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How Much Is It Going To Cost Me To Get My California Divorce?

As a California, family-law attorney, I can’t tell you how many times I am asked, “How Much Is It Going to Cost Me to Get My California Divorce?  My response is always, “You tell me!”  This response always surprises my prospective clients.  While I can tell my prospective client how much the filing fee is ($410 for 2012), I cannot, in all honesty, tell them anything else about the matter.  Here’s why:

A prospective client usually has a few options to control costs. First, represent themselves in court and do all the work themselves, however, we know what is said about a person who represents themselves in court … he has a fool for a client; or, second, hire a lawyer that provides “fixed fees” for an “uncontested divorce”; or, third, hire an attorney who charges by the hour. Honestly, no option is the “best” option as each option has its pros and cons. In reality, it depends on the unique facts of the prospective client’s case.

Self-Represented “Pro Se” Parties:  This is a person who, by law, represents him or herself in court. At best, they might see a family-law court facilitator at the local courthouse who will provide general information about the forms needed to be filled out. The problem is that the family-court facilitator is prohibited from providing any legal advice; thus, the pro-se party is on their own to fill out the forms.

Fixed Legal Services:  Several law firms or attorneys provide fixed fees for their services. Usually, fixed fees are related to situations where the parties have little assets and debts, no children and are in full agreement about the terms of their divorce. In an ideal world, all divorces would be resolved amicably.  From my professional experience, amicable divorces are rare, accounting for about 5-10% of all divorces in California.

Hourly Billing:  This option is by far, the most expensive and the hardest to estimate.  There are many factors that are outside the attorney’s control, directing affecting the amount an attorney eventually charges his client. They include, but are not limited to, the following factors:

1.         The client:  is the client the type of person who needs a lot of legal “counseling” and hand-holding, or is the client the type of client who self-reliant and resourceful. The former type of client is someone who calls or emails his attorney several times per week, if not several times per day.  Many high-need clients are also Type-A “what if” clients. For example, a typical Type-A “what if” client is the type of client that wishes to analyze various scenarios before making a decision—even if the likelihood of the scenario actually occurring is very  low. For instance, “What if my wife decides to stay in California;” “what if my wife changes her mind and decides to move to Southern California; “What if my wife decides to start dating, how will that affect custody . . .” , “what if,” “what if,” etc.

2.         The other party: is the other party independent, emotionally stable and focused on getting divorced quickly—like his/her spouse? Or,  the type of spouse who will do anything and everything to drag the case along in hope that the spouse may change their mind about the divorce.  Is the spouse in a pity-pot, feeling sorry for themselves and victimized by their spouse for wanting the divorce?  There are so many things a self-proclaimed victimized spouse can do to prolong the divorce—file motions for discovery, delay responding to discovery, delay preparing and submitting mandatory documents—causing my client to file a motion to compel discovery, and so on.  If the other spouse is self-represented, then it’s that much worse!  As he/she is not incurring legal fees, they take it upon themselves to intentionally drive up legal fees for their spouse by filing motions, serving unnecessary discovery requests (forcing the spouse either to answer the discovery requests or filing a motion for a protective order. ) The list is endless.

3.        The spouse’s attorney:  Is the spouse’s attorney who, who like me, works at achieving a swift and amicable global settlement—in order to save our respective client’s from financial and emotional heartache–or an attorney who see a “deep pocket” in her client or her client’s spouse?  For example, a spouse’s attorney, rather than simply ask if my client will agree to pay spousal support; instead, immediately files an expensive motion for spousal and/or child support.  In some cases, the spouse’s attorney can be an absolute nightmare to work with—causing unnecessary legal fees for both her client and my client.  A few years ago, I had a case where the attorney for the spouse was an absolute nightmare—to me and my client. For instance, on no less than three occasions, we “served” her with my client’s preliminary financial disclosures—including personal service by me!  To my shock, she denied receiving the documents and would write us letters demanding that I serve my client’s preliminary financial disclosures. I felt like I was in the “Twilight Zone.”  This particular matter dragged on for about 2 weeks. So, what should have been a 20-minute issue lasted for two weeks. Crazy.

4.          The Judge/Court:  From my experience, you can have identical set of facts and evidence and present the facts and evidence to 10 different judges and get 10 different outcomes! In other instances, there could be a number of reasons the judge delays deciding the case. I once represented a father who sought to modify child support—after losing his job due to the recession. Initially, he filed his motion to modify child support in 2006; however, because of numerous court-factors, to include, the court having to repeatedly continue the matter, the judge (judge #4) did not finally rule on the matter until mid-2010—4.5 years later!

5.          Number of legal issues/number of contested issues:   Many people erroneously believe that if their marriage is a short-term marriage, their divorce should be completed in a relatively short period of time. Not so. The number of legal issues is a major factor that affects the time it takes for the parties (or the court) to resolve the issues. For example, a couple could be married 12 years—have no kids, no debts, little to no assets, make the same income (thus, no support issues) and get their divorce finalized in as little as  6 months because they agree on everything. On the other hand, a couple married 2 years may have 3 kids, lots of assets,  debts and retirement accounts and contest custody, contest visitation, contest the amount of child support and contest  spousal support—and even contest date of separation!  Their divorce can take years to resolve—yes, years!

So, as you can now see, there are many factors affecting how much a party could spend on attorney’s fees.  So, next time you hear an attorney say he doesn’t know how much it will cost—it’s because he really does not know.  It’s like asking a wedding planner how much your wedding will cost.  At least with a wedding, you like each other and have common goals for how the wedding should look.

How can I help?  I provide 30-minute free consultations. I also provide coaching services to individuals throughout Southern, Central and Northern California in connection with their family matter. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in setting up a free consultation or coaching session.

Legal Disclaimer: Everything on this blog pertains to California law only and is written by an attorney licensed to practice only in the State of California. Further, information provided on this blog post or this website is to be used for general informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice in any way shape or form. The underlying purpose of this blog post is to provide the reader with general information to use in talking with an attorney and/or as a general guide when conducting  their own research on their  particular legal matter.  Finally, keep in mind that if you are not a California resident and/or your  matter is not based in California, the laws may differ in your state. In such cases, it is recommended that you seek legal assistance and/or review information that relates to the laws of your state.

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