New clients almost inevitably ask me, “How much will my divorce cost?”  My inevitable response: “It depends on your divorce.”

When you retain an attorney, you are essentially paying for that attorney’s time.  Generally speaking, the more time spent by an attorney on a case, the more time you will be billed; the less time spent on a case, the lower the attorney’s fees billed to you.  In most of my cases, attorney’s fees in the beginning of a new case are higher than those billed as the case continues.  This is because in most instances, there is more work needed to get a case going than to keep it going and secure a final judgment.  I have had a handful of cases where attorney’s fees were high because the other side did not act properly or in a timely manner and we took actions needed to get the case moving, but most of the time, this is not what happens.

Divorce is a very personal thing.  It can be hurtful, emotionally difficult, and extremely challenging to navigate from a mental standpoint.  As a result, people often lose sight of the line between what is worth arguing for and what is probably not worth the time, effort, or cost to argue.  I often note the desire of a spouse to feel vindicated, but the divorce process in California is not designed for moral justice: it is designed for as simple a division of marital assets and dissolution of the married state of being as possible.  

California is a true “no fault” State, meaning, the Petitioner (the person who files first) does not have to prove any wrongdoing by the Respondent (the person who files in response to what the Petitioner filed) to obtain a divorce.  Although all States recognize “no fault” divorce, not every State provides “no fault” as its only option – for example, some States recognize adultery, abandonment for a certain length of time, prison confinement, physical inability to have sexual intercourse if this condition existed before the marriage and was hidden, and cruelty (infliction of emotional or physical pain) as reasons for filing for divorce, in addition to “no fault”.  In my practice, every Petition I have ever filed on behalf of a client was based on “irreconcilable differences”, which is likely the most often pled reason for divorce in this State.

People tend to want to “get even” with the other spouse as part of the divorce process.  This usually arises out of having been hurt, cheated on, abused, or some other kind of wrong (whether actual or perceived).  Given that California does not recognize “fault”, though, the idea of “getting even” is a personal issue rather than a legal one.  The more people want to “get even”, or hold the other person “accountable”, the more litigation there is; the more litigation there is, the more time will be spent on a case; the more time spent on a case, the higher your attorney’s fees will be.

At the same time, I often hear clients say, “I just want out,” or “I am so done with this man/woman”.  Clients want to be “done” with the marriage, which makes sense – a client has had enough and just wants out.  But “getting out” means being “done”, which means walking away, completely.   If you walk away from the marriage, you cannot remain in it and continue to argue with your soon-to-be-ex.

When I am told by a client that s/he “just wants out” but then in the same breath the client also tells me “I want to fight for ______________ (every penny I am due; for that table in the corner of the living room; to get my way; whatever else someone wants to fight over)”, I go back to the same response:  

You can either get out or you can get even.  

If you get out, you walk away and you’re “done”.  The divorce is in your rear-view and you are free of the marriage and all of the strife that caused you to go through the divorce in the first place.  If you want to get even, you remain embroiled in litigation and will prolong the process of divorce, which may or may not get you the vindication you seek when all is said and done.  One thing is certain, though: if you remain embroiled in litigation, you are sure to get monthly Statements for attorney’s fees, which can really mount the longer you stay the course of “getting even.”

So, when you are contemplating the question of “How much does a divorce cost?”, be sure to also ask yourself the follow up question: “Do I want to get out, or do I want to get even?”  Because you can’t have both.