Hiring (and Budgeting for) Legal Counsel
The average legal fees for a divorce range $1,500–$5,000 (for each person) for a simple divorce; a complicated divorce can run $20,000 or more.
Nearly all of the costs are paid to lawyers — the actual court costs for filing a divorce run only a few hundred dollars in most states. So, to substantially cut your costs, you can file for a divorce without using the services of an attorney. This approach has its pros and cons, however:
Not using an attorney will likely save you a lot money; however, if you're not well acquainted with the law, you may not negotiate very well on your own behalf.
If you just want to get out of the marriage, no matter what the cost, you're probably better off hiring an attorney. Likewise, if your spouse can easily manipulate you, you're also better off with a lawyer. In these cases, you may sign off on more than you likely should.
If you're representing yourself in a divorce, keep in mind that in most states, you're entitled to half of the marital assets (house, savings accounts) and are responsible for half of the marital debts (mortgage, credit cards). You may also be eligible for a portion of your spouse's retirement benefits and medical benefits (whether or not you have children).
If you worked while your spouse attended graduate, medical, or law school, you may also be eligible for a portion of his or her lifelong earnings.
Using an attorney may get you a more equitable settlement. Although you'll pay through the nose for attorney's fees, your settlement may be higher in the end than if you had negotiated the divorce on your own, especially if you hire a good attorney. So, although you have to pay more now, you may end up with a better financial situation in the long run.
Aren't lawyers the reason divorces get so nasty?
If you're convinced that lawyers are always the cause of bad feelings in a divorce, think again. Couples who go it alone, resolving to remain good friends and have an amicable divorce, can still experience bitter feelings, especially when one spouse or the other experiences happy tidings in the future: remarriage, children, new house, and so on.
However, remember that attorneys are not tied emotionally to your spouse and may create additional acrimony in your relationship. If you use an attorney, keep in mind that your attorney represents you. If he or she is doing or asking for anything with which you don't agree, stop your attorney and restate your wishes.
If your attorney persists in acting in ways that don't fit your value system or even that make you uncomfortable, consider hiring someone else to take your case.
One compromise that is gaining favor is to hire an attorney as a consultant, calling on him or her to give you specific advice at specific times during the divorce. You handle the paperwork and do all the negotiating with your soon-to-be-ex, but when you're unsure of the legal implications of anything you're doing, your on-call legal consultant is available for your call or visit, and charges you an hourly fee.
Another solution is to handle your own divorce, but hire a mediator (who is either a counselor or an attorney) for any issues that don't appear to be resolvable. A mediator usually charges $100–$200 per hour, but mediation sessions tend to resolve issues quickly.