How Much does a Divorce Cost?

How Much does a Divorce Cost?
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Last updated: October 2009

The following questions were submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette.  This article was published on September 22, 2009

Q:    How much does a divorce cost?

A:    I surveyed three local family lawyers, who each said “it depends.”  One lawyer’s minimum cost was $525 for attorney fees.  Since the Champaign County filing fee is $210, and it’s another $40 or so to serve someone, that’s about $775 with costs included.

The other two charge a minimum retainer of $1,000, which includes court costs, for a no-kids divorce.  With kids, their minimum retainers increased to $2,000, or more. 

Each lawyer stressed that there’s no standard price, because each case is different, and takes a different amount of their time.  In particular, they stressed that cases rarely turn out to be as simple as expected.  Therefore, they factor into their retainer some cushion for unexpected extras.

A retainer is an advance payment of attorney fees.  It’s a pot of money the lawyer draws from to pay their fee as they go along.  If they don’t use it all, you get a refund.  If it gets used up, you get billed to keep the lawyer going. 

The lawyers with the $1,000 retainers said there’s an occasional refund, but not often.

Lawyers usually bill in one-tenth of an hour increments.  They bill for all the time they spend on your case—including your phone calls.

In my pretty random survey, the fees the attorneys charge ran from $160 to $175 to $215 per hour.  The lawyers therefore expect their lowest-price divorce to take about 3 to 5 hours of their time. 

Because of the extra work involved with custody and child support, and the extra paper work for child support orders, a divorce with kids generally costs more. 

Obviously, the sky’s the limit on fees if things get contested.  A recent Appellate Court decision involved a Champaign County divorce where the wife paid her lawyer more than $76,000, while the husband paid more than $157,000 in lawyer and expert fees.

One spouse can be made to pay the other’s attorney fees.  The divorce law says a judge, “after considering the financial resources of the parties, may order any party to pay a reasonable amount for his own or the other party's costs and attorney's fees.”

That can be done at the beginning of the case, so that a poor spouse can pay their lawyer out of their more affluent spouse’s pocket.  Or, as the law puts it, a judge “shall assess an interim award against an opposing party in an amount necessary to enable the petitioning party to participate adequately in the litigation,” if the other spouse “has the financial ability to pay reasonable amounts,” and the requesting spouse “lacks sufficient access to assets or income to pay reasonable amounts.”
For example, in the case mentioned above, the wife got an interim fee award of $7,500 from her husband, and another $24,000 at the end of the case.  In all, her husband was required to pay 40% of her attorney fees.

So, it’ll take about $775 down to get a “simple” divorce started.  If you’re poor, a legal aid office might do it for free, or find you a free lawyer.  If there’s no kids, combined annual income less than $35,000, and your spouse will come to court with you, a do-it-yourself “joint simplified” divorce is possible, for free.

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