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How much will this cost me ?

Clients routinely ask, “How much is my case going to cost with your office?” The answer to this question is a math formula. The math formula is, time multiplied by your attorney’s billable rate, plus costs (Time X Rate + costs = $$$).   


Brett Johnston's rate as a certified specialist is $500 per hour. Associates are $300 per hour. Paralegals are $200 per hour. What does that mean? It means that your case fees will be based on the time our office spends on your case. How do we bill our time? We bill on a .6 system, meaning that there are 10 segments in one hour. 10 X 6 = 60 minutes. What are costs? They are the hard costs like filing costs, reporter costs, process server costs, etc. 


The overall fees and costs of a divorce (i.e. or any other family law case) is driven by how much you and the other side fight. To some degree you can control how much you fight, however, you can’t control how much the other side wants to fight. 


Divorces and parentage cases generally take about a year from start to finish; some cases are shorter, and some much longer. 


Again, What’s It Going to Cost Me?


There’s no getting around the fact that divorces cost money.   The amount you can expect to pay varies greatly depending on your circumstances.  The more you and your spouse disagree throughout the process, the more you’re going to spend on attorney fees.  Period. Disputes about family businesses, expensive property, and child custody are usually pretty costly.  Here’s how to estimate how much it’s going to cost:


Divorce Filing Fee


Every court requires the person filing a Complaint for Divorce to pay a filing fee.

California Superior Court charges $435.  Add at least $50 if you need a process server or officer to serve your spouse with the summons and complaint.  


Divorce Lawyer


Even though it can be expensive, it’s in your best interest to hire an attorney to represent you in your divorce case.  This is particularly true in four circumstances:


(1)        when you have large assets (including retirement accounts);

(2)        when you have children;

(3)        when there is a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse; or

(4)        when your spouse has an attorney.


My minimum retainer is $5,000.  This is a “down payment” on attorney fees that you pay up front, but the attorney will bill against the retainer until it’s depleted. 


The simplest case (i.e. no children, no property, no assets, no disagreements) will take at least 5 attorney hours, usually more.  Contested cases (cases where the parties don’t agree on everything) can take up hundreds of attorney hours, depending on the complexity of the issues involved.


Keep in mind that usually, no matter what your intentions, your divorce case is going to be more complicated than expected.  I can’t tell you how many of my clients start off by explaining to me that their divorce case is simple – that there’s nothing to fight about and/or that the spouses have talked and think they can come to an agreement on everything.  Sometimes that’s true.  More often, though, once we get into the details and start talking specifics, the parties realize that they’re not in total agreement.  When trying to calculate the cost of divorce, just like when you’re calculating home renovations, expect that there will be some surprises and that things will be more expensive than you thought.


Other Professionals


In some complex cases, it might also be necessary to hire professionals – forensic accountants, business evaluators, financial experts, appraisers or medical experts to be witnesses in a case.  It’s also possible that a judge will appoint a custody evaluation to look after the best interest of the children.  Like attorneys, other professionals’ hourly rates vary, but expect to pay $100-$500 an hour for their time.


Resolution of the Case


Most divorce cases do not end in a trial.  Typically, the parties can come to an agreement themselves, in mediation, or hire a retired judge to decide the issues in the case. If not, you go to trial and a judge makes a decision about everything you and your spouse cannot agree to. 


Is There Any Way to Minimize the Cost of Divorce?


There are some expenses you can’t control, but you do play a role in your attorney fees. Here are some things to consider:


(1)        Any information you can get regarding bank accounts, annual pension reports, stocks, mortgages, credit card debt, etc., will eliminate the need for your attorney or staff member to collect the information.


(2)        A letter or e-mail is an inexpensive way of keeping attorneys up to date on information they need to know about your case.  They’re usually less time consuming than phone calls or conferences.


(3)        Many times, your attorney’s assistant can answer your non-legal questions (when’s our next court date?  Did my spouse answer interrogatories yet?  What’s the balance on my bill?). When appropriate, start with the assistant.


(4)         Try to negotiate with your spouse on day-to-day issues such as who pays the car insurance or other bills, parenting time arrangements, etc. without involving your attorney.   Every time your attorney is involved, it costs you money.


As a general rule, mediation and collaborative law are usually less expensive than litigation. When possible, try to mediate or collaborate before entering litigation. 


Four Phases of Every Family Law Case


Below is a guide of the typical phases of a typical family law case whereby you can gage the potential fees and costs that may be associated with your family law matter. 


Phase I


Petition, Response, and Temporary Orders (Month 1 to Month 2): 

The case gets filed and served. Sometimes we have a fight over temporary orders, restraining orders, and sometimes those orders get modified.  All of that takes place in the first two months. The cost for the first two months will run from $500-$2,000, if all we are doing is filing the case, serving it, and resolving the issues without court. Generally, the average cost is about $2,000-$5,000 if we have a fight in court over temporary orders such as custody, child support, spousal support, domestic violence, etc.


Phase II


Discovery (Month 2 to Month 10): 

Usually nobody goes to court during this phase, however, time and money is spent on discovery and compelling discovery. Generally, discovery costs anywhere from $500 to $5,000. Generally, in a case where there is little conflict, average fees are between $500 and $2000; in very contested cases, complex divorces, high asset cases, hidden asset cases, generally, it will run $5,000-$20,000 or more. 


Phase III


Settlement or Pre-Trial (Month 11): 

Generally, once all facts of the case are know, I give my best efforts to try to resolve the case without trial. If those efforts fail, we have to get ready for trial and a possible settlement conference. I prepare for the settlement conference the same way, with the same exhibits, as I prepare for trial. That gives me the best results; and it means if we don’t settle the case, we do little new work to get ready for trial. In both Ventura and Los Angles County, generally there is a settlement conference before trial. Most divorces settle at the settlement conference or prior to trial. The average cost of preparation, total, is about $5,000-$10,000. 


Phase IV


Trial (Month 12): 

Trial is expensive. I figure trial costs average about $2,000-$3,500 a day, this includes preparation time and litigation. The average divorce trial, without children, is a day to a day and a half; the average trial with custody issues lasts two to five days. So the average cost of trial is between $5,000 and $20,000 or more.


More and more people are asking themselves – can I really afford a divorce right now?


There is no magical equation that will give you an answer to that question.  Much of it depends on your comfort zone.  For some of my clients, getting a divorce is worth withdrawing money from retirement accounts, borrowing from family, carrying a balance on credit cards or making some lifestyle changes.   Others are unwilling to file the paperwork until they have a certain amount of money in their savings account.    No matter what, educating yourself on the expected costs of divorce is the only way to make an informed decision.


There are all kinds of costs that some people who are divorcing will need to consider (Will your children need more day care?   Are there moving expenses you’ll need to pay for?  If you’re planning on re-entering the workforce, do you need additional schooling? Do you or your children need a mental health professional to help you through this stressful time?). 




Too often, individuals begin their divorce without knowing much about the process at all or unreasonable expectations.  While the information presented can be scary and overwhelming, having a true understanding of the expenses associated with a divorce beforehand will allow you to decide whether you can afford to go through the divorce process.

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