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Ask the County Law Librarian – Divorce Costs

Q: I've heard that getting a divorce is more expensive than getting married. Is that true? In total, how much does a divorce really cost?
– Dave

A: Well, I guess that depends on how extravagant your wedding was. It’s usually cheaper to stay married than to get a divorce, though. For most couples, divorce is an expensive process. It’s impossible to put an exact price on a divorce, because it is different in each situation. An extended contested divorce typically ends up costing more than one that is settled easily between the parties. In general, the more issues to be dealt with during the divorce, the more expensive it may be. Additionally, the more assets you have, the more you have to lose. Here’s a brief overview of some of the types of costs you may to incur during a divorce.

Hiring an attorney
If you decide to hire an attorney to handle your divorce, expect to pay an initial retainer of at least $750 – $5000. Think of the retainer as a down payment – as the attorney works on your case, he will deduct his hourly rates from that amount. For divorce cases, hourly rates are usually around $175-$350. In most cases, you will run through your retainer before the case is over, and will need to pay additional fees to your attorney. According to “How to Do Your Own Divorce in California in 2010,” the average spent on legal fees for a divorce is well over $18,000 per spouse. For couples with more assets, or more issues to sort out during the divorce, attorney’s fees can run into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per spouse! If your divorce will be complex or highly contested, you will need to factor in additional litigation-related expenses, such as custody evaluators, financial expert witnesses, and mediators.

Don’t base your decision about hiring an attorney solely on the cost, though. There are benefits and drawbacks to hiring an attorney. Nolo Press has a very good article to help you decide whether hiring an attorney is right for you.

If you decide not to hire an attorney, the Law Library has a lot of materials that may help you handle your own case. A guide listing our divorce-related resources, as well as referrals to other sources of assistance is available on the Law Library’s website. Keep in mind that even if you decide not to hire an attorney, you may still significant costs during a divorce.

Filing fees
To file the initial papers to start a divorce, you will pay a filing fee of $355. This is not a penalty for the party initiating the divorce – the other party will also pay $355 to file their response. Throughout the case, you may have to file additional paperwork. Some of these filings may be free, others may have filing fees of up to $40. If you have very low income, or are receiving public assistance, you may qualify for a fee waiver. More information about fee waivers is available from the Law Library’s website.

Division of property
During a divorce in California, spouses will have to divide the community estate, often called “community property.” Community property is any property or debt that is acquired during the marriage, unless it is a gift or inheritance, or was owned prior to marriage. Sometimes it is difficult to determine what is considered community property and what is the separate property of each spouse. This article from Nolo Press provides a good explanation of the differences.

In addition to assets you’d commonly think of as community property, such as income, real estate, vehicles, and household goods, community property can also include accumulated vacation pay, pension funds, employee stock options, tax refunds, and intellectual property created during the marriage. Each spouse is entitled to an equal share of community property during a divorce. This means that when you divorce, you may lose up to half of everything you own. Depending on the size of the community estate, this can be very expensive!

If you have children together, child support may become an ongoing divorce-related cost. California has a mandatory statewide guideline for child support based on the actual income of each parent and the amount of time each parent has physical custody of the children. To help parents estimate the amount of child support the judge will order in their case, the State of California has developed an online child support calculator, which is available at https://www.cse.ca.gov/ChildSupport/cse/guidelineCalculator.

You also may be required to provide medical insurance for the children, and contribute toward childcare expenses, unreimbursed or uninsured health care expenses, educational or special needs of a child, or travel expenses for visitation purposes.

In addition to child support, the court may also order spousal support, commonly called “alimony.” Spousal support is not mandatory in California, so there is no statewide guideline for spousal support like there is for child support. Instead, the court is required to consider a list of factors in making a spousal support determination. A good explanation of these factors is available online at http://courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/family/support/documents/spousalsup.pdf. After evaluating the parties’ circumstances, it is entirely up to the court whether to order spousal support, and to determine the amount and duration of a spousal support order.

The cost of your divorce is very difficult to estimate, because there are so many different factors involved. In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, you may incur other costs, such as moving expenses, the cost of maintaining two separate households, even tax consequences related to support and property division.

Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email sacpress@saclaw.org. If your question is selected your answer will appear in next Thursday's column. Even if your question isn't selected, though, I will still respond within two weeks.

Coral Henning, Director
@coralh & @saclawlibrarian


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