Roughly 630,505 couples got divorced in the United States in 2020. More often than not, divorce is time-intensive and emotionally draining, and divorce proceedings can last upward of a year, with the total cost averaging $12,900 according to a 2019 survey. Though you don't have to have a lawyer to get divorced, the process is legally complicated, and being without a lawyer can lead to problems, especially if the other spouse has one.
If you decide that it makes sense to hire an attorney, what's the best way to find the right one? Each spouse will have their own issues and needs, of course, and each spouse will need their own lawyer. Types of divorce lawyers and their fees can vary substantially. But it's important to understand the key elements of what divorce lawyers do, where to find them, and what they can cost. Even if a couple is able to settle a divorce without going to court, good legal advice can help. If you're considering hiring a divorce lawyer, here's what you need to know.
- Divorce lawyers provide advice on marriage termination, including dividing assets, custody, and the options available to the client under the law.
- The total cost of divorce proceedings averages $12,900, with attorney fees costing $11,300 on average in the United States.
- Divorce lawyers can help navigate the complex legal system of divorce proceedings—typically characterized by significant paperwork, waiting periods, difficult terminology, and acrimony.
- When looking for a divorce lawyer, word-of-mouth referrals from friends, family, and other professionals are a useful place to start.
- Seeking out attorneys who specialize in areas such as custody or division of assets can also be beneficial.
- Asking about an attorney’s billing practices and getting a cost estimate provides useful information on what to expect through the process.
- Interviewing attorneys before choosing one can provide insight into what they'd be like to work with through this difficult period.
What Does a Divorce Lawyer Do?
A divorce lawyer protects the rights of their client, along with handling the related custody and financial aspects of the divorce. Importantly, a divorce lawyer will also explain the law and your available legal options.
The attorney should review your situation and its related documents. These can include paycheck stubs, tax returns, and property value information. They also need to listen to the client's account of their situation and their objectives and advise based on these specific needs.
Though only a fraction of divorces go to trial (90% to 98% settle before trial), of those that do, attorneys for each spouse undergo lengthy preparation to present the evidence before a judge, call on witnesses to support their case, and provide opening and closing statements. Divorce lawyers draft a marital settlement agreement, which is a legal contract that sets out the terms of child custody, alimony, and the division of assets, among others.
Divorce mediation is an alternative to going to trial. The process involves a neutral mediator who facilitates the divorce negotiation by attempting to help the two parties come to a resolution. It is often cheaper and quicker than going to court. Couples can do mediation without attorneys, but it may not be the wisest way to go unless the divorce is very simple—for example, the marriage was short and there are no children and minimal property to divide.
Divorce arbitration is another form of resolving disputes in divorce negotiations without going to court, and it can also be speedier. It differs from mediation in that both parties present their case before an arbitrator whom they select, and the arbitrator makes a decision on how to handle their case. The arbitrator is often a lawyer or retired judge. It's important to note, however, that most often, the decision of the arbitrator cannot be appealed.
Do You Need a Divorce Lawyer?
Working through the legal process of divorce is often complex—characterized by significant paperwork, waiting periods, and filing multiple forms, among other requirements—adding hurdles to individuals who may wish to undergo a divorce without a lawyer. Depending on a couple's circumstances (whether they have children, property, or large retirement accounts), they may need lawyers to be very involved in their divorce. The more work an attorney has to do, the more expensive it will be.
There are several reasons why people choose to hire a divorce lawyer. First, divorce lawyers are skilled at presenting a case to a judge, seeing the big picture, and finding the best deal for their clients. Secondly, divorce lawyers can offer options people may have not realized were available. They may anticipate the outcome, suggest settlement options, and put together a settlement proposal as a result of their experience with similar cases.
Importantly, given the emotional intensity of divorce proceedings, divorce lawyers act as an objective third party, helping clients remain levelheaded and working toward the best resolution possible. Individuals with children or significant assets will more likely need a lawyer, whereas two people who have minimal and comparable assets will likely not need the same level of help.
Payment: What You Should Expect and How to Pay
The total average costs of a divorce can range from $7,000 to $23,300, with divorce attorneys charging an average of $270 an hour. In a 2019 study by Martindale-Nolo Research, attorney fees for divorces lasting less than six months clocked in, on average, at $6,500; those lasting more than 30 months came in at $23,000. Typically, divorce lawyers are paid via a retainer, which requires clients to pay in advance for their services. On average, the startup fees ranged from $2,000 to $5,000.
Some legal aid societies, which provide legal services and representation for people with financial difficulties, have divorce lawyers. But because divorces are given a lower priority than other types of cases, attorneys may not be available to most applicants. Given these variables, it's important for individuals to weigh the costs and benefits of each scenario.
Most often, divorce lawyers charge an hourly rate as opposed to a flat fee. Clients are typically billed in six- to 15-minute increments. Here is the breakdown of average hourly rates based on a 2019 survey:
- $100/hr.: 11%
- $200/hr.: 34%
- $300/hr.: 35%
- $400+/hr.: 20%
Some attorneys charge for a consultation, and some offer free consultations. Ask before arranging one. During a consultation, discuss the attorney's estimate of charges and their billing practices. Attorneys who have experience working on related cases may have a better understanding of the charges to expect, in addition to knowledge and critical insight on the subject matter.
When it comes to billing, services such as document review, communication with the spouse's lawyer, preparing negotiation settlements, and every communication—such as emails or calls—with your lawyer are all billable.
The two biggest factors affecting the price of a divorce attorney, according to the survey by Martindale-Nolo Research, are whether disputes were resolved before trial and the duration of the divorce. Costs jumped an average of 70% for those who took the divorce to trial rather than negotiated a settlement out of court.
To help reduce the costs, individuals can opt for a task-based billing system, wherein only certain issues are handled by a lawyer and the rest are handled by paralegals. That costs less than a bundled-base service for which the attorney handles the entire divorce.
Asking for a flat fee is another option, especially for a less complex divorce proceeding. Though this is less common, it can help get a clearer sense of the costs to expect.
How to Find a Good Divorce Lawyer
As with many other services, finding a good divorce lawyer can start with referrals from friends or family. In addition, other professionals, such as accountants or financial advisors, may offer recommendations. Getting a deeper understanding of their experience with a lawyer can provide valuable information on what to look for—and what to avoid.
You can also search through attorney websites, including those that specialize in matrimonial or family law.
Organizations to check
Online information portals, such as Martindale-Hubbell, Avvo, and Lawyers.com offer client and peer attorney reviews. Another good source is an association of attorneys focused on divorce and family law that often provides search portals for members, resources, and information you can use to educate yourself about legal issues around divorce. You can also use these sites to check the names of attorneys who have been recommended to you.
- The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) focuses on elevating the standards and education of family law. Based in Chicago, the AAML is a professional organization of family lawyers. You can use its website to search for a lawyer by city and state.
- The American Bar Association's Section of Family Law includes thousands of members worldwide. It publishes research articles on divorce and related matters from case analyses to news and quarterly publications. Its search portal enables you to look for lawyers by state. Like the AAML, it is based in Chicago.
- Beyond the United States is the International Academy of Family Lawyers, whose members include the top-tier divorce attorneys in their respective fields and country. Worldwide, it has 930 fellows across 67 countries. The organization originated to improve the practice of divorce and family law on a global level. It provides a search portal to locate divorce lawyers across various countries and regions.
Finding the Right Lawyer for Your Situation
When you've identified possible candidates, interview your top choices. Some offer free consultations, but budget for a paid meeting if you think the attorney is worth it. You will learn something about how you want your divorce to proceed from each meeting. Probe for whether they have the expertise you need, whether their approach matches how you hope to work, and how well you think you would work together with that attorney. Also, as noted above, clarify the cost structure that hiring that lawyer would entail.
Expertise. Look for an attorney who specializes in divorce and in the issues that are most germane to your situation. You might want someone who focuses on custody-related issues or specializes in the division of complicated assets. Having an attorney who has served on bar association family-law committees or has addressed bar associations on these topics is another indicator that they are knowledgeable in the area. Also useful: a divorce lawyer who is familiar with the judges and court system in your jurisdiction and can shape their strategy based on knowledge of how individual judges have ruled in the past.
Approach. Look for an attorney who aligns with your approach to the divorce. Ask how they would handle your issues. Some may work in a collaborative style that aims to problem-solve and minimize conflict—and perhaps settle the divorce without going to court. Others may take a more aggressive approach. Find the lawyer who will handle your case the way you want to approach the divorce.
Comfort level. Because divorce is one of the tensest, most painful, and most financially risky experiences there is in life, look for an attorney with whom you feel a level of trust and comfort and who treats you with respect, consideration, and patience.
Staying rational and levelheaded is important in finding the right divorce lawyer. Succumbing to overwhelming emotion can cloud the decision-making process.
The Bottom Line
The steep cost makes finding a divorce lawyer an option that is out of reach for many Americans. Legal activists have suggested that the process of getting an uncontested divorce—which is when either spouse doesn't disagree with any aspect of the divorce—should be reformed, making it less arduous.
For those who can manage it, the process can be lengthy and costly—taking three months minimum in many cases, but often longer. Interviewing several attorneys can help you clarify what you need and reach a greater understanding of the time and costs involved.
How Can I Afford a Divorce Lawyer?
Because the costs of getting a divorce can range between $7,000 and $28,000, many Americans question how it's possible to pay for it. Withdrawal from a 401(k) is a permissible option if the funds are spent on the divorce. It is important to note, however, that automatic temporary restraining orders (ATROs) prevent individuals from drawing funds from their retirement accounts before a divorce to prevent the change in their financial status.
States also have fee-waiver options available to people whose self-reported incomes were in the lowest income bracket, which removes the fees pertaining to court proceedings. Legal aid societies may be able to provide a pro bono divorce attorney.
What Questions Should I Ask a Potential Divorce Lawyer?
- Do you specialize in divorce?
- For how long have you been practicing family law?
- What costs can I expect to pay while working with you?
- What is your approach to divorce cases?
- Do you practice collaborative divorce (reaching an agreement between spouses nonaggressively)?
- Do you usually settle divorce cases out of court?
What Is the Average Cost of Divorce?
The average cost of divorce in the United States is $12,900. The average hourly rate is $270, as data from Martindale-Nolo shows. Typically, clients pay an upfront retainer fee, which averages $2,000 to $5,000.