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Understanding the True Cost of Divorce

Our San Bernardino Lawyers Offer Insight

One of the most difficult questions to answer for couples is “How much will it cost to get a divorce?” Most attorneys would probably prefer to be able to provide a definitive answer, but the complex and unpredictable nature of divorce makes that all but impossible. Perhaps the better question for couples to ask is: “How can I can control the cost of my divorce?”

A divorce has a lot of intricate components, including:

  • Whether children are involved
  • The length of the marriage
  • Any animosity between the couple

Because there are so many moving parts in a divorce, couples who are looking to keep costs down would do better to focus on resolving the areas they can and getting help for areas that they can’t. However, in many situations, the very nature of divorce creates an atmosphere that isn’t particularly conducive to agreement. In situations where you simply cannot agree, the best bet is always to seek advice from a third party such as a trusted lawyer.

California’s Divorce Laws

California is a no-fault divorce state, which means that neither spouse has to prove that there was any misconduct on the part of the other. The only requirement for a no-fault divorce is that the couple state that they cannot get along, or have “irreconcilable differences.” Each spouse may disagree on how to divide property and provide for their children. When disagreements about the division of assets or parenting duties exist, the divorce is considered a “contested” divorce. When there are no disagreements between the spouses, the divorce is considered an “uncontested” divorce. The more areas of disagreement between the couple, the more expensive the divorce is likely to cost.

Contested Divorce

A heavily contested divorce is the most difficult type of divorce. The relations between spouses can and do get volatile. Disagreements can be compounded, which extend the length of time the divorce proceeding lasts. The areas of disagreement can range from full disagreement on every divorce concern, to minimal disagreement on some issues. The more the couple disagrees, the more difficult it can be to come to an agreement about how to distribute the marital property and child rearing duties. The longer a divorce is drawn out, the costlier it gets.

Uncontested Divorce California Cost

In an uncontested divorce, the couple agrees on how to divide their marital property and provide for their children. An amicable and uncontested divorce is generally a faster and more cost-effective divorce. Your actual divorce cost will vary depending on filing fees and attorney fees.

Simply because a couple agrees on everything does not mean that they will not encounter any obstacles during a divorce. The laws on divorce are extremely complex. It is always advisable to speak with an attorney who can guide you through the law and ensure that your divorce settlement is fair.

Methods of Obtaining a Divorce

The court system allows couples a great deal of flexibility in selecting how to navigate through their divorce. The goal with each method is to create a settlement that accurately reflects their wishes. Each method comes with a different cost basis. Self-representation and summary dissolution are the least expensive, while methods involving legal professionals cost more.

Methods available include:

  • Self-Representation
  • Summary Dissolution
  • Attorney Representation
  • Full Representation
  • Limited Scope Representation
  • Mediation or Arbitration

How Self-Representation Works

Also called appearing pro se or in pro per, representing yourself can be the cheapest form of divorce. If financial constraints require you to represent yourself, be sure to at least consult with the family law facilitator during the process to make sure that you don’t make any costly mistakes. Self-representation is best suited for couples who agree on the terms of their divorce, child custody, and the division of assets. For couples who need to minimize the cost of their divorce, this may be a good option.

Filing in San Bernardino, CA

If you decide to file pro se, you can find instructions on what steps you need to take and what paperwork needs to be filled out at the California Courts website. Currently, the cost to file a divorce in California is $435 for the first petition and $435 for any response. However, there may be fees related to other filings. You should check with the court to determine what your actual costs might be.

Family Law Facilitators

California courts provide family law facilitators to assist couples with any issues related to family law, including divorce. The family law facilitator is usually free of charge, but may request income verification. It is important to understand: though family law facilitators are attorneys, they are not your attorney.

They are there only to provide:

  • Assistance in filling out forms
  • Lawyer referrals
  • Information on legal clinics and other self-help law centers

There is no attorney-client privilege between you and the family law facilitator, which means they can help either you or your spouse. If you need legal advice, you should seek the advice of an attorney.

California State Fee Waivers

In some cases, when a party to a court action cannot afford to pay the filing fees, the court may agree to waive the fee. If you are on public benefits, are low income, or do not make enough money to pay for your household’s basic needs, you may be eligible for a fee waiver. If you think you might be eligible for a fee waiver you can download the necessary documents to apply for the waiver here.

Why Self-Representation Is Not Recommended

Abraham Lincoln once said about appearing pro se - “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

Self-representation may help keep the costs and fees related to your divorce down; however, it is not recommended for people who face a contested divorce, have experienced domestic violence, or have been a victim of psychological harassment during their marriage. There is the very real possibility that the unequal dynamics of the marriage will reemerge in the divorce process, which could put one partner at a disadvantage in the divorce settlement. If you have suffered abuse during your relationship, it is in your best interest to seek legal advice from a qualified individual who can act as your advocate.

Self-representation is also not recommended for spouses who cannot agree on how to divide assets or other aspects of their divorce. The law related to divorce is complicated and difficult—if you cannot agree with your spouse, it is in your best interest to seek out legal advice from an attorney to ensure that the terms of your proceeding are fair and accurately reflect your desires.

Summary Dissolution

A summary dissolution is similar to a divorce, except that it is shorter and easier. A summary dissolution is an extremely cost effective and speedy method of ending your marriage. For a summary dissolution you don’t have to speak with a judge and you may not need to hire an attorney (although it is always in your best interest to do so). However, only certain couples qualify for a summary dissolution.

All qualifications for a summary dissolution must be met without exception. These include the following:

  • Married less than 5 years
  • Have no children together
  • Not currently expecting a child
  • Do not own any property together
  • Do not rent property except for current residence
  • Do not have a 1-year lease or an option to buy on residence
  • Do not owe $6,000+ in debt acquired since getting married
  • Have less than $41,000 in assets acquired during the marriage (this includes anything other than real estate—cars, jewelry, etc.)
  • Cannot have separate property worth more than $41,000
  • Both spouses must agree to not seek spousal support
  • Must have a signed agreement dividing your property, including cars and any debt
  • Either you or your spouse have lived in California for the past 6 months
  • Either you or your spouse have lived in the county where you filed for prior 3 months

Importance of Attorney Representation

A divorce under any circumstance can be difficult, and even spouses who agree on most things may find a few sticking points. Hiring an attorney can help a couple not only resolve tense issues, but can also help resolve areas about income and property division they may not have considered prior to divorce.

For many couples, the counsel of a knowledgeable attorney is an invaluable resource well worth the cost. An attorney familiar with the intricacies of California’s family law is better positioned to navigate through the legal details of a case and ensure that the divorce settlement is fair and complies with the law. This is especially true for couples who have lived in more than one state. Different states have different laws and how assets are divided can vary from state to state based on the amount of time you lived there.

Other Benefits of Having a Divorce Lawyer

Saves You Time

Family law is complicated and all the relevant codes can be difficult to navigate—especially if you have never encountered them before. A lawyer who understands family law can save you time, money, and hassle by guiding you through the process and pointing out legal issues you may not have known existed. This avoids subjecting you to the burden of figuring out the law on your own. Additionally, the attorney does the majority of the work, leaving you to concentrate on your family and other areas of your life.

Causes Less Stress

Divorce is a stressful event under the best of circumstances. Having an attorney to deal with navigating the law, separating assets, and filling out paperwork can remove a great deal of stress from the situation. More importantly, it allows couples time to step back and process the emotional impact of the divorce.

Ensure a Divorce Decree Is Consistent with Your Wishes

Couples who do not understand the law run the risk of divorce documents that do not accurately represent what they are trying to achieve. This can result in a divorce decree that is inconsistent with what they wanted or one they have to renegotiate in order to have the original decree altered. Having an attorney prepare your divorce papers ensures the decree accurately reflects your wishes.

Attorney Fees

Attorneys have a great deal of leeway with how they charge clients. The fee agreement can be based on either a flat fee, an hourly fee, or a bit of both. However, California attorneys are not allowed to charge on a contingency basis for family law.

To learn more about related issues, please read below!

  • Flat Fees - A flat fee is a single set fee, usually paid upfront, that covers all the time the attorney spends on the case regardless if it is 1 hour or 100.
  • Hourly Fees - An hourly fee is an agreed-upon rate for every hour the attorney works on the case. An hourly fee will generally vary depending on the experience and knowledge of the attorney; the more seasoned the attorney, the higher the fee. However, it’s important to note that attorneys frequently charge a lower rate for the time clerks or paralegals work on the case.
  • Retainers - Generally, attorneys who bill hourly require a retainer. The retainer is an agreed upon sum paid at the beginning of the representation. As the lawyer earns money, he will deduct the amount earned as well as any fees or other costs incurred from the retainer. Billing statements are sent periodically reflecting how much work has been done and how much money has been deducted from the retainer. When the retainer is depleted, the attorney may request an additional amount or may bill hourly, depending on the agreement. If there is money left over after the case, the client may be entitled to a refund depending on the fee agreement.
  • Combination Flat Fee & Hourly Fee - In some cases, an attorney may charge a flat rate for the first several hours—such as the first 10 hours worked—and an hourly fee thereafter.
  • The Fee Agreement - California attorneys are required to inform you in writing of all their fees upfront. They must also inform you of any extraneous fees that might be charged, such as filing fees, copying fees, etc. Be sure to get a written copy of your fee agreement for your records.

Scope of Representation

You can hire an attorney to handle every aspect of your divorce (full representation) or only certain areas (limited scope or unbundled representation). The scope of the representation you need is up to you.

For example, if you and your spouse agree on everything except child custody, you can hire an attorney to handle only the child custody issues and nothing else.

For couples who are concerned about the cost of their divorce, yet do not want to forego valuable legal advice, being able to control the scope of representation can be a valuable money-saving tool. Couples who are looking to control costs can sit down and evaluate which areas they can come to an agreement on and which they can’t. The more areas of agreement, the easier and more cost effective the divorce can be. Couples who choose to work with an attorney will discover that the divorce process will be less costly and less contentious when they have already resolved portions of the divorce on their own.

Examples of limited-scope or unbundled representation:

  • Basic attorney consultation
  • Representation for child support and/or custody
  • Forms and document preparation
  • Discovery and legal research

The possibilities of a limited-scope representation are endlessly customizable because it can include any elements of your divorce that you need them to include.

Mediation & Arbitration

Mediation and arbitration are an alternative method to settling disputes without going to court. Using mediation or arbitration can be cost-effective and limit the cost of divorce by allowing the couple to work out their differences. In mediation, you and your spouse hire one person to mediate any areas of disagreement that you have. The mediation process can be as long or as short as you need it to be.

Three-Way Mediation

In three-way mediation, you and your spouse sit down with a mediator without attorneys. Some mediators will handle not only your mediation procedure, but also all legal paperwork. Like attorneys, mediators may charge either hourly rates or a flat fee. The cost of mediation can range anywhere from $3,000 to over $10,000, depending on the complexity of the issues, as well as the time it takes.

Five-Way Mediation

Five-way mediation is similar, except both parties also have their attorneys present. This form of mediation is more costly initially because three professionals have to be paid rather than just the mediator. However, this type of mediation can be cost-effective in situations involving complex issues of property and asset division. Having an attorney present at the mediation session provides instant access to accurate legal advice and ensures that your rights are protected. Having accurate legal advice may appear to cost more upfront, but it can potentially save you thousands of dollars in the long run.


Divorce arbitration is similar to a court trial. In arbitration, a paid arbitrator, usually a judge, determines the final outcome of the proceeding. Because arbitration is private, couples can set their own timetable and arbitrate the case when they choose. Waiting for a court date can take several months, which can potentially add several thousand dollars to the cost of the divorce.

Arbitration is more costly than mediation, but when you have a contentious divorce and require privacy and speed, arbitration may ultimately prove to be faster and more cost-effective. Some couples may want the speed and privacy of arbitration, but be unable to afford it. In this situation, you can hire a retired judge to review and sign the final court documents without going through the entire process.

Like attorneys, arbitrators have some leeway as to how they charge. Fees are usually based on how complex the procedure is. A judge who merely reviews and signs-off on divorce documents will cost much less compared to having a complete arbitration process. Flat fees for a simple review can start as low as $700. Hourly fees vary based on jurisdiction and can start in the $400 range. As with family law attorneys, the more experienced and qualified the arbitrator, the more they will cost.

Talk to a San Bernardino Attorney Today

Getting a divorce in California can be a costly endeavor. It is not unusual for a complex divorce to cost anywhere from $10,000 to upwards of $80,000. However, if cost is a concern, there are several ways that you can control how much you ultimately have to pay. The most accurate way to control costs is to set out areas that you and your spouse both agree on prior to consulting with an attorney.

Some areas to discuss include the following:

  • Child support and custody
  • Spousal support
  • Income
  • Property division

It is important that you fully discuss issues of costs, fees, and possible fee arrangements with your attorney or any attorney you intend to hire. If you are concerned about how to keep the overall cost under control, be sure to let your attorney know. Ask your attorney how you can minimize the cost of your divorce and which factors you can control.

Divorce is a stressful time for anyone, but you can mitigate stress by being informed about the process and discussing all your options with a professional. Contact us today!

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