Money Matters: How Much Will It Cost To Get Divorced?

“How much will it cost me to get divorced?” The question that family law attorneys hear from clients, time and again. The emotional stresses that come with separation, divorce, custody, etc., leave individuals feeling confused, uncertain and vulnerable. Add to this, the financial strain and it all seems overwhelming. While the issue of money is a valid question, the answer to which will be extremely important to the couple’s and the individual’s future, it is not one that is easily answered. In fact, it is downright impossible to answer. There are dozens of reasons why a divorce action might take far longer and be far more expensive than originally thought. Here are five of the most common determinative factors when considering how expensive the process may be:  

1.  What is the existing communication like between the parties? 

“So, the whole war is because we can’t talk to each other.” (Orson Scott Card) When a divorcing couple has each proclaimed his or her right to something and they are determined to win at all costs, it is almost guaranteed that there will be a huge financial cost to be paid. From communicating through the attorneys to filing frivolous motions because one side is not adhering 100% to an order, the parties can expect to pay significantly more in attorney and court filing fees. Communication with your ex, or soon-to-be ex, can be challenging, to say the least. But in the context of a divorce action, as hard as it may be, open and honest communication can save you thousands of dollars. One benefit of the Collaborative divorce process is that the parties have the benefit of an experienced family specialist who can help foster a more productive communication style between the two. This not only helps maintain the dignity of the parties but it can save a tremendous amount of money. 

2.  How are the children doing? 

When children are cognitively and developmentally age-appropriate and have the love and support of both parents during the divorce, studies have shown that these children adjust well and show no long-term effects of the divorce process itself or the breakup of the family unit. But this depends very much on how the parents approach the divorce and how each foster (or do not foster) the child’s relationship with the other spouse. Yet there are far too many times when a child has special needs and the parents cannot agree on the best school or the best therapist for the child. Or the child is exceptionally gifted and the parents disagree on the best education for him/her in the future. If the parents cannot come to a consensus on what is best for their child, it is left to the court to decide. The court may appoint an attorney for the child, costs for said attorney to be split by the parents. Or the court may require a child development expert to conduct an investigation and report back to the court. Again, this mental health professional is paid for by the parents. Or the court can order both the attorney for the child and a full psychological evaluation of the family. Inside the Collaborative model, it is a very different scenario. The child specialist meets with the parents and the child and will then bring the voice and needs of the child into the room. With this first-hand knowledge of the family, as well as years of child development expertise, this professional will educate the parents as to what the real options are and help them to forge a meaningful plan for the future. By truly keeping the best interest of the child at the center of the discussions, it can save money in the long run.  

3.  What is the family’s financial situation? 

In divorce litigation, those couples with more money, spend more money. While this may sound counter-intuitive and does not make sense as far as the time and preparation expended on trial, there is some logic to this. A high net-worth couple has many more assets than a middle-class family or those with limited funds. There may a family business that needs to be valued, overseas properties that the couple is fighting over, time-shares, investment portfolios, large retirement accounts, extensive tax liabilities, art, jewelry, cars, etc. When it comes to money, even the most thoughtful and logical among us can get obstinate and dig our heels in for that last savings bond. Although we all know that it is never really about the money as much as what the money represents to us emotionally, when there is more to fight over, couples often do. The costs associated with having these marital (or non-marital) property appraised, valued, and apportioned by the court-appointed professional, especially if the matter is heavily contested and more than one expert is called in, can be astronomical. The benefit of having a Collaboratively trained financial planner assisting the family, is that all of the financial information is collated in one place. If there are limited assets, the family may only need limited assistance, costing them less. If there is a more complicated and extensive financial portfolio, the financial neutral will perform the task of gathering and analyzing the data in a much more cohesive and time-efficient manner, saving time and money for the wealthier couple as well.  

4.  How clogged is the court’s calendar?

The New York State Family Courts are backlogged; severely. The New York State Supreme Court, where divorces are heard, are generally better staffed and not as clogged as Family Court but there are still large gaps in time between court appearances, sometimes several months. With fewer judges to hear cases and more divorce cases being filed after the implementation of “no-fault” divorce in New York in 2010, there has been an inevitable delay in each case. If the case takes a long time to get back before the judge for a status update, there may have been very little accomplished between the appearances, which makes the time spent in court even more expensive. There are also times when a judge is no longer serving in this particular part and the case is re-assigned to new judge for review. As frustrating as it is, the new judge and court staff must treat this as a chance to get familiar with the details of the case, as if it were a first-time in court, all at the parties’ expense. It is a very different picture in a Collaborative model. Each expert involved with the case is there from start to finish, allowing for continuity and efficiency. As a team, the choice is made as to the next meeting date and time, giving the couple control over the time and the budget.  

5.  What is the other spouse’s attorney like?  

I think that this concept is the hardest to comprehend for many people. When there is a legal case being heard, it is all about the facts of the case being presented to the judge, right? Wrong. Before ever seeing the judge, there are several months of document gathering, exchanging of information and negotiations. At least, this is how it is supposed to proceed. Yet far too often, the opposing counsel has a different view of how the document exchange or settlement talks should occur and he/she can stall as long as possible. If the attorney on the other side wants to put on a show for the client, then this preliminary process can take a significantly greater amount of time and money than is necessary. Often times, legal bills mount well over the initial retainer amount, before the first day of court. Even if the one client has everything prepared and organized, much of the discovery process can be delayed due to the stall tactics of the other side. Dealing with attorneys who are litigation focused and cannot see the bigger picture of helping the couple come up with a viable agreement that they can live with, can be exhausting and expensive. The attorneys who participate in the Collaborative setting, are not adversaries. They are not opposing counsel. They are Collaborative counterparts, each representing separate clients yet both committed to the overall process and committed to assisting the family move forward in a healthy and dignified way. The level of respect and open communication, between all of the professionals in the Collaborative arena, is what sets this model apart from any other and is what can ultimately save families money during the divorce process. 

Elizabeth Vaz