting divorced can be trying to negotiate and control powerful emotions: anger, betrayal, hurt, rage, disappointment. Too often, with lawyers as expensive representatives, each unresolved issue of a conflicting couple costs more and more money.
“I tell my clients all the time: You are making the most important legal and financial decisions of your life in the middle of the worst time,” said Kate Anthony, who produces a podcast called “The Divorce Survival Guide” and who has been trained to work with couples in high-conflict marriages and those involving domestic violence.
Immediately choosing to “get a lawyer” (often a default option) “is one of the worst things you can do,” he added. “The family court system loves divorce. “That’s how they make money, out of anger and bitterness.”
But there are ways to reduce the stress and expense of ending a marriage. These options include using a document service (ideally reviewed by an attorney), mediation, and collaborative divorce.
Vanessa McGrady, a California writer who was married for three years and became a mother during that time, said she “realized there were some insurmountable problems” with her ex-husband and decided to use the document service. We the People for his divorce.
“It wasn’t contentious and it was easier because we didn’t have assets together,” he said. “We didn’t have IRAs. It was my condo and I was making the payments.” She recommends having a lawyer review a divorce document to make sure it is done correctly.
The process took a year and cost less than $2,000 because she had discussed the problems with her ex before the divorce process, she said. Ms. McGrady, 55, was glad to have saved thousands of dollars for her own retirement or for her daughter’s future needs. “I don’t know anyone who has had a divorce as simple and easy as ours, although it was frustrating and sad at times,” she said. “Before you fall down the rabbit hole of anger and revenge, think about where you want her money to go.”
Caitlin Steele, who lives in Seattle, used a mediation service from a new company called Wevorce, which cost $750 when she divorced in 2017. At the time, Steele, a senior design manager at Atlassian, a software company, had little disposable income and no children. He had witnessed a friend experience the emotional and financial consequences of a contentious divorce that cost her hundreds of thousands of dollars and limited access to his child for six years.
She had been married for 10 years when, she said, “the wheels started falling off.” She filed for divorce, which was finalized six months later. Her husband earned between $180,000 and she earned $90,000 a year, which in San Francisco left her, at the age of 38, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate.
“I was in no position to hire a lawyer who was motivated for a battle that neither of us was interested in,” said Ms. Steele, now 46. Her ex-husband did not want a divorce, but they managed to end the relationship. civil marriage. “It would have ended up better with a lawyer involved, but at what emotional and financial cost? “I’m proud that we were able to do it and it wasn’t always easy, but we were both motivated to finish it without going to lawyers who would have had a motive to make more money,” she said.
Ms. Steele cautions those who use mediation to be prepared to come to the table from a place of respect. “You have to have a balance of power and a commitment to do this as efficiently and painlessly as possible,” she said.
For those with significant assets to divide and those who are unlikely to reach an agreement easily through a document or mediation service, collaborative divorce is another option. Nanci Smith, whose law practice in Williston, Vermont, focuses on this process, describes it as “an evolving process” approved by the American Bar Association and the courts. “It’s been around for 30 years and there are lawyers in every state who can do this,” said Ms. Smith, author of a recent book about the topic.
“Divorce is 80 percent emotional, 10 percent legal and 10 percent financial,” he said. “You can’t make important decisions when you are overwhelmed by pain, shame or anger. Every emotion arises.” She insists that every couple consult a mental health professional before pursuing a divorce.
In collaborative divorce, three key players (a lawyer, a financial professional, and a therapist) work together to help the couple stay calm while gathering all the necessary information.
“We create a safe space for our clients to process what they are facing,” Ms. Smith said. “We collect the necessary data and process it. Everyone has a role, so a couple only moves forward when they are psychologically prepared. “It allows people to come to the table and disentangle themselves in a respectful way.”
It is the most expensive of these alternatives, ranging from $15,000 to $30,000 or more, Ms. Smith said. “The variety is enormous, depending on the assets and the level of conflict over them. It is still less expensive than going to court,” she stated.
Like using a document service, mediation is a less expensive way to get a divorce, but it also depends on the couple’s goodwill and cooperation for the divorce to be successful. Erik Wheeler, a former software expert, retrained six years ago to offer this service to his clients, thanks to a master’s degree in mediation and applied conflict studies from Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont.
“The goal of mediation is to work together to achieve an outcome that works for both of us,” he said. “The main benefit of this is that the couple has full control of the process and can take as much time as they need.”
It offers a two-hour initial session for $440 to provide an overview of the process and help couples understand the law. “There is a lot of misunderstanding, which fuels fear and creates conflict,” she said. “Most people end up working well together. “It’s pretty amazing.” The total cost of a mediated divorce, she estimates, is approximately $3,000.
For Jeff Bogle, a Philadelphia writer who has two daughters, mediation turned out to be the best option when he divorced his wife of 17 years in 2020.
“This might be the most amicable divorce I’ve ever heard of,” Bogle, 47, said. “We just grew apart.”
For a total cost of $350, the ex-spouses easily negotiated who would get the family home (he did) and came to a sum that his ex-wife would pay for property taxes, child support and other expenses. She earned about $200,000 a year, double her income, Bogle said.
The key to their ability to get divorced affordably and quickly was being aligned on all of their issues. They did not have a custody battle over their children, who were 11 and 15 at the time. The house remained in both their names, and Bogle said his ex-wife will buy it when the boy turns 18.
“To do it like we did, you have to be friendly or at least on friendly terms, not greedy,” he said. “We didn’t want to hurt ourselves financially. “If you are willing to work things out and are honest and fair, you can save a lot of money.”