Divorce Lawyers' Fees Can Be Reduced When Spouses Act "Reasonably"

Lawyers fees in a hotly fought divorce can be staggering - but they don't need to be.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

If you're contemplating a divorce, or if you are in the middle of the complex legal process, you've likely already discovered that divorce isn't cheap. On average, an uncontested divorce (meaning you and your spouse agree to all the terms of your settlement) can run into the thousands of dollars.

Add to your divorce process arguing between you and your spouse, hiring investigators and experts, or feuding attorneys, and your divorce could cost you upwards of $25,000 or more per spouse.

Although it may seem impossible, you and your spouse can drastically reduce your legal fees if you act reasonably throughout the divorce process.

Divorce Doesn't Have to be Contested

It's not a surprise that many divorcing spouses lack essential communication skills, but if you work together to resolve your divorce terms without fighting, you could save time and money.

Although you can negotiate the terms of your divorce without an attorney, it's always best to seek the assistance of a seasoned divorce lawyer.

Attorneys generally charge by the hour, and their fees may range from $150 to $500 per hour, depending on your location and the attorney's experience. Most divorce lawyers require a retainer (lump-sum) upfront, which is used to pay for work as the case progresses.

Although it may seem expensive to hire an attorney, in the end, you can walk away knowing that your divorce settlement was fair and equitable.

After you retain an attorney, the first step is to begin the negotiation process of dividing marital property and debt, financial support, splitting custody, deciding on a parenting time schedule, and equalizing retirement and bank accounts. Be open and honest with your lawyer and come prepared with any documents requested.

In uncontested divorces, attorneys spend less time in court, less effort chasing documentation, and more time negotiating a quality settlement, which usually means you're spending significantly less on legal fees.

Contested Divorces are Expensive

A contested divorce means that one or both spouses disagree to the terms of the proposed divorce. This could mean that one spouse disagrees with how the other wishes to allocate custody and parenting time, or that one spouse doesn't believe alimony is necessary while the other argues a need for payment. If you're fighting at every turn of your divorce, you're going to end up paying your attorney a large amount to negotiate for you.

In a contested divorce, parties may try to hide or otherwise conceal assets. Divorce attorneys will need to request documents from the other side formally, through a process called divorce discovery. They will typically ask for documents such as bank statements, credit card bills, and retirement account information.

Most opposing attorneys will comply, but if your spouse's attorney fails to do so, your attorney will need to submit a subpoena to the credit card company, bank, or retirement plan, which takes time to prepare and costs money.

The law entitles both spouses to a full divorce trial if requested, but often the trial produces the same results you can get by negotiating and working together with your spouse.

Honesty Is Key

If either side in a divorce proceeding is dishonest, the entire process becomes contentious and costly, especially when attorneys need to investigate and question everything the other side says or does.

When you're going through a divorce, you must disclose your assets, debts, and anything else required by the other side, before the case makes it to a trial. The law supports full disclosure, so if you don't cooperate, a judge can force you to produce the requested information.

If you fail to disclose assets, debts, or other essential information and the court later finds out that you were intentionally lying, the judge may order you to pay significant fines, may grant your spouse a portion or all of the asset you failed to disclose, and/or order you to pay your spouse's attorney's fees. Courts do enforce disclosure obligations, so it's in your own best interest to comply.

Consider Mediation

If you're facing a contested divorce, you may benefit from mediation, which is where a neutral third-party (usually an attorney) guides spouses to a divorce settlement agreement.

Most attorney mediators know the local judges and court rules, so if either party is unwilling to settle a matter, the mediator can also provide insight into how the judge may rule later. Most divorce attorneys will attend mediation with their clients to assure that the client doesn't agree to or sign any contract that isn't beneficial for them.

In most states, mediation isn't free, and both spouses are equally responsible for the fees. However, the cost of a mediator (anywhere from $500-$1000 per session) may drastically reduce your overall legal fees if you and your spouse settle your divorce without going to trial.

Despite feeling like legal fees are out of your control, you and your spouse can work together throughout the divorce process to maintain control over what you pay. Cooperate, be honest, provide documentation, and understand that you may need to settle for less than what you expect, and you will be on your way to a significantly smaller legal bill at the end of the divorce process.

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