“How much will this divorce cost?” This deceptively simple question has no easy answer. Although some divorce-related expenses are inescapable, others can be controlled by making wise choices at the beginning of the divorce process. In Bucks County, PA a divorce can cost anywhere from around $1,400 for the simplest divorce to well over $200,000 per side for the most contentious, with the average litigated divorce involving two lawyers costing around $50,000 ($25,000 per side). In contrast, the average cost of getting divorced through divorce mediation in Bucks County, PA costs around $6,000 total. In the end, the overall cost of a divorce will be determined by the couple’s choice of litigation vs. mediation, their legal representation, and whether they embrace agreement over aggravation.
Who gets the house? Who gets the 401(k)? Who gets the kids on the 4th of July? Divorce presents a seemingly endless series of issues with uncertain outcomes. In a legal environment where everything appears to be the subject of negotiation, thankfully there are some aspects of the divorce process that prove quite predictable. Among them are basic court costs and standard procedures that almost every divorcing party can expect.
A divorce “begins” when a divorce complaint is filed with the court. The complaint notifies the other partner that a divorce is being sought. It also raises other issues the court may need to decide, including child custody, alimony, and equitable distribution. In Bucks County, the base filing fee for a divorce complaint is $368.50. Each additional issue, known as a “count”, adds an extra $77.00 to $84.25 to the cost. A complete list of court fees can be found here.
Dividing the parties’ property is one of the main tasks in divorce. An essential step in this process involves properly valuing each asset. Big-ticket items such as real estate and retirement accounts often require formal evaluation by a trained professional. An average home appraisal, for example, costs between $300 and $400. A comparable fee also applies to pension valuations. Creating an inventory and appraisal of marital property is a complicated, but necessary part of untangling lives once bound together.
As a matter of public policy, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania encourages separating spouses to resolve outstanding divorce issues by private agreement. However, when people fail to do so, the court will step in and decide the matter. When it comes to marital property, a master may be appointed to hear relevant facts about a couple’s financial situation and then determine how their marital property should be divided.
In this regard, Pennsylvania is an “equitable distribution” state. Resources are shared “fairly,” but not necessarily equally. While many divorces divide property on a 50/50 basis, the court actually relies on thirteen factors to assess what property to grant each party. These factors include the length of the marriage, the opportunity to acquire assets in the future, and the parties’ prior lifestyle, among other things. Once a final determination is made and all outstanding issues raised in the divorce complaint have been resolved, the court will issue a divorce decree, dissolving the marriage.
Even after the divorce becomes final, former spouses may still need to tie up a few legal loose ends, including transferring the title to certain assets. In the case of retirement accounts such as pensions and 401(k)s, a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”) allows monies to move from one spouse to another without incurring penalties for early withdrawal or triggering negative tax consequences. QDRO-drafting services often cost between $400 and $600 for each account to be transferred. Likewise, when real estate needs to pass from joint ownership to a single party, a new deed must be drafted and filed in the appropriate county office. Charges for these services often range between $300 and $500.
Choices! Choices! Choices!
Some critical aspects of divorce are not nearly as predetermined as filing fees and appraisals. In fact, a divorcing client faces numerous choices, the first of which is whether he or she will hire a traditional attorney or a mediator-attorney. This crucial selection often sets the tone for all that follows.
In one sense, selecting a traditional attorney has never seemed easier. After all, the internet is filled with paid advertisements for lawyers looking for their next client. But how can a prospective consumer of legal services distinguish one from another? Is an attorney’s hourly rate or required retainer the best way to judge his or her skill? Hardly.
Understanding an attorney’s fee structure can be tricky at times. While one might think finding an attorney for $250 per hour is getting a “good deal” compared to another charging $400 for the same hour of service, situations like these can be deceptive. Some attorneys offer a reduced hourly rate, yet pad their invoices with unnecessary hours of litigation and negotiation. They are happy to spend a day in court fighting over a minor matter—and then send the client the bill. This can result in much higher overall costs for a lawyer who charges less per hour than his or her colleagues do.
One way to assess the likelihood of overbilling is to understand an attorney’s philosophy of divorce. Does he or she see the process of “uncoupling” spouses as necessarily adversarial or does this professional believe the process should be client-driven and based on reasonable compromise?
Mediator-attorneys offer a unique approach to divorce by creating a context in which parties themselves—not their hired-gun legal counselors—come together to craft a personalized agreement that will work for their family’s unique needs. Mediator-attorneys help parties see one another as allies more than adversaries in the process of concluding their marriage.
Mediator-attorneys do not represent either party, but rather act as facilitators who guide both parties through a process of collaboration and compromise. Highly trained in advanced communication and negotiation skills, mediator-attorneys strive to create a respectful environment where thorny issues of child custody and property division can be resolved without stirring the animosity that is commonplace in traditional, litigation-based divorces.
Cooperative or Contentious?
Ultimately, the people who most directly determine the overall cost of divorce are the parties themselves. Will they be cooperative or contentious as they seek to separate? When parties keep quarrels at bay and focus on reasonable compromise, they cut costs, reduce stress, and move more quickly toward a world of new possibilities. Who one selects to guide that journey–a traditional litigator or a mediator-attorney–will undoubtedly impact the bottom line.