This might be the single most difficult question any family law attorney has to answer: “How much will this divorce cost?” Each divorce is as unique as the people who find themselves sitting in an attorney’s office. In Montgomery County, PA, an average litigated divorce in which each party is represented by an attorney costs around $50,000 ($25,000 per side). In comparison, the average cost of divorce mediation in Montgomery County, PA is around $6,000 total. But averages can be misleading. A Montgomery County, PA divorce can range anywhere from $1,500 for the simplest divorces to well over $250,000 per side for the most contentions. Many factors ultimately determine the overall cost for a divorce, but understanding a bit about process, people, and potential can make it easier to predict the price of parting.
Some divorce-related costs are predictable. Once a client determines to file for divorce, an attorney will draft a divorce complaint that states the party’s intention to be divorced. The complaint will also raise other issues the court might need to decide, including custody of the parties’ minor children, distribution of their property, and whether alimony payments would be appropriate, among other things. The complaint must be filed with the court before it can be served on the person’s spouse to effectively begin the divorce process.
In Montgomery County, PA the base filing fee for a divorce complaint is $284.75. Additional issues like custody or alimony, known as “counts,” incur extra fees that range from $66.00 to $74.25. Divorces often take unexpected twists and turns. As one might expect, there is a legal process (and fee!) to address most situations that arise. A complete list of court fees can be found here.
Equitably dividing the parties’ property is a main objective of the divorce process. Certain predictable costs are associated with this process. For example, the couple must itemize their property and determine a value for each asset. A qualified appraiser can assist in this task. Most commonly, people use professionals to value their largest assets: real estate and retirement accounts. An appraisal for a single-family residence usually runs between $300 and $400, as would a valuation of a pension or other retirement account. It is important to find a qualified professional to perform these analyses because appraisals may play a significant role in negotiations.
Once property is accurately valued, it must be divided between the spouses. If the parties cannot accomplish this on their own, the court will make a determination based on thirteen factors. Pennsylvania is an “equitable distribution” state, which means assets are to be shared fairly—but not necessarily equally—between the parties. A master will listen to all the relevant facts and then make a recommendation to the court as to what each party should receive. If neither party appeals this recommendation, the parties will be bound by these terms.
In Montgomery County, it currently costs $400.00 for the court to appoint a master to hear equitable distribution matters. When all issues raised in the divorce complaint have been resolved by agreement or court order, a divorce decree will be issued.
Even after a divorce is final, people can expect some additional costs to transfer property from one former spouse to the other. Retirement assets such as pensions and 401(k) accounts generally require a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”) to move money from one party to the other without incurring significant tax consequences. The price for drafting this specialized court order ranges from $400.00 to $800.00 per account. Similarly, re-titling the marital residence in a single party’s name might require the preparation and filing of a new deed, which may cost a couple hundred dollars, as well.
When people think about the expense of divorce, they generally focus on attorney’s fees. Attorneys’ hourly rates vary widely from $250 per hour to more than $500. In cases of complex litigation, an attorney’s total fees can quickly top $30,000, and may run as high as $100,000 or more. But when it comes to attorney’s fees, can one necessarily say, “you get what you pay for”?
A pricey hourly rate does not necessarily imply superior legal skill. Rather, a potential client should be a savvy consumer who remembers that most issues related to divorce are resolved by agreement. With this in mind, the best attorneys possess excellent communication skills and earn the respect of judges and their peers through their professionalism. Price alone proves nothing.
Similarly, those shopping for legal counsel should also be equally wary of the “discount” lawyer. A low hourly rate will not automatically translate into a low-cost divorce if an unscrupulous, unskilled lawyer pads his or her bill with unnecessary trips to court or unproductive telephone calls and letters to opposing counsel. In the end, shop wisely. Find a good communicator and a trustworthy counselor, and you will likely find a cost-cutter.
Ironically, the people who most directly determine the price of a divorce are the parties themselves. In the end, property will be divided, a custody schedule will be set, and a divorce will be granted. The only question is how much fighting there will be along the way to reach this inevitable outcome. A contentious relationship between separating spouses merely increases costs and can be extremely detrimental to children. When estimating potential legal costs, one must consider whether one’s partner exhibits deceitfulness, manipulation, or a lack of empathy. Not surprisingly, parties who display these high-conflict personality traits often favor litigation. There are strategies to deal with such individuals, but interactions in a legal setting may prove both emotionally and economically taxing.
There is no magic formula for calculating the price of a divorce in Montgomery County, but people who want to control the cost of beginning a new phase of life have choices—if they are willing to embrace the potential to do things differently.
Mediation is an alternative to traditional, litigation-based divorce. A highly-trained team of mediator-attorneys can guide parties to find self-directed solutions to custody and property matters. In an environment of collaboration, they help clients reach agreements shaped by respect and practicality. Mediator-attorneys cultivate communication strategies that emphasize frankness and fairness, rather than posturing and bill-padding. Psychologists, financial planners, and other specialists may even assist mediator-attorneys in framing productive, solution-focused discussions that lead to mutually satisfying agreements.
In the end, mediation empowers clients to become active participants in crafting an agreement that will work for their families. In many instances, divorce can be amicable. It can be agreement-driven. It can be cost-conscious—if people embrace that potential!