The cost of divorce can vary wildly -- from practically free to almost all of a couple's assets. On one end of the spectrum, spouses can draft their own divorce settlement agreement, have a lawyer review it, and pay only the necessary court filing fees. At the other end, animosity can get the best of otherwise reasonable people, and when they become embroiled in lengthy and expensive litigation, they end up spending many thousands of dollars on attorney's fees and costs.
Separating Your Emotions from Your Divorce Case
The most expensive mistake some couples make is using the divorce case as a way to prove which spouse was “the better spouse” during the marriage. If you're fighting over property division or child custody out of anger at your spouse, rather than thinking about what's fair or best for the children, you will quickly run up bills from pointless litigation.
Other spouses attempt to use the divorce case as a way to punish their spouse, purposely prolonging the divorce litigation to drag out an already painful situation. Often, the end result is that each spouse receives less than if they'd settled, because they've spent so much on attorney's fees.
While it's perfectly rational to litigate aggressively on critical points, spouses should be careful not to fall into fighting over every small issue simply because of anger or hurt surrounding the breakup.
How Does Acrimony Increase the Cost of a Divorce?
Animosity and unnecessary litigation can bring many additional costs to a divorce. Divorce cost is also determined by the wealth of the couple; when wealthier individuals can't agree on alimony or property division, they tend to hire more expensive attorneys and are also more likely to need financial experts such as accountants, business evaluators, and property appraisers. Bitter custody disputes and battles over the division of assets can also increase divorce costs.
Child Custody and Divorce Expenses
Custody battles can easily become the most expensive part of your divorce. For parents who spend almost every night at home with their children, the prospect of only seeing their kids every other weekend can be devastating. While many couples agree that one parent should be the primary caretaker of the children, others fight tooth and nail to be the primary custodial parent.
Acrimonious custody battles can increase divorce costs in a number of ways. In particularly contentious cases, judges often appoint a guardian ad litem (usually an attorney or other professional, such as a mental health expert) to represent the children's interests. The parents must often cover the costs of the guardian's interviews with each parent, home visits, time spent observing the children, as well as interviews of teachers, physicians, coaches, and other individuals who have contact with the children.
Some courts will also appoint custody evaluators to conduct interviews and prepare written custody recommendations. Depending on the allegations spouses make about one another, parents may also have to cover any expenses related to meetings with mental health experts or substance abuse counselors.
Many costs come from treating a custody dispute as a contest to maximize your custodial time and limit your spouse's. To reduce unnecessary costs in a custody battle, parents should instead start from the viewpoint that the child is best off having ample time with each parent, and try to truly find a custody schedule that encourages a positive relationship between each child and each parent.
Division of Property and Divorce Expenses
Divorcing couples must determine how to divide their asset and debts, an extremely touchy subject for spouses who have likely argued about money prior to divorcing. Many unnecessary costs come from spouses' unrealistic expectations about what their financial life will look like after divorce. With the exception of very wealthy couples, most spouses should expect that moving from one household to two households will necessarily mean some drop in their standard of living.
When using attorneys, each day that couples fight over money means there will be less money to split at the end of the divorce process. If you're expecting an extremely lopsided division of assets in your favor, you're likely to be disappointed, unless you have a very compelling legal argument for an uneven split of real estate and personal property. If you are proceeding with unreasonable expectations, you'll likely prolong your litigation and run up the cost of your divorce, only to find at the end of the day, the division will be something close to 50/50 (if you live in a community property state) or in other states, equitable, meaning what's fair under the circumstances.
Trial and Divorce Expenses
Whether your divorce case eventually settles or goes to trial can make a huge difference in your final costs. Between the legal preparation necessary and the trial itself, going to trial can easily double your litigation costs. You should only go to trial after having attempted to negotiate a settlement agreement in good faith and having attended mediation.
Don't refuse to negotiate simply because you're angry. Sit down with your attorney and estimate how much more it will cost both you and your spouse to try the case in court; often this is more than the amount of money you are apart in your settlement offers. If you can allow cooler heads to prevail and meet in the middle, you can both end up financially better off.
Attorney's Fees and Divorce Expenses
Of course, an important factor in the cost of divorce is whether the couple hires attorneys or not. You don't have to hire attorneys, and divorces are invariably cheaper when couples can reach their own agreements. But many divorcing spouses aren't able to negotiate a full divorce settlement on their own, and attorneys are often necessary. Divorce attorneys are indispensable when one spouse is angry, dishonest, vindictive, or even just more financially knowledgeable than the other.
Hiring a divorce lawyer will cost you, but finding one who encourages you to settle issues with your spouse amicably rather than urging you to fight the other side on every issue can save on attorney's fees.