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How much does divorce cost?

Cortney Moore

In the U.S., between 40 and 50 percent of married couples get divorced, according to the American Psychological Association. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the overall rate has gone down to 2.9 divorces per 1,000 Americans based on its 2017 research.

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If you’re one of the unlucky that requires separation, the process can cost a pretty penny depending on the state where you reside and whether there are complex assets and circumstances involved. For some couples, it can cost $15,000 or more to divorce, according to Charley Moore, the founder and CEO of Rocket Lawyer.

"Divorces can be financially and emotionally costly; however, there are low-cost options," Moore tells FOX Business. "Fees vary by state, but a simple divorce may only cost a few hundred dollars. A lawyer is also not always needed in a divorce. If you and your spouse are not having major disagreements, have children, and minimal assets it is easier and more cost-effective to consider a mediator instead of a lawyer.”

Despite the price tag proposed by Moore, every divorce differs depending on the personalities of the separating couple. FOX Business consulted additional legal experts to see how much a divorce can cost based on income, child status and prenuptial agreements.

How much is a high-income divorce?

In Connecticut, a moderately high-income household that makes over $400,000 and has a non-working spouse, no prenups and an adversarial relationship can cost over $50,000 to divorce, according to Morris Armstrong, the founder and owner of Morris Armstrong, EA LLC.

He cited one case where each party had a lawyer present and a guardian ad litem for the minor children, which resulted in the legal fees quickly getting out of control in the nearly two years it took to finalize the divorce.

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“The parties were toxic and simple decisions became complex," he tells FOX Business. "Had the parties been better equipped for the divorce the legal fees could easily have been cut in half. I am not sure that it can be emphasized enough that the parties can control costs by controlling behavior. Sure, the more complex cases will always incur larger charges simply due to the ministerial work involved [such as] valuation, gathering information, modeling settlements, etc. but having a lawyer babysit is often the unnecessary expense.”

Outside of dragging out the separation process, divorces for the rich and famous have a higher price tag because they have more valuable assets such as real estate, investment portfolios and retirement and pension accounts that need to be divided, according to Kenneth Jewell of Jewell Law PLLC. In the state of New York, this division is 50-50, though in some other states it may differ.

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Jewell adds that small businesses and professional practices play a role in a divorce since they are an “active asset.”

In his line of work, he’s seen forensic analysis cost $50,000 on average and hundreds of thousands per lawyer for the litigation. He’s also seen million-dollar custody battles in his office along with a $200,000-to-$300,000 negotiated property settlement.

How much is a low-income divorce?

Divorces for married couples without children can be achieved between $5,000 and $7,500 per side, according to David Carton, a partner at Mandelbaum Salsburg P.C. in New York City.

“Sometimes cases with lower incomes can be more contentious than those with higher income if they have incurred debt as there is more dispute over the division of debt than the division of assets,” Carton explains. “In a low-income case with W-2 wage earners, it is possible to resolve it for $7,500 per side.”

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He adds that hourly costs for lawyers, financial experts, mediators and mental health experts are the largest contributors that spike the price.

“These rates are usually higher in metropolitan areas as compared to suburban areas and especially when compared to rural areas,” Carton says. “I would suggest that if rates for attorneys in rural areas are $250 per hour and those in suburban areas are $500 per hour, the overall cost of a divorce would be double.”

Jewell echoes Carton’s estimate and says a low-income divorce “could be around $10,000 to $15,000.”

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The reason for the price is so different for low and high earners is that low-income divorces tend to not “have the resources to get into a custody battle nor do they have much in terms of assets to divide between themselves.”

Do children make a difference?

Having children not only changes the dynamic of a married couple’s relationship, it also changes the cost of a divorce.

In a “collaborative divorce,” where each client has their own attorney along with a family and financial specialist working in a neutral “low-conflict” capacity, the cost can range between $25,000 and 35,000, according to Andrea Vacca, a mediator and collaborative Lawyer at Vacca Family. A high-conflict divorce with children, on the other hand, could cost between $50,000 and $100,000 or more.

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As to why children drive up the price of a divorce, Jewell says, “Divorces with kids involved can be significantly more expensive than with those couples who don't have kids or their kids are emancipated. The cost factor is centered on one parent trying to deny the other parent's custodial rights as if the parties can agree on custody, the cost is essentially putting their agreement in writing.”

What if you have a prenup?

Couples that part amicably with an uncontested prenup have the easiest and usually lowest-cost divorce. In fact, a “well-written prenup” can be resolved for $3,500 to $5,000, according to Carton.

For couples that are divorcing on not-so-good terms, parting with a prenup can end up being complicated if one party decides to contest or renegotiate the document when it is converted into a separation agreement, according to Jewell – which in turn drives up the cost.

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“On the occasions where the prenup is challenged, the moneyed spouse has to decide whether it's cheaper to offer the non-moneyed spouse a concession rather than pay the lawyer money to enforce the prenup,” Jewell explains. “For example, I had a prenup enforcement case last year where the client spent approximately $55,000 to enforce the prenup and another $20,000 to wrap up the separation agreement, which included most of the prenup terms.”

He adds, “Had this been a straight prenup to separation agreement divorce, the client's cost would have been in the $15,000-to-$20,000 range.”

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