Clients always ask, “What is this divorce going to cost?” As attorneys our answer is, "It depends." There are a range of factors that affect the cost of a divorce making it difficult to say with certainty how much it will ultimately cost. At minimum, a couple can expect to pay $400 to $500 dollars in court processing fees. There are many people who believe they do not need an attorney and instead buy in to the ads for $99 divorces with their documents drafted by secretarial services. Be warned, these secretarial services cannot practice law so they simply use standard forms and standard language and cannot even tell you what it means. Your divorce can end up being more costly (in consequences and dollars) in the end if it is not done right from the beginning.
How much you pay in attorney fees will depend on a number of factors. An attorney's hourly rate is usually based not only the attorney's level of experience but also what the prevailing market will bear and quite frankly how much overhead the attorney has in their office. You can expect to pay a lot more for an attorney in downtown areas simply because of the cost of their rent, the size of their space, the number of assistants, and not necessarily because of the level of their knowledge and experience. (I attended a mediation recently with a downtown attorney who had two assistants with her and who all billed for their time.) You can find attorneys in the suburbs (like us in Maple Grove) where you are not paying for a downtown address or having to pay for parking. Also, the suburban or rural attorney often times has a smaller staff in order to cut costs, so you get more personal attention from the firm. The important question to ask your attorney is how much experience they have in family law and how many cases they have handled similar to yours. While you may pay a higher hourly rate for an experienced attorney (particularly when you have a difficult case), you may end up saving money because of their expertise in handling your type of case.
Almost all Minnesota family law attorneys expect you to pay a retainer agreement. This is simply an advance or down payment on the attorney's fees. It is generally not indicative of how much your divorce will cost. Going with an attorney simply because they have a lower retainer can be misleading and costly. There are some attorneys that only use small retainers because they don't have much experience, and you are paying for their learning curve. Others who have low retainers generally do not have enough time in the day to speak with all of their clients because they are having to constantly take new clients in order to meet their own expenses until their current clients renew their retainers.
Instead of asking, "What will this cost?" you should ask how long it will take for the attorney to handle certain stages of your case. Then you can multiply the time by the attorney's hourly rate to get a better idea of the cost. The following is a list of possible costs in your divorce. Since every divorce is unique, you want to find out from your attorney early on what processes will be used along with the anticipated time needed to handle them. For example, a single special court appearance generally takes from two to four hours of attorney time plus travel. Special court hearings are for initial case management conferences, motions for temporary relief and pre-trial conferences. Preparing initial pleadings generally takes two to three hours of time total (including time to review with client). Mediation is generally scheduled for 4 hours at a time. There is a new hybrid to mediation in Minnesota used by most district courts. They are called Early Neutral Evaluations, and they are generally three or four hours long. Depositions can be anywhere from a few hours to several days depending on who is being deposed and why. Having to answer formal discovery generally takes several hours to complete. The cost of going to trial is prohibitive in most cases and simply unnecessary. The general rule on trials is that it takes two days of preparation for every day of trial. In addition to preparing witness lists and exhibit lists, attorneys have to prepare the witnesses to testify and prepare the actual exhibit books for both the court and opposing party. In addition to this cost, there may be trial briefs that need to be submitted on any number of legal issues. You can expect a divorce trial to start at $10,000 with the sky being the limit. After the trial, the Court will generally ask the attorneys to prepare proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, along with their written closing argument.
In addition to your attorney's fees and costs, you will be responsible for all other costs for your litigation. A sample of these costs are: cost for real estate appraisal and business appraisals, cost of mediators or Early Neutral Evaluators, court reporters for depositions, cost of any transcripts, cost for custody evaluators, cost of any psychological or chemical dependency evaluations, costs for copies of medical records, cost for subpoenas including witness fees and costs for expert witnesses in your case including doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, custody evaluators or other professionals. Attorneys cannot front these costs, which means that you pay them at the time they are incurred.
Steps you can take to reduce the cost of your divorce
The more you and your spouse are able to agree, the less costly the divorce will be. If appraisals need to be done, choose an independent trustworthy appraiser and agree to be bound by the results. Choose one neutral mediator or custody evaluator. Try to settle as many of your issues and do a partial Stipulated Judgment and Decree or even a list of agreements prior to trial so that the time and expense of trial is only limited to one or two issues such as spousal maintenance or child custody.
Unfortunately, many divorcing couples make decisions based on emotions rather than logic. When spouses are not able to deal with their emotions, it can also be quite costly. Parties will spend endless time arguing over trivial matters, using their attorney's time and the time of the court. (Ask yourself how much is this costing me to fight over the dresser I got from Aunt Bessie?) They may go in and out of court for years trying to get back at each other over child custody, parenting time, and support matters. In the end, no one really wins, and there are significant financial costs for both parties.
Finally, consider other ways that your divorce is costing you money. It is not uncommon for one spouse to refuse to accept that the other wants a divorce. He may sit idly by, overwhelmed with emotion, while his soon-to-be ex-wife goes after everything. Failing to respond and hire an attorney who can protect your interests is an expensive mistake to make. In other cases, individuals try to numb their pain by going on spending sprees. While it is not a bad idea to buy something new for yourself, this can easily snowball and lead to a new wardrobe, new furniture, a new car, or an expensive vacation package. This is particularly problematic for divorcing couples who are at a point when it is not clear who owns what or how the marital assets and liabilities will be divided. If your reckless spending is tapping into marital assets, you might be ordered to repay what you spent as part of the divorce decree.
So before you make these costly mistakes, think first about getting counseling to deal with your emotions. If possible, wait until you are emotionally ready to cut the marriage ties and choose an experienced attorney who you trust to give you good advice on how to compromise and keep your costs down.