Myth #6: Divorce has to Cost a Lot of Money
The average legal fee for divorce has been estimated at about $20,000 per client. Times two, that is a very expensive transaction. But such legal fees are not inevitable. Let’s ask what people are getting for that money. Average legal fees range from $200 to $500 per hour depending on where you live. At $250 per hour a $20,000 legal fee gets you 80 hours of attorney time. But how is that time spent. Initially you can expect to spend a couple of hours with your lawyer investigating your “legal rights.” I put this in quotes because such rights can easily be explained in twenty minutes. That is because the law is quite vague about specifics. Child support is established by mandated state guidelines. Custody, if you can’t agree, is decided by the judge based on the judge’s estimate of the “best interests of the child.” Property division is hypothetically subject to a complicated system called “equitable distribution” but in reality, it is an equal division of all property, except inheritance and gifts to a spouse from a third party. And alimony, when it is appropriate, is also up to the judge if you can’t agree. So the “rights” part is actually quite simple and doesn’t require hours and hours of explanation.
The Reality: 99% of divorces are resolved by negotiation, not according to what the judge decides, but according to well developed “negotiating norms” that emerge in all states.
So for example, in North Carolina a judge is supposed to consider many factors in determining the amount and duration of alimony. But the norm accepted by most lawyers is alimony of about 25% of the difference in the incomes of the parties for a period equal to half the duration of the marriage. Unfortunately, lawyers tell you what would happen in the one per cent of cases that go to trial, while failing to tell you about the negotiating norms that will actually apply.
Lawyers also bill for correspondence and phone calls according to minimum charges such as one sixth of an hour for all phone calls. They bill for drafting documents filed with the court, discovery documents sent to opposing counsel, and for reviewing the file each time they pick it up. Most of the time billed by lawyers has nothing to do with getting the case ready for negotiation. If you hire two lawyers to handle your divorce, you will spend a lot of money that is not necessary to negotiate a settlement.
In most divorces, couples can mediate the same settlement that is ultimately produced by the lawyers after two years of back and forth and posturing that they will go to trial if the other side does not agree to their terms. The average middle class divorce mediation requires six to eight hours of mediation to produce a settlement. At $250 per hour that is $1500 to $2000. Add another thousand or so to finalize the documents and get the divorce and you get a total cost of three to five thousand dollars for most divorces. If you spend more than that, you are wasting your money. This gets you the appreciation of the local bar association, but little else.